The Road to Canterbury Review: Sinning for fun and profit!

Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,

Introduction

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About a year past, game designer and fellow medieval history enthusiast Alf Seegert let slip that he was designing a board game based around Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I was thrilled to hear this! I absolutely love the Canterbury tales, which changed forever my view of medieval literature and the medieval mindset. A game by Alf, based in that world was sure to be wonderful. As you’ll see, I have not been disappointed!

Say you’re living in the 14th century and looking to make a quick buck.  What do you do? Why you service the thriving pilgrim industry, helping out those heading to Canterbury by pardoning their sins.  Of course, you’re selling forged pardons but hey, the industry isn’t regulated so who’s to say it’s actually wrong?  The game’s designer, Alf Seegert is no stranger to game design, having already created two gems in Bridge Troll and Trollhalla.  Now he’s giving us something new, through Eagle and  Gryphon Games which, while a bit complex at first, boils down to a grand old time with strategy, humor and a bit of luck thrown in.  Read on to get an overview of the game and find out a bit more about our friend Geoffrey.

You may have heard of this Chaucer guy before. Geoffrey Chaucer (with obligatory Wikipedia link) was the break out best selling author of the 14th century. His tales were interesting, baudy, funny, touching and could be read and enjoyed by many different classes of people at the time. Today they give us one of the clearest windows into the 14th century mindset we have. If you want to know what would make a a smith, a milk maid and a noble born aristocrat titter like a modern day school girl, well this is it.

He’s known as the father of English Literature and for good reason. Firstly, he wrote in English. We take it for granted now, but he essentially codified what we now know as Middle English, setting the stage for later authors to compose in modern English.  What this means for us is that reading the Canterbury Tales in their original spelling is almost possible without a ton of training. After a bit of a mental adjustment and a handy Middle English dictionary, you can cruise through Chaucer and get the meaning of nearly everything very quickly.

The Game

And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
In The Road to Canterbury, you play a medieval pardoner who sells certificates delivering sinners from the eternal penalties brought on by these Seven Deadly Sins. You make your money by peddling these counterfeit pardons to Pilgrims traveling the road to Canterbury. Perhaps you can persuade the Knight that his pride must be forgiven? Surely the Friar’s greed will net you a few coins? The Miller’s wrath and the Monk’s gluttony are on full public display and demand pardoning! The Wife of Bath regales herself in luxury, the Man-of-Law languishes in idleness, and that Prioress has envy written all over her broad forehead. And the naughty stories these Pilgrims tell each other are so full of iniquity they would make a barkeep blush! Pardoning such wickedness should be easy money, right?

In your role as the Pardoner

(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

How it works

At its heart there is a simple premise. You’re playing the part of a Pardoner. You meet pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and attempt to sell them pardons for their sins.  That’s the simplest answer but it’s not where the fun comes in.

As a pardoner, you’re not actually selling legitimate pardons, they’re all forgeries. Fakes. Bunk! Those sins you’re pardoning them for? Well you’re the one tempting them to sin in the first place. Now the fun is arriving. Bucket loads of highly profitable fun!

This effort to pardon them brings a nice financial reward with it. But you have to manage your pilgrims carefully. There are other pardoners on the road to Canterbury and they’re all attempting to profit as well. Don’t forget those seven deadly sins. In this game, they really are deadly. If a pilgrim accrues seven sins, they shuffle off this mortal coil, hopefully leaving you with the bulk of their hard earned gold.

You’re helped by a series of ‘holy relics’ conveniently left behind by various saints. These are utterly fake as well but sure come in handy when they’re needed to get a bit of extra oomph out of your pardon.  And by ‘oomph’, I mean gold.

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

The Components

You’ll find a bunch of game components neatly packed away in the box. One of my favorite things about modern board games are the thoughtful designs publishers are putting into their boxes. Inside many new games you’ll find a simple, effective, plastic storage center where you can divide components out and which keeps them from tumbling around while the box is moved. The Road to Canterbury is no exception.

You’ll find a whole stack of coins in various denominations, a large stock of three differently colored ‘corruption cubes, several decks of cards, three player reference cards, three bags to squirrel your ill gotten gains away in and the main circle of sin, which comprises the place where the bulk of the action happens. You’ll also have a few Last Rites tokens and a separate board for your decks. Last but not least, each Road to Canterbury game comes with its very own Parson. A little wooden dude who roams about the circle of sin letting the players know which sin is particularly obnoxious in the eyes of the church at that moment.

The Rules

And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,

Here’s the nitty gritty of the game.  Each player starts the game with five randomly chosen sin cards. These are the cards you use to tempt pilgrims as they make their way to Canterbury. These five cards form your hand, which at the start of your turn will always be five cards. You’ll be able to pick up pardon cards and relics as the game goes on to supplement your basic stock of deadly sins.

Every time you successfully play a sin card on a pilgrim, you get to put a corruption cube of your color on the appropriate space on the circle of sin. If you’re the first got inflict all seven types of deadly sins on various unsuspecting pilgrims, you get a nice cash bonus. Second and third players to do this also receive cash, but  a lot less. In this game, whenever you receive a payment of any type, it immediately goes into your cash purse and is hidden so the other players don’t know exactly how much money you’ve made.

During your turn, you may play any one card. Play a sin card, pardon card or drop a relic into the mix.  Play a sin card and get your corruption cube on to the appropriate space in the circle of sin. Play a pardon card and pardon a pilgrim of one type of sin, while collecting a payment to do so. If the Parson currently sits on that sin in the circle of sin, you get a bit of extra cash. Play a relic card and you get to do all kinds of interesting things, depending on the  particular relic.

