Given all the fuss that had been made online about the painted figures for Cadwallon: City of Theives it’s kind of surprising that the game hasn’t actually made that big an impact since release. It certainly hadn’t impacted me particularly. So I was both surprised and pleased to get an unexpected review copy of it from Fantasy Flight Games and doubly so because, with a promised 60-minute play time, it was a game I might actually have a realistic chance of getting to play face-to-face. And so it proved.
However, forming an opinion on the game was far trickier. Cadwallon: City of Theives it turns out, is something like an onion. Not in the sense that it tastes delicious, stinks the house out and makes you cry of course, although I can see it doing the latter to more sensitive Euro-types who might unwisely try to tackle it. No, it’s like an onion in the sense that it reveals it’s charms layer by layer. What you see is most definitely not what you get in the end and if you want to decide exactly what you think of it, you’ll need to keep peeling away those layers to find out what’s underneath the next one. So it’s a great shame that a lot of people seem to have scratched the surface, found what looks like an inedible brown papery skin and given up. Because the center of the game is decidedly more interesting.
The first layer you’ll find, which might liken to the brightly-coloured, heavily branded bag that you bring your onions home in from the supermarket, is the presentation. And frankly this is the best looking onion-bag you’ll ever seen in your whole life. The box art is pretty good. The rulebook art is just fantastic: indeed in fine Fantasy Flight tradition the rulebook is considerably larger than it needs to be for what is in fact a very simple game to play but the extra space isn’t devoted to play examples or flavour text but to jaw-dropping artwork. The board is a masterful example of the fine art of combining great art with great clarity and functionality. Same goes for the adventure boards that detail a variety of different scenarios to play. If that were not enough the game comes with twenty individually sculpted miniatures, all totally different from each other, all well sculpted and detailed and crying out to be painted. I was also delighted to find that the game comes with a load of finely detailed plastic coins, the sort you can run through your fingers and gloat over as you accumulate it, and drop in your spilt beer with no ill effects. Infinitely superior to badly printed paper money and unthematic poker chips. And there are cards which aren’t quite so good - they’re a little thin and the art is a little more run of the mill - but which are still better than most cards you find in games. This is certainly one of the best-looking games I’ve ever seen, perhaps even the best-looking game I’ve ever seen. Production wise, it’s just superb.
The next layer is your first play of the game. And there, for a lot of people, you’re going to find that brown papery skin I talked about. Some gamers might find it more unappetising than others but it’s going to be off-putting to some extent to most. You see Cadwallon: City of Theives is built on a decidedly old-school game engine, the sort that went out of fashion at the end of the eighties. Dice are used for almost everything, and there’s no concessions here to fancy, hoity-toity stuff like probability curves or re-roll tokens and suchlike - it’s just a couple of dice and success or failure with important consequences either way. To gain treasure thieves usually either have to pick a lock which is one dice, succeeding on 1-4, or steal it off another thief in which case both roll two dice and highest single number wins, Risk style. That’s it: brutally simple and to the point and there’s no way this game is long enough, or involves enough dice rolling for luck to mostly even out over the course of the game. And to make matters worse some of the thieves have special abilities like gaining extra treasure if they roll 1-2 on that lock-picking attempt. There’s no denying that luck has a massive, massive impact in this game to a modern gamers palette that’s your bitter onion skin right there. While you’re chewing on that inedible rind you’ll probably find some other stuff to spoil your appetite. You might complain that it’s stupid that all the thieves have the same stats, or that the special abilities across different teams of thieves aren’t balanced, or that this is more of a game about brute force than stealth. And if you’ve got no sense of adventure, or perspective, or that brand new copy of Milch und Gurken is just nagging you to get its shrink-wrap off and get into the ever-lengthening play queue you’ll probably give up and go off and dump a low rating and a negative comment about the game on your favourite gaming forum and never look at Cadwallon: City of Theives again.
And you’ll be very silly to have done so. Would you throw out a perfectly good onion, just because you don’t like the skin?
