Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
Ohne Furcht und Adel
Thanks to a prototype’s presence at the 1999 Gathering of Friends, there was a lot of early buzz about Citadels. I never even saw the prototype, but the Gathering crowd is a hard one to impress en masse. The level of praise Citadels generated put it front and center on my radar. Hans im Glück released the German edition under the more cumbersome title of Ohne Furcht und Adel, a pun of a German idiom which doesn’t survive the translation.
Players race to play eight buildings in front of themselves. Each building carries a cost in gold which doubles as its point value at the end of the game. Each building belongs to one of five possible color groups, and any player with one of each color in his city earns a bonus at the end of the game. On each turn a player can draw two cards (discarding one) [note: the official rule in the 2nd edition allows a player to discard any card from his hand, not necessarily one of the two just drawn] or two gold, but not both, and can play only one building.
If that’s all there was to the game, it would just be a matter of who drew the best cards. The real heart of the game comes from its character drafting system. Every turn players assume one of eight possible personalities and their corresponding special abilities. Depending on the number of players in the game, one or more of them are discarded up front— some face down, others face up. Players are never sure which characters are in play. The old king secretly chooses one of the remaining characters and passes the rest clockwise. This process continues until the last player is left with a choice of two characters and discards (face down) the one he doesn’t want.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably played Verräter. So did OfuA designer Bruno Faidutti. He had most of his game figured out, but didn’t know how to distribute the characters. Then he played Verrater, which uses an identical drafting system to distribute its special characters. So Bruno borrowed the idea and used it to even better effect, utilizing characters with more disparate and interesting special abilities and a less fiddly framework for the rest of the game.
Each character bears a number representing its position in the turn order. Characters remain secret until it comes up in the turn order, at which point its player reveals himself and takes his turn. If nobody steps forward, the character is not in play that turn and the game moves on.
Secrecy is important because of the abilities of the first two characters. The assassin kills the character of his choice, but that choice must be made without knowing who’s who. If a player’s character is killed, he doesn’t get a turn. Missing one’s turn is one of the worst things that can happen in any game, and although I dislike it as a game mechanism it works effectively here. That doesn’t mean it’s any less painful to be the assassin’s victim. Quite the contrary, it’s often even worse here because of the tendency to get hit by a stray arrow.
The assassin usually tries to target a particular player, picking the character he thinks that player is most likely to have chosen. The assassin’s chance of hitting his intended target depends on where the assassin sat in the drafting process. If he was second to last, for example, he knows both of the characters the last player could have picked and so has a 50% chance of success. If he sat at the front of the line he can only make an educated guess about what characters wound up where. When that guess is wrong, someone else pays the price. Losing one’s turn that way is particularly painful, but everyone knows a loaded crossbow may be out there. A big part of the strategy in the character draft is avoiding the assassin’s crosshairs. That’s what makes the turn-losing element tolerable here— it’s an ongoing threat that all players must remain aware of and compensate for. If it really bugs you, consider playing with a variant in which an assassinated player still gets a turn, but can’t use his character’s abilities.
The assassin’s special power is an odd one in that it benefits all surviving players equally, conferring no particular advantage to the assassin himself (other than the peace of mind of knowing he couldn’t be the victim). The assassin’s advantage lies in going first in the turn order, before any other abilities can interfere with him. This winds up being a beautiful bit of design balance. Since its abilities are less advantageous than most other characters, the assassin often doesn’t get chosen (and therefore nobody loses a turn).
Second is the thief, who steals all gold from any character other than the assassin. The threat of thievery is often why a player chooses to take the thief or assassin himself. The thief discourages players from hoarding gold, making it difficult and dangerous to try to erect more costly (and therefore more valuable) buildings. Since the thief steals from a character, he doesn’t get his gold until that character takes his turn. So the thief can’t spend it until his next turn— when he might find himself the victim of the next thief!
