Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Review - Cadwallon: City of Thieves

After the recent announcement that Fantasy Flight Games is putting out an expansion for Cadwallon (a game that many people believed was dead in the water), I thought it was a good opportunity to reproduce the review for the base game that I first published on back in February 2011.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
Designed by Pascal Bernard and Laurent Pouchain
For 2-4 players, aged 8 to adult

When I first heard of Cadwallon I had no knowledge of the background world of the theme (and I still don't), but I was intrigued by what I think is possibly the best artwork I have ever seen for a game. Closer examination revealed beautiful miniatures (man, I am a sucker for the toys), and an interesting concept. Furthermore, the game looked light enough to play quickly, with streamlined rules that still allowed for plenty of strategy. I just had to have it. It went on the Christmas wish list (the only "big" game on the list), and it was presented to me on Christmas morning by my beautiful wife. I was a very happy man.

After playing the game, am I still happy? You betcha.

The basic concept of the game is that there are rival gangs of thieves all operating in a small (incredibly small!) district of a town. The gangs break into houses, steal treasure, and try to get out without being arrested by the militia. It's a great theme, and while it is not 100% accurately represented in the game, there is definitely enough of the flavour there.

The game is presented to a really high standard. The rulebook, is simple and clear, with nice illustrations and more of that beautiful artwork throughout. One quick looked through it and you will pretty much be able to play without any further need to refer to it, which is really good because it means you can focus on the strategy of the game without worrying about little rules and exceptions that might trip you up.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves rules
The rule book for Cadwallon is as pretty as everything else.

The miniatures are fantastic, with lots of detail.I needed to treat mine with hot water (from kettle to cold water) to straighten out some swords, and there is a small amount of flash that would need to be trimmed away if painting. Of course, you can now buy pre-painted models for the game if you want. It's tempting, but there are so many games I want, I doubt I will actually open my wallet for them.

There are 20 models in total: four teams of four thieves, two special characters that are used in certain missions, and two militia soldiers. There are no bad sculpts. Normally, there will be one or two models that I don't like, but in this case I think they are all superb. Furthermore, to make it easy to identify the models, the game ships with sets of plastic bases in different colours (blue, green, yellow and red for the gangs, grey for the militia, purple for the special characters). These bases clip over the bottom of the figures so you can easily identify them during play. You may find that the bases don't stay on, but I would NOT recommend gluing them. If you glue them, you will never be able to mix and match characters from different teams for custom missions. I used a very small blob of white tac on the bottom of each figure, and have had no problem with bases coming off as of yet.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves orc
The miniatures are just as eye-popping as the artwork.

The game also includes standard-sized character reference cards for each gang member, special character, and militia soldiers. These cards show a nice picture of the character (which matches the sculpt of the model for easy recognition), and the stats and special skills for that character. The cards are colour-coded to match the colour of the model bases, so there really is no confusion during play.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves character cards
The cards for the blue team. What a happy-looking bunch.

Now, you will notice that the stats for each gang member are exactly the same, but this isn't as uninteresting as you might think. Yes, the only difference between characters is that they each have a unique special skill; however, I do not feel this ruins the game in any way. Having every character with the same base statistics for movement, combat, and intelligence simplifies the game so players don't need to keep looking up reference charts and comparing statistics. Simplifying this aspect of the game does not simplify the strategies available to players; and because each gang member gets a unique skill, they all act slightly differently and have something they are good at without the need for lots of small statistical differences.

The game also contains a deck of small-sized arcana (skill cards) and mission cards, six dice, and bunch of thick, high quality tokens. Money is represented by plastic coins in bronze, silver, and gold. The coins are really nice, but I think this was a bad move and the only fault I can make regarding component quality: The plastic coins are embossed, which looks nice, but makes them impossible to stack. I like to stack my victory points (which is what they represent), and this isn't possible. The coins slip and slide all over the table, and it's a bit messy. Furthermore, the coins are not stamped with their value (1, 5, and 10).

The board is not modular: it represents a single district in the town comprising streets and houses, and it is the same in every single game. Where each gang member starts at the beginning of a game may change, but the board is static. The board is also surprisingly small. It is almost impossible not to bump into the militia or enemy gangs (and in four player games all hell can break loose), but this is definitely a good thing. The game would be very stale if gangs could operate at opposite ends of the board and never meet. And if you are not really into person v person type games, fear not - there are as many character skills and arcana cards relating to avoiding combat as there are for improving combat ability. Combat isn't even deadly, it just results in the loser running away (in a direction determined by the winner).

Cadwallon: City of Thieves board
The Cadwallon game board. Thematic and detailed, but easy to use.

