A Review of the Classics – Citadels, and Why Game Progression is Important

Citadels is a game that is designed by Bruno Faidutti in 2000. The game received an expansion called ‘Dark City’, which adds more characters and buildings. Then, a new edition came out in 2016, which includes more characters and more buildings, in addition to the original and ‘Dark City’ characters.

In this review, I will only focus on the original characters of the game, and more importantly, why the game has serious flaws that stops the “classic version” from becoming a true classic, if we look at it from the modern lenses of 2019.

Citadels has a very simple premise and flow. The game is all about selecting characters and build buildings until a player has built 7. Once someone built 7, the game will end at the end of that current round, even if that player lost one of their 7 buildings.

During a game of Citadels, each players – starting with the start player – will select a character from a hand of cards secretly and then pass it to the next player to the left. This continues until all players have their own secret characters. The turn order is now based on the rank of each character; #1 goes first, then #2, and so on and so forth. Each player’s turn is then decided between taking 2 coins or picking 2 cards, but you only keep 1 card. Then, the player can use the character’s special ability and build a building.

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The cost of building a building card from your hand is in the card itself. If the cost on the card is 4, then the player has to pay 4 coins to build it. And, by building it, the player gains the amount of points based on how much it cost. Yes. That is correct: the number of coins on the card is both the cost of building it, and also the points that you will earn. In essence, Citadels is a game about accumulating “potential points” every turn, and building cards are a means to “bank” your points. The more coins you accumulate in a turn, the more points you can potentially “bank”.

However, there are twist to this game which prevents it from being just a simplistic boring efficiency “European” style game. There are 3 characters that can thwart the efficient plans of your friends: the Assassin, who kills characters; the Thief, who steals from them; and the Warlord, who can destroy buildings. Let’s start with the Assassin…

During the Assassin’s turn, the player will select a character to assassinate, not a player, and whichever player selected that character will essentially lose their turn to play. This prevents players from taking the most obvious and optimal choice – e.g. selecting the Merchant, if you have several trading districts, which would amplifies the Merchant’s special ability. However, the Assassin, in effect, inflicts a “skip a turn” towards their victim that slows down the progress of the game.

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Now, I will make a quick sideline here to talk about game progression. The game’s progress is a subtle element of a game’s design. The expectations of each player can be set by giving them an idea on how long the game will take (e.g. 4 rounds or if someone scores 8 points), giving them an idea on where the start, middle, and finish are, when playing. What is dangerous here, if not executed well, is if the players can easily and arbitrarily extend or shorten the duration of the game – therefore, spoiling the game’s progression and ruins the players’ experience.

Some games can change the duration of the game in the middle. But, if this is a set procedure, then it can be expected from the start, at least. But this is where Citadels’ mighty walls shows its cracks. By assassinating a character, the game, not only depriving a victim of any agency (and fun) during the round, the game also deprive the victim of gaining coins (which can transform into points) and buildings – which delays the progression of the game. A player losing 1 turn by the assassin’s blade doesn’t sound much, but if you extrapolate this with one player losing a turn pretty much every round will contribute to the slowness of the game’s progress to finish. Even if a game of Citadels doesn’t last for hours and hours, the players will start to feel that the game is overstaying its welcome.

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So, moving on: there’s the Thief. The Thief follows the same rules as the Assassin, where they choose a character (not a player) and hope that someone selected that character, except they steal all of the victim’s coins. But does it slows down game progression? No. There are two crucial things about this:

  1. The victim of the theft can still do their turn, rather than skipping it. By accumulating at least 2 coins during that heartbreaking turn, they made progress with 2 coins (or more) that can be turned into points, despite losing all of their money to the Thief.
  2. The stolen money isn’t taken out of circulation. Meaning that the stolen points can be used (and will be used) by the thief to “bank” it into their buildings. So, there is still progression, as the money is spent elsewhere.

And so, we come to the most damaging character in the original game: the Warlord. The Warlord is the worst of all three characters, when it comes to damaging the game’s progress. The Warlord allows the player to destroy a building, by paying coins according to the building’s cost minus 1. Example: the Warlord will destroy a building with a cost of 3. So they will have pay 2 coins to do so. The Warlord is a serious double whammy. The game’s progression rolls back significantly because they are eliminating a building (remember, game ends when a player builds 7 buildings), extrapolate this with players using the Warlord several times.

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The Warlord also spends money on an action that doesn’t benefit them. The coins they could spend to accumulate points, was instead used to damage another player’s position and regress the game’s progress from getting closer to the finish line. The only winners from this exchange are every other player that isn’t the Warlord and the victim. The higher the value of the card, the bigger the damage is to the game overall.

These two characters – the Assassin and the Warlord – then, results to Citadels taking longer than it should. Which disappoints me greatly, as this game from the olden times has a very simple set of rules, with a very good flow, and clever system on character selection. I understand their existence in the game – to deter players from taking the obvious choice of characters. However, the game’s clumsy way of handling player interaction significantly ruins the game’s progression from start to finish. Classic Citadels would have been an excellent super-filler game, if it was done right.

If anything: our last game of Citadels have made me want to try out the expansions, both from the 2003 and 2016 version, and see how the designer, Bruno Faidutti, tries to refine this game from nearly 2 decades ago.

[All images are from Boardgamegeek.com]

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