If board games as historiography are even a little bit accurate, I’m glad that I didn’t live during Europe’s Middle Ages. It seems every design set any time between the 5th and 15th centuries deals with some theme of conniving, stealing, betrayal, political machinations, usurpation, backstabbing, lying, bluffing, and a worldview of “if you don’t have the most influence, then you’re worthless.” Life must have been a constant exercise of looking over your shoulder and checking your blood pressure. Although I’m not sure you could check your own blood pressure? Maybe someone else’s. With a knife!
How To Play
Bloodshed isn’t out of the question in Gambit Royale! But in addition to the assassin’s sword, you’ll need wits just as sharp. It’s a game of intrigue and conniving in which you must cunningly play your conspirators at the right time – and the right places – to win influence in the most powerful disciplines.
Players begin the game with their personal thirty-one card deck of conspirators in varying strengths, which are identical for everyone. These are shuffled individually and each player draws three from their supply deck. Then a number of goal card stacks are created equal to the player count, each pile containing six goals. These come in values 1 through 5 and consist of one of six disciplines, denoted by a unique icon. The top card at each location is revealed and play begins.
On their turn, a player will commit a conspirator from their hand face down beneath any of the goal cards. If there is another above where they played, regardless of owner, the unknown caballer is forthwith revealed. If that person causes an effect, it is resolved immediately. If they have a talent, it might possibly influence scoring in that column at the end of the round. The active player then draws a card to replenish their hand.
Conspirator effects trigger a variety of actions. The assassin kills whoever revels him. The Mistress can attract any other face up agent from another location and move them below her. There are a couple that let you retrieve a card from your supply or discard piles. One lets you swap two goals and another allows you to slip a hidden accomplice beneath it, not to be revealed until the end of the round. There’s even one card that travels from place to place as it’s revealed.
Talents can similarly mess with things, but not until the end of the round. The Three Musketeers cancel all other talents at their location. The Dragon reduces the value of other conspirators by two. There are two different pairs that are more powerful when working in tandem. And some abilities can remove various cards altogether!
A round continues until each location has a number of cards beneath it equal to its goal card’s value. It is perfectly legal to play a character to any location, even if the number of cards there exceed its value, as long as all of them are not yet closed. When a final card is placed triggering that limit, the revealed conspirator’s effect, if any, is first resolved. Then play stops. Any remaining hidden characters at the bottom of columns are flipped without resolving their effects, if they have any. Then locations are scored separately. First, apply the results and/or modifiers of any talents present in the column according to their initiative order. After those have been accounted for, players add up the values of their remaining conspirators. The highest amount wins the goal, as well as any gold cards played to that location. Ties go to whoever placed closest to the top.
When all of a round’s goal cards have been awarded, players collect their conspirators and add them to their discard piles. The top goals on each stack are revealed and a new round begins. The game lasts six rounds, at which point you’ll add up your final score. Normally, you add up the value of all your captured goals. However, if you managed to collect one of each discipline, you instead pick the strongest values used to create a set, aggregate them and multiply by two. However, you then subtract one point for each extra goal you earned outside of your scoring set. In either method, you then add three points for any gold cards you captured, plus three more points if you ended with the crown. The player with the highest total is victorious, which proves they were the most cunning…or perhaps just the biggest jerk. History will decide!
All for One? Yeah, Right, More Like All For Yourself!
Gambit Royale is very much in the style of my favorite designer, Bruno Faidutti. While it’s difficult to lump his prolific and varied ludology together, the majority of his titles skew to the lighter spectrum favoring quick, smooth, and lively play, while emphasizing heavy interaction and healthy unpredictability. Yet many of them posses a sophisticated subtlety, belying their simplistic rule set. Any chaos present is mostly generated by player decisions that weave an intricate web than can quickly entangle your plans. All of that describes this little tilt from German author Lutz Stepponat.
After playing Gambit Royale, many might immediately think of Faidutti’s Citadels, first produced in 2000. The Medieval setting and its theme of intrigue, influence, and deception are certainly on par. However, this design reminds me more specifically of a lesser known Faidutti title published the same year as his more familiar evergreen classic. Castle is set in the same generic time period and employs analogously unscrupulous motifs. More than that, gameplay is not unsimilar in that it involves playing square character cards that often trigger other effects depending on their location and what else is already in play. Obviously there are other different mechanisms. Still, the cascading cause and effect, thematic vying showdown, and crazy player interaction are similar.
Strictly mechanically speaking, the design more closely resembles the recent and popular Smash Up (2012) and the comparably geared Retreat to Darkmoor (2016). In both of those, you play character cards to locations which can trigger immediate effects and eventually reach a threshold that scores and/or resolves the various spots. Smash Up uses unique decks, while Retreat to Darkmoor employs identical player decks as in Gambit Royale. I wouldn’t say that this title matches the nauseating bedlam the former two produce. Either way, the concept is extremely similar. And here I always thought Smash Up was uniquely original. Guess it turns out there’s really not much new under the sun, after all.
Gambit is defined as “a device, action, or opening remark, typically one entailing a degree of risk, that is calculated to gain an advantage.” Royale is a stuffy way (British in origin, most likely) of identifying that something refers to royalty, when simply the word “royal” would suffice. There are kings and queens and princes in Gambit Royale, but I’d say the design is more focused on its title’s first word. It is full of calculated moves and risks geared toward leveraging an advantage wherever you might achieve one. And that creates a delicious tension.