The non-fatal combat, and the cards for dodging opponents by sneaking past them or slipping through secret tunnels, makes it clear this game is something a little deeper than a hack and slash fight to the death. It quickly becomes apparent that blocking an opponent's route (models cannot pass each other without using the correct skill or arcana card) can be just as damaging to an opponent's plan as attacking them (which can turn out bad for the attacker in many cases). There is something almost chess-like in trying to block off escape routes, or access points to certain treasures; and when you think you have everything positioned perfectly, there is an equal mix of joy and despair when your opponent plays a combination of arcana cards that allows them to dodge a character, slip through a secret tunnel, dodge a second character, and then pick the lock of a treasure chest to score loads of points.

To make up for the lack of variety of the game board, the last element of the game is a set of four double-sided scenario boards. These boards are large, wonderfully illustrated, clearly written, and give details for eight different scenarios that can be played. In each game, the winner is always the gang that acquired the most loot, but the scenarios shake up the situations under which the loot must be acquired. For example, in one mission, zombies are roaming the streets, making for a hectic, combat-heavy mission; in another mission, an assassin is roaming the streets in an attempt to kill off gang members. The scenarios really do add a lot of variety and flavour without changing any of the core mechanics of the game, or adding complicated exceptions to the rules.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves scenario boards
Cadwallon scenario boards. The Duke appears to be Santa Claus.

So, no complaints on the components, but how does the game play?

I don't want to go into details of the rules, but basically, it's like this... Each player has four gang members with which to raid the district. On a turn, each gang member can perform a movement, and an action (either combat, or stealing a treasure). Each of these actions requires the player to expend an action point, and you only get seven action points a turn. Furthermore, some characters have special skills that can be activated by spending more action points. Obviously, seven action points is not enough to do everything with everyone (you would need a minimum of eight action points), so you have to choose carefully.

Before activating any characters, a player first draws an arcana card. These are one-use skills that can really help with a strategy, and you can use as many as you want at a time (unless in a combat, when the maximum is a single card). Chaining arcana cards, as already explained above, can result in amazing combinations that really change up the game and this can be a lot of fun.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves Arcana cards
Arcana cards are used for lots of sneaky tricks. Or running really fast.

After drawing a card, the player selects one militiaman on the board to activate. Roll a dice, and move the militiaman the number of spaces indicated as desired (unless rolling a six, in which case the militiaman is sleeping). You can attack with a militiaman, if he can reach an opponent's space, but often it is better to use the militia to block street locations or certain rooms.

Cadwallon: City of Thieves miniatures
The night watch, and other formidable foes.

After doing that, the player moves the gang members through the use of the action points. If a character lands on an enemy or militiaman then there will be a fight (unless using a character skill or arcana card that allows the character to sneak past), and if the character lands on a space with a treasure chest, then the character can attempt to take the treasure. For one action point you can attempt to pick a lock (requiring a roll of four or less on a single dice), or for two action points you can smash it open (requiring no roll).

After a certain number of turns (based on scenario) an alarm sounds and most of the routes off the board are blocked. Characters then have a few turns to escape with their loot, resulting in some very tense rounds. Any characters that don't get off the board are arrested, and the loot they are carrying is not scored.

That's basically it (okay, there are a few rules about scoring missions and combat that I haven't gone into, but I've detailed the major stuff). It sounds simple - too simple - and it IS simple. However, simple rules does not mean a simple game...

There is strategy available to players - you are not just moving and rolling dice. Knowing when to fight and when to block a certain location; knowing when to pick a lock and when to break it; knowing when to chain arcana cards; knowing which exits to block, knowing which types of treasures to steal... There is just a lot going on. Games with more players are quite chaotic, but two-player games certainly have a tense, chess-like feel to them as the limited number of characters cautiously try to out-manoeuvre each other. Okay - I am not going to lie and say this is the deepest strategy game in the world, but there is enough strategy to keep gamers entertained; just don't expect a brain-burner.

If the game sacrifices a certain deep level of strategy, it certainly makes up for it in other ways. The streamlined rules means you can focus on having fun without rulebook flicking, and the level of player interaction results in great situations that should have everyone at the table laughing. This game is pure fun.

There's plenty more I could say, but I might leave that for another day. For now, I will sign off with this overview...

Many years ago, my parents bought me Heroquest. It was quick to learn, and easy to play, with gorgeous miniatures and gorgeous artwork. It was dripping with theme and fired my imagination. I used to spend hours flicking through the cards and staring at the miniatures when I couldn't find anyone to play with. The game didn't have particularly deep strategy to it (although there was some strategy), but it was huge amounts of fun to play. Cadwallon is my modern-day Heroquest.

Gamers today may claim that Cadwallon is too simple, but I don't agree. This is one of those good old-fashioned fun games. It doesn't need to overload you with rules and tactics, and you certainly will not miss them if you let yourself get sucked into the theme.

This game is fun.

That's what it wants to be, and that's what it is.


  1. Lets hope you're right. A copy arrived via eBay a few days ago and tomorrow it gets cracked open and I'll give it a go.

    1. I hope you enjoy it. I think this game doesn't get as much love as it should.


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