Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Road to Canterbury

Plays: 3Px2.

The Game

I'm quite sure this is the first time I've seen any setting remotely similar to that of The Road to Canterbury being turned into a boardgame. You are greedy priests accompanying three groups of pilgrims on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. You tempt them to commit sins, so that you can sell them pardons. You make them sin so much that they die from their sins. After the fifth pilgrim dies, you reach the end of your journey. You tally scores to determine who the most profitable priest is. There is a special place in hell reserved for priests like this.

When distilled down to basics, what you do on a turn is just this: play a card, and draw a card. There are three types of cards - sin cards, pardon cards, and relic cards. Sin cards and pardon cards have 7 possible values - greed, gluttony, pride, wrath, luxury, envy and idleness. A sin can only be pardoned by a pardon card of the exact same kind. Relic cards are single-use special power cards. When you play a sin card, you play it on one of the three leaders of the pilgrim groups. You keep track of what kind of sins you have tempted pilgrims into committing. The first priest to have "mastered" all seven sins gains a big bonus. Others who achieve this feat will gain bonuses too. When you play a pardon card, you must play it on a matching sin card or cards. You earn money depending on how many sin cards you are pardoning at the same time. You place a cube of your colour on the pilgrim whom you are pardoning. The pardoned sin cards are turned face-down, but are not removed. They still count towards the total number of sins the pilgrim has committed. When the count reaches seven, the pilgrim dies from his sins.

Sin cards.

One of the pilgrims, a knight.

The gameboard is a fat cross. The big central section is only for tracking which sins each player has tempted the pilgrims into committing. The yellow, blue and green scrolls represent the three groups of pilgrims. A pilgrim tile is drawn and placed on each scroll. This is the leader of group. Sin cards are played offboard next to the leaders. The map on the right represents the road to Canterbury. It is basically a countdown track.

Dying is a complex process. It is basically a mini scoring round. Whoever has the most cubes on the dead guy must move one of his cubes to the Road to Canterbury and score points accordingly. This is actually a countdown mechanism - the game ends after the fifth pilgrim dies. Others' cubes are not discarded, but are kept aside near the pilgrim group this dead guy is in. They will be needed for end-game scoring. Whoever played the seventh sin card that killed the poor guy gets something too - a Last Rites token. You can use it to take an extra turn. If unused it is worth $3, i.e. 3VP. After the leader of a pilgrim group dies, another pilgrim is randomly drawn to take his place. The priests continue to tempt him to sin and then pardon him. Business as usual resumes.

The Last Rites token.

The game consists of quick turns of playing and drawing cards, as the tension builds up until eventually someone will die for sinning too much, and then there is a pause to settle funeral matters. The actions you do are not complex. It is the various ways of scoring that you need to digest and understand how to be competitive at. There are four hree long-term goals to keep in mind - you want to make pilgrims commit all seven types of sins, you want to have pardoned a pilgrim the most times before he croaks, at game end you want to be top personal pardoner for the most number of pilgrims, and finally at game end you want to have done pardoning as much as possible in the three pilgrim groups. All these can give big chunks of points, but you may not be able to do all. The pardoning action itself and killing pilgrims give points too, but these are usually smaller and more tactical gains.

The Play

Allen bought this game and put it at my home for quite some time. I never got around to reading the rules, and eventually he read them himself and taught Han and I to play. Since a turn is just playing a card and then drawing a card, he underestimated the rules, and we fumbled through half a game before knowing what we were doing. At that point I had become a runaway leader and neither of them could catch me. I won the game with more points that both of their scores added. We decided to play another game immediately. This time we had a much better idea what we were doing and the scores were much closer.

One word describes the feeling of playing this game very well - brinkmanship. To pardon, you need to get people to sin first, but when you do so will you be setting up for your opponents? Pardoning a pilgrim who has committed the same sin multiple times is lucrative, but when you tempt him into indulging over and over, will another priest suddenly come up with the same pardon card that you are just about to play? Can you make sure you squeeze every last coin from the pilgrim before he dies on you? Playing a card is a simple action, but which card to use, and who to play it on, are things you need to consider. As the pilgrims sin more and more, you become more and more anxious about who's next to die.

Two factors add some excitement to the game - the relic cards and the death cards. Relic cards have powerful but single-use abilities, and can create some twists. Death cards are a special type of sin card. When drawn, they are immediately played onto a specific pilgrim. They count as sin cards. That means a pilgrim can unexpectedly die earlier.

Once we got into the rhythm, the game moved very briskly. It felt like a medium weight game that played like a light weight game.

The black player has succeeded in tempting pilgrims to commit every type of sin. The purple player is only one sin short. The pawn marks the sin that the church is denouncing, and pardoning this sin warrants a higher fee.

The Thoughts

The Road to Canterbury is essentially a card game. All you are doing is playing a card, and then drawing or selecting another to refill your hand. Hand management, and remembering cards your opponents have taken (when they take the face-up cards) are both important. It's hard to argue that this isn't a eurogame, but there's something about it that makes it feel unlike any typical eurogame. The mechanisms are quite abstracted and streamlined, but they still jive with the theme. And I definitely have not seen any other eurogame about sinning and death and unscrupulous priests.

I like the brinkmanship in this game. You constantly worry about setting your opponents up for scoring. You try to make use of every sinning pilgrim before he dies. Sometimes you need to prioritise which areas to fight for. The game is very interactive because you are fighting over the same groups of pilgrims. I think this is quite a clever design. A little thinky, and yet can be played at a brisk pace.


Paul Owen said...

I appreciate the game design quality, and I'm sure I would enjoy it. It's too bad I'm struggling with the theme. I have a hard time embracing a game that has corrupt priests tempting innocent pilgrims as a premise.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

It's dark humour, and not everyone will be comfortable with it. If I think about it seriously it's quite a disturbing theme indeed. I personally just take it as satirical / sarcastic humour. It's good for some politically incorrect jokes if you don't mind it too much.

I wouldn't suggest changing the theme, even though it can be offensive. I think the game mechanisms fit the theme quite well and it would be a waste of the theme if the designer were to try to tone it down / make it more generic.

Overall I don't think it's a must-try game. So I think it's okay to pass if you find the theme disturbing.