Designer: Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini
Artist: Arnaud Demaegd
Publisher: Cranio Creations
It’s nice to see that not only old wizened men do all the plotting (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)
Council of Four seems to be an odd duck amongst all the Tascini and Luciani designs. Among their joint designs I have played, Council of 4 is probably the simplest, no frills design that is more a blast from the past compared to their latest efforts. I knew this ahead of time and in fact, it was probably the reason why I hunted down a copy of the game as I do enjoy their creations. After my first few plays, it is pretty clear that the game really does live up to its reputation of belonging to the “original German game” genre. I mean even the theme itself is cliche Euro – building medieval emporiums in a series of color-coded cities connected by roads and scoring points. It doesn’t get more plain vanilla as that. But for those of us who enjoy simple and interactive games despite the theme, Council of 4 is a pretty decent cube/meeple pusher that have shades of JASE (just another standard Euro) and some quirky scoring, but is nonetheless worth a look. Overall, it is one of those games that you play and try it out before deciding if it is worth adding to the collection.
To start, there are no individual player boards or tableau building in the game. All the action happens in the shared central board where players place their emporiums to occupy cities for scoring. The board itself is divided into three individual, two-sided sections that can be pieced together in any combination to provide some variety in the lay out. In the end, you will have a combined board that feature towns in the coast, hill and mountain regions, with each region having 5-6 cities. Points are scored as per usual: you can place your emporiums in similar-colored cities spread across the board or concentrate on placing all of them in one of the three regions. Cities are not exclusive. All players can build a single emporium per city. There is a first-come first-serve race here where only the first player to complete the requirements pick up the scoring tokens. Not all colors are equal with some colors having fewer cities than others. Naturally, if you go for fewer cities, the set collection will give you fewer points. However, this is offset by bonus points awarded by the king and these points are a whopper and is independent of scoring criteria. You just need to score something for set collection – either by region or color – to collect the highest scoring token from the king and there are a limited number of bonus tokens that declines precipitously in value. Now, there are other ways to score points during the game, but I’d argue that the set collection scoring is what powers a player across the finish line to win the game. The race for points can be brutal, and punishing. I will come back to scoring in the wrap up below.
Perhaps the more unique aspect of the game is how councilors are being “pushed” around to obtain emporium-building permits. In each region of the board, including another one for the king, there are 4 councilors per region standing in a row on their pedestal. These councilors come in different colors that correspond with a hand of cards you will hold and play. In order to obtain permits to build an emporium in specific region, one must convince all 4 councilors either by influencing them with the right “color” of cards at hand, coins or a combination of both. If you have a suit of all 4 cards of the right color, then you can pick up a permit for “free”. If you don’t have the right color card, or have only a subset, you can pay off the councilors with money to make up the shortfall. Councilors can be kicked out of office as one of your actions each turn can be to replace the councilor that is sitting at the end of the bench (presumably, the most senior?). So, a combination of card play and bribery will eventually land you the permit tiles. Now, permits are not free-for-all ticket to build anywhere on the board. The permits are not interchangeable between region , with some permits specific for only certain city or cities. Each permit also comes with some ancillary benefits when you purchase them, such as points, money or assistants to help smooth over the burning hole in your pocket when you pay for them.
In some ways, while set collection of cities will score points, another equally crucial aspect of the game is building a connected network of emporiums linked by roads . Each time you place an emporium, minor benefits from the city will trigger – a coin here, a point there, that sort of thing. However, the benefit will trigger in all your connected cities each time an emporium is added to the network. As you can imagine, the bonuses will snowball, especially late in the game if your cities are well-connected. Your challenge is therefore to do set collection in a way that links all your emporiums in a network to maximize benefits.
Besides coin, there is another form of currency in the game in the form of assistants which are needed for emporium building. As the first person to establish a trading post, you pay 1 assistant. That cost escalates for a late-comer as you pay an additional assistant for each pre-existing emporium already constructed by other players. It can get expensive very quickly and part of the decision space is weighing whether the sacrifice for resource gathering, be it coin, permits or assistants, is worthwhile for a heavily contested city.
