When Council of Verona was released, microgames were already officially a “thing.” It had been about a year since Love Letter hit, and there were a lot of small-deck games popping up to try to siphon off of some of the ridiculous buzz surrounding the game in the tiny red bag. Council of Verona managed to get a nose out in front of the rest of the microgame pack. Almost all of these games had some sort of blackjack-in-miniature card-counting element to them, as a nod to what Kanai’s game did so well. Games like Love Letter and Lost Legacy do a lot to make you feel very smart for being able to count to 13… only to bring it crashing down on your head when you played the odds “right” but things just didn’t work out. Council of Verona is built around those moments, adding a clever gambling element to make the payoffs sweeter and the failures more… fail-y.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of familiar micro-game flavors here. Like most of the cloth-bag crowd, theres a hefty dose of deduction and card-tracking involved. The game comes with a player aid detailing all of the available cards, so even if you don’t feel like memorizing, you always know what’s out there. You deal out some cards secretly at the beginning of the game, just so nobody’s ever able to perfectly calculate what cards everyone has. There’s even a draft (that works a bit differently with two players) so that you know a bit about what your opponents might be holding onto. And that’s where Council of Verona diverges from the deduction microgame par-for-the-course by introducing unheard of levels of betting and double bluffsmanship. In fact, I’ve started teaching Council of Verona by likening the game to a gently-rigged horse race.
On each turn in CoV, a player will place one of their character cards (a Montague, Capulet, or fence-sitter) into either the Council or Exile. Each card has an ability on it, some of which are immediate and scoot cards or betting tokens around the board. Others (called “Agendas”) are end-game scoring conditions; as long as that character has what they want at the end of the game, any player who put a betting token on them will score the number of points on that betting token. There are 6 agendas (8 in the 5 player game) each with 3 opportunities for player to place bets on events like “More Montagues than Capulets in the Council,” “More Characters in Exile than in the Council,” and “Romeo and Juliet are together.” (Aww!) As the game progresses, cards are placed, shifted, and maybe removed, so what might have looked promising turn 1 is positively dire a turn later… but you should have known that some player was holding onto the Nurse all along! After all, it’s on the player aid!
After you play a card, you can place one of your betting tokens face-down on any card, leaving your opponents to guess whether you went all-in with your 5-point token, or are bluffing with your 0. Each card has limited spots for bets, and tokens placed earlier may be worth an additional bonus, so you want to get in early on those Agendas you think are going to win. You could, however, bluff your opponents, playing an agenda early and appearing as through you are going to do everything you can to make sure it’s completed, only to ruin it in one fell swoop with the very last card you play! Using one of your very limited turns to set up a bluff is risky, but when it pays off, it feels great. They should have KNOWN you were holding onto the Nurse all along!
Add in the Poison in-spansion, and now you’ve got a betting token that straight up murders one of the agenda cards, unless someone uses an antidote (another new betting token) to save them. Even if they do, that’s two of the three spots on the card filled up with things that earn no points, all because of your nastiness! That feels great, and a bit stronger than the 0-point bluff, but it takes up time, and takes up turns. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room in this game, especially in the ribcage-crushing corset of the 4 player game. Even in the relatively roomy three player game, or the five player game, where several new cards are introduced, there often just don’t seem to be enough open agendas to bet on, and you can’t afford to waste a single turn. When you’re forced to play a card whose ability is no longer useful for you, it’s agonizing. What’s worse, most of the available Agendas play rather poorly with each other, if not toward diametrically opposite ends. This means that spending early actions on an oh-so-clever scheme is likely to result in you having no horses in the race, so to speak, and you won’t feel so clever when you end up earning zero points. Perhaps hanging around towards the end might be safer, but since even the last card can swap two tokens, move a card from the council to exile, or otherwise completely spoil everything for everybody, you’ll end up feeling like a fool because you should have KNOWN he was holding onto the Nurse all along.
