In Condottiere, you assume the titular role of a 13th Century warlord-for-hire marching across Renaissance Italy. Florence, Venice, Genoa, Rome; they can all be yours by employing equal parts intrigue, guile, and luck. Command your mercenaries in battle. Summon a legendary heroine to inspire your men. Call upon the Church to intervene on your behalf. Force your enemy to surrender with a daring maneuver. And prepare to stretch your imagination for this thinly themed card game, because glory awaits!
How it Works
At its core, Condottiere is a hand-management, adding card game, seasoned with a good dose of poker’s bluffing element, for 2-6 players. There is a small game board depicting the Italian peninsula divided into city-states, which basically serves as a score board. Your goal is to conquer enough territories to be declared the greatest Condottiere in all Italy. In a 2 or 3 player game, you must control six total regions or four adjacent, while five total or three adjacent will suffice in a 4 to 6 player game.
You battle other warlords for dominance of Italy one province at a time. Beginning the game with 10 cards, a designated player will choose a region to contest by placing the Condottiere pawn on the map and then commences combat by playing his/her first card. These cards represent your army. Many of them are regular mercenary cards with a value from 1-6 (or maybe 10) which denotes that units strength. Each player in turn either plays a card to his/her tableau or passes (which means he/she is finished for that round) until everyone has either passed or run out of playable cards. At that point, the individual with the highest total aggregate of mercenary cards wins the battle and control of that region. He/she places one of his/her control cubes on the map and then chooses the next region to contest. Play continues a number of rounds necessary for one person to claim enough provinces and declare victory.
Now if that sounds too straight-forward for you, wait! To mix things up, much of the 110-card deck consists of special cards that affect the play of regular mercenaries. This leads to some rather unpredictable battles with large sways in fortune. Want to really get your boys “fired up?” Then play a Drummer who doubles the value of all your mercenaries. Want to mix church and state? Pull out a Bishop who discards all of the mercenaries of the highest value currently in play. He also lets you place the Favor of the Pope pawn on the map which at least brings peace to that valley – that is until another warlord attracts the Vatican’s blessings. You can even change the weather! Throw down a Winter card and now all mercenaries have a value of only ‘1.’ However, if the weather is as fickle where you live as it is where I do, then simply play a Spring card to cancel the cold and now add ‘3’ to all of the mercenaries of the highest value in play. The Heroine gives you a strength ‘10’ and is not affected by special effects. Courtesans give you a chance to influence the next battle’s location without having to win the current one. If the situation looks bleak, Scarecrows allow you to pick up your mercenaries from the battle line and save them to fight another day. And the Surrender card forces an immediate cease-fire, which is very handy if you currently have the strongest army – and isn’t if you don’t.
When you run out of mercenary cards and can no longer play, you may throw in the remainder of your hand at the end of a round. However, if other players still have cards to play, you must sit out the next battle. When only one player has any mercenaries remaining at the end of a round, then a fresh set of 10 cards is dealt to each player along with a bonus card for each territory owned.
Let Loose this Dog of War?
Countless battles throughout the history of warfare have turned on bizarre incidents and quirky luck. In that sense, Condottiere has theme in spades. The special effects cards create a see-saw game that “ain’t over ‘till its over.” You could be in an enviable position with a line of high value mercenaries only to have the enemy bring on Winter and drop them all to value ‘1.’ Or perhaps you ordered out that value ‘10’ mercenary only to see it discarded because another played the Bishop. Then again, you could just as easily turn the tables on an opponent with dastardly cards of your own.
Like any card game worth its salt, there is certainly strategy to employ. Still, you can only work with what you are dealt. So to a certain degree, your personal preference regarding large doses of luck and chaos will largely determine your opinion of Condottiere. I am reminded of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. You really need “to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” Additionally, you need to know when to pick ‘em up (with Scarecrows) and even when to put them back down, again! Room spinning, yet?
The strategy is definitely part hand management, part bluffing. Do you start weak to test the waters? Should you come in strong only to pull out when others have committed everything? Maybe you want to lure out your opponents’ special effects cards – or wreak havoc yourself? Plus, it may seem tempting to simply hang back and conserve your strength for another fight when others are weaker – but if you are the only player left with cards at the end of a round, you have to throw them all in, anyway, and things start afresh. The guessing and bluffing create a fun tension that is central to the game. Indeed you could argue that it IS the game.
The rules are simple and play is straightforward. While there are the special effects cards, new players should become comfortable with them after only one practice round. My kids (ages 9 and 10) had no issues with game play. They even became adept at bluffing and using Scarecrows wisely. The overall game length is listed at 45 minutes, but your mileage will vary depending on the number of players, their experience, and their personalities. Individual rounds can be brisk, gentlemanly affairs where only a couple of players are committed; or they could be mind numbingly chaotic cauldrons of brinksmanship involving the entire table. I would posit that (for 3+) 10 minutes per player would be a reasonable calculation for an average game.
With that said, I recommend getting this title to as crowded a table as possible, keeping in mind that the chaos increases with the number of players. That’s part of the fun. We have found that 2-player games are rather blasé – there is much less strategy involved as special effects cards have a weaker impact on the game. A third player improves the situation, but sometimes is left out a round and has to throw in his/her hand because the other two just exhausted their armies. Even 4-player games, while better yet, can devolve into alternating battles between a pair of players. Condottiere is at its finest when 5 or 6 players are trying to control the bedlam as best they can!
The theme may be interesting, but it is completely unimportant to the mechanics. It does allow for some strikingly beautiful artwork, which helps set a thematic mood. But the relationship between the titles of the special cards and their actual effects is strenuous, at best. I have the third edition, Fantasy Flight Silver Line version which has different illustrations from the previous two iterations. Some prefer the older artwork, but I fancy this one. The Condottiere and Favor of the Pope pawns are standard fare, as are the colored control cubes. The board is attractive, but very small and does not lay flat. Truthfully, the game could be themed to any sort of conflict – wars, elections, corporate takeovers, natural struggles, or Chicago hot dog vendors vying for street corners in the Loop. To be sure, Fantasy Flight’s version, being in the Silver Line series, is a good value and not difficult to find.
Condottiere can provide a fun, tense, and crazy time. Its rules, theme, and play are simple and family friendly for all but the youngest children. There are also a few alternate rules to tweak play. While my kids and I enjoy randomness (indeed it serves as a good equalizer between children and adults), this game can grate on your nerves if victimized too often. It is not a filler, but its also not unreasonably long, unless you have an aversion to its healthy quantities of luck and spite. This title should appeal especially to those who like poker and traditional card games, as well as hobby gamers that particularly enjoy interaction. With the right group, it will provide a howling good experience.