Board Game Review: Guildhall—It’s Really Not About Set Collection
This week, we take a look at Guildhall, one of AEG’s newest offerings. It looks like set collection, but it really isn’t. Jeff Quick has said that on about the third turn, players’ eyes light up and they begin to realize what it’s really about. That was not my experience. No, for me, it took until the third play before everything started to click. But, once I had my “aha” moment, I knew there was no going back.
The Basics. Each player represents a guildhall looking for various artisans. There are six different professions trying to join your guildhall: Dancers, Traders, Assassins, Farmers, Weavers, and Historians. Each profession provides a different power when played and can use even stronger versions if some of its fellows are already in your guildhall. Within a guildhall, the professions are organized into “chapters.” Each profession has five different colors and a chapter can hold one of each color. Completed chapters are then used for points.
Players get two actions per turn. They may purchase points, draw cards, or play cards. They can only play cards of profession/color combinations that aren’t already in their guildhall. The played card performs (and performs best if supported by fellow professionals) and then is added to the guildhall at the end of the turn.
Assassins kill other players’ cards. Farmers get points. Dancers allow you to draw and take an extra turn. Weavers allow you to play cards directly into your guild hall. Traders allow you to trade cards with other players. And, Historians pull cards from the discard pile. Meanwhile, when points are purchased, they often come with a one time use ability that is helpful. Generally, the higher the point value, the worse the power, so it evens out.
The game ends when one player has accumulated twenty points.
The Feel. Based on the above, it sounds a lot like set collection. That’s what I discussed with Jeff, and that’s what I thought when I read the rules. It’s all about getting all five colors and then turning them in for points, right? Well, yes and no. The game really doesn’t revolve around drawing the right cards and playing them in the right order — the hallmarks of a typical set collection game. Instead, it’s about the interaction between the cards.
Clever play is the order of the day, and highly necessary in order to collect those sets. In general, the professions break down into the utility (Assassins, Dancers, Farmers), and the collectors (Historians, Traders, Weavers). As one example, say I have the green and blue traders in my guildhall: I can play a red trader, and trade something from my hall for a yellow trader from you. Then, for my second action, I play a Weaver and put a purple trader directly into my hall. At the end of my turn, I have a complete set and can start looking at buying points.
By contrast the utility professions help you draw, get single points, or slow other players down. To the novice, these powers seem the most effective, but that’s only because these powers are far more familiar. Most players have seen them or something like them in dozens of previous games. But, the real powerhouses are the collectors.
With properly applied traders, weavers, and historians, you can not only decimate your opponents, but can collect sets for yourself. It’s a great way to switch cards around, get things directly into your hall, and avoid telegraphing your intentions to opponents and their assassins.
Play is highly tactical. You can have short term strategies lasting a few rounds, but in general the board state changes so much that you have to reassess the situation each turn. This is especially true in a four player game where assassins and traders can change everything by the time your turn comes back around.
If there is one negative to Guildhall, it’s that it is simply not intuitive. Guildhall isn’t the sort of game you explain and then everyone dives right in. It definitely takes several turns to understand how the cards interact (or if you’re me, several games). This could lead to it being dismissed early on which would be a great shame. Once understood, Guildhall is a real treat. Critically, it’s the feel of the game, and the interaction of the parts, that makes it great — a cold read of the rules would never get you there.
Components: 4 of 5. The actual playing pieces are quality. The cards are thick and have a nice gloss. They have a little give in the shuffle (appreciated since the deck is so thick), but immediately return to their unbent shape after shuffling. The single points are on thick punchboard and serve nicely. The only irritating thing is that the rulebook is exactly the same size as the box. Which means if you pull out the insert (like I do), it can actually get stuck in the box.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. Though long term strategy can be difficult, tactical considerations are paramount. This isn’t a game where you can draw cards and just hope you get what you need. (Trust me, I know). Instead, you have to creatively apply your hand in the way that gets you a set. But, even though tactical play is paramount, it can sometimes be difficult (especially with four players) when the board state significantly shifts between turns.
Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. At its core, Guildhall is really very simple: Two actions per turn, three options for actions. But with the abilities of the professions added in, the possibilities become myriad. The game allows for particularly clever combinations of the various powers ensuring that the players get a sense of accomplishment even if they don’t ultimately prevail. The only negative here is that the true nature of the game is not immediately apparent for new players.
Replayability: 4 of 5. The game randomizes not only which profession cards will be drawn, but also what point cards are available for purchase. And, with the ability to create interesting combos of cards (dependent on the cards in your opponents’ halls as much as in your own), the game is not one that will become repetitive.
Spite: 4.5 of 5. Spite is high in Guildhall. With Assassins comprising a sixth of the population, cards will be killed. If you worked hard to get that red farmer, he could be dead by your next turn. Similarly, traders can be brutal. They can steal large patches of a guildhall and return something far less useful. Of course, there are ways to avoid being targeted, but you should prepare to take (and give) some punishing hits.
Overall: 4 of 5. Guildhall is a fantastic game, and one that should be found enjoyable by any group that isn’t too spite-averse. It has great tactical play, huge replayability, and the success attendant to clever play as you snap together a completed chapter. The big negative here is that it seems less than that. As the most recognizable element, the set collection aspect seems more dominant than it is. Plus, it takes a few turns (or games) to see how all the moving parts interact to bring out something unique and fun. But, get in a few plays and see how Guildhall treats you. It’ll be worth it.
(A special thanks to AEG for providing a review copy of Guildhall)