Message to the Czar
English language edition
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The governors have important messages that must reach the czar as quickly as possible. Because the governors live in provinces in the far reaches of his empire, a governor must be clever and a little lucky to be the first to get his message to the czar, winning the game and the favor of the czar.
The players each send several couriers on the long and convoluted trip to the czar's palace. Along the way, the couriers travel from village to village through swamps, forests, and mountains. In each village, the couriers check in to one of the inns and spend the night. But only the early risers will be able to move on to the next village in the morning. Those who sleep late must remain in the village for another night, hoping the new day will provide better opportunities.
I must admit I've never played Muscat but I've enjoyed each game we've played of Message. There is definitely a huge luck factor between the draw of tiles and bribing the guards, but I think the game play is great. Do you move your message? Is it worth moving an opponents messenger to advance yours? And all the other factors you must consider to reach the palace guards. It played well with 2 and was even more fun with 5. I found it to be a fun filler with engaging play! Recommended!
Message to the Czar did not impress me at first. I had to memorize the locations in each inn of the Officer, the Cossack, the Diplomat, and the Attache. We played two player, two rounds, to get the feel of the game.
Soon it became apparent the game produced more intricate strategy. It wasn't enough to remember the location of the four protagonists. You had to remember which way the arrows were drawn in the inns. I liked the idea of jumping swamps, grasslands (skipping inns), and so forth if the particular tile did not fit in the certain inn. Four inns were immediately closed in the two-player game. When you first place the message block on the drawn tile of 12 pieces, you discover the placement may not work. Constantly, I was having to fuss with changing the message to accommodate the changing vagaries of the other player's placement. It became disheartening to see your message left in the dust by the other player moving to different inn levels.
You had to judge whether you wanted to move the Officer and the Attache, for example, with one of these tiles being the other player. It too soon became apparent the other player was going to force you to spend 10 rubles instead of his lowly six to win the game. The 20+ rubles are grouped at the top of the board for the player who reaches the Czar's fortress.
In the ruble spending for the last level, one player commented it was a matter of luck which rubles were turned over first. Having not played Muscat, I cannot comment on whether the luck factor interfered with the game's end. I can say the other player (blue tiles) became nervous about drawing too many overturned rubles and finding the Njet. That action of Njet allowed me to catch up and move closer to the Czar's fortress.
Religiously, I tried to challenge the other player's placement in the inns. Still, as the blue tile player commented, 'If you don't provide an aggressive stance at the beginning, you will be left in the dust.'
With my more conservative play, I lost both rounds of what is basically a good beer-and-pretzel game. Would I play it again? The answer is certainly, because the game challenges you to improve your strategy with each new play. You want to beat the other player to the Czar's fortress and claim those rubles and the game.
Personally, the tiles are attractively done, and the board is nicely laid out for the different inn levels. However, if you can't draw a Cossack from the discard pile or the main pile when you need that tile, all may be lost at the moment.
First off, the previous review appears to be a little harsh.
Message to the Czar is a simple race game with a considerable amount of strategy. Where Muscat appears to be a game of force, Message is one of finesse.
The vagrants, which tend to bog down the game of Muscat with their 'special' actions and additional rules, have been removed. The 'Struggles of Power' have been simplified and, in my opinion, are much more rewarding of good play.
One of your 'Couriers' holds a 'message', which must ultimately move to the palace if you want a chance to win. Its movement is your unlimate concern. With four opponents, that's not an easy task. In Muscat, you can win without getting one piece to the palace, which should be the whole object of the game!
Luck does play a part, but it is evened out considerably by the Palace Guards bribe mechanism.
All-in-all, Message to the Czar is a solid filler game which should see a lot of play at our gaming tables this year.
When I first read over the rules for Message to the Czar, I thought they sounded fairly interesting. Some of the mechanics were unusual - I’m not sure I’ve seen them in games before. And the theme, delivering a letter to the Czar in ancient Russia, certainly sounded interesting - almost sort of a race theme. The rules seemed fairly simplistic, so I had an optimist attitude when bringing the game to the table for the first time.
I wasn’t quite so pleased after playing the game. The rules were solid, but the end game was so out of touch with the rest of the game, that I felt like there were two different games melded together. The first main part of the game felt like an abstract strategy game, where players jockeyed for position, but I was impressed by the interesting strategies available. All this mattered little, however, because the end of the game was that of a “push your luck” variety. I’m not opposed to these types of games, but the mixture with the nearly abstract maneuvering was jarring.
