I’ve always had somewhat of a love/hate relationship with area control games. I want to love them as they are so popular with the gamers that I play with but I get a frustrating lack of control feeling when I lose my controlled areas to my opponents. Granted, a lot of that is due to many of the games being really drawn out back and forth slug-fests where I seem to lose interest after the third or fourth hour. I know many people really love that kind of gaming and that’s perfectly OK, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

Here’s where AEG’s Tempest line comes in and puts the wind back into my area control sails. This game was such a pleasant surprise that it’s renewed my interest in area control/influence games. I can actually enjoy them and now realize that they don’t all need to be exhausting! But, I think I’m getting ahead of myself… let’s get on to the details of the game itself!

Courtier & Tempest
Chronologically, Courtier is the first of the first four Tempest city-state shared-world games which debuted at Essen Spiel 2012. For those unfamiliar with Tempest, it’s a fantastic new undertaking done by AEG where they’ve scripted and designed all of the back story, characters, character relationships, and art in a fictional city-state named Tempest. Game designers can then use all of this material and incorporate it into their games.

At present, Courtier is followed up by three other Tempest games which include Love Letter, Dominare, and Mercante. These four games are all set within that same shared-world and even share some characters. What happens to a character in one game can possibly affect their presence or abilities in another game. Very cool!

In its beginnings, Courtier started off as a game titled Henry the Great. Designer Philip duBarry wrote a four part BLOG regarding the design and evolution of the game. It’s really an interesting read and I encourage you to check it out at: http://www.alderac.com/tempest/2012/05/10/the-beginnings-of-intrigue/

With the help of AEG, Henry the Great was brought into the Tempest universe and transformed into Courtier as we see it today. Over that time it evolved into a fantastic mix of area control/influence, set collection, and hand management. What I particularly enjoy is that the area control is actually control/influence over people and NOT cities/counties/land/etc. So what does Courtier include?

The game contents include an instruction manual, the game board, influence markers in the form of wooden cubes (four player colors and white as a neutral color), and five types of cards (ability, fashion, power, influence, and petition).

The game board is divided into eight sections with each section being a particular coterie. Each coterie has one to five characters in it and each person has one to five control spaces on them for the placement of influence markers. The layout is nicely color coded, clean, and well done but it will still take most gamers a game or two before they get used to where everyone is located at on the board. A score track at the right of the board goes up to only 20 points… which seems insufficient, but it surprisingly is.

There are five different card types in the game. These include petition cards which you will resolve to get victory points, fashion cards which usually populate the board with neutral cubes after a player resolves a petition, coterie ability cards which you will take when you take control of a coterie, and finally the power and influence cards which you will use to place/move influence markers around the board as well as certain card actions like drawing cards.

Setup & Game Rules
The 12 page rulebook reads very well and starts off with a one page introductory story of the Prime Minister speaking with King Arnaud IV. The story helps set the theme for the game by calling into question some of the Queen’s actions.

The setup and game play is explained very well in the rulebook. There is even a FAQ section at the end of the rulebook and examples of play are spread out through several areas of the rulebook which helps better explain the rules. Four variants are also detailed at the end of the rulebook including a two player variant that has players play a third “ghost” player.

Setup is very quick as most of it involves shuffling the different card decks and placing them in their respective piles. You then reveal four petition cards, and one each of the power and influence cards. Each player begins the game with 15 influence markers in their pool, one hidden secret petition, and a hand of five cards.

To get their starting hand cards, the players carry out a quick bidding process. At first, I was a little put off when I heard that there was bidding at the start, but after I saw how quick and painless it was, I didn’t mind it at all. To start the bidding process, each player decides on a five card mix of influence/power cards. These cards are drawn from their decks and laid out on the table. Then, players bid on the hands with their influence cubes. If you win the bid for a particular hand, you lose your bid cubes to your reserve. If you get outbid, they go back to your pool. So, bidding big can hurt you by giving you less influence cubes at the start. The rules book recommends that for a first play people should skip the bidding process and just play the game after drawing three influence and two power cards. Either process works well in my experience.

The Goal
The goal of the game is quite simple… advance your position on the score track and complete petition cards to gain victory points. Keep on doing this until you encounter the fashion card (drawn after each completed petition) that has “The Queen is Arrested!” printed on it. As soon as you run in to this card, the game is immediately over and you tally up your victory points on the track and completed petitions.

The petition cards will have a number of people listed on them along with a victory point value. To complete a petition card, you must control all of the people listed on that card at the end of one of your turns. If you do, take the card and score it at the end of the game.

