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Review: The Road to Canterbury (2021 Edition)

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RTC - Box

When I reviewed Illumination a couple of weeks ago, I lamented that I’d never been able to play its “spiritual predecessor,” The Road to Canterbury (RTC). Unbeknownst to me at the time, RTC is getting a reprint (officially titled, “The Road to Canterbury: Impoverished Pilgrim’s Edition”) and it is part of the Illumination Kickstarter. So you can imagine how excited I was when Eagle-Gryphon Games unexpectedly sent me a copy of RTC! I finally got the chance to try one of my gaming white elephants. So the question is, was it worth the hope and the wait? Let’s find out.

How It Plays

Ordinarily, this would be the place where I would detail the rules of the Road to Canterbury in order to give you a sense of how it plays. But… This is basically a straight reprint of an older game that has been reviewed often, so the rules are widely available and there are plenty of tutorials out there.

So in the interest of saving some time I’ll simply tell you that, according to the designer, there are four main differences between this edition and the original. (No, I’m not being lazy here. Well, maybe a little, but in my defense, the review copy arrived late and I had to choose between playing it a couple of more times or rewriting the rules here. I figured that rewriting the rules was less important than being able to offer a more informed opinion based on multiple plays. Hopefully you agree.)

First, the components in this version are “slimmed down” and, as a result, the price is lower. (The original MSRP was $60 and this version is $29 during the Kickstarter.) Nothing impacts gameplay. What was “slimmed” seems to be mostly artwork (there are not as many flourishes in this version), and I believe the player mats and cards might be a bit thinner. Also, some text from The Canterbury Tales has been added to the player screens and pilgrim cards, giving the game a bit more flavor. That’s all cosmetic stuff.

RTC - Feature
The circle of sin and parson pawn.

The other three changes fix some overpowered rules and add a tiebreaker.

  1. If you don’t play a card on your turn, after paying 3 coins as a penalty you may discard up to 3 cards and then redraw. (The original rule didn’t limit the number of cards discarded and redrawn. That was judged to be too powerful.)
  2. You may not play two Last Rites tokens in a row. (The original rule imposed no limit; this, too, was deemed overpowered.)
  3. If you complete the Circle of Sin, after receiving your reward, move one cube to the center and reclaim the others. The cube in the center counts as seven points for the purposes of tie-breaking at the end of the game.

If you want to see the draft rulebook of this newer version, you can view it here.

Take this road trip, or take a detour?

So, The Road to Canterbury is based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You are acting as a pardoner, traveling down the road and selling pardons to pilgrims. The certificates you sell (fake, of course, because no mere human can really absolve sins) will absolve these sinners and deliver them from eternal damnation.

To make money, though, you must deal in volume, which means it’s really helpful to your business if you can get these pilgrims to commit even more sins! But not too many… The Seven Deadly Sins don’t mess around and if your poor pilgrims commit all seven, they die. Dead pilgrims are a problem because the dead can’t pay you. You and your fellow players are in a race to pardon the most pilgrims before they either keel over or finish their pilgrimage.

I’ll admit that the theme of RTC has always been the attractant for me. I’ve read The Canterbury Tales, but even aside from that, the idea of tempting people to sin so I can profit makes me smile in an absurd, Monty Python-esque way. If that’s the kind of humor you enjoy, then RTC might appeal to you. However, I will admit that it might not appeal to everyone. There are those who might find offense in the religious undertones, and who find the morals here a bit questionable. Also, those who don’t appreciate dry, sly humor will probably struggle to find the fun.

RTC - Money
Coins and last rites tokens.

As to the “slimmed down” components… Having never played the original, I am unable to tell you whether or not these are “too skinny” by comparison. Everything in my box is fully functional and, although the mats, cards, and boards are thin, they aren’t too thin. I don’t feel like they’ll bend at the slightest touch. The coins are your standard cardboard.

The only major lament I have is that, while the box is thick and sturdy, the artwork on it is dark and dull when compared to the original. There is also a bit less artwork and “pizzaz” on the components when compared to the original, but nothing that affects gameplay. However, the additional text on the cards and screens does give the theme a little more oomph, and helps to orient those who aren’t familiar with The Canterbury Tales. I’m just happy to have a copy of the game, so I can deal with the compromises that were made here. YMMV.

So that’s the easy, cosmetic stuff. But how about the gameplay?

As with most of Alf Seegert’s designs, the main thing that impressed me about RTC is that it offers many things to manage without feeling overwhelming. There are many ways to score points, so turns rarely feel wasted. While scoring points is pretty easy, it takes multiple plays before you uncover the best ways to score points, how all of the mechanisms interact, and how to react to what other players are doing. To me, these are the best kinds of games. They offer depth without crushing brain burn, and present a puzzle that needs to be solved just a bit differently in each game.

RTC - Cards 3

In RTC, you’re playing one of three types of cards on your turn. That’s it, one card. Sin cards tempt pilgrims to sin. When you do this, you place one of your cubes on the circle of sin space matching the sin card played. If you end up being the first player with one cube on each of the seven sins, you earn a twenty point bonus. The second player earns a ten point bonus, and the third gets five points. So tempting pilgrims to sin can be hugely profitable.