The board has four rows (villages) of inns, each with a different name - but essentially the same. The bottom and top rows have five inns each, and the middle two rows have four. Each inn is split into four different rooms, or sections. Some of the inns may be closed down, depending on number of players (up to five). Each player gets twelve courier tiles (officers, Cossacks, attachés, and diplomats). The couriers are distinguished from each other only by the fact that they can only go into one of the four specific inn sections. For example, Cossacks can only go into the top right room of an inn. Players take the couriers, shuffle them, and place them face down in a stack in front of them. Thirty coins are shuffled face down on the table, with faces showing “Njet”, nothing, “1”, “2”, or “3”. One player is chosen to go first, and each player in turn order turns over their top courier tile, placing it in the appropriate room in any empty inn. They then take the message tile in their color and place it on their courier, and flip over their next courier face up to start a discard pile. The game is ready to begin.
On a player’s turn, they have one of four options...
- Place a courier: The player may either take any of the couriers in their discard pile or the top courier from their draw pile. They then place it in any available inn, as long as they place it in the correct room, and only if the inn has two or less couriers in it. Inns are maxed out with three couriers, and a fourth may never be placed. If the player, after doing this, has no courier in their discard pile, they turn the top courier over to form a new discard pile.
- Hand off the message: The player may transfer their message from the courier who has it to any other courier in the village.
- Travel to the next village: Each “full” inn (one with three couriers) has an arrow pointing to one of the couriers. The player may move this courier, and must also move the courier who is next clockwise in the inn (the other courier gets left behind) to the next village. The player may move them in any order, placing them in two different inns. If there are no available inns (either all the specific rooms for that type of courier are full, the inns themselves are full, and/or the other courier went to the inn), then the courier may “skip” the village, going to the next one. If a courier is in the last village, they are returned to the player’s draw pile; and if they have a message, that message is given to the palace guard directly above the inn.
- Bribe the guard. This can only be done if a player has a message on a guard. Each guard has a specific number of rubles they need (6, 8, or 10). A player turns over one coin at a time, placing them face up in the palace. At any time, they may stop and keep all the coins they have collected. However, if they turn over a “njet” coin, they forfeit all the coins they’ve collected this turn.
Once a player has gotten the amount of rubles (or more) needed to bribe their guard, they win the game!
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: The game is produced with pretty good quality. Everything is clear and easy to distinguish. My favorite components were the little wooden letters - they were just a nice addition. Little cardboard “closed” signs are provided to show which inns are shut down, if playing with less than four players. The coins are small but not too small, and the numbers on them are quite clear. The tiles and inns on the board are the main components, and they do match up well. The inns have a slightly odd shape, and it’s pretty simple when glancing at a courier to see in which corner of the inn they reside. I like how each room has an arrow pointing at another room; so that if a courier is in a room, they cover up their arrows. Everything fits in a small box - same size as the popular game Transamerica, although players will probably seek to have some plastic bags to keep the components separate.
2.) Rules: The rules for the game are printed on four pages - colorfully illustrated, and very well formatted. Of course, the rules are extremely simple, and there’s not much to teach. From what I can understand, the original game, Muscat, has very different rules and is more highly acclaimed. Either way, the game is simple to teach, and even kids pick it up fairly easily.
3.) Luck: I don’t mind luck in a game, as long as the luck is balanced. The problem with Message to the Czar is that you may better place your couriers, you may better move the message up through the ranks, you may successfully outwit your opponents, yet LOSE the game because of your unlucky coin draws. That is ridiculous, and anyone who loses a game because of this (it WILL happen) will go away angry and bitter. Going into a game, knowing that it’s luck based, is one thing. Playing a game that has some fairly decent strategy then gambles it all away at the end is another.
4.) Strategy: Until you get to the end phase of the game, there are some interesting tactical decisions in the game. Knowing just what inn to place your couriers in is crucial, and knowing which courier to carry your message even more so. Should you try to keep your couriers together, or force another player to move them up along with their couriers? I liked these decisions; and although I’m not sure they really fit the theme all that well, the game play was good. The first person up to the top should win, I think. Forget the stupid endgame. I like “playing chicken” when drawing coins, but that should be in a different game, or at least not be so important.
5.) Fun Factor: For me, the game has two negatives. First of all is the moronic endgame, which I’ve already railed against. Secondly, it’s an abstract game at heart, and I’m not a big fan of those. I think I might have enjoyed this one, however, without the endgame. A game is only fun if it ends fun, and this one is really only fun in the beginning and middle. Fortuantely, the game only lasts about twenty or thirty minutes, so it’s not an excruciatingly bad thing, but long enough to where I’m not sure I’ll play it again.