Because if you keep on peeling, you’ll find the stuff underneath is pretty tasty. Especially if it’s cooked. And you’ll find there’s quite a lot of it as well. Because sat on top of that terrifyingly archaic dice-based game engine are some aspects of design so modern that they practically hurt. The game hands you a team of four thieves, and for each one it costs an action point to move and an action point to either pick open a chest or attack another character. Not to mention the fact that you have the very un-archaic and un-random option of spending two AP’s to get an automatic success when opening a chest, or three AP’s to take a mission card and perhaps cash in some of your treasures for extra gold or even the option of activating special abilities for an AP cost. And to do all this the game hands you a measly 7 AP’s a turn, for a paltry seven turns. That’s nothing. Every turn you’ll be wishing there was a card or something you could use to squeeze one more measly point or one more turn out of the system but no - seven of seven is all you’re ever going to get. That means you can’t even move and attack with all your team every turn. All you can do is try, desperately, with your special abilities and a hand of event cards and a misery seven action points, to navigate your way around all those other thieves and some guardsmen on the board and those treacherous, treacherous dice and try and make the best of it. And it’s not obvious, nor is it easy.
Basically the trick this game pulls is to make most things pretty lightweight but to hand the player a startling array of things to keep track of and then give them bugger all to actually achieve those ends with. You’re not actually allowed to move through a space occupied by another character and the board is agonizingly tight even with two (I didn’t try with the maximum of four, but I can only imagine it’d be an absolute bloodbath). Plus to make the most of your loot your thieves have to get off the board by the end of turn seven, even though halfway through the game the players get to collaborate in blocking off half the exits. So plotting movement paths and blocking enemy routes is a major point of tactics in the game. So is what you collect: each character can only carry three treasures but some can give you instant cash without taking up a space, and others are worth more if you collect them in sets. So juggling what you need to pick up is a major headache, especially when you factor in those mission cards which reward you for collecting treasures of a certain type. And then of course, pick up too much stuff and you’re an instant target for attack.
Round about now while you’re enjoying munching on that tasty onion you’ll probably start to revise some of those earlier negative opinions. Yes, all characters have the same stats but on the other hand they all have special abilities. No, those abilities aren’t always balanced but hey that’s part of the fun when it comes to multi-player combat games. Yes, there’s a lot more combat than there is stealth in the game but isn’t mugging a form of thievery? And ultimately what does it matter if the dice do kick you in the teeth from time to time, overturn all those carefully crafted options that the game offers the players and sends you home crying for mummy when the game really does wrap up in around an hour? It actually feels like a real treat to be offered something which is so obviously a throwback to the good old days of dice and unfettered multi-player bloodshed now that it’s being offered to you with all the extraneous crap cut off, the rules and play time cut down, and enough analysis layered over the top to make sure that just about the majority of the time it’s the decisions and not the dice that win the day. Occasionally the result is a game that falls flat on its face but usually ends up lean, mean, exciting and tense.
And finally, the heart of any vegetable is usually its most tender and tasty part, right? Just when you’ve decided that Cadwallon: City of Theives is actually pretty fun as a lightweight combat game that you can eat between meals of big game(s) without ruining your appetite someone will remember that there are all those scenario boards in the box and try something other than the default adventure. And then you’ll discover that the game boats variety amongst its charms as well. The scenarios aren’t just minor setup variations or rules tweaks, they’re substantially different from one another and they draw in all sorts of different themes for you to explore. There are townsfolk to encounter, assassins to run away from, even zombies to cut down by the dozen. There’s even a scenario that supports a fifth player should you want one, although how anyone would ever move more than a couple of spaces in such a setup I can barely imagine. There’s enough to keep you going here for a goodly number of repeat plays.
In the interests of pursuing the onion analogy and of serving up a variety of vegetable-related puns, it’s possible I’ve oversold Cadwallon: City of Theives slightly. It does, after all, occupy a pretty crowded bit of design space and it can be quite incredibly, irritatingly, annoyingly chaotic. But most of the time the surprise coupling of neanderthal-style dice rolling and modern action point management complement each other rather than stepping on each others’ toes and the game works. And the other hand the manner in which it’s been so thoroughly ignored thus far is little short of criminal. It’s a fun game and well worth your time and attention, especially given it’s relatively low price and stunning art in this era of raising prices whilst trimming production quality. It's about time the balance was redressed.