But you can also pardon those same sins because you are, after all, a shyster selling fake pardons. Pardon cards allow you to pardon a matching sin. When you pardon, play a pardon card onto a pilgrim who has committed the same sin, and then place a cooruption cube of your color on the pilgrim card. Pardons have cash value, depending on how many you pardon and whether or not the parson is currently denouncing that particular sin. Since cash is the currency of victory in this game, you’re going to want lots of it!

Sins and pardons work in tandem and you can’t ignore either. Too many sins and a pilgrim dies, meaning no more pardons can be given. (And there goes one of your potential cash cows.) More significantly, a pilgrim’s death means that the player with the most corruption cubes on that pilgrim moves a step further on the Road to Canterbury and collects the bonus indicated for that achievement. Also, moving down the Road moves the game one step closer to the end.

So while it can be tempting to just keep dumping sins on pilgrims, you also have to do some pardoning and keep an eye on how many pardons your opponents are amassing. You want to control that pilgrim when he keels over! Pardons also make you money, which is the currency of victory. But if you go around doing nothing but pardoning, you’ll miss out on the big sin bonuses. You have to strike a balance, and one that takes into account what your opponent is doing.

RTC - Cards 1
Sin and relic cards.

The other kind of card you can play is a relic card. These give you special actions and can let you move the parson token to a different sin in the circle of sin. This can set you up for a future turn that may net you more money when you pardon that sin on a pilgrim. Knowing when/how to best to deploy your relics is key to winning the game.

This is what makes most of Alf’s games so fun for me. There’s plenty going on, but none of it is difficult to understand. Difficult to perfect, yes, but not difficult to understand. You can be up and playing after a short tutorial, but it will take you many plays to fully realize all of the interactions going on and how to work them to your advantage.

Games like this are also very replayable for me, not because they change drastically every time or because they have huge card decks or scenarios, but because they are puzzles that need to be solved anew each game. All of the mechanisms intertwine and how you’ll maximize each one changes a bit each game. The cards will come out slightly differently and your opponents will try different strategies. You always have to adapt to the current elements to find your best path forward.

It’s not a matter of seeing different things every game that keeps it interesting, it’s that you usually leave the game thinking, “Okay, next time I’m going to do things differently and see how a little tweak affects the larger whole.” I liken games like this to cooking: The path to a perfect recipe requires you to experiment, to add this or that ingredient, or to fiddle with the cooking time. It’s usually not a major adjustment, but you just want to tweak this one thing to see what happens. That’s what keeps me coming back to RTC, and to most of Alf Seegert’s games in general.

RTC - Cards 2
Pardon cards.

The game also sets a brisk pace. At the beginning, all of your pilgrims require seven newly played sin (or death approaches) cards underneath them in order to die. But as the game goes on, dead pilgrims stack up underneath the new pilgrims, meaning they die a bit quicker. (The idea here is that the bodies of dead pilgrims are carried along for burial at Canterbury, so there’s less room in the caravan for more sinning pilgrims. This kind of thing can’t go on indefinitely, after all.) Also, each dead pilgrim moves you closer to Canterbury, so you’ve got to keep an eye on the Road so you don’t get caught with some big plan halfway complete when the last pilgrim kicks over.

The major negative to the game is that it looks more complex than it really is. This is partly why I never picked up the original version. It was going out of print just as I was really getting into gaming, and although the theme intrigued me, I looked at it and thought, “I’m not ready for that.” Of course, years (and hundreds of games) later I realize that it’s actually a simple game to understand (it’s really nothing more than a card game with lots of other bits), but at the time all I could see was lots of cubes, boards, cards, and tokens. It freaked me out and I passed on it and it sadly passed out of print.

Actually, I guess this is both a positive and a negative. Positive because it’s not a complex as it looks, but negative because it can freak out someone new to games. It’s also positive because the playtime isn’t as long as you think it will be. Once you’re experienced, you can knock out a two player game in half an hour.

RTC - Mats
Player screens and misc. mats.

All in all, RTC lived up to my hopes. It’s a lot of fun and scratches most of my gaming sweet spots: Puzzly, not soul crushing or brain frying, funny, and slightly addictive. It’s something I can play on a weeknight and know my brain won’t explode, but I also know that it will leave me feeling like I’ve played a “real” game. Bonus: It plays quickly enough that we can usually get in two games, which is nice because we keep wanting to try it again. The subtle humor just bakes in another layer of fun for us.

Since I never owned the original, I don’t feel any loss in the “slimmed down” components and I’m simply happy to have it. From what I understand, if you already own RTC, there’s no need to buy this version because the gameplay differences are not profound and you could simply add the new rules into your old version. If you can’t appreciate the humor, I’d recommend skipping it and looking at some of Alf’s other designs, instead. Otherwise, I highly recommend taking advantage of a “second chance” to grab this wonderful game.

The Road to Canterbury: Impoverished Pilgrim’s Edition is currently on Kickstarter.

(iSlaytheDragon.com thanks Eagle Gryphon Games for giving us a copy of The Road to Canterbury for review.)

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Summary

Pros

Offers good replayability.
Has the patented Seegert "many things to manage without overwhelming you" play style.
Literary nerds and those who like absurd humor will love the theme.
Despite looking like a long game, it can play in as little as half an hour.

Cons

Components offer a bit less pizzaz than the original.
Looks intimidating for what is actually a fairly simple game.
The religious undertones might not appeal to everyone.

9.0 Excellent

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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