- Designers: Bruno Cathala and Christian Martinez
- Publisher: Bombyx / Asmodee
- Players: 2-5
- Ages: 10+
- Time: ~40 minutes
- Times played: 3, with preview copy provided by Asmodee NA
Histrio is the new release from Bombyx, one of the French firms that distributes through Asmodee. While I was lukewarm on their initial releases, their more recent games (Abyss and Sultaniya) have been well received here, and I was definitely interested in seeing their newest production. One of the designers, Bruno Cathala, is well known to me, and I have found that his designs run the gamut in style and complexity. The other half of the design team here, Christian Martinez, is more of an unknown. The only other game of his that I am familiar with is Expedition Altiplano, a somewhat obscure game that I have seen at conventions but I have not actually played.
In the game – it’s that special time of year when the entire kingdom gathers at court for the Munificent Theatrical Festival. Acting troupes from all over the land will come together to perform plays of light-hearted comedy or soul-wrenching tragedy. Will their performance win the favour of the king or will his fickle mood spell a flop? The catch is – the King has fickle tastes, and you will have to be table to tailor your performance to the changing desires of King Leonus XIV to earn the most money.
The game is played over two seasons, with each season culminating in a Munificent Theatrical Festival. At the end of the second season, the most successful theatre troupe – determined by having the most money – is considered to be the winner of the game.
Before you play the game, you have to build the King’s stage. There is a meter on top that reflects the King’s mood (red tragedy to the left and yellow comedy to the right) – Flip a coin and depending on the face, start the meter on the first space on the tragedy or comedy side. There are two backdrops to the stage, one to match each of the King’s moods – place the appropriate one behind the stage.
Each player starts the game with 3 Ecus. The board, which shows the 8 cities in the kingdom, is placed on the table, and an Encounter card is dealt below each of these cities.
Each season is made up of a number of turns, each of which goes through the same three phases
1) Travel – Each player has a deck of 8 travel cards, one for each location. Players secretly choose and simultaneously reveal the cards. They then take one of their plastic ships and place it in front to the Encounter card that corresponds to their chosen city. The Travel card is then discarded into a personal discard pile.
2) Resolution – Starting at city #1 and going to #8, each city with a ship in front of it is resolved. There are two different situations
If there is only one ship at a city – the cards are resolved from the most recently played to the oldest by the player’s whose ship is there. The cards might award you Ecus, they might be actors (either comedians or tragedians) which often have their own special ability such as placing Manager tokens on the stage to gain coins, they might be Acrobats which are cards that have varying special abilities that can be used once per season. After all the cards are resolved, the player may then choose to discard one of the Actors they just gained – if they do so, the experience level (1 to 5) and type (comedy or tragedy) will move the King’s mood on the meter accordingly. All other Actors are played face up in front of the player.
If there are multiple players at a particular city, all the Encounter cards there are just discarded. The players do not get any of those cards. Any Actors that are discarded in this manner affect the King’s mood. Each of the players though is allowed to draw a Secret Request card. These are essentially bonus scoring opportunities. Players may have up to three of them in their hand at any time. In the end of season scoring, each player is allowed to score ONE of their Secret Request cards, assuming that they are able to meet the criteria on those cards.
A note on the King’s mood – each time that the King’s mood changes from tragedy to comedy or vice versa, don’t forget to change the backdrop. Additionally, any manager figures that have been placed on the stage are returned to their owners at this time.
Once a city is resolved, you place your ship marker on the board to show everyone where you have already been. In general, you do not get to retrieve your ships (and cards in your discard pile) until you have only one Travel card left in your hand – although there are some Encounter cards that will allow you to replenish your hand earlier.
3) New Opportunities – Once all of the cities are resolved, a new Encounter card is dealt to each of the cities. If there are cards there from previous rounds, the new card is simply placed on top of the stack in a way that all the cards can still be seen. If there are not enough cards to add to each city, just fill what you can from left to right, and then the season comes to an end. As long as the season continues, start a new round with a new Travel round.
Season End – Scoring
At the end of the season, it’s important to note the current mood of the King (comedy or tragedy).
You get 1 Ecu for each actor you have in your troupe that matches the mood of the King
Now, see if your show pleases the King. Total all your actors scores up and if your total sum matches the King’s mood, you get 3 Ecus in Season 1, and 5 Ecus in Season 2. Further, if you have the “best show” – that is the one with the largest overall score in the direction of the King’s mood, you double your bonus
Finally, each player can play one Secret Request card and score it – if they match the criteria listed on the card. A Special Request card played in the first season remains in front of a player, and if they meet the criteria at the end of the second Season, they can score it again (in addition to the second Secret Request card that they can play).
Setting up for the Second Season
All of the encounter cards that are next to the board (uncollected from the first season) are discarded. Additionally, all Actor cards in front of players are discarded. However, any played Acrobat cards are not returned to the deck. They remain in front of the players who played them. Their special ability can be used once again in the second Season. Shuffle the discards and deal out one card to each city. The travel cards and ship tokens are not moved. You must continue from the same position where you ended Season one. Finally, flip a coin to determine the starting mood of the King and place the appropriate backdrop behind the stage.
The second Season is played the same as the first, and scoring at the end of Season two is similar. At the end of the game, the player with the most Ecus is the winner. There is no tiebreaker.
