The Eleven: Role Selection Games

For the second edition of The Eleven, I’m going to take a look at some role selection games.  I feel that I need to give a definition since it’s not listed as an official mechanism at BGG, though it is present in several very popular games.  Role selection is a mechanism where you are choosing different roles to play with different special abilities throughout a game, rather than right at the beginning.  It comes out in different ways in different games, and this list will hopefully serve as a catalog of them.  This list is in (approximately) chronological order based on release so hopefully we can see the evolution of the mechanism over time.

image by BGG user samoan_jo
image by BGG user samoan_jo

Verräter, designed by Marcel-André Casasola Merkle, is often pointed to as one of the first role selection games, and a big influence for those that came afterwards.  Verräter, which means Traitor, is a small card game from Adlung-Spiele that was first published in 1998.  There is no English version, though copies occasionally pop up for sale in various places.  In the game (3-4 players, 60 minutes), there are two warring factions, and you’ll be trying to back the winning faction to gain victory points.  Two adjacent conflicting lands will be chosen, and players will add supply cards to those areas to gain victory for their side.  Before this, however, each player chooses a role.  The farmer gives you three extra supply cards; the builder increases your income; the strategist chooses the conflict site for the next battle; the diplomats add conflict points to your side; and the traitor switches allegiances mid-fight, which could give the edge to one side over the other.  The winning side gets points, and you continue for 8-9 rounds.

It’s been a while since I played Verräter, and I remember not being a huge fan of it.  The only way to get points are being on the winning side, and if you’re not getting the right cards, you’re up a creek.  Still, the historical significance is pretty high, and it does have its fans, so it’s on the list.

image by BGG user BaSL
image by BGG user BaSL

Meuterer (2000) is another small card game from Marce-André Casasola Merkle and Adlung-Spiele, and one I like much more.  Like Verräter, it’s for 3-4 players, takes an hour, and features an early mechanism that would morph into what we know of as role selection.  In the game, you have a ship traveling between islands.  On those islands, you’re trying to sell goods for points.  The captain gets to determine which island you go to, but there’s the ever present threat of a mutiny.  During the game, players will play goods that they want to sell (or get out of their hands).  When each player is done, they’ll get to choose a role (the captain remains the captain).  You could take the dockmaster to get extra cards; you could take the merchant to assure you of getting top dollar for your goods; you could take the first mate to help the captain; you could take the mutineer (meuterer) to challenge the captain for his seat; or you could take the cabin boy to back up the mutineer.  If someone chose the mutineer, a combat will ensue, and the winner will be captain, determining where the ship goes for that round.  The game ends after eight rounds, and the player with the most points wins.

I think I like Meuterer more than Verräter just because I feel more in control over my fate.  If you’re not getting the right cards in Verräter, you get caught on the wrong side every time and you’ll have a bad time.  You also can’t choose your side, unless you manage to take the traitor role.  In Meuterer, you can choose sides, and you can also work on selling goods to rack up points.  I feel that the role selection works better in the game as well – you can get out of the supply chain early to take a role, but then you may not be able to sell anything.  I also like how the captain can attempt to coerce someone into helping him by giving up some points he would win for being the captain.  I like it a lot, and am glad I own a copy.  Now I want to play it again.

image by BGG user meehael
image by BGG user meehael

Inspired by the role selection Verräter and Meuterer, Bruno Faidutti designed and published the very popular game Citadels in 2000 (Fantasy Flight publishes the current US version).  It’s for 2-7 players (up to 8 with the Dark City expansion) and can take up to 90 minutes to play.  It’s a card game where players choose roles, then take turns building districts in their cities.  The major difference between Citadels and Merkle’s designs is that the role selection is a much bigger part of the game.  Whereas the selecting of roles gave you special abilities in Verräter/Meuterer, role selection in Citadels also determined play order, which was huge.  The base roles are numbered 1-8, and you begin a round with each player choosing one.  However, some are set aside in the beginning so you never know exactly what the people ahead of you have taken.

You resolve your turn in order of the role you took – Assassin (who kills another character, eliminating their turn if in the round); Thief (who steals another character’s gold); Magician (who can either exchange hands with another player or discard and draw new cards); King (who is the first to choose a role in the next round); Bishop (who is protected from the warlord and gets extra money for religious districts); Merchant (who gets gold for trade districts and extra gold for the turn); Architect (who draws extra cards and can build extra districts); and Warlord (extra gold for military districts and can destroy the district of another player).  On your turn, you can take an action (take gold or draw cards) and then build districts by paying the gold cost.  The game ends in the round where someone builds their eighth district.

