I cheated. I cheated and I don't feel bad about it. I selected a game that I already knew I loved for the game of the month. I never explicitly stated that I wouldn't, but it still feels a bit like cheating. It's just that after a string of games that I couldn't really get into, I needed something to be excited about. So I chose to look at one of my all time favorite games. Now let me try to convince you why it should be one of yours.
This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.
The modern board game age has an odd fascination with the mundane and the esoteric. Many of the most popular and well designed games deal with topics such as medieval subsistence farming, colonization, and Mediterranean goods traders. They are such a mainstay that I sometimes wonder if the Europeans from which these games originate have a greater appreciation for history than I or anyone I associate with. But there is a certain appeal that's undeniable. Surely, we are living in the greatest time in history, but it's easy to idealize the past as a quaint and simple time. And I just can't help but be attracted to these games. My love of them borders on the ironic. So when Troyes offered me the chance to step into the shoes of a noble family and lead a 13th century French city to prosperity, I was more than willing to jump in.
Set 'Em Up
Troyes asks a lot of you right out of the gate. You have decide where you will assign your workers before the first round. This will not only dictate what type of actions you will most likely take, it will also affect your income. Assign your workers to the high cost offices like the palace and bishopric, and you'll see your 10 denier income quickly dwindle. This decision can be daunting for a new player, but it's softened by the fact that initial placement is done in serpentine fashion, allowing you to study the placement of others as your place your own. In such, your initial placement isn't just a prolonged setup process, it actually becomes the beginning of the game as players jockey for position. It's also less of a problem given the fluid nature of the game. Plans can and will change as subsequent rounds reveal new and interesting combinations of professions. Still, it does help to some helpful guidance from an experienced player for your first game or two. All this to say, that while there is an initial learning hump, it's well worth getting over.
Middle Life Crisis
Every round of Troyes is ushered in with the unveiling of event cards. These events range from pesky brigands at the gates to all out civil war. And with these events come a toll which must be paid. Events come in three different flavors that correspond to the different roles that the town centers address, military, religious, and commercial. Military events are the most common and will show up every round. They take place in the form of attack dice which must be countered in turn order. To counter an attack die, a player must match the highest numbered attack die with one of their own (or a red military die that is half the number). It simulates the noble families stepping up to the plate and diverting their resources to a pressing matter. It also serves to tamper first player advantage. By eliminating one the first player's high valued dice, they are forced to work with their remaining dice or purchase one from a neighbor. I've heard some say that first player still has too much advantage because purchasing dice is a legitimately solid move and moving in on a strong profession early can really hamper the 3rd and 4th player, but I don't feel that way. I don't have any hard numbers to back up either claim I can just say that it never bothered me.
The commercial and religious events are a little more varied in nature. Whether it's losing money due to drought or the cathedral crumbling due to a work stoppage, every event serves to add context that flavors the experiences. Though they are random, there are few enough total event cards that after a few plays you will become familiar with them and you will learn that having no money or influence at the start of a round is probably not the best idea. The events in Troyes also straddles the line between being overly punishing to the point of being punitive and being harmless to the point of being irrelevant. They add that bit of spice to keep it interesting, a light jab to the ribs to keep you on your toes.
I Trained for This
Where Troyes really comes alive is the professions. They give way to new and interesting abilities that enable new and different ways to employ your workforce. As you train your workers, the scope and breadth of what you can accomplish opens up. You begin to define your medieval syndicate and differentiate yourself from your opponents. You're workforce is yours and it's unique, for better or for worse. And because the professions are slowly revealed over the course of the game, you're constantly reevaluating them. Is your Baker making you enough money? Should you train a Monk or a Blacksmith?
You can play Troyes by the numbers and simply try to amass victory points. You can try and break down the most efficient path to victory. But you shouldn't. Troyes asks you take a tiny leap into its world and experience it for all it has to offer and it's professions are it's biggest invitation. It makes sense that training archers is a cheap way to fight off invading forces, but there's a chance they'll miss. It makes sense that the monks you trained to collect tithes would take money from the common folk. It makes sense! So while you can certainly use Troyes as an excuse to move wooden bits around a board, to do so is missing the point and you're best off not playing at all.
I Have a Secret
I love secret objectives. And I particularly love secret objectives that apply to all player and not just the one who has the objective. An argument can be made that it's just a cheap design ploy to force players to watch what everyone else is doing. That may well be completely true, but it works. And I can't get enough of it.
Every move your opponent makes become a moment of questioning and probing. Every move becomes a moment of self doubt and reassurance. Why are you in a rush to build the cathedral? How come you're amassing such a large military contingent? Every move is tension realized. Is it manipulative game design? Perhaps. Is it effective? No doubt.
Troyes is an exquisitely designed game. So it speaks volumes that I hardly even discussed design and mechanisms. What makes Troyes special isn't clever ideas and carefully balances abilities. These make Troyes a good game, but what elevates Troyes above its peers is the the narrative and the experience. I love looking at my victory point tokens and then over to my trained knight who earned them in a joust. I love looking at the cathedral and seeing it filled with my color, knowing that my family will be remembered for it for centuries to come. I love the fact that I'm a powerful family head, but I'm still so insecure that I have to find approval with even more powerful figures. I love the fact that Troyes exists and that I've played it.