Catherine: The Cities of the Tsarina
- Designer: Johannes Schmidauer-Koenig
- Players: 2-4
- Age: 10+
- Time: 30-45 mins
- Played with review copy sent by Capstone Games
Before we get any further, let me start with this – the review below will focus on the mechanics of the game, Catherine: The Cities of the Tsarina, and the game play experience; it will not touch on the current conflict happening in Ukraine. This is not to ignore or minimize what is happening in the world now; but we would respectfully ask that non-boardgame discussions happen in more appropriate places.
Catherine: The Cities of the Tsarina is one of the games that was on my SPIEL 2022 list – for a number of reasons. First, it’s coming from dlp games and Capstone, two companies that regularly make games that I like. Second, I have liked the games of the designer, Johannes Schmidauer-Koenig. I have always felt that Vienna was an under-rated game, and it is one that remains in my permanent collection. Team Play/Portal of Heroes is one of my favorite card games. And with that track record, I’m definitely interested in what the designer is making next.
In Catherine: The Cities of the Tsarina, the game transports players “to the Tsarist Empire of 1762 to win the Tsarina’s favor with the help of an innovative card mechanism. As is so often the case, different strategies can lead to different goals: Do you devote yourself to the development of the fine arts or trade, or do you perhaps prefer to secure arms and thus perpetuate the empire? With each card you hold, you must decide whether to gain the resources and use the action on that card or whether to throw it away to activate another action.”
The board is dominated by a map with 18 cities on it; most of them have goods stocked on them, while others have crowns and others have a “1” icon on them. According to the developer, the cities are titled with “the names of the regions [that] are actually those of the Russian governorates in the time of Catherine”. (link: https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/131500?commentid=10862339#comment10862339) There is a favor track on the left and then a score track which rings the outside. There is an iconified aid in the upper right corner reminding you of the gameflow and endgame scoring.
Each player is dealt an order card as well as 6 project cards. Players now secretly and simultaneously choose three of the six project cards and place them in their action row. At the top of each project card is a list of three cities or an assortment of cannons, books, and goods; at the bottom of each project card is an action and (in most cases) a bonus. Each player will need an area for two rows of cards – the upper action row and the lower activation row.
The game lasts three decades, with each decade lasting four rounds. (Yes, I guess it takes a really long time to impress a Tsarina!) Players play simultaneously during each round and there are 5 phases in each.
- At the start of a round, each player draws 2 new project cards.
- Then, each player plays two cards facedown, one card in the upper action row and another card in the lower activation row — under any project card in the action row that has not yet been activated.
- The cards are now revealed.
- If the activation card matches the color of the action card above it, you carry out that action, whether it’s placing a residence on the map, gaining cards, exchanging cards for points or a favor, gaining favor by having cannons or books, etc. If you carried out the action and the card has a bonus, you then get that one-time bonus as well.. If the activation card doesn’t match in color or you choose not to do the action, you draw a project card as compensation. If you would ever draw cards over your hand limit, you instead gain 1 point for each such card. If you would gain favor over the maximum, you instead gain 1 point.
- Finally, check for the end of the round – if there are 7 cards in your action row, the round should be over…
After four rounds, an interim scoring takes place, with 6 things happening
- Players with the most cannons in their action row score points
- Players with the most books get to build a residence in any city (and take a goods tile if there). Players with the least books get nothing, and all other players get a joker tile.
- Now, score points for your residences, getting a bonus point for each residence in a city with a “1” bonus icon in it
- Next, score for your placement on the favor track – taking points equal to the middle of the numbers found to the right of your space.
- Players then discard all cards in their activation row, along with the cards above them that were activated
- Finally, draw two new cards and play another decade or move to end game scoring.
After the third interim scoring, there is a bit of endgame scoring. Players score points for:
- cards in hand – 1 point per card
- their largest group of contiguous residences – the number of residences multiplied by the rightmost number on their space of the favor track
- Points based on how well you have completed the order card they received at the start of play. To complete orders, you need goods from cities, which means you need to place residences in those cities, which means you need to activate the right cards and collect lots of books.