Citadels is a fairly simple game to learn, and not too difficult to understand once you get going.  The roles are all very well balanced, and the assassin and thief aren’t too overpowered because they don’t necessarily know what others have taken.  There’s luck in the cards you draw, but good role selection is definitely going to help.  I like the game best with five players, and we usually mix in the expansion roles – my wife, for example, hates the Assassin and insists we always use the Witch instead, which at least doesn’t cost someone an entire turn.

image by BGG user Werbaer
image by BGG user Werbaer

2002 saw the release of the big daddy of role selection games, Puerto Rico.  Designed by Andreas Seyfarth, this 3-5 player game set the standard for all subsequent games in the genre.  It was the standard bearer for Eurogames in the five years it occupied the #1 spot at BGG, and still is pointed to as a classic of clean design, elegant mechanics, and engaging gameplay.  The theme (which, let’s face it, is not important) is that you’re a plantation owner on the island of Puerto Rico during colonial times, attempting to produce and ship goods to gain prestige.  At the beginning each round, one player (the governor) selects one of 6-8 roles (depending on the number of players), and then resolves its action.  Each other player also gets to do the action of the role, but the player that chose it gets a small bonus.  Once the role has been completely resolved, the next player chooses a role, and it goes on like this until all players have chosen a role.  The remaining roles have a doubloon added to them to entice people to take them next time, and a new round begins with a new governor.

Puerto Rico took the role selection mechanism to a new level by allowing all players to use the role, and by giving a small bonus to the chooser.  And they are fairly small bonuses.  The Settler allows you to take a plantation tile, while the bonus lets you take a quarry instead (quarries make buildings cheaper).  The Builder allows you to build a building; the bonus takes one doubloon of the price.  The Mayor allows you to take colonists to work in your buildings and plantations; the bonus lets you take one extra.  The Craftsman produces goods; the bonus gives you one extra barrel.  The Trader allows you to sell goods for doubloons; the bonus gives you one extra doubloon.  The Captain allows you to ship goods for points; the bonus allows you to get one extra point.  The Prospector gives you one doubloon; the bonus…well, there’s no bonus.  If you take the Prospector, you’re the only one to get money.

Puerto Rico was a very unique game – no one had seen anyone like it at that point.  Its use of role selection differed from previous games in that it granted an action to everyone rather than just the chooser, who got a bonus.  It also features an early form of worker placement as you spread your colonists around to buildings and plantations to make them functional.  With its popularity and clean design, PR is still the king of the role selection game after all these years.

image by BGG user cambridgeganes
image by BGG user cambridgeganes

Glory to Rome (Carl Chudyk, Cambridge Games Factory, 2005) followed in Puerto Rico’s footsteps as the role you chose could be followed by other players.  Hower, GTR was unique because it introduced the concept of cards that could be multiple things.  You could use a card as a role, or a resource, or a building, or just points.  As you build up your district, buildings will allow you to bend the rules and take advantage of what others are doing.  Each round, one player is the leader and may either play a card from their hand as one of six roles, or they can think (draw cards).  If they led, the other players may follow by playing a card from their hand as that role, or they can think.  Once everyone has decided, everyone does the action associated with the chosen role and discards their cards into the pool (or into the Jack pile if they played a Jack as a wild).

The roles you can choose from make a lot of difference in gameplay.  The Laborer takes cards from the pool to use as materials in your stockpile.  The Patron hires cards from the pool as roles in your clientele so you can take extra actions of that type when it is led.  The Architect and Craftsman allow you to start a building by laying a card in your hand on a foundation, OR add materials to a building from your stockpile (Architect) or hand (Craftsman).  The Legionary allows you to demand cards from the other players that match a resource in your hand.  The Merchant allows you to take cards from your stockpile and put them in your vault as points.

