Alright, folks, this is one that literally took me completely by surprise--a game that was not even on my radar previous to its release *at all*, and yet is a game that is completely up my alley. It's a fantastic co-op themefest straight from the minds of...Ystari Games?!? Just what is going on here?
Instinct, survivalism. One against all, against one
Mousquetaires du Roy (Ystari/Rio Grande Games, 2-6 players, 90 minutes) is truly a rarity for me--it has been a long time since I have been "surprised" by a game. Sure, I've been introduced to my fair share of games that I've never heard of, but unfortunately there are often good reasons I haven't heard of said game before--it's usually because the game is a middlin' of the pack type game with little to distinguish it from the sea of other games out there. And in the internet age, with information so readily available, the cream generally rises and they hype machine for "worthy" games kicks into full gear.
I was sent a review copy of Mousquetaires du Roy, and prior to talking with Jay Tummelson about it, I hadn't heard a peep about it before. Which is fine and dandy when it comes to games about trading goods in the middle ages, but this was a game about combat, treachery, war (albeit abstractedly) and intrigue, featuring heroism, dice-based combat, and hey, what the hell, little plastic miniatures too. My interest went from zero to piqued in no time flat.
I'm trying to wean myself from heavy rules summaries in my reviews and trying to perfect the art of general overviews, so I'll give you a high-level idea of how the game plays, and then give you my opinions on the components and gameplay.
'Twas a glorious time, swords and swoons and magic harpoons
The Queen's jewels are missing--namely, she has given them to her lover. The Milady de Winter, under the guidance of Cardinal Richelieu, finds this the perfect time to strike, by organizing an event that the Queen is obligated to attend. If she attends them without her jewels, though...scandal! Intrigue! Heartburn!
Enter The King's Musketeers, those heroes of legend featuring D'artagnan and company (thankfully, there is no bare Gerard Depardieu ass to be found here.) Their quest is to find and return the Queen's jewels before the event takes place. However, if it were only that simple, as not only is there a war effort going on that is need of heroes, but Milady will stop at nothing to ensure her plot succeeds.
One side takes on the roles of the Musketeers, facing off against a single player who controls Milady and her constant bodyguard, Rochefort, a much-feared and extremely deadly swordsman. The Musketeers have one way to win--overcome the four quest boards and successfully return the Queen's jewels. However, there are multiple ways for them to lose and Milady win. Time is against the Musketeers, and should they not succeed in time, the Queen faces immediate dishonor. But Milady does not sit idle, and constantly launches plots and rumors at the Louvre that threaten to dishonor the Queen long before the deadline hits. Then there is the war effort she is sabotaging, her meddling requiring the attention of the Musketeers, for if the war ends badly, Milady will win. Lastly, Milady continually threatens D'artagan's beloved Constance in Paris, and during the game can attempt to kidnap her and strangle her with her bare hands. Should this happen, the Musketeers also lose.
The game board is abstract with the locations depicted individually, and throughout the game the Musketeers will move from place to place, thwarting Milady's plans and working to succeed in their quest in time. Milady will throw out henchmen and traps to slow down or injure the Musketeers and protect her various plots and plans. Milady moves in secret each turn, but unlike Dracula, she is often itching for a fight thanks to Rochefort at her side, who is more than a match for any of the Musketeers.
Challenges are beaten by matching or exceeding the value of one of four skills. Each Musketeer possesses the different skills in varying amounts, making each of them more suited to handle particular challenges. Like other co-op games there is a shared deck of cards that the Musketeers can use to help them. Most of them are combat cards or stat-boosting cards for overcoming fights and challenges, though there are some event cards mixed in there as well.
Fights are dealt with by each side rolling dice. Every character has a combat rating, 3 for the Musketeers and varying for the different villains they will have to face. The Musketeers can play combat cards to increase the dice they roll for an individual battle. The Musketeer dice have three icons, swords, shields, and la fleurs. La Fleurs are used to trigger "Secret Maneuvers", and if you roll a set of them matching your current Maneuver (which is three La Fleurs for all but D'artagnan, who has a better Secret Maneuver at the start than his companions) then you instantly win the duel.
Otherwise, swords and shields are compared, with shields cancelling swords. Each side takes damage equal to the unblocked shields. Very straightforward battle system, and it forces the Musketeers to carefully consider when to use their combat cards to better their odds in duels.
Since Milady moves in secret, if a Musketeer ends up in certain locations where she has chosen to go, Rochefort will intervene, and he is a fearsome foe with five health and is also capable of acheiving a Secret Maneuver, making him very tough to beat. Should the Musketeers injure him enough though, it will limit Milady's movement options, as she will not go to certain locations without his protection until Rochefort has been healed. So while Rochefort is very tough, she can't use him willy-nilly because there is risk if he is hurt too badly.
And so the game continues, with the Musketeers putting out fires from location to location, defeating the challenges laid out before them, overcoming Milady's henchmen and traps, and hopefully completing her quest. Meanwhile Milady moves in secret, launching plots, interfering with the Musketeers, and trying to win via any of her possible victory conditions. It's all very thematic, hugely conflict driven, with lots of combat and adventure.