In fact, maybe nobody scores any points at all! I’ve seen it happen (especially in the poison expansion), perhaps a bit more often than I’d like. The game works reasonably at all player counts, but 3 and 5 seem best to me. The two-player drafting variant seems to lend a bit too much control to the players, and the 4 player game seems like there’s not quite enough space, leading to occasionally painful rounds where players feel like they didn’t have an opportunity to do anything for themselves, but could only meddle in the plans of others. Following the full-game rules and playing one round per player does seem to even that out, and help to correct for the substantial last-player advantage).
CoV is a game where dreams are built up and shattered over the course of 15 minutes, and you always feel like if you had done something differently, you might have been able to make it work. If you’d just accounted for that Nurse, you might have been okay…
The upcoming Corruption expansion (a review copy of which was sent to me by Crash Games) throws that out the window. You dream bigger, but fall harder, and don’t always feel like you could have weaseled your way out… but you aren’t waiting to see how things play out. You’re a professional plan-ruiner, and there are so many plans to ruin.
This expansion adds a deck of 21 Corruption cards that can be played on your turn in addition to a character card and a token. These abilities, all unique, are quite a dash of spice to the game, each card doing something novel and interesting. Some cards are instantaneous abilities like those on the base game’s character cards. Some cards permanently add additional betting spots to agendas. Some cards lurk facedown until scoring, when they move characters, swap chips, or negate bets altogether, so you can watch your friends’ smug faces contort in misery as Juliet abruptly decides to move away, denying both Romeo and Juliet their precious points. (An evil laugh is required here. MWAHAHA.) When the circumstances are right, each card feels very powerful, very useful, and very very secret.
That added opacity has quite an impact on how Council of Verona plays out. In the base game everyone has some degree of knowledge of what cards have been passed around the table, and as a result, things feel reined in, under control, though just barely. You might be doomed, but you’ll see it coming, or at least you should have. (That accursed Nurse, again.) There’s a wealth of information in the base game, meted out among the players through dealing, drafting, and burning cards from a relatively small deck. In stark contrast, the Corruption cards are just sort of… dealt out. Each player just gets 4, and chooses to keep 2 of them. You can pick the ones that work best with the characters you’ve drafted, but you don’t have a lot of information to go on. Without this expansion, you know exactly how often cards can be moved, to and from where, exactly how many tokens can be swapped. With the expansion, you’re never really sure. 21 unique cards isn’t a COLOSSAL number, but it’s tough to keep 21 additional possibilities in mind, and every time someone plays a Corruption card face-down (to be activated right before scoring) the decision tree just gets pricklier.
Corruption doesn’t dramatically increase the game’s length, but it does increase how often things are moving, values are changing. It also increases how often you look at someone’s face as you play a card, watching their reaction to see if they’re devastated or indifferent. A lot of the Corruption cards feel (gamer epithet incoming) very “take-that”, making the game much more combative. If base CoV is a race with a nailbiting finish, then Corruption has you viciously taking potshots at the jockeys as they round the second turn. That ends up making the expansion feel less like an expansion and more like… a mutation? an adaptation? a mod?
I’ve played CoV and the expansion with a pretty wide range of players. Those that find a lot to love with the base game are often somewhat less enthusiastic about the expansion, finding it too chaotic, too swingy, too off-the-rails. Those that were excited by the expansion tended to think the base game felt a bit too dry or minimal, and appreciate the spicy confrontation that the Corruption cards provide.
As a result, Corruption is not an expansion I’d include every time I play the game. Not because it’s too complex (it’s not) but because it fundamentally changes the game. In fact, it seems like it very nearly turns game inside out. Players that want to play a more dynamic card game where you can directly, aggressively screw over other players and watch it happen in real time? They’re not so into the skulking and plotting of base CoV, but Corruption is way more their style. I’m not sure how many people are in in the wedge of the venn-diagram where the CoV base game and Corruption intersect, but I’m confident that most gamers are in one circle or the other. Wherever your taste lies on the control-to-chaos spectrum, some variant of Council of Verona probably fits the bill.