The interesting thing about how Glory to Rome plays is that you have to balance how much you need to do something with how much it’s going to help someone else.  Someone with several Architects in their clientele is going to take lots of Architect actions if that is led, so you may want to lead Craftsman instead.  You may really want to follow a Patron, but you’d probably end up taking another Laborer, which is only going to benefit you with the Architect, or possibly the Merchant, so maybe you should think instead.  There are so many decisions to be made, and the roles you select are a crucial part of your strategy.

image by BGG user Surya
image by BGG user Surya

Race for the Galaxy started its life as the card game version of Puerto Rico.  However, Andreas Seyfarth ended up producing San Juan, so Thomas Lehmann redid the game and released it in 2007 as Race for the Galaxy, published by Rio Grande Games.  In the game, 2-4 players (1-6 after adding expansions) build up a tableau of worlds and developments to build a point producing machine.  The game plays until someone has 12 cards in that tableau, or until the VP chips run out, so it’s a race to fulfill one of those conditions.  As with Puerto Rico, players will be selecting roles/actions that will be performed by everyone, but give a special benefit to the chooser.  The big difference (other than the theme and the use of cards instead of a board) is that play in RFTG is simultaneous.  Chosen actions will be resolved simultaneously in a specific order – explore, develop, settle, consume, and produce.  Any that weren’t chosen are not performed in the turn.  Once all have been resolved, players choose again.

Exploration is done by drawing two cards and keeping one, with a bonus of being able to draw more (and possibly keep an extra one); development allows you to play development cards, with a bonus of being able to pay one less; settling allows you play new worlds, with a bonus of being able to draw a card afterwards; consumption involves trading in goods for points, with a bonus of trading one in for cards OR getting double points; and production lets you gain new goods, with a bonus allowing you to produce on a world that wouldn’t normally produce one.

It could be argued that RFTG is more of an action selection game rather than role selection since you’re not really using the abilities of specific people, and are instead choosing the action you want to do in a round.  However, I think it’s really semantics – the actions could have easily been called by role names.  It’s mostly included on this list as it shows the evolution of ideas introduced in Puerto Rico into a new and totally different game.

image by BGG user starwarsgolfer
image by BGG user starwarsgolfer

Witch’s Brew was another alternate take on role selection.  It came out in 2008 from designer Andreas Pelikan and publisher alea (Rio Grande in the US).  It’s a 45 minute 3-5 player game where you are trying to collect ingredients for potions that will get you points.  Each player has an identical hand of 12 roles, from which they will choose five in a round that they want to use.  In turn order, players will select a role, and announce “I am _____!”  The next player must then either play the same role or pass (they have to play if they have it).  If you play the role, you can either say “No, I am _____!” or “So be it!”  If you take the role, the original person who played it gets nothing.  If you say “So be it!”, the original person gets something, and you get something a little less (a favor) that you can’t lose if another person takes the role later.  So, only one person gets the full benefit of the role, but multiple people can get the favor.  Once all players have played all their roles, you select new ones (they can be the ones you just had).  Once four potions with ravens have been taken (there are ten in the game), the game ends.

The green role cards (Wolf Keeper, Snake Hunter, and Herb Collector) allow you to collect ingredients – three of red, white, or green.  The favor is for one ingredient of that type.  The gold role cards (Alchemist, Fortune Teller, and Assistant) each have something different to do with gold.  The Alchemist allows you to convert one ingredient into five gold (two for the favor).  The Fortune Teller allows you to trade one gold for two potion vials, which are the VPs for the game (the favor is a 1:1 trade).  The Assistant allows you to trade one gold for three ingredients (1:1 for the favor).  The blue roles (Wizard, Witch, and Druid) allow you to trade in ingredients to get a cauldron (copper, iron, or silver).  These cauldrons get you points at the end of the game.  The favor for allows you to also choose a cauldron by paying all ingredients plus two gold.  The gray role (Warlock) allows you to cast the current spell (a card set to the side), while the favor simply gets you one gold.  The red roles (Cutpurse and Begging Monk) allow you to acquire potion shelves at the expense of other players.  The Cutpurse makes all other players apply a third of their gold to a shelf, and the Begging Monk takes a quarter of their ingredients (it doesn’t matter the type).  The favor for these two allows you to pay one less than you would.

