16th Aug2017

‘The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Godfather_Box

The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire is the latest game from well regarded veteran designer Eric Lang, featuring the “dudes on a map” style of gameplay that Lang is most famous for, combined with the strong theme of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic movie trilogy. Essentially a game of area control, resource/hand management and trick collection with a twist, Corleone’s Empire manages to be both simple and easy to pick up whilst also quite strategic. Fans of the movie series will benefit from the thematic style and a few nuanced references, but the game would have been just as playable without The Godfather license, as there is no actual gameplay content that relates to Coppola’s script.

In Corleone’s Empire, up to five players compete to earn the most money for their family, each of which is represented on the board by a different set of miniatures with bases of various colours. Each family has different characters and models, and represents one of the actual families from The Godfather canon, however each plays in the same way, and there are no family-specific skills, objectives or other features to differentiate one from another. In addition to a handful of miniatures, each player also receives a metal suitcase that is used to represent their secret stash.

Corleone’s Empire is incredibly straightforward to setup, with each player simply taking their allocated miniatures (a don figure and two thugs, or three in a two player game) and placing the remainder of their family alongside the act track, at the point where they will be introduced. Players then take a starting hand of three money cards and two jobs, and the rest of the cards such as ally’s, illegal goods, money and jobs are placed alongside the board. There are a few other pieces such as a Don Corleone figure to mark the current act, a horse-head token to mark the first player and some neutral miniatures to place to one side, but you should be able to go from box to turn one in less than fifteen minutes or so.

The game takes place over a series of four acts, each of which represents a point in The Godfathermovie, such as the opening wedding scene, or the murder of Sonny Corleone. Within each act there are four phases, beginning with the placement of a new business onto an empty board space. During act I and II, these buildings are drawn from a large blue stack that features “traditional” family business such as extorting booze, blood money and guns, whilst in act III and IV, a stack of red businesses is used, introducing the possibility of narcotics.

The second phase of each act is known as conducting Family Business, and this is where the bulk of the gameplay in Corleone’s Empire takes place. Beginning with the player who has the horse-head token, players each take one action per turn, before passing to their left. Actions include placing a thug onto the board to shakedown the front of the business and gain the benefit shown (such as drawing a booze or firearms card,) or placing a more powerful don, consigliere or heir (depending on which act) figure onto the board, to shake down the back of multiple businesses. Players may also choose to complete a job or play an ally, but those options won’t be available right at the start of the game.

Everything about the Family Business phase is as simple as could be. Thugs have square bases, and can only fit onto matching spaces on the board, whilst the more powerful figures have circular bases, each of which will straddle at least two locations. Once you have extorted the front and back of several business and amassed illegal goods from them, you may be able to complete a job. Doing so takes up your entire turn, but the effects can be powerful, and the rewards worthwhile. Typically, completing a job will provide some cash in hand, and you can also place the completed job into your stash, to count towards final scoring later.

Many job cards also have an immediate impact on the board, including some that are quite confrontational such as gunning down one or more enemy characters and removing them from the game for the remainder of that act. After act I, you may have the option to use an ally card, which can be quite powerful. A crucial rule to remember is that once you’ve placed all of your family members and thugs onto the board, your Family Business phase is over until the next act, so you must complete jobs or use ally’s prior to placing your last figure.

Following Family Business, players calculate the outcome of the Turf War for that phase. This involves placing a token onto each area where clear dominance has been established. This is calculated by how many figures each family (including neutrals) have influencing the area. Where a player has dominance, this area is considered to be under their control, which means that should any thug shakedown the front of a business in that area and gain a benefit, the player with control will also gain the same benefit. Whilst establishing control happens during the Turf War phase and usually affects the next Family Business phase, control of an area can be swung as the result of certain ally effects, such as The Mayor.

After the Turf War phase, players have the opportunity to bribe the ally’s that have been placed alongside the board. Doing so is quite fun, and involves blind bidding one or more money cards by placing them into the lid of your suitcase and then having all players drop the lids simultaneously. In doing so, the player with the highest bid picks from the available ally cards first, and so on in descending order. Not everyone has to bid, and in any case, there is one fewer ally than there are players, so if all do bid, then the lowest will get nothing (but does keep their money.) Successful bidders pay into the bank and then add the ally card to their hand. Tie breakers are needed often in this phase due to the limited denominations of the money cards, and the priority in ties goes to the player closest to the horse-head token.

After all ally cards are drawn, the final phase of the turn begins, and players must pay tribute to the Corleone family. This is achieved by discarding cards down to the hand limit for that act (usually five or six) which demonstrates the importance of stashing any excess cash during the Family Matters phase. There are several methods to do so, including by shaking down certain front and back locations, by completing certain jobs and through certain ally abilities. Corleone’s Empire forces players to think carefully about expanding their empire and holdings, whilst at the same time carefully consolidating their assets into the stash.

After all four acts have been played following this phased approach to play, players must discard down to just two cards, which they are allowed to stash. The game is then scored, which is unusually simple for a game of this kind. In the world of The Godfather, money talks, and the initial score is taken as a count of how much cash is in each player stash. Two bonuses are then calculated and added to this total, with a bonus of five dollars for the player who has completed most jobs of each colour (green, yellow, grey and blue) and five dollars for each area on the map, given to the player who has established the most dominance throughout the game. These bonuses are added to the raw cash in the stash, and the winner is the player with the highest total.

After several games at two, three and four player (sadly none at five) I found myself really impressed by Corleone’s Empire. Above all else, the game feels incredibly tight and competitive with all player counts as I experienced it, and the simple rules for variation in player count are printed on the board in exactly the locations where they are needed. Everyone who played with me commented that the game featured clear and straightforward gameplay, and that it was obvious from quite early on what the objective was. This is helped massively by a simple scoring system that everyone can relate to, and the secret yet infallible way of keeping score via suitcases is also very interesting.

As players became more experienced, their tactics obviously evolved. Whilst I can’t confirm what very long term play feels like, I can say that my friends were able to move from basic strategies at the beginning of the first game, to more complex, strategic plays that took shape over two or even three acts. This is where the theming becomes apparent to fans of the movie, and as events in the story of Vito Corleone and his family become more complex, so too does the situation on board – narcotics are introduced, ally’s become more powerful, and more businesses and family members lead to an expansive, yet equally congested board.

I’d rate Corleone’s Empire as just slightly more complex to learn than Monopoly or Cluedo, yet it is infinitely more interesting and better to play, with the added bonus that casual or none gamer friends can be coaxed in by the license. The miniatures are extremely attractive, as is the board, with perhaps just the job and illegal goods cards letting the side down with their slightly dull, repetitive artwork. The metal suitcases are a super sweet touch, although I suspect they contribute to the high RRP of close to £80.

The ease of play, long term depth and good quality components all add up to ensuring that Corleone’s Empire is an exceptional “off the shelf” product that deserves to be in the games library of almost any board gamer. It also stands up as a product that movie fans who haven’t played any (or many) other board games might want to purchase, because it looks great and will reward even just occasional play. It is thematic in just the right way, drawing from the source material without being restricted by it. I strongly recommend The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire to anyone, and I can’t find any major complaints to raise against it that might prevent the average gamer from wanting to invest in it, assuming you can justify the cost.

**** 4/5

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