I can’t really recommend this game - I’m not sure I’ve gotten my money’s worth, even with buying a used version at a discount. There’s the hint of a good game here, but the endgame positively just ruins it. Perhaps someday I’ll get a chance to play the original game, Muscat, which I hear is better. However, now all I have is Message to the Czar. Sadly, I think he’s just going to have to wait a while, as all my messengers got disgusted with the annoyances of his guards and quit. This game is going to languish on my shelf, until I can find a way around the end game. It’s sad when one rule like that can ruin the entire game.
“Real men play board games.”
While I have not played the parent game of Muscat, I have seen it played at a Unity Games gathering, and read the rules over and gave them a try with my Message to the Czar set. I must say that I found them preferable to the current incarnation.
While I may have the theme slightly wrong, Muscat seems to have been about moving street performers belonging to your troupe from one village square to another. When three performers are in a square, two would advance, while one would be ousted to plot revenge on a later turn. The game ended when a certain number of performers had arrived at the palace, and points scored for how far each performer had advanced, including the ones not yet at the palace.
This game changes some of the mechanics to make a more friendly game, but at the expense of some much needed tension. The objective now is simply to move an envelope to the czar's palace and get past a bribeable guard. No longer is the third person in a square/inn bumped from that location, and therefore many of Muscat's sneakier and subtler actions are missing. Instead, we get an entirely superfluous endgame that plays like a poor-man's Can't Stop.
The endgame presents a real dilemma for me. While a person can play strongly through the early and middle stages of the game, that player can be entirely shut out of the endgame by some bad draws. After the strategy of the early game, why does the game disintegrate into a poor sub-game of drawing ruble chips and hoping not to receive a Njet chit? For me, the whole game should lead up to a memorable conclusion, and this game is entirely lacking in that respect.
I can not recommended this game in this edition. Sorry Winning Moves/Rio Grande, you dropped the ball on developing this one.
Message to the Czar is a re-themed release of Muscat. Unfortunately, many rules changes were made that detract from the excellent original game. The end result is an extremely simplified and unsatisfying game.
Muscat is a tense brain-burner with challenging decisions every step of the way. The Counter review here at Funagain does an excellent job of describing Muscat, so I will only speak to the changes.
First off, the object of the game is different. No longer are you trying to simply outscore your opponents. You are trying to move your message counter to the top of the board before anyone else. So gone from Muscat is the balancing act of weighing your overall score based on the relative position of everyone's pieces. In its place is a simple race. This removes a very important strategy element and waters down the game.
Also removed from Muscat are the Vagrant actions. Easily the most interesting aspect of Muscat, the entire concept of negative points and the ability to turn them into powerful special actions has been replaced. By what? By nothing! The loser of a power struggle is not kicked to the curb to wait for timely vengeance. Instead he is simply left behind ready to take part in the next struggle. Gone is a very important tactical element of the original game.
Another mysterious rule change is that the player who invokes the power struggle decides where the pieces move. So, unlike Muscat where you decide where your pieces move (but not necessarily when), in Message, you are entirely at the mercy of your opponents and of course will end up in the worst possible position after being promoted. This problem is exacerbated by a topological change in the board that creates unequal victory paths. So, even if you out-think your opponents up until the final power struggle, you can be shunted off to a much more difficult endgame space just because of one move.
And the new endgame mechanism is really the killer. It takes all the strategic and tactical elegance of Muscat and trades it for a pointless exercise in randomly picking a winner. In Muscat, you know exactly when the game will end and what you need to do to end it in your favor. In Message, you might as well roll dice. Now to win, you must make it to the top of the board then bribe the guard. How do you bribe? You draw a random tile from a pile of coins. If it's a real coin with a value, you keep it. Then you can either keep drawing or bank your coins. If you keep drawing and get a 'NYET!' tile, you lose every coin you have drawn this turn (but not your bank). Once your coins total enough to bribe the guard in front of you, you can move to the Czar and win. Sound a bit like Can't Stop? Sure, except there are no dice odds to calculate, it's just a random draw. So even as a fan of push-your-luck style games, I cannot enjoy this endgame since it's so contradictory to the rest of the game play and ultimately a crapshoot. It's even worse because some guards take more money to bribe than others. This means if you end up in a bad part of the board, it's even harder for you to win.