My thoughts on the game
Histrio is a interesting game – and much more than it appears. When I first got the game, after glancing at the components and reading thru the rules, I thought that the game would be a simplistic secret-and-simultaneous choose fest where the results of the game would be more decided by luck than anything else. However, after a few plays, there is a surprising depth to the game. The flow of each game round is simple, and after the first round or two, it should be second nature. However, there are a number of important decision points in the round…
First, choosing where you want to send your ship is maybe the most important choice, and not one that can be made easily. You have to consider a number of factors, including which cards you’d like to have – both actors and Acrobats, what cards other people are wanting, and sometimes, you might even be trying to force a tie in order to throw out actors and gain Secret Request cards. There is plenty of information available for you to base your decision – you can see all the collected cards of your opponents (both actors and Acrobats) and you can also see the previously placed ships of your opponents, so that you know which cities are available to them at any given time.
Once you get your cards, there are more decisions to be made. Managing your actors is a tricky thing, and as you will likely find out, the King’s mood can be fickle indeed. You would like to have your troupe cards to match the final mood of the King, as each will give you an Ecu in the scoring. You can also modify the King’s mood by discarding one of your actors collected on your turn – but, if you do so, this is one fewer card that you keep in front of you!
The fact that the mood can swing based on discarded cards does put a bit of a premium into going last in the final round of a season because you’d like to be the player who makes the final decision on what actor gets discarded to make sure the King’s mood is where you want it. However, if other people have the same strategy, there could be a tie which causes all the actors to be discarded. (Though, a very shrewd play might be to play for a tie on purpose…)
Ties can be beneficial – mostly because they are the only way to gain Secret Request cards during the game – but they can also be used to alter the King’s mood. The downside is that none of the tied players get any of the cards; they are all discarded… And the actors are all used to change the King’s mood. In the end, unintentional ties feel detrimental to the game. There is not enough benefit from the Secret Request cards to make up for not getting cards that turn.
There aren’t many round in the game: six guaranteed rounds in the first round and fewer in the second due to the removed Acrobat cards. Thus, missing out on a round of cards means that you might miss out on 10% of your chance to get cards. Some of the Secret Request cards score well – I have seen some that have been worth as much as 6VPs. However, it is mostly luck of the draw whether or not the card works for you; especially late in the second round when you don’t have much time to try to change your situation to meet the criteria on that bonus card.
We thought that there might be some timing questions with the Acrobat cards on our early plays. But, after closer examination, the problem was with us, and not with the cards. The cards clearly state when they can be played, and there really aren’t any timing conflicts as long as the cards are played at the appropriate times. However, the onus is on the players to make sure that everyone knows when cards should be played. There almost needs to be a player aid that outlines the powers of the different Acrobats and the exact place in the turn where they are played so that the game can pause and make sure that there is no issue.
In our first game, we ran into a situation where two cards seems to butt heads. One acrobat allows you to play two travel cards – thus allowing you to go to two locations in a turn. There is also another one which blocks all players from going to a particular city. What we missed is that the blocking card has to be played (and the city named) prior to anyone choosing cards. The decision to travel twice is made only while choosing cards – thus, they really should never interact with each other. The downside of this is that you almost need to take multiple mini breaks in the midst of each round to make sure that players get a chance to play their card at the right time.
The Acrobat cards can be quite powerful, and at times, they can feel unbalancing. I definitely think that they can be strong – but since all of the Acrobats are visible in the display, and theoretically all players have the chance to get them – it doesn’t bother me as much when some are more powerful than others. Further, since you can see all the Acrobat cards that a player has available to them, at least you’re never going to fall victim to a card that you didn’t know someone had. You are always able to plan accordingly for any potential Acrobat actions.
A particularly good example of how the Acrobat cards can work together came up in our last game. One of the gamers (the eventual winner…) picked up a synergistic pair of Acrobats early in the first round. The first Acrobat allows you to choose your travel card AFTER all other players have revealed theirs. The second allowed the player to collect the cards at a tied city (instead of them being discarded). This allowed him to twice force a tie at a city with good cards and then still get the good cards while leaving the poor tied opponents with only a Secret Request card as consolation.
The rules are easy to follow in a very friendly pictoral format. The rulebook is about 30cm square, and I would say 2/3 of each page is devoted to illustrations, examples, and pictures. The text of the rules would probably fit on three of the twelve pages of the book. Interestingly, this rulebook is the second Asmodee partner game in the past year that has had the strange quirk of no title page (I’m looking at you, Timeline: Challenge). The first page has no game title, no author’s name, and no introduction. Simply a listing of the game contents! In fact, I don’t think that the word “Histrio” is found at all in the 8 pages of the rulebook! That might be a first for me – an entire rulebook without the title of the game printed at all…
The artwork is beautiful to look at, though maybe a bit too whimsical for me. It reminds me of Animalia. The actors are lizards, rabbits, foxes, and other varied animals. The castles in the cities are all well illustrated and would make King Ludwig of Bavaria feel at home. However, for a family targeted game, it feels right.
Overall, I get the feeling that this game wants to contend for the Spiel des Jahres, but in the end, I think it is actually a bit more complicated than the recent nominees as well as a bit too volatile in play with the Acrobat powers and Secret Request cards. One of the gamers in my group commented that this would be the perfect game to use to introduce Eurogames to people who love things like Munchkin and Fluxx. There is a nice base of strategy and planning in Histrio combined with a smidge of direct attack and a lot of turn-of-the-card-luck. I think this is a nice analogy for this light Euro with that quintessential “French” feel to it.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. John P
- Neutral. Dale Y
- Not for me…
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I missed that this was going up.
I really didn’t care for this. The blind bidding aspect is not too bad here, although it’s still not great, but the swinginess of the scoring is awful. It’s entirely possible for the king’s mood to switch colors by accident at the last moment which can cause major changes to everyone’s score. (The request cards are also an issue as I don’t think they’re even close to balanced, but that’s less of an issue.)
Not for me.