The player who has the most points wins the game. There is no tiebreaker.
My thoughts on the game
Catherine: The Cities of the Tsarina is a surprisingly fast moving game. When you break it down, you only get 12 opportunities to play in the game, and as a result, you really need to try to make every turn count for something! The thirty year time frame of the game is easily compressed into thirty minutes of real time playing this game.
Like many restricted action games; the trick here is figuring out what you want to do. You clearly don’t have time or actions to do everything, so you have to make the most of what you have. To make things a bit more complex; your action choices are not necessarily known at the start of any round. You’ll start each round with 3 cards seeding your action row; so you will know those options. You’ll also likely have some cards in your hand that help you see what might be coming.
But, as you play the round, some of the cards in your hand must be used in the activation row to power the other cards. When they are played in that row, they essentially have no function but their background color. You won’t be able to use any of the actions on that card. Sure, you could save it to play on your action row (to then hopefully be powered in a later turn with a similarly colored card) – but you need to be sure that you have the ability to power an action each round. The consolation prize of getting to draw a single card for a color mismatch is so low; it’s almost not worth considering as a viable option.
Cities are a pretty key facet of any strategy. There are plenty of cards that allow you to build cities onto the board; but sometimes the price can be high. You can also work on getting cities by playing books to the action row – and hoping to win the free city at the end of the round. Cities placed on the board will score in a number of ways; 1 point each round just for being there, they can help you work towards your bonus order card for the end of the game, and depending on how far you are up the favor track, you can score a nice end-game bonus for your connected cities.
When we first opened the game up, I was expecting there to be some sort of competition for the spaces on the board – but as it turns out, there is no interaction whatsoever on the board. You just make your network as best you can, there is no competition or interaction between the players on the map. Everyone has access to all spaces and to all resource tiles.
When you’re not worrying about the cities, you need to keep an eye out for your resources, books and cannons as well. Depending on what other actions you have, it may be beneficial to have lots of resources available on your cards. They could convert into points, cities or huge card draws. Managing your card inventory is pretty crucial to the game as you need to have as many options as possible in your hand so that you can choose the cards with the best actions while retaining the right color cards to power those actions. Your hand limit is pretty low when you start the game, but you can increase this by moving up on the favor track. Of course, it’s gonna cost you actions to do this too – so you’ll have to weigh the costs/benefits of this as well.
As I’ve played a few games, I’ve also learned that there is a little bit of hidden engine building going on in your tableau as well. In a recent game, I ended the first round with three unused action row cards that all had books on them. This meant that I went into the next round with 5 books to start with – a commanding lead. This meant that I was able to win the free city at the end of each round; helping me get a large bonus at the end of the game – both for the network as well as for filling my order card. Another player had kept three cards with lots of resources on the top; and they parlayed this into many points as they drew a lot of the cards which gave pts for a particular set of resources or lots of cards for having resources (which then let them have a better chance at drawing more cards that gave points for resources). I hadn’t thought of the importance of the cards leftover in my first game, but I now realize that this is a pretty strong strategy to think of when deciding which cards to activate or not each round..
The game is surprisingly simple to play, and the single player aid in the corner of the board is really all that is necessary to remember the steps in the game. The art on the cards is nice, and the icons are pretty intuitive. If there are any questions, essentially every type of icon is explained on the final two pages of the rules. I do wish that the goods tokens are not the same size as the ones printed on the order card, and my OCD brain really wants to be able to stack the chits right on top of the matching icons on the cards. Also, I found the numbers to the right of the favor track to be a bit small and confusing in our first play. It might have been more ergonomic to split up the numbers somehow, maybe move one of them to the left of the space – but once you play a few times, you know where to look, and it isn’t too problematic.
With a few games in, this game could definitely fit into the super filler genre. Without needing to explain rules, the game can clearly fit into a 30 minute window. As there isn’t any interaction between players, play happens simultaneously in each of the twelve card rounds, and it doesn’t take long to do the end of round cleanup to score the cannons, books, etc. I’m looking forward to further plays to see if I can learn how to better play my cards. So many things to do in just twelve turns!
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Dale Y
- Not for me…