Interestingly, the original English title was Ruse & Bruise. Rather odd sounding, but actually appropriate. The best way to muscle in for influence is to deceive and trick opponents and smack them before they know what happened. In other words, lay a trap! That’s a strong element to the design. Indeed, conspirator effects don’t even trigger until they’re revealed, which happens only when another is played beneath them. Usually by an unwitting rival. You could always activate them yourself – well I wouldn’t the assassin! – but it’s more rewarding and efficient to have others do your work for you.
More interestingly – even insightful – are the non-English titles for Stepponat’s design. The German translates more precisely as Cabals and Bats. Bats, as associated with thrashing with a big stick. I think that sounds even more sinister – not to mention blunter – picturing secret hooded and caped societies lurking in the dark, waiting to literally pound you! Not saying it isn’t fitting, though! The French, always more poetic, translates to “of Cape and Sword.” That certainly emphasizes the royal part, though seems too gentlemanly. While there are indeed simple cards with straight values or mild-mannered effects and talents, the game is really driven by the duplicitous characters and thus the title should strongly convey that. Finally there is the Dutch edition which (according to Google translator) literally means “cheaters cheated.” Now that’s just funny right there, I don’t care who you are! Also it’s apropos!
Anyway, back to the tension. There are two striking differences between Gambit Royale and its two evolutionary successors – there, I said it! First, bases and locations in Smash Up and Retreat to Darkmoor also have effects and modifiers, adding another level of crescendoing zaniness. So those have that going for them. But two, in Gambit Royale cards are initially played face down which ramps up the unpredictability and that aforementioned tension. You have a reasonable plan, even if just trying to lay a trap for another, in moving to a particular column. Yet without knowing what lies in wait, your hand trepidatiously lays the conspirator down. Or more accurately, the trepidation comes with revealing the one above you. Therefore, with many moves you palpably feel like you’re about to open a jar of peanuts only to have a nest of spring-loaded snakes fly at your face.
Of course, the fact that not every card you might reveal has something nasty in store for you actually manages to increase the tension! And there is a satisfying variety of options among your thirty-one conspirators. Indeed this new edition apparently adds five new ones. A number of them merely add their influence without any further impact. Interestingly those are usually the strongest characters. Still others have less dizzying effects or talents that might cause a nuisance, but may not completely send your plans up in smoke. But always lurking are ones that can move cards or kill others off.
That said, your three-card hand can seem quite limiting, at times. Given the size of your conspiratorial cadre you will often wish you had something else available to take advantage of certain situations. More than once you’ll curse your luck knowing that a particular character yet retrieved would have been extremely useful now! For example, the Pirate’s effect is to immediately steal any gold from the column in which he’s revealed. So if any happens to show up, it’s deflating when there’s no chance to pull off the heist. There are two cards, the Fortune Teller and Diplomat, who let you take a card from your supply deck and discard pile, respectively, to place on top of your deck. But who knows when you’ll see them – and it requires revealing them in play to activate.
In addition to just plain wishing for specific conspirators, there are a couple that rely on pairing together. The prince and squire combine in a talent to automatically win the column’s goal card regardless of values. And Romeo is worth ten additional strength when seen with Juliet. Great if you have them at the same time. Anticlimactic if you don’t. And with only three cards per hand, you’re not usually keen on holding the one too long without the other.
So with its array of cards, restricted hands, and constantly evolving board, Gambit Royale is essentially a game of grand wits in which every ruse boils down to an analysis of why “I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.” This is a game that is hard to control, because every action from every player generates a domino effect. Yet you still must try. Intrigue and conspiracy aren’t haphazard endeavors. You might succumb with a plan. But without one, you’ll fall for sure…and quicker! And though pulling off your long-game proves tricky, there is a strategy to it, even if things dissolve into a super refined tactical affair where you are wary of turning every corner and see movement behind every shadow.
With all the bluffing, double-guessing, and manipulation, the design manages to pack a good amount of game in under an hour, especially given its lighter complexity and straight-forward ruleset. Five and six player tilts understandably go longer, but it’s really only felt with the maximum complement. Furthermore, the larger player counts ratchet up the chaos. If you manage to pull of a long-con in those sessions, it’s likely because everyone else fortunately played right into your hands, although you’ll insist it was your genius. The two-player variant adds an extra goal cards stack (instead of the usual one per player), although it’s not nearly as dynamic or interesting, weaving a considerably smaller web. Honestly, three to five proves the most promising, as long as you’re aware the amount of control you exert decreases with each usurper.
While the original edition is “only” twelve years old, Gambit Royale has a bit of an old school, German-style vibe. Perhaps because it’s from Germany? Or maybe it’s the older style artwork, the small card sizes, or the streamlined rules? Yet despite its simplicity, there is plenty of opportunity for shrewd tactics as you steer your long-game, and of course many ways to deceive and derail your opponents. And it is chaotic – but the good kind of chaos driven by player decisions that create effects often cascading out of control. Although some of your actions depend on what’s in your hand, it’s not just arbitrariness for the sake of arbitrariness with the flip of a card or the roll of a die. That creates a sea of intrigue difficult to navigate as the waves toss about from turn to turn, yet entertainingly intriguing to swim in amongst your fellow sharks.
Rio Grande Games provided a copy of Gambit Royale for this review.
Watch Your Back
Simple to explain and play
Plenty of subtle strategy and devious twists
Nice aids with card clarifications
Ability to combo highly dependent on card draws
Easier to derail other plans than to execute your own