Courtier is the first of the four Tempest games launched at Essen 2012 (see our audio look at the shared world of Tempest here). In Courtier, each player represents a behind-the-scenes power broker who seeks to influence the courtiers of Tempest (a Venice-like city-state) into granting the right favors to the right people. Influence is disbursed in area-control fashion by playing cards to either add influence, or to move it around later. The game lasts until 7-13 petitions have been granted, at which point the Queen is arrested and everyone tallies up their victory points. Courtier retails for about $35.
The Quick Take: The Tempest line launched with three good games; Courtier is the odd man out. Turns tend to feel small and unexciting. Only getting to play one card a turn was frustrating and really constrained your options. Petitions were so quick to complete that we didn’t feel like the coterie abilities came into play much (except for being the one in control of the Senate at the end of the game). The game feels like it should be more strategic than it is, and is too random. Or maybe it feels like it should be lighter than it is, and is too much like a think-y game. Point is, the mechanics may have worked on their own, but combined together it was an unsatisfying experience. Not bad, but not exciting.
Courtier is a game of Victory Points, and the primary way of scoring VP is by completing Petitions. Each Petition lists from 2-4 courtiers, and is worth 5-16VP. If, at the end of your turn, you control each of the courtiers listed on a Petition, you can score that Petition, which wipes all of the influence off those courtiers and advances the game clock. You can also score VP from controlling two of the coteries, or groups of courtiers – the Senate hands out 10VP (a large chunk) to whoever controls it at the end of the game, and the Culture coterie hands out 1VP per turn.
The game ends after a semi-random number of petitions are completed.
The game board in Courtier depicts about 25 courtiers grouped in 8 coteries, with 1-5 courtiers per coterie. Each courtier has 1-4 empty spots for influence cubes. Whoever has the most influence cubes on a particular courtier controls that courtier. Whoever has the most influence cubes spread across a coterie controls that coterie (regardless of whether or not they control any of the courtiers).
Controlling a courtier is, as noted above, necessary for scoring petitions. Controlling a coterie grants a special ability – the Royal Family makes your influence elsewhere immune to manipulation, the Commerce coterie lets you place influence for free, the Atheneum coterie lets you cycle through cards faster, and so forth. Each coterie has a card to give out to the player who controls it, that has the coterie ability printed on it.
Players act only through playing cards from hand, and the Coterie abilities. There are two decks of cards, and whenever a player draws a card, he or she can pick which kind of card to draw. Additionally, there will be one face-up card of each type available, and players can permanently lose influence from their pool to take the face-up card instead of a random draw. Influence cards (gasp!) place influence on the board, while Power cards tend to manipulate influence that is already there.
Influence cards are universally “place one influence on X,” where X is either a specific courtier, a courtier of your choice within a specific coterie, or any courtier on the board. Notably, any time that an influence marker is placed (unless the effect specifically says otherwise), it can bump off existing influence markers if the courtier’s influence boxes are full.
Power cards have more varied effects – some can be discarded to count as a particular kind of courtier when completing a petition, others swap influence markers, move them, or add neutral influence. Especially handy are power cards that let you follow up with an influence card, as this is the only way to play two cards in a turn.
Being able to play multiple cards in a turn (or even being able to discard cards) is handy because players start the game with five cards in hand and fill up to five cards in hand at the end of each turn (players also have the option to throw away their existing hand instead of placing influence).
After taking the action for the turn, a player may complete one Petition. Each player has a secret petition that only he or she has access to, and then there are five public petitions that anyone can complete. Whenever a petition is completed, all influence is wiped off of the courtiers involved in the petition (whether that influence belongs to the completing player or not), and then an event card is drawn. Event cards generally add neutral influence onto one coterie, and often give each player more influence for their influence pools.
On the box Courtier says that it plays 2-4 players and takes about 45 minutes to play. That matched our experience (note that, as if often the case for us, this review is based only on 3+ player plays, so I can’t speak to how Courtier changes with only 2 players). More players shouldn’t affect the game time too much, as the game end is based on number petitions completed, not number of turns. Component quality was high, and the art in the Tempest line is excellent.
I can’t pinpoint anything specifically wrong with Courtier, but it fell flat for me (the rest of the group liked it better than I did, but no one was enthusiastic). (Mostly) only getting to drop one card/influence a turn and (mostly) having to rely on the luck of the deck felt very restrictive. That certainly isn’t a problem in a vacuum (we liked Love Letter, and that’s literally just play a card a turn), but Courtier feels like a more strategic setup then that. It wasn’t a game where you could just fling your cards around and let loose, but instead required some real consideration. So instead of ending up with a strategic area control game or a light, luck-based game, it just ended up an unsatisfying mixture.
The game also felt like it had a little too much fiddling going on for not enough effect. Most of the event cards fill up a coterie with neutral influence, but this doesn’t have a big effect on the game. There’s the one face-up card available to pick up from each deck (at a cost of losing influence from your pool), which sort-of mitigates luck, but it seemed like you either had a great one face-up, in which case it would be a no-brainer to pick it up, or else it was just some random thing and it got left there until flushed when a new event hit. Part of the reason it felt like a no-brainer to pick them up because we never came close to running out our influence pools. So all of those mechanics felt like they weren’t carrying their weight. Kind of like above, it’s not that more fiddly or less fiddly is inherently bad, but it’s a question of how it fits into a particular game, and it didn’t seem like a great fit here.
In sum, although the Tempest line launched with three good-to-great games (Dominare, Love Letter, and Mercante), Courtier does not live up to its line-mates. Caught somewhere unsatisfying between light and thoughtful, Courtier isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have anything that makes me want to rush out and play it again (for a contrary view, you can check out this review).
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.