The more sins of a particular type that a pilgrim has, the more a pardon card will earn you when you ‘forgive’ the pilgrim of those sins. But be careful, because when a pilgrim has seven sin cards (pardoned or not) they die, and your chance to make more money pardoning their sins dies with them. Not to worry though, if you’ve had the most corrupting influence on that pilgrim, you still get a nice cash bonus as you all pick up and move further down the road to Canterbury.

Add in to this mix the death cards, which count towards the total number of sins given (and pardoned) and things start to get fun!

Whoever assisted that pilgrim of the next world performs last rites and collects a last rites token, which gives them a chance at an extra turn or to collect a bit more cash at the end of the game.

At the end of the game, everyone settles up. The pardoner with the most cash celebrates by winning the game and presumably heads of to the coast to enjoy their new life as a wealthy retiree.

Actual Play

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

I should add a bit of a disclaimer here. Being a geek, a past-medievalist and a Chaucer enthusiast, as well as a die-hard table top gamer, this game rubbed all the right spots for me. Having gotten that out of the way, lets look at the high points, the low points and the rest of it.  I was able to play several games, with both hard core gamers and casual gamers and found that they reacted very differently to the game.

High Points

This game is fun. In an slightly underhanded and dirty backstabbing way, it’s a lot of fun. I can see lots of strategies developing (and differing with two or three players) where you struggle to get your hooks into pilgrims faster than your opponents.

The replay-ability factor is high – I could go to this game just about any time I’m looking for a quick board game fix and enjoy it.

Once you get the hang of it, play progresses quickly with a three player game taking just a bit longer than a half hour.

The humor in the game adds a lot to it and makes for some chuckle inducing moments at every game.

This game is well constructed, when you get right down the physicality of it. It won’t fall apart on you and has that good, solid feel only well made games can impart.

The fiddly bits (which I’ll get to next) do offer a good amount of strategic options – there are many paths to victory, not just one, and sometimes they can come as a surprise to the other players.

Low Points

There are a lot of fiddly bits that need to be manipulated during every turn. Once you get the hang of everything, they become second nature and aren’t much of a detriment. What it did do though is scare off some of the more casual players.

The rules, as they are written were a bit tough to muddle through the first time. After actually playing they all fell in to place in a slapping your forehead kind of way. I’ve gone back and re-read them and I’m not quite sure how they might be redone to make things easier. The bottom line is, a lot happens in this game over the course of a half hour.

The Rest

While the fiddly bits may be a barrier to introducing the game to new folks, it’s one I’d encourage you to hurdle over with great speed. The long and short of it is, this game is fun, funny and mechanically sound. As I stated in the High Points, though there’s a lot going on at any given time, that also allows the players to take many different roads to victory. You’ve got to watch your back here or someone else may just go bounding down the way behind you with the pilgrims you thought were firmly in your clutches.

If you’d like a more graphical presentation of the fiddly bits and how to get past the initial “look at all the cubes!” portion of the learning curve, Alf’s devised a useful and well accented video tutorial.

Game mechanics and pieces aside, the artwork is wonderful, from the box to the cards and makes this game a stand out in my collection for pure viewing pleasure.

The Afterglow

Yes, the game edges towards the complex but I’ll state it again, it’s well worth getting through that complexity and into the thick of the game. You can tell that a lot of thought and a lot of play testing went into this which results in a well balanced and fun experience.

To get into a bit more of the nitty-gritty, there’s a mechanic that I really like, in which several of the cards from every deck are turned face up and occupy the deck board, while the rest of the deck remains hidden. So with sin and pardon cards, you can take a chance, or if you see something face up that you really want – grab that! It lends a bit more strategy to the game while still giving the cards their randomness as well.

Little touches like that, the humor inherent in the system, the wonderful artwork, and the joy of riffing off of the Canterbury Tales make this game for me.

I can very much see this as an iOS or Android board game app.  With the app to take care of the mechanical bits this game would flow very fast and be just as much fun virtually as it is at the table.

In Conclusion

This review could have gone in several different directions, as far as composition. I gave up early on with puns of all types (although I’ve left a few in there for you to find). The game does well enough on its own without my attempts at puns both good and bad.

As for the game itself, I enjoyed it very much.

I generally give games I review a numeric score between 1 and 5, with 5 being the best you could hope for. I’m going to give this game two different scores however.

I give it a 5 out of 5 for veteran gamers and those who enjoy interesting mechanics and game play on the more complex side.

I give it a 4 out of 5 as a game for everyone else. The fiddly bits and rules needed to explain the mechanics can weigh a bit heavily on initial game play and may put some off at first.

All games aren’t for everyone. I wouldn’t use Road to Canterbury to introduce someone to board games. As well I wouldn’t hesitate to whip it out during a game night or at a convention and sling some sins around the place though. Those who like deeper games will get a kick out of it’s quick play and quirky but effective mechanics.  Everyone (except perhaps evangelical Christians) will get a kick out of the humor. The high points far outweigh the low points in this solid, fun and sinfully delightful game.

Want to learn more about Alf and the Road to Canterbury? Check out the Continuum’s excellent interview.

Editor’s note: I have photos of some actual play sessions. Due to some badly behaving software, I haven’t gotten it sorted out yet but I’ll post them as soon as I can.

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