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THE MAGNATES from PHALANX GAMES QUALITY QUALITY QUALITY This may seem like it's becoming an obsession with me, but when...






This may seem like it's becoming an obsession with me, but when games are so consistently well produced it's still got to be celebrated and The Magnates deserves being celebrated.

As Phalanx Games is a Polish company, it may come as no surprise that its theme derives from the complex history of Poland and Lithuania  and this is presented on a stunning mounted board depicting five Provinces that up to five players will struggle to gain area control of by having placed the most estates in them.

To achieve this each player will use an identical hand of thirteen cards. These large, Tarot-size cards depicting 12 noblemen and one noble lady are most gorgeously illustrated with their portraits and  a brief historical note on each personage.  In total, that's 65 individual historical portraits with information and below is an example of just one player's hand.

While the front of each set presents a splendid heraldic crest and motto.
In addition there are 25 Conflict cards depicting historical battles, which though contributing little written information, add strongly to the physical splendour of the components.
Finally, a deck of Privilege cards completes the array, with icons related to game play, more stylish illustrations and text explaining their specific effect when played.
Besides so much finery there is a range of other physical items depending on whether you have the first or second edition.  In the first edition all these are excellent wooden pieces, whether the few unique ones for special purposes ...
or each player's set of estate markers in their own colour.  In the second edition, the latter are replaced by the type of very colourful cardboard markers here displayed for use by the red player [typically my favourite choice].
Some strong opinions have been expressed by those who favour the simple wooden pieces, though I personally prefer these detailed artistic images of stately houses.  So, this is a game that appeals hugely to the eye in all its art work and is backed by an equally stunning rule book with page after page of rules minutely illustrated with pictorial examples of every step of the system.
Nor is it a system that is heavy on rules or over long to play.  In brief this is a game of area control largely governed by the cards gained through a series of blind auctions.

There are four Rounds of three basic Phases: the first Phase is the Senate  in which each player will in turn play three cards from their hand of 15 cards, one card each on three out of the four Senator cards shown in the picture below.
Each Senator card bestows an advantage and is won by the player playing the highest card.  The first card, and a very powerful card indeed of these Senator cards, is the Primate [a religious title] designated by the ecclesiastical mitre which gives the owner the ability to decide the winner of all tied bids throughout the rest of a Round.

In the second Phase [the Sejm], players play five of their Family cards to gain Privilege cards.  These speak for themselves as they give a variety, usually, of one off-bonuses that can be played in the course of the game, some immediate on receiving the card, some when the player chooses and some have special scoring abilities at the end of the game.  [Hint: these latter can be very important.]

Finally there is the Conflict Phase where five Conflict cards are randomly revealed according to set rules and placed in their appropriate positions on the board.  Each player uses their last five Family cards to secretly place one against each of the five Conflicts.  Once again all are revealed and the total of all the cards played against a Conflict card determines whether the players have won the battle.  This is vitally important, as if the players don't win three out of the five Conflicts, the game ends and everyone loses!

I know a few players who don't like this type of "spoiling" mechanic, but I feel it is absolutely essential to prevent players not just using high point cards in the first two Phases.  Besides it gives a definite frisson of tension during the Conflict and as always there are rewards for the player of the highest card in a victory and penalties for all players in a defeat plus an extra penalty for the player of the lowest numbered card.

As you can imagine, the basic mechanics are very, very simple: play all thirteen of your cards over the three Phases.  It is the game play and the interaction of player dynamics and personalities which make The Magnates such a success for me.

First of all judging which Senator and Privilege cards to play your stronger cards on is both an art and a gamble.  Success is never certain. A typical example is when it's discovered that all the players have thought a card is so valuable that [a] each player has gone for it or [b] they've all decided that they won't manage to win it and so have played lower value cards.

Secondly, the fact that the play of Privilege or Senator cards can often change card values whether to boost or weaken values, so that once again there is a high level of uncertainty to every decision.  Personally, I really rate this sort of challenge and uncertainty and love the sustained anticipation level of the game as the outcome of each card play is revealed, but I have found some who dismiss this element as too luck dependant.

Other players who I've found less enthusiastic  about the game are those who go overboard for what's been labelled "victory point salad" games i.e. games that have a multitude of varied means to gain victory points.  Not that I don't like that type of game, but The Magnates simply provides its enjoyment and excitement from different factors.

Two I've already outlined and the third is the one I mentioned at the start: that this is above all an area control game.  This builds up Round by Round with players vying for Dominance [having more Estates in a Province than all the other players ' Estates combined] or Advantage [having more Estates in a Province than any other individual player].  These bring in the basic victory points, but don't forget those Privilege cards too that may boost your tally and above all beware the power of the Primate card in deciding ties - it's a real double-edged sword.  It may bring you a temporary advantage or even allow you to grant it to another player, but you will also be stacking up potential "enemies" who may exact their justice on you when they too become the holder of the Primate card!

If you too enjoy a beautifully designed game with the features of the system that I've presented then I'd strongly recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Magnates and it's a big thanks to Phalanx for giving me the opportunity to review this edition.