If you do one little job, you build a widget in Saskatoon
The best part about this game is what a solid production it is. First off I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the gorgeous artwork, which is intentionally done in the same style as French comic books, and has a striking, distinct style.
The board is mounted and there is much of the same style artwork littering the individual locations. Again, some aren't going to care for this more abstract style of board with just the blocked off sections and no proper "geography" so to speak, but the rich artwork makes up for this I think, and there is plenty of room in each location for all the cards and figures that need to go there, so the whole thing works very well.
There are plastic miniatures that are nicely molded. There are only five, one for each Musketeer and one for Milady, and each is a single color. Though I am not a painter, there appears to be plenty of detail on these figures worth painting, and having only the five would make for a relatively easy project.
There are stacks of cards and nice thick cardboard chits. The chits are mostly used to provide equipment that the Musketeers can purchase during the game, including improving their skills, upgrading their Secret Maneuver, or horses for a "free" move each turn, and lots more. There are little heart tokens for tracking the health of the Musketeers and Rochefort, with the Musketeers having individual character cards and Rochefort's stats being tracked on the board.
Last is a little timer that is used for one of Milady's Treachery cards, and the card forces the Musketeers to all finish their turn before the hourglass runs out.
I was really impressed with the production quality. The artwork is really well done and isn't the same "fantasy" artwork you're probably used to seeing, though they couldn't resist sexing up Milady quite a bit. I read one review calling her makeover "Lara Croftian", and that's pretty accurate, except she really doesn't do the fighting herself, leaving that for Rochefort's deadly blade.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the issues some players have had getting through the rules. I will admit that the rules themselves are somewhat poorly organized, with rules scattered across sections that will have you flipping back and forth at first. It's not that the rules are bad or incomplete, it's just that they are organized badly. You can do what I do and just come up with a rules summary of your own, that's what we used to get through our first game and I think after that first game everything is pretty much going to make sense.
There are a few other niggles such as incomplete translations (one of Milady's cards refers to her taking a "Perfidy" card, though this deck is quite clearly her "Treachery" deck in every other part of the rules) or ambiguous wording (the game uses "pick" for "draw", which can confuse some American players who are used to using "pick" as a "search the deck" kind of word.) Most of these are translation headaches that could have been handled better, but still I think that most gamers will be able to work through these issues just fine.
It's like thinking without thinking, just letting thoughts flow away
The all versus many style of game is a great compromise for groups who are mixed on their opinions on co-ops. You kind of get the best of both worlds with these style of games, as one side gets to work as a team, but there is still a thinking enemy player rather than one controlled by a game-scripted A.I.
I know that "finding the Queen's jewels" sounds like the plot from some fluffy card game (in fact, it is, isn't it?) but the things going on inside the game are anything but. I mean, seriously, one of the victory conditions for the villain player is STRANGLING SOMEONE WITH THEIR BARE HANDS. That's hardcore.
If I do have any issues with the game, it seems early on that Milady is a very, very powerful foe. She needs to be as she's facing down all the Musketeers, but with her multiple win conditions that she can set in motion and then simply act as spoiler by interfering in various locations, I think her job is possibly the easier one until players get up to speed on the strategies for the Musketeers. It's very easy for the good guys to get too wrapped up in the other things going on, forgetting that there's only one way for them to win--by overcoming the four quest boards to find the Queen's jewels. But it's easy to get distracted by the war, by Milady's plots in Paris, by all the traps and henchmen...the Musketeers are on a *very* tight time budget. In fact, Milady has cards that can speed up the game's clock, and these cards are extremely tough to deal with when the game clock is already so tight. The Musketeers can earn an "All for One" card for accomplishing certain deeds, and one of the uses for this card is to prevent the game clock from moving for a whole turn, and can even be used to cancel Milady's treachery card that does this. They should make it their goal to win one of these All for One cards ASAP, and one of the handicap options is to allow the Musketeers to start with one. I think this is a good idea, honestly.
So you get the individual things for the different Musketeers to work on, and luckily where some co-op games have very mundane tasks in terms of gameplay execution, most of the time the things the Musketeers must accomplish are varied and interesting. Each quest board has its own special rules that will have them escaping through secret passages, making a midnight ride while dispatching foes in the dark, and even taking on the identity of someone else to help them in their quest.
All in all, this is a tense, fun game that may have some issues with Milady being a very strong foe, but that might just be inexperience talking. The gameplay is fast, frenetic, varied, and fun, the bits and artwork are great, and this ranks right on up there with the best co-ops/team games that I've had the chance to play. If you're into this style of game *at all*, you owe it to yourself to give this one a look.
One thing's for sure--I wasn't used to looking to Ystari games for this style of game, but you'd better believe they're on my radar now. This is an excellent game, and one worth fighting through the rule book over.
My Verdict: 4.0 (out of 5.0)
Ken is a member of the Fortress: Ameritrash staff. Click here for more board game articles by Ken.