Witch’s Brew has some simultaneous role selection like Race for the Galaxy, while throwing in some take that back-and-forth action.  Part of the strategy of the game is knowing when to take a role, and when to say “So be it!”  If you win the role, you’ll go first in the next set, and going first is absolutely NOT an advantage.  So sometimes it’s more prudent to take the lesser reward to be in better position in the next round.  The back-and-forth push and pull was a very unique take on the mechanism, one I like a lot.

image by BGG user Nekrataal
image by BGG user Nekrataal

Rattus came out in 2010 from designers Henrik and Ǻse Berg, and was published by White Goblin Games (Z-Man in the US).  This 2-4 player game is set in 14th century Europe as the Black Plague is about to ravage the continent.  In addition to its role selection aspects, there’s a bit of area influence going on, though the real object of the game is to have the most of your 20 cubes on the board when the game is over.  On a turn, players select one of the six roles, and can steal roles from each other (you may end up with multiple roles at a time).  They then place a number of their cubes on the board in a region that is equal to the number of rat tokens currently there (no more than three).  You end your turn by moving the plague pawn.  This spreads rat tokens to adjacent regions, and causes the rat tokens in that region to be flipped over, one at a time.  Each shows a certain number that refers to the number of cubes in the region.  If the number is equaled or exceeded, the rat is triggered and players who meet the conditions on the token lose cubes.  This could be the player who has the majority, players with roles that match symbols on the token, or all players in the region.  The game ends when all rats are on the board, or when someone places their last cube.  Players use their roles one last time, and then all rats on the board activate.  The winner is the one with the most remaining cubes.

The roles help you affect your placement.  The Peasant allows you to place an extra cube into a region during your initial placement.  The Monk allows you to move a rat token to a neighboring region.  The Merchant allows you to move up to three cubes of your color from one region to another.  The Knight allows you to move the plague piece up to two spaces more (for a maximum of three).  The Witch allows you to peek at two rat tokens on the board, and swap their positions if you wish.  The King allows you to move a cube to the palace, making it safe from the plague.

The role selection in this game is interesting because you are choosing something to help you on your turn, and then it is yours for the game, or until someone takes it from you.  It’s entirely unique among the games I’ve talked about so far, where the roles are yours for a round at most.  I suppose the closest is Witch’s Brew which has a similar take that feel, but the game is really quite unique.  It’s even important to remember that area control is not the object – controlling a region is often a bad idea.  You want to have just enough that you can keep your cubes on the board.  It’s very fun, and I definitely recommend it.

image by BGG user binraix
image by BGG user binraix

One of the hottest games of the Kickstarter era has been Eminent Domain, the game that kind of set Tasty Minstrel down the crowdfunding path.  It was funded as a prototype, and their presentations have gotten a lot more professional ever since.  Eminent Domain (Seth Jaffee, 2011) is a game for 2-4 players that takes around 45 minutes.  It’s a game of building up a galactic empire by settling worlds and developing new technologies.  Sound familiar?   Billed as the next generation of deck-builders, Eminent Domain takes the core mechanism of Dominion and mixes it with the role selection of Glory to Rome, adding in the tableau building of Race for the Galaxy.  On a turn, a player may play a card from their hand as an action, then takes a card from the supply and uses it as a role.  To this card, they may add as many identical cards as they like from their hand.  Other players may choose to follow this role with cards from their hand, or may dissent to draw a card.  The game ends when 1-2 of the supply piles are exhausted, or when the influence is gone.

Each card can be used in two ways, as an action or a role.  As with other role selection games where everyone has a chance to use the same role, the first person gets a small bonus.  Survey’s action is to draw two cards; the role allows you to look at a number of planet cards and add one to your empire so you can conquer it; the leader bonus is to look at an extra planet.  Warfare’s action allows you to get a fighter or attack a planet with your fighters; the role gets you one fighter per card played; the leader bonus allows you to attack instead of collecting ships.  Colonize’s action is to add a colony card to a planet or colonize a planet with the existing colony cards; the role allows you to add all colonize cards you played to a colony; the leader bonus is to settle a planet instead of playing colony cards.  Produce’s action adds a resource to an empty resource slot in your empire; the role adds several resource tokens based on the number of symbols in your empire; the leader bonus (which only applies when the stack is depleted) gives you an extra produce symbol.  Trade’s action allows you to trade a resource for an influence point; the role is the same, but for multiples with more symbols in your empire; the leader bonus gives you an extra trade symbol when the stack is depleted.  Research’s action  allows you to remove two cards from your hand from the game; the role allows you to claim technology cards; the leader bonus gives you an extra research symbol after the stack is depleted.

