17th Oct2018

‘The Magnates’ Board Game Review (Phalanx Games)

by Matthew Smail


In The Magnates, each player acts as a powerful family who is embroiled in deciding the fate of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth over approximately two hundred years, from when it was formed until when it ultimately fell into decline. The Magnates is relatively abstract and takes place over four rounds of play, each of which represents the reign of a King. During each round, players will vie for control of the senate, bid for additional privileges and work semi-cooperatively to defend the commonwealth from invasion.

The Magnates is a relatively simple game that has three key phases of gameplay in each round, each of which is functionally very similar, but thematically varied. I’ll explain those in detail shortly, but before I do, I’d just like to mention the components in The Magnates, since on this occasion they do contribute to making The Magnates appear more complex than it is. The game is played on a map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (and its nearby neighbours) that folds out across a huge board comprising of six leaves.

The board is both beautiful and elaborate, featuring a stunning level of detail, with clear, full size spaces for card slots relating to the senate, the privileges and the conflict round. Unfortunately, the board is probably two leaves larger than it needs to be, since there are essentially only five key spaces and a handful of supporting spaces on it, in terms of actual area control across The Commonwealth. This is clearly intentional – there’s a real sense of pride about how The Magnates has been made, especially considering that the publisher is Polish. From a pure functionality perspective however, it makes The Magnates look more grand and complex than perhaps it actually is, which might put a few people off.

At the beginning of a game of The Magnates, each player will be given a deck of thirteen cards that match their colour. They’ll also receive a handful of estate tokens and a meeple that will be used exclusively for marking their position in the turn order. Each of the cards shows a value from two to fourteen, with the number ten card (which is always a lady) showing a ten with a one below it. The number on each card represents both the political influence and military strength of the card, except for the ladies at number ten, who do indeed have ten political influence, but only one military strength.

I’m not going to go full SJW on you, but I do think that bumping the military strength of the ladies down to one is definitely 2014 thinking and in all honesty, I wish it simply wasn’t a feature – if it’s considered essential to gameplay, then I’d rather see at least a couple of male leaders in the ten spot and have a couple of the ladies moved into other slots – history has proven time after time that women are capable tacticians and I don’t feel that there’s any direct historical reason for why the ladies in this game have ones, whilst even the most incompetent men have two. Regardless of that, each family member does have some flavour text and as someone who has an interest in European history, but no knowledge of Poland and Lithuania’s history specifically, I enjoyed reading them.

These cards drive every single one of the three rounds of play that I mentioned earlier, as follows. The first phase of the round concerns roles within the senate. At this point in the game, four title cards will be placed in the appropriate slots on the board. Each player (in turn, beginning with the first player) then places a card facedown under each of the titles. Once everyone has done so, titles are received one by one from left to right, with the player who bid the highest valued card taking the title in question. Some privilege cards (which I’ll explain in a moment) can modify the outcome of this phase, and when that happens, the highest modified value takes each title.

As each title is handed out, the player who claims the title will also place one of their estates onto the board. Whenever the symbol shown on the title matches that shown on the current King, the player will also place a second estate. Estates are placed on each of the regional spaces on the board and a player may have advantage or dominate a region. Having an advantage simply means having the most estates there among all players, whilst dominance means having more estates than all players combined (or in a two player game, twice as many estates as the opponent.) Once all titles are handed out and the estates are placed, all cards bid (winning or losing) are placed in a personal discard and cannot be used again in this round of play.

The next phase is called the Sejm phase, which is a name that I understand relates to the Polish lower parliament. During this phase, five privilege cards will be laid out on the same spaces (plus one) that previously held the titles. Again, players will bid for each one using their own hand of family members, potentially modifying them based on the titles claimed earlier in the round or from privilege cards already held. Each privilege card will be given to the player bidding the highest value card and again, all bid cards will be placed in a personal discard pile. Again, estates will be placed based on symbols

The reason that the first two rounds of bidding are so important is because of what happens next, which is the conflict phase. When this phase begins, one player takes the top five conflict cards and based on their colour, deals them onto one of the two boxes that represent each of the five, colour coded threats that encroach upon The Commonwealth from each side. Each threat has a value printed on it based on the player count and the aim of this round is to defeat those threats by combining the strength of remaining family cards to beat the printed total. With five cards remaining, players should be able to address each of the five threats and whenever their total beats the printed total, the player who contributed highest will gain a small benefit (usually placing an estate.)

If the players lose a conflict, then there will always be a penalty for player who made the lowest contribution, but there is also the chance for invasion tokens to be placed into provinces, indicating the possible downfall of The Commonwealth. In the event that a conflict phase ends with three invasion tokens on the board, then the ruling families have failed in their duties and the neighbouring powers have effectively annexed large enough areas of Poland and Lithuania to break up The Commonwealth. As such, there is a shared element to the gameplay, but at the same time, this does mean that a player who considers themselves very far behind might be able to force a communal loss, which I’m not a fan of.

Aside from some other elements of houskeeping (restoring player decks, crowning a new King etc) this cycle of three phases each round is then repeated three more times, for a total of four rounds. At the end of the fourth round of phases (and assuming that the game hasn’t ended due to invasion) then players will determine a winner. This is done by adding up the total number of estates, the regions in which the player has either presence, advantage or dominance and then any fiefs they control or privilege cards they hold that add wealth. The highest total across all these areas, among all players, wins the game.

Now, I quite like The Magnates. It’s a beautiful, straightforward game that uses a simple, repetitive gameplay loop for each phase of each round that enables players to learn the game rapidly and to understand how their strategy will be formed. Having played it at two players (as pictured) and then at all other counts up to five players, I can say that I found The Magnates to be much more interesting at the maximum player count. More players means more competition for cards which is exciting and tends to spread the outcome more evenly.

On the slightly negative side, I’ve already mentioned that I’m not keen on the fact that the poor performance of a single player could lead to a universal loss, but that possibility is somewhat mitigated by the fact that it is very difficult to lose even a single conflict at any player count, which removes any real sense of external jeopardy. Again, this is especially true in games with low player counts because there’s really little or no chance to throw away a lot to middling powered card here – if both players fail to perform on two or three occasions, then the whole game is in serious jeapordy and there’s none of the abstraction of guilt – it sort of forces players either to be openly hostile towards the game (and their partner) or to cooperate in a way that doesn’t feel as if it is in the spirit of what The Magnates is about. This is not a cooperative game!

In conclusion, I love the gameplay loop that The Magnates creates and I also love having to consider how I’ll use my resources over the course of three, slightly unpredictable rounds of play. I also love the component quality, including the board, the cards and the wooden pieces. Everything about The Magnates is beautiful, decadent and well made. The historical element is interesting an unusual and it made me want to learn more – which is exactly what attracted me to wargames. If I could summarise my only negative feeling about The Magnates into one line, it would simply be that I wish the conflict phase was more dangerous, or that it made being the lowest contributor to a lost fight much more individually punitive. As it stands, The Magnates is still a good game, but I feel like any reprint of it could be a great game.

***½  3.5/5

A copy of The Magnates was provided for review by Phalanx Games.


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