Designer: Bruno Cathala and Christian Martinez
Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.
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Who doesn’t like putting together a troupe of talking animals to enact dramatic or comedic plays for a moody King who is constantly changing his mind like an excitable child that has been told he can only buy one toy in the entire store? It’s a pretty neat concept that Histrio has going for it, although the theme takes a backseat to travelling to various cities in order to snatch up actors to put on your show. You won’t really feel like somebody managing a troupe and putting on lavish stage shows by the end. You’ve got just two seasons to earn as much cash (Ecus) as you possibly can, with the end of each season being when you’ll put on your show and hopefully please the King.
Everything boils down to a strip of thick card that denotes eight cities that you can travel to. Underneath these eight cities are encounter cards that range from a simple cash injection to special cards to the actors you’ll be needing to form your troupe. Each player looks at the eight locations and the cards underneath them, and decides where they want to travel to on this turn. To select a location they pick the matching card from their hand and place it face-down on the table, hidden from sight. Once everyone has made their choice the cards are flipped over, at which point each player takes one of their eight caravels and places it on the corresponding city as a way to quickly remember where you’ve been, and where everyone else has been as well. These caravels also represent cities that you can’t go back to until your hand of cards is refreshed.
Once all that nonsense is taken care of it is time to resolve the encounter cards to see what things happen. The simplest type of card just gives you some Ecus. That’s it; quick cash, which can sometimes be a damn fine choice if there’s a few of these cards in one location, glistening like a bounty of booty. Other types of card give you special effects that you can use once per season, such as getting to choose which city you’re going to after everyone else has made their selections or even letting you block a city from everybody else. Cheeky. And then of course there are the actors themselves who come in two flavors; dramatic and comedic. Furthermore they also ranged in experience from a measly level one all the way up to the veteran level fives. Ah, but there is a catch, because all but the level three actor has abilities. That measly level one actor might not be the most valuable when it comes to performing a show for the King, but he/she lets you refresh your hand of location cards, meaning you’re free to go anywhere you please once again. Meanwhile the tempting level five actor will cost you an Ecu. Another level of actor lets you place a manager on stage, whereupon you get two Ecu for each manager of any color, a potentially big money earner.
The king does what kings often do; get in the way of the everyday life of common folk. His mood is fickle and swings wildly from drama to comedy and back again at the drop of a hat, or more precisely by the careful prodding of an actor sent to court to sway the King. Whenever you pickup an actor or five from a location you have the option to spend just one of them by sending them to court to impress the King. When this happens you adjust the mood slider atop the stage toward the corresponding mood based upon the experience level of the actor, thus a level three actor moves the meter three spaces toward their favored genre. This dramatic shifting of moods takes place on the game’s very own 3D stage, which is built from sturdy card. Sitting right at the top is the meter which you can move back and forth from comedy to drama and back. Whenever the mood changes from drama to comedy or vice versa you reach up to the top of the stage and twirl the mechanism found there, whereupon the background of the stage rotates round to display the King’s current desire, knocking away any managers in the process. It’s a superfluous piece of design, adding nothing practical aside from being able to tell what you should be aiming for at a glance. None of that matters, though, because it’s awesome.
If more than one person tries to go to the same location something different happens. Everything aside from actors gets immediately discarded rather than resolved. Meanwhile the actors themselves are deemed as having been unable to find a troupe befitting their talents and instead end up influencing the King’s mood willy-nilly, with every actor within that city now shifting the meter toward comedy or drama based upon the number listed on their card. Finally each player gets given a card from the Requests deck, and these provide ways of earning bonus Ecu at the end of a round, such as getting one coin for every actor with an experience level of five. While these can potentially provide some handy bonus points at the end of a season, they aren’t usually a worthy trade-off for getting nothing else.
This is where much of Histrio’s strategy comes from; trying to figure out where the other players might be going. Some locations will inevitably end up being more tempting than others, so it’s a case of deciding whether its worth gunning for that city or whether you should seek out somewhere else that may not seem quite so worthy at first glance. There’s an almost psychological element at play as everybody tries to determine where everybody else may be wanting to head to. You can’t predict the future, though, as each new round heralds more Encounter cards being drawn and placed below the cities, and thus you might find a location you visited earlier is suddenly rich in useful cards but you can’t get to it, unless you’ve refreshed your hand either by using a level one actor or by simply running out of location cards. You might, therefore, find yourself chasing a level one actor in an otherwise uninteresting city simply to get yourself more freedom to move around. It’s like blind bidding, but with anthropomorphic animals.
As you can imagine the mechanic of sending actors to the King means that the balance of the game can shift radically from turn to turn as players attempt to tip the balance in favor of their troupe. It’s possible to build up a cushion of sorts by spending several actors across a few turns, but naturally other people will see this and quickly move to counter it. Therefore it’s not that unusual for the final turn to see a huge swing and completely screw up your plans, either due to a deliberate move by another player or because one or more people tried to get to the same location. And of course that can be hugely frustrating for anybody on the losing end, and very satisfying for the other person. Whether or not you’ll enjoy Histrio probably comes down to this one mechanic.
Once the first season ends, which happens once the Encounter deck runs out of cards, it’s time to see whether your troupe of actors has pleased the King or not. For starters for each actor matching the King’s current mood you’ll get one Ecu. Then it gets a tad more complicated; you take all of your comedic actors and add their totals together, and then do the same with the dramatic actors, then you work out the difference between the two and if the difference matches the King’s mood you’ll have pleased him and will be rewarded with bonus cash. For example; the King is currently favoring drama, so you begin adding up your troupe. You’ve got two comedy actors worth five points, and three dramatic actors worth nine, so there’s a difference of four points in favor of drama, thus your show pleases the King. Whichever player hosts the best show (the one with the biggest margin) gets awarded double the cash for their efforts.
Oh, and isn’t that cash so damn satisfying. There’s no plastic coins here. No, Histrio uses lovely plastic coins that clink as you hand them. It honestly makes me wonder why other games waste time with cardboard cash, it really does.
But all games have faults and Histrio’s lies within its scaling. With two players the game actually uses two dummy players as well to make the location selection much more interesting. It works okay, but you’re much better off having three of four real people vying for the rights to travel to a city. Meanwhile the full complement of five players just gets too crowded with people jostling for position on a board, and thus all too frequently people end up in the same place and the game loses almost all of its sense of strategy. Three players personally felt right.
So, with all of that said and done and plenty of rambling behind us how do I actually feel about Histrio? Eh……….eh, I suppose. And I kind of feel bad for saying that because it’s actually a pretty decent game. It’s easy to learn, has some fun strategy and great components. But despite that the game never managed to grab me, nor indeed did it seem to grab my little niece who found it a bit dry and boring. Indeed, everybody who I played it with couldn’t find too much to criticise about it and did have some fun, but still walked away with little desire to play it again.
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