Eminent Domain is a very quick, streamlined game.  I’d say that the role selection is probably the strongest part of it.  It’s nice to have cards you can use as actions or roles, and that the actions are not too dissimilar from the roles.  My problem is that the stacks run out fast, and it’s difficult to get anything going.  I often call the game Race for the Glory of Dominion, and personally, I’d rather play all three of those games.  However, Eminent Domain is fairly popular, and definitely has its place among role selection games.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Libertalia is a 2012 pirate game from Paolo Mori and Asmodee.  It’s yet another 45 minute game, this one for 2-6 players.  In the game, you’re competing with other pirates to collect the most loot.  It’s played over the course of three rounds, and at the beginning of each round, one player draws a hand of role cards from a deck of thirty.  All other players will get the exact same hand of cards, each with different abilities and numbers.  Then, players will simultaneously play one of the roles from their hand.  The numbers are compared, and the cards are organized from lowest to highest (ties are broken by a second number on the card).  The day action on the cards are all resolved from lowest to highest, then in reverse order, players must claim one loot tile.  There are night effects on some of the cards, and they get resolved before you move on to the next role selection.  The cards you used are moved to your den, unless they were lost, in which case they are discarded.  You play through six days, then new roles are added to everyone’s hands (the same ones).  After the third round, the game ends and the player who has collected the most loot is the winner.

With thirty roles in the deck, I’m not going to cover them all here.  However, here are a few examples: the Beggar (#3) forces the player with the highest rank on the board to give you three doubloons; the Carpenter (#9) forces you to lose half your doubloons, but gives you ten at the end of the round; the Gunner (#15) allows you to pay three doubloons to remove a character from any player’s den; the Bosun (#19) gives you two doubloons for each character in your den with a lower rank than the Bosun; the Surgeon (#22) allows you to take one of your discarded characters back into your hand; and Granny Wata (#27) gives you two doubloons every night if she is the only Granny Wata out – if there are more, all Granny Watas are discarded from dens.

Libertalia is different from the others because of the sheer number of roles included in the game.  Whereas most games only have a few, Libertalia gives you thirty for quite a variable game.  However, by ensuring that everyone has the same roles in their hand, luck is taken out of the equation and it becomes a question of outthinking your opponents – clearly I can not choose the wine in front of me.  I’ve played once, and enjoyed it a lot – looking forward to playing again.

image by BGG user edbolme
image by BGG user edbolme

Love Letter (2012) has been the unquestioned hit of AEG’s Tempest line so far.  This 2-4 player, 20 minute game designed by Seiji Kanai is the only one of the four games so far released that has cracked the BGG Top 500 (it’s even the only one in the top 2000).  Part of its appeal has been its simplicity – the game comes with 16 cards and 13 cubes in a velvet bag.  Each player begins with one card in their hand.  On their turn, they draw a card and play a card.  The round ends when either all players have been eliminated, or when all cards have been drawn (at which point the values of the last card in the remaining players is compared with the highest winning).  Once a player has won 4-6 rounds (depending on the number of players), they win.

There are eight different roles in the 16 cards, each with a different value.  #1 is the guard, who allows you to guess another player’s hand.  If you’re right, they;re out.  #2 is the Priest, who allows you to look at another player’s hand.  #3 is the Baron, who allows you to compare your hand with another player, with the lower value being eliminated.  #4 is the Handmaid, who protects you until your next turn.  #5 is the Prince, who makes one player (including yourself if you want) discard their hand for a new one.  #6 is the King, who allows you to trade hands with another player.  #7 is the Countess, who doesn’t do anything, but must be discarded if you draw the Prince or King (so no hoarding her for a higher value).  #8 is the Princess, and if she gets discarded, you are out.

The game is very fast, and very fun.  Like Libertalia, it becomes an exercise in outthinking your opponent.  The role selection is stripped down to its very basic elements – different people letting you do different things.  It’s a great little filler, and really helps to demonstrate how far role selection has come in the last 15 years.

That’s The Eleven for this month.  What are your opinions of role selection in games?  Any games I missed?  Let me know.  Thanks for reading!

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7 comments

  1. I think I woudl have mentioned Cuba: with the expansion included there are two layers of action selection which makes it novel. An excellent game that gets overlooked too often.

  2. Thanks for putting together such an extensive list–this was a great read. I’ve played a fair amount of Libertalia lately, and I particularly like how everyone reveals their roles at the same time instead of taking individual turns. It keeps everyone engaged and involved all the time.

    • You’re probably right. I didn’t include it on the list because I already had PR and RFTG, and because I don’t really have that much experience with it. I did mention it in the entry for RFTG, but thanks for providing some more info.

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