Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Guildhall Review

I first played Guildhall at my FLGS.  It was a game I'd heard about for a while.  I have a friend a few states away who consistently speaks highly of it.  The Dice Tower would sporadically heap praise on it as well.  But the look and feel of the game just didn't grab me.  Plus, I own a lot of card games already.  Seriously, I own a lot of card games.  But my FLGS had a demo copy, and I had an hour to kill one evening, so I figured why not?  I'm glad I did, because Guildhall lives up to all the fond things said of it.

Guildhall was published in 2012 by AEG, and was designed by Hope S. Hwang.  It's primarily a set collection game, except each set has a special ability you can invoke.  There are only 6 sets in the game, and their abilities delicately play off one another.  The first player who completes enough sets to earn 20 points is the winner.  But for more detail, lets get into the rules summary.

Rule Summary

To start a game of Guildhall, you must first thoroughly shuffle 120 Profession cards.  You also shuffle a deck of 30 Victory Point (VP) cards.  There are also a bunch of VP tokens you set aside.  You lay out 5 of the VP cards, and deal each player 9 Profession cards.  Each player may discard as many of these as they would like, and then draw back up to 9.  Each player then seeds their Guildhall with 3 cards from their hand, leaving them with 6 cards.  After this, play begins proper.

Each player, starting with the first, gets 2 actions.  An action can be playing a Profession card from their hand, purchasing a VP card with a complete set, or discarding as many cards from their hand as they want, and drawing up to 6 cards.

Guildhall all set up for two players.
When players play a Profession card from their hand, they place it into an action area.  This is separate from their Guildhall.  There are six different Professions, with five different colors.  A player may never play a Profession card already matching the Profession and color of a Profession card in their Guildhall.  Players may also never use a cards ability to create a situation where there are two copies of the exact same Profession card in a Guildhall.  As a final limitation, players may never play two of the same Profession as actions on the same turn.  Within these constraints, players may play any Profession cards they want, and perform their actions.  We will return to what these cards do specifically later.  At the end of a player's turn, all Profession cards played to their action area move into their Guildhall.

Once a chapter of a Profession has all five of it's colors, you immediately flip them facedown.  This chapter is now immune to all Profession abilities.  Also, for an action, this completed chapter can be exchanged for one of the five faceup VP cards in the middle of the table.  Many of these VP cards have an associated bonus.  They range from things like drawing extra cards, being awarded with extra actions, or being able to steal cards from other players.  These bonuses must be used immediately, and cannot be saved for later.

Now, back to the Profession cards.  The six Professions are Dancer, Historian, Assassin, Trader, Weaver and Farmer.  Each card has three different levels of abilities, which trigger depending on how many of that card you already have in your Guildhall.  For example, if you have the Red Historian and the Green Historian in your Guildhall, and you play the Blue Historian, you would be able to use the ability on the Historian which requires 2 cards.  It's important to note that the card you just played does not count towards this total.

As for what the cards specifically do, the Dancer awards you an extra action, essentially making it free to play, and allows you to draw cards equal to the number of Dancers you already have out.  The Historian allows you to take cards from the discard pile, otherwise known as the Graveyard.  It starts out only being able to take the top card, but eventually allows you to look through it for 1, and lastly even 2 cards.  The Assassin lets you send cards to the Graveyard, starting with just 1, but eventually working up to 2.

The Weaver allows you to put extra cards down, and take other back into your hand.  It starts with allowing you to put down a single extra card, and eventually allows you to put down as many cards as you want, and put two back into you hand.  The Trader does exactly what it says, and allows you to swap cards with other players.  Lastly, the Farmer just straight up gives you those VP tokens I mentioned in the beginning, and is the only card which does.  Once you play your second Farmer, you'll begin earning 1 VP.  Then starting from your fourth Farmer you'll earn 2 VP.

Players will continue in this way, spending two actions to play Profession cards, purchase VP cards, and draw new cards until one player earns 20 VPs.  That player immediately wins.  There are no ties possible, and nobody gets any more turns.

Timelapse of play.

How accessible is the game to new players?

Guildhall is another one of those light games, which is slightly mucked up by it's exclusive use of iconography.  Once upon a time I love iconography.  I still do.  But I've grown to loath having to teach it to people.  I enjoy symbolic languages, but I've since learned most other people don't.

Now in Guildhall's favor, it's a simple iconography, and fairly straight forward.  Race for the Galaxy this is not.  But it is still another barrier to entry.

The good news is, once you get past the iconography, the game is remarkably easy to pick up and play.  The ruleset is simple, with the golden rule of never being allowed to play a card you already have usually being the only rule that requires emphasis.  None of the Profession cards have outrageously complicated abilities, and the path to victory is clear.

I feel like this reference only helps if
I already know what the card does

What could have been done better?

I really don't like the reference material on the back of the manual.  It's idea of explaining the iconography is showing what each symbol, on it's own means.  It shows no examples of what the iconography in the context of an actual card ability means.  As such, it's more or less useless as a teaching aid, and really only useful as a reminder when you mostly remember what a card does, but just want to make sure.  I really would have liked to see a more helpful iconography reference.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

I've found Guildhall to be a rather consistently close game.  Partially because luck of the draw has its effect.  It's not uncommon for a player to be searching hard for a specific card and never have a shot at it.  But also because each card has a somewhat fixed utility.  You can certainly get more out of your cards through clever combinations and timing.  But not so much that it will catapult you into the lead, and it's inconceivable that anyone would catch up.

Also when playing with more than 2 players, the Assassin and the Trader provide some much needed player balancing, allowing people to reign the leader in some.  At the same time, the golden rule limiting how many of those you can play keeps that from getting carried away.