So, what can I say? The game is bad. It would even be bad if I had never played Muscat. It's too simplistic and random to be enjoyable.
Talk about fussy couriers: Officers demand room #1, Attaches #2, Cossacks #3, and Diplomats #4 at every inn! A random courier carries your message in a first-level inn. One courier starts your faceup discards; 10 are shuffled facedown. Each turn, you may place a courier (from either the facedown pile or discards) in a first-level inn (if all are full, selected facedown couriers join your discards); pass your message to a courier on the same level; or move any two couriers at a full inn to different inns on the next level--or higher if they cannot occupy the next.
Message-bearing couriers reach spaces valued 6,8, or 10 on the Palace level. Subsequently, owners draw facedown tokens one at a time, winning by drawing the space's value. Shuffle tokens back if you pick a "No!" token. You can stop, permanently keeping your current drawings to try for the balance next turn. But others are pursuing you in this bizarre race!
Muscat is a tactical tile-laying game in which players try to work their way up a social ladder and where, as with real-life social ladders, the rewards for success and the penalties for failure are greater the higher you go. The setting for what is basically an abstract game is an Arabian Nights style sultanate and the story line is that entertainers, newly arrived in town, are trying to work their way up from being the sort of act that busks on street corners to the sort that is invited to perform at the palace itself.
The tiles represent the entertainers and they are of four types: pipers, snake charmers, elephant trainers and fire eaters. Each player has 4 of each and the game revolves around the pecking order that exists among them. Unlike most pecking orders, this one is circular. Pipers outrank snake charmers; snake charmers outrank elephant trainers; elephant trainers outrank fire eaters; but fire eaters outrank pipers.
The board is divided vertically into "levels" and within each is a collection of squares with spaces for one entertainer of each type. Between each level is a "street", which is where you end up if your act finds itself being thrown out of the theatre. At the start of the game each player mixes their tiles face down and then turns one of them face up.
On your turn you may do one of three things. The first is to take either your face-up tile or a randomly drawn face-down one and place it in an available space on the lowest level. The second is to resolve a power struggle and the third is to do something fancy with a tile that had begun to climb but which has met with a reverse.
A power struggle is something that can happen if a square somewhere on the board contains three tiles. (Squares are not allowed to contain more than three.). The fact that there are three tiles there means that the circular nature of the precedence chain has been broken, to be replaced by a simple linear ordering. So, for example, if there was no elephant trainer in the square, you would have an ordering with the fire eater at the top and the snake charmer at the bottom. If a player chooses, they may use their turn to resolve things. What happens if they do is that the square is emptied, with the top two being moved up a level and the bottom one being placed on the street immediately below the level from which it was ejected.
Resolution of a power struggle is something that you will normally want to do if your man is in one of the good positions but not if he is in the bad one. In that case you will be hoping that something can be done to change things. This is where the vagrants, the entertainers who have already been put out on to the street, come into play. The third option you have in your turn involves moving one of these. The simplest and least aggressive choice open to you is to "reinstate" the tile. This means taking it from the street and placing it in an open space which is of the appropriate type and on the adjacent level. The other three are more hostile and, if you are entering into the spirit of things, will often be directed towards getting revenge on the player who put you out on to the street in the first place. They involve various types of switching, such as replacing an opponent's tile with your own. There is a price attached to these revenge manoeuvres, which is that you have to remove one of your tiles from the game, but it will nearly always be worth it, since not only will your position be improved but any power struggle positions that the manoeuvre produces are resolved immediately, thereby almost giving you an extra turn.
The ultimate aim is to get your pieces up to the top level, which is the sultan's palace. Once there they are safe. The game ends when a certain number of entertainers have reached this level, just how many depends on the number of players. Each tile you have on the board is now worth points, positive ones for tiles in the palace or on one of the squares in a lower level and negative ones if they are on a street. The points, both positive and negative, increase in magnitude the higher a tile is up the board.
This is a neatly constructed little game that will appeal to those who like slightly intricate, tactical struggles and who can live with the fact that the game also involves a certain amount of good and bad fortune. Whether your current face-up tile is the one that you would like to be holding is in the lap of the gods. So too, for the most part, is whether it is your tile or someone else's that loses out in a power struggle, since in my experience players are usually more concerned with moving their own tiles up than with which other tile is promoted with them or with which one loses out. However, if you are willing to accept such good and bad breaks and don't mind the inevitable dryness that comes with abstract games, Muscat will reward you with some interesting play.