Game play
Game play is quite simple as you just carry out one of three actions in each of your turns: play a power or influence card from your hand and do what the card text instructs you to do, discard any/all of the cards in your hand, or take one influence marker from your reserve and put it in your pool.

After you take your one action you then have the option to complete a petition card then always refill your hand back to five cards by drawing from either the influence or power decks.

The card text on the power and influence cards will instruct you to do certain things such as placing influence markers on certain characters or within a particular coterie, have you move markers around, draw/discard cards, or gain influence markers from your reserve. I often found myself struggling with the decision of which card to play since I had to weigh which strategic goal I wanted to attain first. But, that’s part of the fun!

Placing influence markers on the board lets you battle it out for control of characters and coteries. If all the influence spaces on a character are filled and your markers are the majority, then you control that character. If you manage to resolve a petition card, you then also trigger the next fashion card which typically distributes neutral markers across the board.

The final thing that influence marker placement can get you is control of a coterie. This was a little confusing to me at first and I had to do a look up online to get this understood properly. The person with the most markers in a coterie takes control of that coterie and gains its ability and associated ability card. The rules spell it out fairly well, but for some reason I kept thinking that all the characters in a coterie needed to be filled up with markers. Well, they don’t need to be all filled to take control as just one lone marker in a coterie is sufficient to give control of a coterie to that marker’s owner. Having the abilities can be a nice advantage as they include things like extra points, placing extra cubes, and discarding a card each turn.

This game was such a pleasant surprise for me as was the fact that my wife Wendi loved it also. After having played Dominare at Gen Con 2012 and many many many games of Love Letter, I was definitely excited to play Courtier. Courtier combined AEG’s Tempest world with Philip duBarry’s design skills which seemed like a natural win… and it was!

Overall game play is smooth and moves very quickly. The only thing that somewhat slows down the game is when players start scanning the petition cards trying to sort out who has what and what they should go after. This may be an issue for people prone to analysis paralysis, but if they scan the petition cards when it’s NOT their turn, things can play out quicker during their actual turn. Also, using cards for the selection of influence marker placement really helps tone down the confrontational nature found in some area control games. Plus, this can also be another thing that can reduce AP since your placement is limited by the cards you have. Gamers that normally steer clear of area control games can find themselves actually having great fun with Courtier!

At the start of the game, the pace can be a little slow as players start distributing their influence markers across the board. As the board gets filled up after a few rounds, the action really picks up nicely and continues through to the end of the game. It’s really important that everyone keep track of what they control as it’s incredibly easy to miss out on a petition card because you didn’t notice you met its requirements or that you should have had that one ability for the last two turns. This does get easier after a play or two.

Wendi and I tested out the two player variant and initially came out with some mixed feelings of it. We first played without it to see how a two player game ran with just two players. It was fun but a little long since it takes longer to get control of the characters. Then we tried it with the two player rules. Playing with the “ghost” player, after their turn each player discards an influence card from the deck. If that card names a specific character, the “ghost” player places a marker on that character. Let me tell you, that “ghost” gets their markers out FAST! The “ghost” player also completes petitions and uses several of the abilities. Getting the other set of markers out definitely helps the flow of the game, but it’s a lot of work for each player to manage their game AND share the responsibility of the “ghost” player. In particular, the worst part is seeing if the petitions get resolved for the “ghost” player. We will surely play some more with this two player variant and I will provide an update on this. I’m sure that the two player “ghost” player management will get easier in subsequent plays.

AEG states that this game plays 2-4 people and plays in about 45 minutes. I would have to say that the first game will definitely be over an hour and then games after that will approach the 45 minute mark. Outside of the game play, one of the most amazing things about this game is that AEG has set an MSRP of $34.99 on this title. WOW! At the price this is a FANTASTIC deal for a great game like this and will be accessible to many people.

If you’re interested in trying the game out, AEG has released a Lite version of Courtier in print and play form. It’s a slightly scaled down version of the game but it seems like it would be close enough to the real deal to give you a representative play experience. If you absolutely can’t go out and just buy the game, then definitely do yourself a favor and try the Lite game.

I must say that I really enjoy this game a LOT. It’s easily one of my top favorite games of 2012 and my favorite game from the Tempest line. Well done Philip and AEG!!!

Enough of this writing, I think I’m going to have to end this here and go off to pester my wife to see if she’ll play yet another game of Courtier!