Thursday, June 25, 2009

Municipium

Municipium is a relatively new game, published last fall by the Canadian company Valley Games and invented by my favorite game designer, Dr. Reiner Knizia. It accommodates between two and four people and it takes between forty-five and seventy-five minutes to play, depending on the number of players and how quickly they take their turns. Within the game there is a blend of luck and skill; a crafty and experienced player will have an edge against newbies, but newbies will have a shot at winning nonetheless.

The setting of the game is an unnamed town on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, circa 200 AD. Each player controls a family of pawns who are angling for wealth and prestige within the town, and they do this by gaining the support of the four spheres of society: the military, the merchants, the priests, and the advocates (sort of a cross between a lawyer and a congressman). In terms of game mechanisms this support is represented by the players collecting citizen tokens in four different colors. The catch is that players must gain support in all four spheres equally; when a player acquires a full set of tokens—one in each color—these are exchanged for a victory token. The first player to earn five victory tokens wins the game.

The citizens are to be found in the seven institutions that are depicted on the board. The soldiers hang out at the tavern and the praetorium (i.e., the barracks), the merchants at the baths and the emporium (i.e., the shopping center), the advocates at the forum and the basilica (i.e., the courthouse), and the priests in the temple. Players collect citizens by moving their seven pawns around the map in the hopes of having the majority of pawns in a particular institution when it comes time to distribute the citizens in that institution. By "majority," I mean, of course, more pawns than any other player.

Players' turns are extremely simple; they can make two moves with their pawns along the roads on the map, and then they must turn over a card from a common deck; that card will dictate how the turn ends and whether or not any citizen tokens will be distributed. In some cases the players will be instructed to each draw one citizen token from the bag and place it in a corresponding institution; for example, a merchant may be placed in either the baths or the emporium. The exception is the priest, who can be placed anywhere. If an institution accumulates three citizens, these are then distributed, with two going to the player with the majority of pawns in the institution and the remaining one going to the player in second place.

Another possibility at the end of the turn is the movement of yet another pawn, the praefect, who is the head honcho of the Municipium. The praefect moves around the board in a clockwise direction, stopping at every institution except the temple. Whenever he moves to a new institution, he grants a favor to the player with the most influence in that institution, the favor being a little chit that the player can use as a "wild" citizen when exchanging a set of four citizen tokens for a victory token. In games with more than two players, the person with the second-most influence will get a consolation prize of one citizen token.

The third possibility at the end of the turn is that players will be able to use the institutions' "special powers." Each institution has its own special power which is available to the player with the most influence in that institution whenever a "one power" or "all powers" card is turned over. I won't go into these in detail, but suffice it to say that they are all advantageous and add a nice degree of strategy and interest to the game. Perhaps most significant is the special power of the temple, because influence in the temple is method by which ties are broken when determining majority elsewhere on the board.

There is one last element to the game that needs to be mentioned, which is that each player has three single-use "family cards." Instead of turning over a random card from the common deck, the players can use one of their family cards to end the turn. These are all extremely useful: one card allows the player to either move the praefect or rearrange all his pawns, one allows the player to draw four citizen tokens from the bag and place them in institutions, and the third allows the player to use the special powers of all the institutions where he or she has the majority.

Now, in the interest of not wearing out the reader I have left out a lot of small details from the above description of the game play, but by and large I think I've provided a good overview if how the game works: players move their pawns around the board and try to have the majority of pawns in various institutions to take advantage of the various possible outcomes of the card flip, whether it be a move of the praefect, the addition of more citizens to the board, or the use of the institutions' special powers. As the game progresses and the situation evolves, some institutions will become more important than others to a player, and with the help of their three family cards players can cook up some rather involved strategies to try to get their fifth victory token and win the game.

The overall feel of the game is an interesting one. A player's turn is very simple—make two pawn moves, then flip or play a card—but at times the decisions can be tricky. What are my short-term and long-term priorities? Will my rivals be able to easily undermine my position on their turns? Is now a good time to use my family cards, or should I save them for later? However, the decisions are not so difficult that the turns drag on and on, and moreover players often have choices to make during other players' turns, so things never get dull, even with players who are on the slow side.

Municipium has gotten a mixed reaction from the people to whom I have introduced it. My first two playings of the game were with crusty, hardcore gamer types, and the response was lukewarm at best; in particular they felt that the game was too luck-heavy, as both games ended with several players poised to win and the victory going ot the person who first turned over the common card most favorable to his particular situation. In the third game, however, one of the players did something rather clever, which was that he saved his "all powers" family card for a winning coup de gr√Ęce. This changed my perception of the game, and I began advising new players of the usefulness of the family cards at endgame; thereafter all the games had very tense finishes, with the players in contention having elaborate plans hinging on their remaining family cards. The players in these games enjoyed themselves more and said that they would be willing to play again in the future.

I myself wasn't quite sure what to make of the game at first; there was something a bit odd and unintuitive about it all, perhaps because it breaks the familiar mode of players reacting to a random event (for example, a card draw or a die roll) and instead puts the random event after the player makes his move. However, as I've played it more and more I've come to really enjoy it and have found it very entertaining. I've gotten it to the table seven times now, one of those a two-player game, four three-player games and two four-player games. It works very well with all the numbers in the range, though of course a player will have a lot less control over the board in a four-player game than in a two-player game. It struck me that the two-player game was actually a very good way to introduce it to new players, since the newbie will feel more in control, and also since it removes the one confusing element, namely that of the winning of citizen tokens from both the institutions and the praefect movement.

For those who are familiar with the game and who are interested in learning a little strategy, here is what I've gleaned so far:

The Citizen Invitations card. This card can precipitate a windfall if executed at the right moment–eight citizen tokens, conceivably—and so a major priority in the mid-game is to watch for a time when there are a lot of tokens on the board and then to try to get one majority in each color and play the Citizen Invitations card. Ideally this will coincide with a moment when you have...

Temple Majority. The temple ranking (and thus the tiebreaker ranking) is extremely important. Typically the common card deck will be run through twice, which means that the All Powers card will appear twice and so the temple ranking will change twice at the very least—more if the player currently with the majority uses the temple power via a One Power or My Powers card. If you are on the bottom rung of the ladder, one of your highest priorities should be readying yourself to improve your position when the time comes. The baths can be very helpful in this respect. Ideally you should get yourself on the top rung at least once, and once you have made it to the top it is then important to move some of those pawns out of the temple and take advantage of the situation. More than once I've seen a player hole up his men in the temple to try to guard his ranking, resulting in fewer pieces everywhere else and so no real advantage.

The My Powers card. As said above, it is a good idea to save the My Powers card for the end of the game. In the early and mid-game you have the luxury of being flexible, whereas towards the end you will need to outmaneuver your competition for a specific reward. Also, because it is so powerful, the My Powers card allows you to lunge at the finish line from farther back, thus potentially taking your enemies by surprise; using the card to take the lead mid-game might only serve to make you a target for citizen-theft via the forum.

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