Game Designer: Scott Almes
Artwork: Ian Rosenthaler, Benjamin Shulman
Ages: 14 and up
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Suggested Retail Price: $45
The Papal Throne
Hot on the heels of the incredibly successful Tiny Epic Western, Gamelyn Games is teaming up with Talon Strikes Studios to bring us another title from Tiny Epic designer Scott Almes. Although not another game in the Tiny Epic line, House of Borgia does promise an epically good time of a different sort and one that is surely not to be missed.
House of Borgia is a 2-6 player mix of liar’s dice, hidden roles and social deduction where players bluff, accuse and manipulate their way through the inner workings of the Catholic Church in the waning years of the 15th century. You maneuver your assigned Cardinal puppet up the rungs of the Papal ladder, gathering the most influence to get them elected Pope and win the game.
Having really enjoyed the Showtime series led by the masterful Jeremy Irons as the devious Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia who weaves his way up to become Pope Alexander VI, I was enamored by the games setting. The games mechanics are simple and smooth, fitting the theme perfectly and creating one of the most enjoyable social deduction games that I’ve ever played.
During setup, player’s get a screen and a set amount of dice per player count, (four with for 5-6, five with 3-4 and six with 2 players) and a Cardinal puppet card that is known only to them. Cardinal mats are laid out in a ladder like column with two influence tokens added to the collection plates of each Cardinal mat before players roll to see who goes first.
The rounds consist of three phases:
- Bidding and Action
- Calling a Bluff
- Rallying Influence
At the start of every round, players secretly roll their dice behind their player screens and the first player begins by bidding on an action they want to use based on the amount of symbols they surmise are available across the secret, yet collective pool of community dice.
The starting bid must be a minimum of one but the start player can opt to go as high as they choose, putting pressure on the following players who must each increase their guesses by at least one when it’s their turn.
The actions that the players are bidding on are:
Bribe – Move one Cardinal mat to the very top or bottom of the ladder. The top Cardinal cannot move to the top, only to the bottom.
Poison – Remove a total of 2 influence tokens from one or two Cardinal mats and place them back into the bank of tokens.
Judgement – Move a total of 2 influence tokens between Cardinal mats. Either 2 tokens from one to another or 1 token from two different Cardinals placed on two other Cardinal mats.
Accusation – Accuse a Cardinal of being the Antipope, this Cardinal cannot gain or lose influence but can still be moved in a bribe.
Rumor – Place a rumor card in front of another player, trying to ferret out their motivation. If the rumor card matches the players sect at the end of the game (for example, they are correctly rumored to be a Simonist), that player cannot win regardless of the amount of influence they’ve earned.
Fate – This acts as a wild
To give an example; the starting player in a six player game rolls a bribe, accusation and two fate symbols and decides to play it slow and safe, opting for three bribes as their opening bid. The player to their immediate left (all actions go clockwise) knows that the odds of there being at least three bribe symbols in play across all 24 dice is very high so does not call the bluff.
The bidding player now carries out the bribe action by moving a Cardinal mat to the top or bottom of the ladder. The bid then passes to the player who was just charged with allowing or calling the bluff, now they bid on any action including the same one, as long as they bid four or higher in this instance.
When a bluff is called all players reveal their dice and count the symbol bid on across all dice. If the number meets or exceeds the bid, the bidder carries out the action and the player who called the bluff loses one die. Likewise, if the bidder was caught in a bluff, they lose a die.
At this point, the round closes out with phase three where it is time to rally influence. The top three Cardinals all receive payouts of 3, 2 and 1 influence tokens in descending order from first through third spot on the ladder unless there is an Antipope marker on them, that Cardinal earns no influence until the Antipope marker is moved using the accusation action.
The player’s roll again in secret and the player that just lost a die begins the process as the new first player, with the minimum opening bid again being at least one. Play continues this way until one player has lost all of their dice, leading to one last rally of influence payout before the tokens are counted and a winner determined. Everyone then reveals their identities and if a rumor card matches a player, they are eliminated and their influence nullified. Players with remaining dice gain 2 more influence per die that they have remaining and the final tally tells who is elected Pope and wins the game.
Lie, Manipulate and Accuse!
As you can see, House of Borgia‘s mechanics are pretty simple to teach and understand, making this a fantastic group game for any level of gamer. The liar’s dice brings a fun push your luck element, actions allow you to maneuver for or block others from gaining influence and the hidden roles present perpetual uncertainty. It is how these mechanics mesh together so well and develop the social interactions at the table that keep you engaged, even when it’s not your turn you’re watching like a hawk to see what happens.
If you’re conniving and tactful you can turn players against each other, coercing them into actions that benefit you or cast suspicion upon another, which is very fitting thematically. This can be all reinforced with deft manipulation and diversion, potentially drawing a rumor or Antipope marker to an opponent in a position of power that you see as a threat.
You will need to do your best to avoid giving away which Cardinal you control because once a correct rumor lands on you it’s damn hard to shake, they tend to stick. It will take a nimble tongue to repeal people’s opinions and wrangle it towards another, but it takes only one to be swayed to make it move.
Or you can opt for the quiet approach; taking safe actions and playing the grey man, invisible in plain sight by taking unprovocative actions that others will disregard. All the while, observing for signs of who controls which Cardinal so that you can take more aggressive actions when the time is right. All of this delicious fun is packed into a mere 30 minutes or less, faster than a Dominos delivery and every bit as tasty!
White Smoke or Black?
I played many games of House of Borgia at BGG CON this past November and was immediately hooked thanks to its fast, engaging play that sucked me right in. Even when it wasn’t my turn, I was watching everyone closely for tells as to which Cardinal they control, by their actions, comments or reactions to other players actions. It’s as much fun figuring out who’s who as it is in determining which actions to take along the way.
What elevated this game above similar titles for me are the interesting social interactions and machinations that are propelled by the mechanics. Subtle plays, clever manipulation of the cardinal mats and strategic obfuscations, both verbally and through the use of rumors, can all pay off very handsomely for the patient player in House of Borgia.
One thing I’d like to see changed if possible would be taller player screens to help limit the chance of players on either side of you seeing your dice since the screen is fairly low and this has happened on a couple of occasions that I’ve played. A screen in the shape of a cathedral, with sloped sides would fit the theme nicely but cost and box size considerations must be taken into account, so this may be unlikely to change.
Just as with any game requiring social interaction, House of Borgia is best with a group that doesn’t shy away from social games or being chatty during them, it plays good at lower player counts but shines brightest with a full complement. With its short and easy to play nature, this is a fantastic option for just about any gaming group.
If you like bluffing and social deduction games like Sheriff of Nottingham, Coup and The Resistance with a push your luck element mixed in, House of Borgia is definitely one to back when it goes live next month. While play time is around the same length as those others, House of Borgia feels much meatier and presents a superior social deduction/hidden role game experience.
Note: A preview copy of this game was provided to me.