What could have been done better?

The one thing that takes some getting used to is correctly judging who is actually in the lead.  Your first impression will often be that it's the player with the most cards in front of them.  That's usually how it goes in other games.  But you need to look more carefully at how many VPs that person has, and how many VPs they can purchase with completed chapters.

This can cause an experienced player to be completely overlooked by inexperienced players when they are decided who to target with Assassins.  Granted, new players will catch on quick.  Plus a little excessive honesty from the experienced player in the lead will help that along.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Guildhall can be an unfocused experience.  There is a strong degree of making due with what you have.  There is a clear path to victory, but not a straight one.  As chapters get closer and closer to completion, it gets harder and harder to actually finish them.  This gives the other players ample time to disrupt your plans, or catch up.  As such, there is a lot of zig zagging back and forth towards completing chapters.  This can frustrate people.

I needed to put this pictures somewhere.  It's pretty.  Did I mention it's 1 am?

However, Guildhall really shines when you manage to put together that perfect combination.  Often using Weaver or Historian to unexpectedly put 2 or 3 cards straight into a chapter, completing it before anyone even knew it was a threat.  These moments easily make up for any frustration caused by setbacks you encountered.

Why is Guildhall so enjoyable?

Once you've acclimated, Guildhall is just a very pleasant game.  The card play just feels good, and players very quickly learn how the different Professions effect the ebb and flow of a player's hall.  You find yourself getting into a nice rhythm, putting together combos, and occasionally breaking the flow to make a huge play.  Overall I'd say it's a very even experience, punctuated by enough variety and memorable moments to keep things interesting.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

I've found Guildhall to be largely tactical.  The game state can be rather unstable, with cards being taken off the table, and changing hands constantly.  Plus with a hand of often 6 cards or less, you can't exactly plan that far ahead.  Especially since it can be very difficult to actively hunt for any specific cards.  You can pretty much plan your next turn, along with a decent backup plan, but that's about it.

On the whole, I'd say Guildhall requires a lot of blatant opportunism.  You need to be able to see when other players have cards you need, and be in a position to take them.  Or perhaps use your first action to draw new cards, and then still have an action left to perhaps capitalize off a fortunate hand.

Plus, oh how amazing it is when someone can really take advantage of a situation.  You really have to admire when someone can knock out two, maybe even three chapters in one turn!

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

My favorite part of Guildhall is how dynamically the cards interact with one another.  Having two actions per turn gives you a lot of leeway in building combinations, but not so much that anything is possible.  It's the same game design middle ground I appreciated so much in Innovation.  And with those two actions, there is a huge amount you can accomplish with the various Professions, depending on the situation.

Sometimes I think of the Assassin/Historian combo as
the poor man's trader.  Or perhaps the stingy man.

You can do all sorts of creative things, like trading away cards you have a duplicate of in your hand so that you can play it again.  Or using Weaver to not just complete chapters in record time but give your second action a boost.  Of course Weaver can also pull cards you want to replay or keep safe back into your hand.  Assassin is a card that pairs incredibly well with Historian, but can also be used to kill the cards you just traded to someone!  And that doesn't even touch on some of the more exotic combinations that come with purchasing a VP card and then playing another Profession.

What is best about all these possible combos, is that the best one changes wildly depending on what cards other people have out.  It's highly situational, so you can't just coast along on autopilot.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

The obvious answer to this is that more cards would greatly improve the game.  And thankfully, an expansion quickly followed the base game.  Although I absolutely believe there is enough content in the base game to satisfy.  This is not a game that leaves you thinking "It's good and all, but it's obvious they held things back for an expansion".

Guildhall already has that fantastic mix of simple rules, limited tools with a narrow scope, but fantastic emergent tactics.  I view it as a classic on the same level as abstract games like Ingenious.

Physical component design and limitations?

There were about this many
Assassins in a row my first game
The cards feel good enough.  They are easy enough to riffle shuffle and bridge, although there are a lot of them.  As a color blind person I greatly appreciate how the Professions aren't just color coded, but that each color has a unique heraldry down the side of the card.  Plus the box also comes with a great molded insert, which has a good spot for everything, and is sturdy.

I would like to note that you really need to shuffle the deck extremely well.  The first time we played, the assassins were clustered very close.  This resulted in 30 minutes of nonstop assassinations, and absolutely no progress being made.  We were starting to think we weren't playing correctly.  But eventually we got through the vein of assassins, and the game rapidly accelerated towards a conclusion from there.

What could have been better?

I was all set to complain that the base game can't house any potential expansions.  But in the interest of thoroughness I did some research.  It appears that the insert for the expansion easily houses the base game.  So that is covered quite well.

Look at all this empty space!

The only possible complaint I can think of is that the box is quite large for what it is.  Since it's already established you won't be using the box for any expansions, I would have been fine if it were much smaller.  It's about a medium sized box, like a 3/4 scale standard Fantasy Flight or Rio Grande box.  But I would have preferred a box more like the one for Innovation, which also houses about 120 cards.

Long term prospects?

This is a great example of a game with simple rules, but a lot of depth.  It punches up a simple set collection game with some interesting special abilities on each card, that have a lot of emergent interactions.  This is one of my favorite types of games, alongside light to medium weight historical wargames.  Nearly every time I play Guildhall, I'm impressed with the new situations that occur.  There has yet to be a game where I was able to anticipate that whoever got a certain card was going to win, or whoever got more of a Profession had a lock.  It's the sort of game you'll immediately enjoy, but which takes a few plays to really appreciate how well designed it is.

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