As a reviewer for GeekDad, and specifically, as a reviewer for GeekDad who lives within striking distance of Jonathan Liu, I get to play a lot of different board games throughout the year. After a while, you get kind of used to what will come your way. Oh, it’s a deck-building game with a cooperative deck. It’s a worker placement game that actually can finish in less than four hours. It’s a resource management game. All the games can tend to run together a little. Chicken Caesar by Nevermore Games stands head and comb above the crowd. (Note: Chicken Caesar was successfully funded on Kickstarter early in 2012, and is now available for purchase.)
Look and Feel:
Chicken Caesar is technically a worker placement game, but it has a different feel than many worker placement games that I have played. The game also includes a fair amount of negotiation among the players, which reminds me a little of the card trading in The Settlers of Catan. The two put together make for a great hour of horsetrading, manipulation, and fun. The game does require the ability to handle a bit of negotiation, betrayal, and reversal of fortune. This will limit its appeal for some younger kids. The best target for this game will be adults and kids who are old enough to not take things personally.
Chicken Caesar’s theme does little for the play of the game except to set the right tone of levity and playfulness, which makes Chicken Caesar work. Players take on the role of a house of roosters in a chicken coop whose job it is to seek glory for their family. The coop is strangely organized into a government which resembles that of the Roman Republic. Players earn glory through their service in the government. Thus the fact that you are playing a house of chickens has little to do with the game play. It could have been humans, but, by making it chickens, the game creators have added a needed breath of levity to what could have easily been taken to be a serious game of internal struggle for control a la Diplomacy. That said, the look of the game is fantastic. The cards which represent the rooster progeny of your house are fabulous works of art and also help the tone of levity.
The mechanics of Chicken Caesar land in the sweet spot for a good strategy game, with enough heft to be much more than a casual game and yet not so overly ponderous as to slow the game down to a crawl. The gameplay itself is divided into six phases of play. In the first phase, players fill all the offices available on the board. During the set up, this is done in a fashion similar to games like Settlers in which players take turns placing their chickens in each different office until they are all filled. In subsequent rounds of the game, roosters on the board move up to the more senior positions if available. Then the remaining offices are filled from the roosters waiting in the Quaestor’s office. Starting with Caesar, the player holding the Suffragium —a yellow wooden chicken — nominates a rooster to fill an open office. Then they pass the Suffragium on to the next player and nominations continue until all offices are filled. Anyone can nominate themselves to fill an office but must pay the bank to do so. Of course, you could always nominate someone else for free.
In the next phase, each of the five offices exercise the function of their office. The three roosters of the Aedile determine the tax rates, which also determine the number of foxes who will invade the coop, and thus how many Roosters will die this round. Then the three members of the Praetor decide which offices will be protected from the foxes and which will be in danger of dying. Once this is done, the Censor determines which one chicken will be sent into exile without being rewarded for his service. Finally, the three Consuls decide which dead chickens should be awarded honorary tokens of office posthumously for offices which they never held during their life. These awards can deeply affect the scoring at the end of the game, so families are known to bribe the Consuls heavily to get their dead relatives chosen for posthumous honors. All of these actions are watched over by Caesar who does not take an action during this phase of the game — but he does hold the Veto.
Once each chicken has taken an action, all chickens are awarded the insignia of their office and Caesar and the Aedile are paid from the taxes of the realm. Since money represents points at the end of the game, this phase really is about determining what a player scored initially during their round.
After every chicken has received their awards the fun begins. Each office flips over the Praetor cards which tell them how many foxes made it into their office and how many will die. If not all chickens will die, then there is a vote to determine who will be dinner for the fox. The person who holds the Suffragium nominates a person to be killed. The next voter either seconds the vote, in which case it carries, or nominates someone else. Bribery, turnabouts, and humor ensue.
Now after being somewhat aloof during the action phase of the game, Caesar becomes very interested in the outcome of the attack. If no chickens die during the attack, then Caesar lives to see another day. If any chickens die, then Caesar gives himself to the farmer for having failed at his office. It is not uncommon for Caesar to bribe the roosters who serve in the Praetor heavily in order to assure himself that no chicken will die.
After the slaughter, the final two phases set up for the next round. Caesar and the Censor are either removed or live to serve another day. Taxes are adjusted accordingly, and if the game is not ended, families then propose new honors for the dead.
Strategy and Scoring:
This isn’t a game which is enhanced by deep thought and planning. It is much more won through diplomacy and negotiation. Part of both the skill and fun of the game comes from knowing when to give a bribe and, more importantly, when not to take one. The game is too fluid to allow any long term planning. That isn’t to say there isn’t a depth to the strategy. On the contrary, the game has many opportunities to influence the outcome. They just require a quick hand to recognize and take advantage of them. Otherwise you might be left behind, or worse, eaten by the fox. Unless of course it is to your advantage to be eaten, which happens at times.
Next, since money determines the winner at the end of the game, players will always hesitate when paying a steep bribe because they are literally giving points to their opponent. This adds a really interesting tug and pull to every negotiation and is a great natural balancing factor.
Finally, I can find many worker placement games frustrating because it is a rare turn on which I can play at an optimal level. Chicken Caesar solves this problem by offering fewer places to put workers and multiple slots in most offices. Also, it gets rid of the highly annoying mechanic in which you must use a worker to place first next round. Nothing wrecks a game like sitting behind the player who insists on wasting a worker on going first every round. Neither of you will win the game. By using the voting mechanism, Chicken Caesar avoids this problem.
Chicken Caesar offers great game play and mechanics which reward the swift thinker and the careful negotiator. Since it is fluid and dynamic and has a bit of a learning curve, it offers great replayability and a somewhat unique experience each time it is played due to its reliance on negotiation and bribery. It is a great new addition to the medium depth strategy game family.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.