Board game review – Sigismundus Augustus: Dei gratia rex Poloniae
Sigismundus Augustus: Dei gratia rex Poloniae, released in 2012 by Fabryka Gier Historycznych, is the game of Polish politics in the sixteenth century. Not a subject I’ll admit I have given attention or curiosity to prior to playing this game, but it is history so for me is always an appealing theme. The game is won by being the family (player) with the most importance (victory points) at the end of 8 rounds. I have had to accept with this game that I will not be able to offer my usual choice-by-choice break down of how this game plays. In order to make this a helpful review I have elected to instead discuss how the mechanics interact to describe game play in order to help give you an idea of how it plays before giving my opinion. First though contents.
When you open the box, which couldn’t shout euro game more if it tried, you’ll find a game board (quite large with only a single fold which necessitates the games longer than usual box), a couple of sheets of tokens, the decks of cards, a couple of dice, player tokens and the multilingual rule book. The graphic design is all very much in the colour scheme that we know to expect from a historical game (if you’re looking for bright and flamboyant art work this game just doesn’t have it). That said the board art, card art and tokens are all very cohesive. There is sadly an exception to this. The worker pawns for this game look like they were from a totally different game. If someone told me that they were pawns lifted from their copy of Ludo for a prototype I wouldn’t have been surprised. Had the rest of the art work been less well balanced to each other this would be less glaring, but sadly these pieces are just ghastly. The cards are very heavy on the iconography as is the board (the multilingual nature of this board demands it) but it is of a reasonable quality, heavy play will probably need sleeving if this game really hits it with your crowd.
Following the rule book for setting up this game comes across as a very long process of many steps, but in reality it’s as simple as each player takes their worker pawns and tokens, places those relating to the influence tracks in the places that their play card tells them to. Then the cards are laid out into decks for use, the tokens are placed within reach and each player takes their starting army of one infantry and one cavalry unit. First time it will feel a hassle working through the steps but after that it is easy enough.
The start of each turn involves the reveal at random of which resource you will need to carry favour with the king (either military, money or votes) and which law the Sejim (government) will try to pass this turn (These are the same eight in the same order for each and every game). This lets you know what you’re playing towards having available at the end of the turn. The advantages of being able to support the king most gives you control on that track (which, like all three of the major tracks, dictates how many votes you get each turn). In turn, this allows you to select a foreign country for scoring each turn, which is one of the major ways to score points in the game. Players then get to take money for the turn based on their office cards (you start with one which grants you an ability to take advantage of) and draw a card from one of the three policy decks; internal, foreign and military. Each deck has four different cards in it, leading you in a particular direction (some gaining you coins directly or allowing you to gain another worker pawn for a turn, while others allow you to war with another player to take their money or cards). As well as being able to play one a turn for its text ability, you can discard it to allow you to gain advantage in a different area of the game. Then you move on to influencing neighbouring countries. At this point whoever has the most influence on the royal track picks a country to score. Not every country will score every turn, but having the most influence with a country at the end of the round will give you a bonus for the following one. These range from more cards or money, to not having to pay for more of your military units. Each player gets to play one influence for free on one of the six neighbouring countries; players can play further influence by discarding foreign policy cards from their hand. Any country that has had influence placed on it moves one space to the left on the tracker, meaning that if it does get scored it is worth more points. The middle section of each round, and to my mind the real meat of the game, is a worker placement mechanic with a twist. There are eight actions you can take with your workers and you can take these actions even if other player has already got workers on them. The twist is that you do have to pay for each other worker that has already taken that action. These actions allow you to gain friend cards that give you advantages either in game or at end of game scoring, and these you can take from either three face up from the deck or bribe away from another player (costing varying amounts of coins to do so). Other actions you take can push you further up the influence tracks, gain you more money or influence with a foreign country, draw another card or put new offices up for auction (and allowing you a bonus when they do). Players in this phase get to take three actions unless they are in front on the nobility track, in which case they have a fourth worker. Once all action have been resolved the game moves to its Sejim phase. In this phase each player gets a number of votes as shown by their position on the three influence trackers (the higher you are, the more votes you get) players may discard internal policy cards to gain additional votes. Next comes a double auction to sell and buy shares. First, players secretly hold out how many votes they are prepared to sell, then once those are revealed (simultaneously) each player holds out how many coins they are prepared to pay for those votes. The player with the highest amount gives the coins to the player who offered the most votes and takes those vote for his own and so on until there are no votes or no money paid (any votes that are not bought are simply lost). Then the offices are auctioned with players blind bidding votes to gain new office cards worth money at the start of the new round and abilities. This is followed by another blind bidding round to gain influence with the crown using whichever “currency” was selected at the beginning of the round. Then players vote with thumbs up or down and a number of votes for the law that the Sejim is trying to pass this turn. Finally players have to pay for their armies. Play continues in this fashion for eight rounds and then players scores are worked out based on the points they gain during play, bonuses for offices held and friend cards they may have.
There are things I really liked and things that really missed for me in this game. I really enjoyed the way that the worker placement mechanism in this game functioned, and the way that you could sell your votes was a fun twist too. For me though the fact that you only gain income for one of your offices and never gained more than actions as the game went on, as well as the limited nature of the decks (caused by their only being four cards types in each of the policy decks) made it feel like the game had the same pace from start to finish and I confess that I enjoy more of a story arch to my gaming than this experience offered me. Equally though if you enjoy your heavier euro game and like perfect information abstract game I can see how this would be an asset. The military in this game also bugged me as it felt almost separate to the rest of what you were doing making me wonder if it was part of the initial design for this game. I have been assured it was and that is the way the history for this time period played out, but to me it just doesn’t feel like it fits in play. The player pawns in this were a constant bug bear when playing it, but if you loved the rest of the game they would be easy enough to replace.
A word of warning to anyone thinking of buying this game, the rules are very hard to penetrate. It makes reference to the different types of policy cards without ever telling you which cards are which colour. The set up has real depth in places, whilst not telling you what to do with remaining cards in the case of the offices cards. This combined with the fact that the game does try to do some different things with its mechanics makes it a real headache to learn from the rules. Armed with BGG and the FAQ’s I was able to learn it, but this is most certainly a game best learnt from someone who already knows how to play. This could be a translation issue and perhaps in other languages it is much clearer, but it is a very real buyer-beware for me.
There are some truly great and entertaining blends of mechanisms in this game which I did enjoy. Ultimately, it lost me due to the lack of change in the way it plays from turn to turn, and the horror that was learning to play it from the rules. That said if someone really loved it I would play it again for their sake, it’s just not there for me, but I am glad to have played it.
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