Now, I haven’t gone through all the mechanisms of the game. For example, there is also a wandering king that can also help establish emporiums without the need for a permit. But you need to pay the king to move from city to city. It essentially allows a player to substitute the permit with money. It is a viable route for a person that can generate a consistent source of income throughout the game – primarily from the networked emporiums- as money is tight. In addition, there is a separate benefit/points nobility track where players get to move up their pawns. This track feels very detached from the game and I don’t think it is necessarily needed or well-integrated in the game? Moving up on the track scores only a marginal number of end-game points relatively to other bonuses. It is just another minor way to earn points and cannot stand alone as a major strategy for winning the game, I don’t think.
Council of 4 imposes a pretty strong race element by placing emphasis on the bonus tokens. Rightfully or wrongfully, these tokens score a huge amount of points – more so than the points one gets from set collection of cities. The impression one has at the start of the game is “wow, I really need to be the first or second player to grab the bonus tokens”. That means, the set collection for the fewest number of cities quickly becomes a central focal point for many players. Since there can only be one winner per set collection category, that means the loser has a lot to….lose. Thus far, with our low player count games, one can clearly steer clear and compete for other set collection categories, thus avoiding costly conflict. This also means that the start player can send a clear signal of their intentions to score specific categories, which acts as a deterrence to other players to pursue the same path, assuming that they can get the right building permits. I suspect if you play with 4 players, there will be some frustrations as presumably some players may be left out of the set collection bonuses by failing to get the right permits or resources at the right time. If you lose a race, it will be hard to pivot to other categories that are being contested by other players since they will have a huge head start. I am also not sure if the other ancillary scoring mechanisms will be enough to make up for this shortfall. For instance, you score points through network building, but can you do it enough to offset the loss in points for not competing in set collection scoring? I believe one has to be competitive on both ends to win. Does this make the game bad? No. But, it may turn off a subset of gamers who dislike this type of race where only the winner walks away with the prize, while the others are left hanging. On the other hand, this is the type of interactive Euro that some gamers crave for.
While the meeple pushing of councilors may tickle someone’s fancy, it is the scoring matrix that intrigues me most. At the outset of my first game, I was taken aback by the rules and had to read it a couple of times to make sure I had it right. It was counter-intuitive and I suppose, quite novel. Usually, the bonus tokens provide….well, bonus points that are usually a fraction of winning the main prize. By flipping the script, the designers presumably wanted to emphasize the race element of the game as a source of in-game tension. Well, they succeeded. The game is tight and challenging because of that small tweak in the game. As a result of this tweak, the decision space also becomes more “angsty” as there is a constant struggle between allocating resources for building an emporium in a far flung city just for set collection, or to slowly extend the network in order to trigger the cascading benefits at each opportunity.
The game ends when one player builds all 10 emporiums allotted at the start. The game does have a distinct change in pace as soon as one completes one or two scoring objectives and there is not enough time or emporiums to finish another. In a way, it can feel anti-climactic and even drawn out as one tries to plug the remaining emporiums on the board to end the game. It drags a little toward the end and surprisingly, the number of emporiums doesn’t scale with player counts.
All told, Council of 4 is one of those games I enjoy playing, but truthfully, more so if I can win consistently. That’s because the race element is brutal and unforgiving, even with 2 players, it can color your opinion on how luck plays a role in the game. For example, permit tiles for certain cities will be randomly revealed from the main deck and thus, a lucky competitor may be able to scoop it up to lay claim to a city you have been waiting for patiently. There are ways to mitigate this, but none that can happen without sacrificing resources or turns to make it happen. Even a few plays in, the knife fights to get resources early and quick is intense and having the right permits appear at the opportune moment makes a difference.
My love for wooden bits have made me wait out for a copy of the original publication from Cranio Creations. The subsequent retheme by CMON sees a ton of miniatures super-imposed on a fantastical setting – all of which I try to avoid if at all possible. The game itself is good enough that you should play whichever copy you can get a hold of. For me, I am still trying to stick to the wooden cubes and cardboard chits from the good old days.
Council of 4 uses solid, time-tested mechanisms pasted on a well-worn theme. Nevertheless, the scoring twists provide enough intrigue to make the game interesting. It will also make or break the game for some players. Let the buyer beware, I suppose.