Nothing is safe in this game. The assassin can deprive you of a turn. The thief can get your cash. The third character, the magician, can get your cards. The mage can exchange two of his own cards for new ones from the deck, or he can outright swap hands with someone else. Unlike the thief and assassin, the mage picks a player to trade with so he never misses. And it’s a bummer to trade hands with a mage who’s got no cards of his own. The mage may be the weakest of the characters. His ability is not one you’ll want to use often, partly because a rule prohibiting two identical buildings from being built in the same city was dropped between the French and German editions. This is a subtle but important rule which makes the magician more useful and is recommended.
Fourth is the king. The king chooses first in the next character draft and collects an extra gold for each yellow building in his city. Owners of the first edition should adopt the 2nd edition rule in which the crown changes hands even if the king is assassinated. The player to the king’s right always gets the dregs in the card draft, and it really stinks to be in that position if the king keeps getting killed and doesn’t move.
To appreciate the fifth character you’ve got to know about the eighth— the soldier. He gets an extra gold for each red building in his city. He can also destroy the building of his choice by paying one less than its construction cost. This aspect of the soldier, like the assassin, doesn’t directly help the soldier more than the other non-targeted players. In practice, therefore, he usually only burns down buildings with a cost of 1, which are free to destroy. The soldier is usually passed over in the early game, but becomes very important in the late game when red buildings are in play and players are closing in on their eighth building.
The fifth character, the priest, cannot be targeted by the soldier. He also collects an extra gold for each blue building in his city. Like the soldier, the priest comes into his power in the end game. His immunity makes him very attractive to someone with a big city or cheap buildings which might draw the soldier’s attention. And if some of those buildings are blue, so much the better.
The merchant is the flipside of that coin. He gets an extra gold with his normal income, plus a bonus of a gold for each green building in his city. The merchant is very strong and attractive from the get-go— so much so that he’s often marked for death, and paradoxically is often passed over for fear of the assassin.
The architect is another favorite choice throughout the game. Early on, the two extra cards he draws and keeps each turn are a powerful lure. Later, his ability to build three buildings in a single turn instead of just one make him the ideal vehicle for a Cinderella story— and an ideal assassination target for players who fear such a move.
So many good choices. So hard to pick just one. So delicious to get away with picking the one you really want. And that’s really what the game’s all about. Erecting buildings, scoring points— that’s all secondary. The real tension, the factor that keeps players coming back for more, comes from the Russian roulette of the card draft, the shuffle of goblets with Vizini. Is the assassin in play? Who picked him? Is that player going to try to target me? If so, what will he guess I’m going to pick? If not, who will he target instead, and what character do I need to avoid to duck the bullet? Clearly I cannot choose the wine in front of me…
The drawback to the draft is that while one player mulls over his decision, everyone else has nothing to do. This will bother some groups more than others, particularly those with slow players who take a long time to make up their minds. You can make a tentative choice before the cards get passed to you, but even if that choice is still in the pack you’ll often reassess based on the ramifications of which cards are missing. The glass-half-full crowd will enjoy the increased opportunity for chit-chat.
The artwork on the cards is uniformly gorgeous, and there’s very little German to worry about— fewer than a dozen cards have important text on them, and a small reference sheet available at BoardGameGeek easily takes care of those, as well as providing a handy guide to the character abilities (which you quickly learn by heart). The fate of an English edition is up in the air, the rights mired with a company that doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Purists who insist on English may have to wait even longer than they did for Tigris & Euphrates.
Faidutti has a penchant for designing chaotic games emphasizing unexpected events and bizarre side effects over strategic thinking and planning. Ohne Furcht und Adel is a happy departure. He still packed a set of rule-breaking abilities into the game, but attached them to a strategic rather than randomized mechanism. The result creates a new drama every turn while preserving the element of the unexpected Faidutti so relishes. A crowd-pleasing nominee for Spiel des Jahres this year, Ohne Furcht und Adel deserved its spot in the top three and is highly recommended.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)