Kardinal & König: Das Kartenspiel
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There comes a time in every successful board game's career when it generates a plethora of expansions and spinoffs. One of the most popular kinds of spinoffs is the card game edition. With some games ([page scan/se=0041/sf=category/fi=stockin.asc/ml=20]The Settlers of Catan) it is a worthy addition to the genre; with others ([page scan/se=0040/sf=category/fi=stockin.asc/ml=20]El Grande), well, perhaps the less said the better.
One of the latest board games to receive the card game treatment is Kardinal & Knig, known as Web of Power in Anglophone parts. This particular edition is a small-print-run game kit from Michael Schacht's own label, Spiele aus Timbuktu. As it ships, the game comes as a folded, printed sheet of good-quality card; to make it playable you'll need a steady hand, a sharp knife and a straight edge. When you're done, you'll have a deck of 56 cards, eight square markers called law tokens, and, in each of the five player colours, three small square chits called claiming stones.
The 56 cards come in nine different colours, representing the countries that appear in the game. Fans of the Kardinal & Knig board game will recognize a few familiar names, such as England, Bavaria, France and Franconia, but there are some new faces, such as Denmark, Hungary and Saxony. There are between four and eight cards per country, corresponding roughly to the spaces for building cloisters in the board game. Each card also has on it between zero and two circular seals, the moral equivalent of the advisors from the board game. Some cards additionally sport a ship or a horse and carriage.
At the beginning of the game, all the cards are shuffled and placed face up in four rows of 14. On your turn, you can draw one or more cards from either end of any row, provided that all of the cards are the same colour, and provided that the total number of circular seals on all of the taken cards is no more than two. In practice, this means that you typically take one or two cards, with one or two seals. Any cards you take are added in front of you, to the cards you took in previous turns. Then play passes to the next player. And so it goes until all of the cards are taken.
Scoring is reminiscent of the Kardinal & Knig board game. Each country is scored individually; first by number of cards, then by number of circular seals. The card scoring is like cloisters in the board game: whoever has the most cards for a country scores one point for every card every player owns in that country - in other words, all of them. Whoever has the second-most cards in a country scores one point for every card the leader has. Third place gets one point per card owned by second place, and so on down the line. For instance, if I have two cards for Bavaria, Tina has three, and Doug has one, then Tina scores six points (the number of Bavaria cards), I score three (the number of Bavaria cards Tina has), and Doug scores two (how many cards I have). Everyone else scores zero for Bavaria.
Advisor scoring differs from the board game in that it is performed wholly within a country rather than adjacent ones; indeed there isn't really a concept of adjacency in the card game. Instead, each country has a variety of advisors, indicated by different symbols in the seals. Whoever has the most identical seals scores that many points, everyone else scores zero. As an example, say that my two Bavaria cards have three fleur-de-lys symbols between them, Tina's two cards have two antlers symbols and a phi symbol, and Doug's single card has a pair of hobby-horse symbols. Since I have more identical symbols, I score three points.
The final kind of scoring is with the ship and horse-and-carriage symbols that grace some of the cards. If you can collect at least five ships, you score that many points; the same applies to the carriages. Fewer than that and you don't score a thing. This scoring is supposed to imitate the chains of cloisters that can score you points in the Kardinal & Knig board game.
While the above description would by itself be a fine set-collecting card game, there are two other elements which add to the game, one of which adds a little mystery, the other a great deal of depth. The first is the eight law tokens which start the game face down in pre-determined spots on the card grid. When you take the card that a law token is on, you take the token too. This token can be turned in on a future turn to slightly break the rules in your favour, such as allowing you to take three circle-seals during one turn instead of the usual two, or allowing the cards you take in a turn to be from different countries, or allowing you to take back a claiming stone that was discarded from the game on an earlier turn (more about that shortly). A few of the law markers, however, are bad news, and give you nothing more than a victory point penalty at the end of the game. The possibility of being stung means that law tokens -- the only hidden information in the game -- aren't immediately snapped up the moment they become available.
The other additional element in the game is the claiming stones. You get two of these (three in a three-player game) in your player colour. On your turn, after you've drawn your cards, you can put a claiming stone down on any card still in the grid, provided no one else has already put their own claiming stone on that card. Claiming a stone in this way indicates that you have reserved the card underneath it to be taken by you on a future turn, and that other players are going to have to pay to take it away from you. When you do finally take that card, you get the stone back and can place it elsewhere in the grid. If another player takes a card you've claimed, they must first match your claiming stone with one of their own; yours goes back to your stock, but their stone goes out of the game, and can be brought back only with the appropriate law token, should they have one. By using claiming stones effectively, you can both dissuade your opponents from doing things to mess you up, and set yourself up for future turns to gain majorities in cards and advisors. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that managing your limited supply of claiming stones is the key to the game.
On the down side, the game does suffer a little -- but only a little -- from the Fossil syndrome, in that a weak or inattentive player can set up a dream position for the following player. Additionally, at times, you may have only one possible move, or worse still, none at all: it is possible to be shut out of the endgame if you have unwisely spent all of your claiming stones on takeovers earlier in the game. This is evident more with four players than three (and I suspect even more so with five, though I haven't been able to test that theory yet), due to the increased number of claiming stones that are not yours.
Speaking of number of players, I've also noticed that there's a slight difference in the importance of the three scoring mechanisms when the game is played with three and four players. With three, it's easier to hit the five-ship-or-carriage threshold than with four players, so you need to keep in mind the number of opponents when you judge the worth of a card. On the whole, though, I've found that the three ways of scoring seem to be well balanced; blind focus on one of them will almost assuredly not bring you victory. As a result it is usually better to pick whatever move is best at the moment it becomes your turn. There is more of a "playing on autopilot" sense than with the board game, but not as much as with fluff such as Africa.
Like the board game, the Kardinal & Knig card game gives you a small number of agonizing decisions each turn. The scoring is sufficiently complicated that it is difficult to know who is ahead at any given stage; indeed, it takes a couple of minutes after the end of the game to do the final tallying. There is surprisingly little randomness in this game, considering the completely indeterminate order in which cards are laid out at the start of the game. It is quite unusual to be in a position where you can do no good at all for yourself, as there is almost always one card to take, and if it's your first card of a colour it's going to be worth at least two points.
I've played this game a few times now, and already I've noticed a few things. First, I suspect the game is best with four players, as this has the best balance of the scoring mechanisms without reducing each player's choice of cards to one obvious move. Second, like the board game, each country has its own character. In France, for instance, it is fiendishly difficult to get the card majority (because there are eight cards for the country) or the advisor majority (because there are so many circular seals); Denmark and England, as the smallest countries (four and five cards, respectively), are light on advisors (Denmark doesn't have any at all!) but every single card for these two countries has a ship or carriage, so are valuable for that type of scoring. Third, getting cheap second places for card scoring is imperative; conversely, it does not pay to go out of your way to completely shut your opponents out of a country, because it is not worth any points to you for doing so.
As I write this review, the initial batch of 1000 copies has sold out, but there are rumours that more may be on their way. I'd love to see this game receive the professional treatment, though I don't really have any complaints about the quality of the card stock or printing quality in this edition. The game certainly deserves a wider distribution, as it is a first-class game and worthy of the Kardinal & Knig moniker.