The Prince: The Struggle of House Borgia
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In Southern and Western Europe, 1475 1550 was a period of Renaissance, a new cultural and social movement inspired by the Classical Era. Italy was in turmoil, and rivaling city states, controlled by influential families, vied for power. Some well-known names of that period are: de Medici, della Rovere, Colonna, Orsini, and the most infamous of them all: the originally Spanish House of Borgia.
The Florentine statesman Niccol Machiavelli (1469 1527) served as a diplomat under Cesare Borgia, and saw from up close the devilish methods with which this ruler expanded his wealth and power. Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander I, has been named 'the best incarnation of the devil on earth'. Based on his experiences with the Borgias he wrote his controversial Il Principe, stating that objectionable methods like corruption and murder are acceptable if it is in the interest of the ruler.
Borgia is a colorful cardgame, in which the players represent one of the great, powerful Italian families in Renaissance Italy. Making the best of available resources, and using the political influence of your family, you pave the way for your ultimate goal, which will guarantee your family fame, wealth and even more power: the Papacy. The road to becoming Pope is long and difficult: you will need to connive with other families, gain fame by becoming patron of remarkable artists, gain Papal offices, strongholds in the patrimony of St. Peter, and vast sums of money, mind your military power, and jostle for position and political leverage until the time comes for the elector cardinals to retreat into their enclave and cast their votes for a new Pope.
Four of us get together to play games incessantly. We have well over 50 different games and we've played them all. Our all-time favorite has been 'Overthrown' (GET IT!) along with Settlers of Catan and Samurai, but we'd all have to say that The Prince: The Struggle of House Borgia is our new favorite!
With each player representing an influential family in Venice, you compete to earn the most victory points in three rounds.
You start with 4 cardinals (voting power) and one holding/city to protect your starting assetts. In each city you can attach one political office, one famous artist and one outside family.
Each type of card offers different benefits:
City - Defensive value, Income and victory points
Office - Income and votes
Artist - victory points
Outside Family - Defensive value
Luck plays no part in this game. On each of the three rounds, there are 12 face down cards. Instead of drawing a card on each player's turn, they turn over a card and each player bids money to take it. When only two bidders remain, special deals and trades are frequently negotiated.
The 12 cards consist of the cards mentioned above plus mercenary cards and special cards which can be used to seize other players' holdings and assets (or defend your own). Negotiations frequently occur during a seizure as well.
At the end of each round, you collect income and victory points based on your cities, artists and offices. Then the players vote to elect one of the players as Pope using the votes from their cardinals and offices. The Pope receives 10 victory points and assigns new cardinals to players of his choice.
What makes the game interesting is that the game forces players to negotiate and barter. Money is always tight and players rarely have but a couple cards in their hand. Alliances, truces, trading of assets and trading of votes are very real assets in the game. Negotiations become very creative and instrumental in winning the game.
Much like rock, paper, scissors, all of the elements of the game are very balanced and influence one another. If a player is strong in one aspect, their equally weak in another.
Also by design, the games tend to be very close (i.e. no obvious winner half way through). If someone becomes too powerful, alliances form to balance the power. Typically, the last election for a pope is instrumental in winning the game and each player's voting power has been previously influenced by multiple trades and promises.
I highly recommend this game!
The Berg/Borg collective consists of Richard, Richard, Alexander and Seven of Nine. The first two are not to be confused, though that didn't stop me doing it last issue and such lapses are why the first uses the third as a nom de plume when publishing games in Europe. Seven of Nine is the one in the catsuit.
Having cleared that up, the next thing to sort out is the simultaneous appearance of two games about Renaissance Italy, both of which have included the word ``Prince'' in the title. Fortunately, that sentence just about covers the sum total of the overlap, for not only are the two games very different in terms of mechanics, they even approach the subject matter from differing standpoints. The Warfrog game focuses on the Condottieri families for whom the ambitions of the city states such as Venice, Florence and Milan represented opportunities for financial gain; with this one it is the political rulers of those states who take centre stage as they struggle for power, prestige and the papacy.
