Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Games That Don't Suck: Guillotine

(For a list of games in this series, click here and scroll down.)

My feelings towards the game company Wizards of the Coast, now in its third decade of operations, have always been ambivalent.  On the one hand, the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering pumped a huge amount of money into the hobby-gaming industry in the 1990s; on the other hand, M:TG is less a hobby than an addiction, and Magic players rarely have time or money for other kinds of games. On the third hand, WotC revitalized the old Dungeons & Dragons game in the early 2000s, developing an edition that was more elegant and easier to learn than its predecessors; on the fourth hand (apparently, I have entrusted this assessment to an octopus), they then developed a new edition that eliminated the previous edition's open-source rules and turned it from a role-playing game into a pencil-and-paper war game. 

If one wishes to view WotC in a favorable light, one might do well to focus on some of the less profitable, but equally classic, board and card games that the company developed in the 1990s.  Robo-Rally is perhaps the most famous of these, but I must confess a fondness for a more obscure Wizards title, one whose owners find that it sees a lot of play: Guillotine. This small game's subject matter sounds grim: the players take the role of executioners during the French Revolution, collecting the heads of aristocrats and other political undesirables and earning points based on their victims' prestige. However, Guillotine's humorous approach and cartoonish illustrations show that it does not intend to simulate the Terror, merely to use it as the backdrop for light entertainment.     

Guillotine has relatively few components: a deck of Noble cards, a separate deck of Action cards, and a cardboard guillotine. The Noble cards represent generic characters from the cinematic French Revolutionary era in which the game is set: cardinals, tax collectors, aristocrats, generals, and the like. Only Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre represent historic individuals.  Each Noble has a number, superimposed on a small picture of a basket, representing its victory-point value. Many have special abilities when “collected,” such as allowing the player to collect another Noble or Action card or giving a point bonus in combination with other cards. Some, like the Tragic Hero, have a negative point value and serve as pitfalls in the game tableau. One type of Noble card, the Palace Guard, has a geometrically increasing value. Others have point values ranging from 1 to 5.

The Action deck contains the cards that players use to alter the playing field in their favor.  Most change the order of the line, allowing players to move more valuable Nobles to the front so they can collect their heads – I mean, cards – on their turn. Some Action cards give players extra victory points at the end of the game. These each player displays, along with his/her previously-collected Noble cards, face up. Some Action cards “attack” other players, stripping them of Nobles or Action cards or imposing point penalties.

Guillotine's set-up and turn structure are simple and easy to learn.  One player places 12 face-up Noble cards in an execution line, with the eponymous cardboard guillotine at the front of the line. Each player receives 5 Action cards. The starting player performs the following on his/her turn: 1) play an Action card, 2) take the Noble card at the front of the execution line, 3) draw another Action card.  Step 1 is optional, the others mandatory. After completing these three steps, the player's turn ends and play passes clockwise (check) around the group. When all Noble cards are gone the “Day” ends and the dealer places 12 more face-up Nobles in line. At the end of day 3 the players count their victory points, and give suitable prizes to the person with the largest total, like tiny tricolor flags or a plate of madeleines or a slap in the face with a kid-leather glove.

The game has much to offer both newcomers and experienced gamers. It is easy to learn, as the rules are very short and the components very simple. It is fast-paced – five players (the maximum) can finish an entire game in 7-8 rounds of play, or fewer if someone collects Robespierre or plays the Scarlet Pimpernel (each of which ends that particular Day). The variety of Action cards and the special bonuses and abilities of many of the Noble cards ensures that each game will be different, and provides the players with enough choices – should I end this game Day? Should I screw over this player? Should I play this particular bonus and risk someone destroying it with another Action card? - to keep experienced players happy. And despite the grim premise of Guillotine, it maintains a light-hearted, cinematic atmosphere, supported by the elegant but deliberately unrealistic illustrations on the cards and the amusing names assigned to some of them.  This is not Simon Schama's French Revolution, but rather the setting of Start the Revolution without Me and History of the World Part One.  And, yes, there is a Piss Boy, though regrettably no Action card titled “It's Good to Be the King.”

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