TimJim Games, £17
Designed by Tom Lehmann
2-6 Players, 2-3 hours
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Surpassing even the success of Time Agent, TimJim's latest game has certainly caught the imagination of many hobby members and I get the impression that it is being played a lot at the moment. Suzerain is the second card game in their rapidly expanding range and concentrates on the building and maintenance of feudal empires. The game features a flavoursome card system and plenty of action which makes the initial games an enjoyable experience.
Suzerain is heavily reliant on card play (in fact the whole game is card based, without even a die in the box) and the system is crafted cleverly enough to keep the game rolling for a couple of hours. To achieve the necessary variety, there are over twenty types of cards which will enable you to build your dynasty, defend it, take down your rivals and suffer or benefit from some uniquely medieval events. Your endeavours are recorded on a personal display, echoing the feudal pyramid, which shows a row of five serf boxes, four knights, three nobles and a double row of royalty with king and queen boxes at the top. The aim of the game is to be the first player to build the pyramid right to the top, filling each box with counters, and produce an heir to the throne.
Players start with five cards and will continually acquire large numbers throughout the game. These will be either Empire cards which represent personnel for your empire; serfs, knights, nobles and so on, Adversity cards which are laid on other players such as bad harvest, famines, sieges and so on or Events which apply either to you, other players or, like the plague, affect everyone. Empire cards are used to fill out the array boxes with counters of strengths varying between 1 to 5. When you have two serf counters (I suggest you ban all 'Square Deal Serf' jokes, on pain of death), you can play a knight on top, supporting him and securing them. When you have two knights, you can lay a noble, and so on up the pyramid.
Each strata of society has its own uses. Serfs are there to generate your cards by way of 'harvests', Knights are your offensive troops, Nobles give you improved defence by virtue of their castles and Royalty add leadership factors to any facet of war. Apart from these basic roles, they all get on with their lives, revolting, going on crusades or indulging in civil wars depending on their social standing. The only exception is that the royals search around for suitable mates, with the interesting encumbrance of card dowries to be paid. It would be wrong to suggest that is all there is to the game, but when you boil it down, that indeed is it. The chrome, and attachment, derives from the card play and the manufactured interaction which the game engenders. While you need to whittle down anyone who might be drawing empire cards faster than you are, there is little incentive to do so, which is where the game intervenes.
The key to winning the game is war. It is the adversity cards and well timed attacks that keep your opponents in check and lend the game its flavour. This is essentially that of Modern Naval Battles 'Hah! Take That!' school. You can attack anyone but the player with the most counters or the least cards is the perennial favourite. Adversity cards will send knights off on quests, reduce another player's cards and generally prepare him for your onslaught.
Attack is simple enough: the number of knights at your disposal equates to the war cards you can lay (combining for a numeric factor). Add royal influence and any Knight cards you play and you have a total. The defender adds his leadership to his combined nobles factors and, similarly, plays knight cards if he has any. If the attacker has a higher total, he has won and may steal any unprotected counter from the loser or take any card the defender used in the battle or look at the vanquished hand and choose a card from there.
That's it. This goes on all game, spiced up by intrigue cards (encouraging two empires to fight), alchemy cards to recover good cards from the discard pack and such surprises as Festivals or Return from Quests to shore up depleted forces. In describing the system, it has become apparent that there isn't much there, deep down. The saving grace is that it feels bigger and more varied than this, but as I mention below it isn't something that will hold my attention to reach 5+ status. The game probably holds together, to a point, thanks to the simple strengths of its cardplay and a modicum of medieval atmosphere. This latter is good enough but is required to cover the essentially abstract sub-system. A game larger than the sum of its parts is all I can really offer.
Components are of a high standard; the cards are glossy and will outlast all but the keenest of players. The arrays are printed on quality paper stock and are perfectly serviceable. No complaints here, and pretty good value for an imported game. The rules are another matter. I found them imprecise and, to be frank, failing to explain the more complex elements of the game as with the Time Agent movement rules. I had to read the section on marriages and dowries three times before I could establish how it might be intended to work, and I'm still not sure. Some work needed here, gentlemen.
And the conclusion? Well, yes, I quite liked it but I won't be playing it any more. Contradictory perhaps, but this is the sort of game that having experienced it two or three times, I can live without. The TimJim trademark of loooong, repetitive systems is there for all to see and the game slows to a crawl with more than four players. However, the atmospheric card play, the notion of building up your own kingdom and the interaction, albeit often enforced, are engaging and imaginative. Not fun exactly, but certainly involving. Against this is the feeling that the game lacks identifiable tactics (apart from all out attack, when and where you can) and that, exactly as with Outpost, we are once again playing a system that is so heavily range bound and stable that we are just along for the ride. The lack of random factors and the fast cycling of the cards only adds to this 'problem'.
I know there are many gamers who like the processional, steady building element of Outpost, and the same players have enthused over Suzerain, so once more it is clearly a question of taste. I definitely prefer this game because it at least offers some atmosphere and a degree of volatility, but it is still far too well balanced if such a comment can carry a negative thrust. I have not yet seen a game where anyone is too far behind because all the disasters and luck average out over the game with the natural 'pick on the leader' phenomena handling the rest. This undoubtedly makes for a close finish, but it is one in which I feel cheated as the players have progressed from serf to royalty almost by default. There is skill involved, but its impact appears minimal. Overall, worth a couple of games but Timjim remain a company with unfulfilled potential and I await their next release, Age of Exploration, with interesr.
On to the review of World Cup Tournament Football Game or back to the review of Backpacks & Blisters.
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