Board Game Review: Noblemen—Favored of the Queen
Noblemen is about the noble pursuits of gaining rank, amassing lands and holdings, and donating to the church. It’s also about accumulating scandals that can be used and bribing the right officials. And it wouldn’t be a game of nobility without the option to tax the peasants. Noblemen combines disparate tactics and mechanics down into an extremely effective and enjoyable game.
The Basics. Players start the game with a single meadow and a lonely castle in their estate. The game is played over three decades with each decade having eleven rounds, though the final round is merely for scoring. However, the number of turns each round can be uneven. The round marker is moved only when the person with the queen token takes their turn. If the queen never moved, then everyone would get a turn each round. But the queen does move. When moved, the round marker is moved at the end of that person’s turn. So some rounds will have more turns than others.
On their turn, a player has several options. They can add tiles to their estate. There are four kinds of tiles: fields, woods, fountains, and meadows. Depending on which tiles are placed, the player gains money or new tiles, or space for further holdings or later prestige. When four of a type come together, the player gains a bonus. So, in addition to the prestige when playing a fountain, if four fountains come together the player creates a garden and gains the queen.
Additionally, the player can donate land, get bribes, build new structures on their estate, tax peasants, assess land, or pursue leisure (which gets them a single point). These actions are punctuated twice each decade by a masquerade ball. There, the players count the prestige they have available and can play cards as necessary. Then noble titles are distributed. Higher titles result in purchase discounts as well as victory points.
At the end of each decade a scoring round occurs where players are awarded victory points based on the structures in their estates. After the third decade, and third scoring round, the player with the highest points is the victor.
The Feel. Noblemen is very, very fun. With seven options to choose from, the first few turns can be a bit daunting for a new player. But after a few rounds, when the lay of the land is seen, most players respond enthusiastically. It’s clear from the beginning that structures tend to score the most points. So all players build what they can. But it isn’t simply a race for money. Before you can build a structure, you have to have meadows to place them. Plus Churches are worth points only if they are next to castles or palaces. And castles and palaces may not be built next to each other.
These requirements for building means that care and importance are given to the expansion of the estate. As players expand, they must plan for future turns. Not only do they want to get four of a kind together for the bonus, but they also want to ensure that they have sufficient meadows for structures – and those meadows can’t necessarily be all bunched up or they won’t be used.
In addition to the structures, players can focus on other methods of obtaining victory points. Money from farms can be used to buy bribes which generates points. The tiles from woods and forests can be donated to the church for points. And the prestige generated from fountains and gardens results in better titles and more points.
Layered on top of all of this is the notion that you may or may not get another turn before final scoring. If the queen is not contested, you will have more time to accomplish your goals. But often the queen is highly contested right from the very beginning. As it moves, it lowers the number of total turns that the players will receive. It may be more profitable to add tiles, then to tax the peasants on your next turn, and then to use those funds to purchase a structure on your third turn. But if the queen moves, you might only get two turns instead of the needed three. Careful consideration is needed.
While firmly on the euro side of the divide, Noblemen also provides important interactive elements. Land donations are limited, so the player who donates second may not be able to donate what they want. Titles are competitive, and if two people are high enough to be proclaimed Duke, only the top player gets it. The next player must content themselves with the next highest title. Further, additional castles allow players to place men at arms. Those men steal the bonus of farms, forests, or gardens for the attacking player.
Frankly, it is hard to find a negative for Noblemen. I’ve enjoyed every one of my plays. It goes up to five players and works well at every player count, though it does feel different. With three, the queen will generally move slightly less, giving the players more time. With five, it moves slightly more, meaning that players will feel rushed. It’s a noticeable difference but not so stark as to make the feel of the game different or for me to refuse plays at a certain player count.
Components: 4.5 of 5. I love the pieces in Noblemen. There are sturdy wooden bits for structures and markers, tiles on thick stock, great cards and nice artwork. The player screens are also amazing. They feature your noble from the neck down. As you get titles, they are printed on the screen along with a male or female head. It’s completely unnecessary, but I think adds an interesting quirk to the game. The only negative here is that the board is a little on the thin side. In fact, the rules state that the board may warp and that, therefore, it is double sided so you can play on the other side of it. I haven’t noticed any warping at all, but the fact it is called out in the rules is a bit concerning.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4. 5 of 5. The game is highly strategic. The only luck element is that, generally, new tiles are drawn from the bag at random. With only four possible tiles, it is pretty typical to get what you want. Even if you don’t, a player can always put two tiles back and take the one that they want. So the worst aspects of a bad draw are immediately mitigated. Beyond that, players are completely left in control to plan their strategies and assail their opponents.
Mechanics: 5 0f 5. One of the beauties of Noblemen is that it all folds together nicely. With at least seven actions available each turn, with scandal cards of various kinds, and tons of options for strategy, the game looks a little overwhelming at first blush. But, after just a few turns, it immediately becomes apparent how interrelated it all is. This allows for a relatively deep game with many options that doesn’t bog down with AP.
Replayability: 4 of 5. Noblemen allows for random starting tiles along with random scandal card draws. So players can tailor their strategies as they see fit. With so many tactics and options available, it is unlikely that players will fall into a rut and do the same things repeatedly. Plus, every game is a new chance to build your estate in a way that allows for even greater points.
Spite: 3.5 of 5. Spite exists largely in two forms. The first is the stealing of the queen’s attention. That cuts the round short and potentially reduces actions of your opponents. But the meaner action is the man at arms. A player works hard to create a four tile bonus. Then the man at arms comes and steals your hard work. It can feel targeted and spiteful. Luckily, each player only gets two and they aren’t always both used.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. Noblemen is a wonderful game. It combines long term strategy with tactical thinking since you never know when the queen will be switched. It encourages clever building of the estate while also sending players in different directions to supplement their points. Plus the scandal cards allow the player to tailor his strategy to make the best use of them. Noblemen is a great game that accommodates five players (and too few do) but still retains a tight package with about a ninety minute play time. Just make sure you have a big table. With five players building estates, things can get tight.
(A special thanks to Tasty Minstrel Games for providing a review copy of Noblemen)