``The Prince'' (or ``Borgia'' as it is known in German, and please don't ask me why English speakers were felt to be incapable of handling that as a title) has a very simple structure, the sort of outline that any of us could have come up with, though it is unlikely that we'd then have done as good a job of turning outline sketch into finished product. Everything is done using a single deck of cards. Some of these represent assets and are displayed on the table in front of you. Their most important function is to bring you income and victory points. The others are attack/defence cards. These are held in hand and are used to steal or destroy other players' assets and to defend your own.
The game goes through three cycles, at the end of each of which there will be a papal election. At the start of the game players are dealt a small hand of cards and they will be given a further free one at the start of cycles 2 and 3. Any other cards they acquire will have to be bought. The procedure here is that at the start of each cycle 10-12 cards are placed face down in the middle of the table and each player turn will see the acquisition of one of them. The cycle ends when all have been taken.
If a player holds a ``Spy'' card and wishes to use it in this way, he can, as his first action on his turn, discard it and draw one of the cards from the centre. The only payment in this case is the Spy card. Otherwise the player will turn over one of the central cards and it will be auctioned. This done, the player has two optional actions. One is to play cards from his hand and the other is to attempt to ``seize'' assets from another player. He can only make one seizure attempt per turn.
Assets come in the form of artists, cities, papal offices and outside families and whenever you buy or are given such a card you must display it on the table in front of you. Artists bring you victory points; cities both victory points and income; papal offices both income and votes; and outside families defensive troops. Cities also give you such troops and for this reason it is helpful if you can group your cards together into ``holdings'', which consist of one city and at most one of each of the three types of asset. Doing this enables them to defend as a group against seizure attempts.
The main cards that are likely to appear in the ``play cards'' phase are ``marriages'' and ``deaths''. A marriage card is played against another player and as long as it remains, neither party can attack the other. The death cards are used to wipe out artists, offices and unwanted spouses. (In the case of offices it is, of course, really the office holder that dies rather than the office, but the effect is the same: the player loses the card.)
A seizure attempt can be made either against a lone card that is outside a holding or against a holding and all its contents. Either way the target is named and the two players can, secretly and simultaneously, play condottieri cards. In the case of the defence their values are added to any intrinsic defensive strengths possessed by the target card or holding. No dice are involved; it is just a straight comparison of total strengths. If the attacker wins, he takes possession; if the defender does, there is no change. Either way the condottieri collect their fees and depart.
The cycle closes with a distribution of income, the election of a new pope and the collection of victory points. Income comes from your cities and papal offices; victory points from your cities, artists and current treasury, with a bonus allocation if you are the new pope.
The papal election is conducted in one or more rounds. The first ballot is secret and simultaneous voting; the later ones are public and open to negotiation. Votes come from papal offices and from cardinals. You each start the game with four of the latter and others will have been handed out by each new pope. The main advantage of becoming pope lies in the victory points, which are on a par with ownership of a major artist. Lesser ones are the ability to hand out new cardinals (including to yourself) and the right to distribute papal offices currently held by other players. The drawbacks are that you must begin your reign by divesting yourself of any papal offices that you hold and also become vulnerable to a couple of cards - Savonarola and Accusation of Simony - which can restrict your activities in the next cycle.
Despite what I said at the start it is inevitable that this game will be compared with the Warfrog one. It shouldn't be, because in the final analysis it is a game's mechanics that decide whether or not it is enjoyable and the two games have very different systems. However, the shared theme and the simultaneous publication means that in most people's eyes they will be seen as going head to head. In such a comparison this game loses. Both are gamers' games, the playing times are not dissimilar and both have clean and unfussy rule sets which make them easy to learn, but the Warfrog game is more innovative and has greater strategic depth and variety. However, saying that does not damn the Phalanx one either in absolute terms or even with faint praise, for practically every other game published this year would fail the comparison on exactly the same grounds. Viewed on its own merits The Prince is a good game, flavoursome and attractively produced. As is the case with all card games, having the right card at the right time can have a critical effect, but the fact that in this one most of the cards you hold are cards that you have bought in open competition means that there is much less unfairness than is usually the case. Richard Berg's background is in wargames and although he has been moving towards a more ``German'' style in his recent designs, the results have tended to be ``German-style games for wargamers'' rather than ``games for Counter readers''. This one is aimed at us and it hits the mark. If the idea of a game which is fairly simple and yet which features some real history appeals to you, it is worth checking out. I enjoyed it.