As we build up to the announcement of my GAME OF THE YEAR 2013, I think it's worth taking time out to think about games that get lost in the mix. By “the mix” I mean the mix of hype and excitement and drama that coincides with all these new releases and such. I don't think this column is of any use at all if I don't occasionally point you in the direction of good games that I think have been forgotten. And the one we're talking about today has been forgotten, for sure. It seems that it isn't very popular at all, and I'm not sure why. Well, I kinda am sure why.
It's Cadwallon: City of Thieves.
Simplicity was a dirty word in board gaming for a while there, and Cadwallon: City of Thieves was launched smack bang in the middle of a period of growing game complexity. While people were trying to wrap their heads around giant board games with 40 page rulebooks, City of Thieves was stepping out with rules that can be explained in two minutes. People called it boring. Not enough going on, they said. I really don't agree at all.
2-4 players take control of a team of four thieves. All these thieves have exactly the same attributes. They can all move up to 4 spaces. They all roll two dice in combat. They all have a “Mind” rating of 4. The only difference between these characters is their special ability. One might offer a re-roll. One might offer a teleport ability. Otherwise, every character is the same. Is this a negative, as some have suggested? No. Because this game is all about Action Points and positioning.
The board is a city, and your thieves have to move around the city, stealing shit from houses. Each team has 7 action points every round, and you can spread those points across your team however you like. It costs one point to move a character. It costs one point to roll a die in an attempt to pick a lock and steal some treasure. It costs two points to bust open a chest by force, taking what's inside. It sometimes costs a point to activate a special ability. And it costs a point to attack another player.
Yeah – your characters can attack characters on opposing teams, and the winner of the combat gets to steal a treasure from the opponent. Each thief has a carrying limit of three. Grab the treasure you want, then try to get out of the city with it. Which is easier said than done.
Just over halfway through each game, the city alarm sounds, and gates start to close. Players take turns placing gates at the edge of the board, blocking exits. By doing this, you try to make it more difficult for the other teams to escape with their loot. At this point, you also start to think about positioning your own characters to either ESCAPE or BLOCK. An opponent character has a valuable set of scrolls? Send one of your thieves to harass them, blocking them from an exit. Move the city militia men (which players can do at the start of every turn) to cover all the angles of escape.
That's pretty much the game. Combat is easy – each character rolls two dice, highest single die wins. Cards can be played to lend characters combat boosts and special abilities. Missions can be turned in during the game – cards will show which items are mission items, and if you have any of them in your possession, you can spend three action points to claim a bonus. It's an extra little set collection aspect that sees you balancing a high action point spend with an instant payout.
There are eight different scenarios in the game, too. One puts a treasury on the board that constantly spews out coins for thieves, but can lead to an instant arrest on a bad roll. One puts an NPC assassin on the board who leaps around, causing chaos. One has zombies rising to attack the thieves. One turns the game into a hostage rescue session.
Not much going on? Really?
I thing Cadwallon: City of Thieves is a great, fun game. It looks beautiful, of course. Even those who don't like the game will admit that. But I don't see any problem with how simple and streamlined the game is. Sure, there are elements of randomness, with all the dice-rolling in combat. But the game is very much a risk-reward type of thing. Whenever you reach for a die, you might get fucked over. SO DON'T REACH FOR THE DIE UNLESS YOU ARE COOL WITH BEING FUCKED OVER.
There are some nice decisions to be made, in every scenario.
What items do I steal? (Go for the mission items early? Collect sets? Grab the chests that make you roll at game's end for the payout?)
Where do I spend my Action Points? (Play safe? Pay the two to bash the chests open? Or pay one and make the roll? Do you have time to play safe?)
When do I leave? (Your character has three treasures. Do you hang around the city, waiting for missions to turn in? Do you leave early, banking those items?)
Which character do I sacrifice, if any? (Should you use a thief as a blocker? Should you go on the offensive? Or just grab that ruby and leave?)
This is without taking into consideration any of the additional decisions thrown up by the different scenarios. (Do I send a thief to kill the assassin? Big payout if I win, but my character is dead if I fail.)
Sometimes there are games that are simple and pretty and fun, and they get dismissed because of that. They don't have any revolutionary new mechanics or amazing gimmicks. There are no big cogs you can turn (Tzolk'in) or fancy movement templates (X-Wing). There's just some beautiful miniatures, a beautiful board, some dice and some really clean rules. There's always something to be said for a game that doesn't force you to re-read a rulebook for an hour every time you pull it out. In City of Thieves you can have your favourite characters, your favourite scenarios, and just fling them all on the table so you can duke it out for an hour.
It wouldn't be the game of the year any year, but it's the kind of game I'll always have room for in my collection. The point of this column isn't just to shout about the shiny new brilliant stuff. It's also to say “Check it out” about stuff you might have missed.
Check it out.
PS. I think there's maybe an iPad version. Dunno. Just noticed some screenshots online. It's never as good as the cardboard, though. Really.