I’m afraid this review isn’t going to be another epic meditation on the grand pillars of board game design. Canterbury was an entertaining game – a good thought puzzle with moments of strong player interaction – but it did not “wow” me. It did not grab hold of my brain and cause me to pour over strategies in my head, madly wondering what I would do the next time I played.
Which is fine. I’m not saying I wouldn’t play it again. It was a good enough romp and didn’t take too long to play once we all got the hang of it.
Let me explain. First of all, we’ve got a very simple board consisting of a 5×5 grid of city districts, each of which has 6 spots for buildings. Coincidentally, each district has 6 different needs: water, food, religion, defense, commerce and culture – and they have to be filled in that order. So the first thing you wanna do is build a well, then a farm, then a church and so on. Once a district has a building in it, you can also start to build buildings in neighboring (not diagonal) districts – well, farm, church, etc. And this is how the beginning of the game goes – players taking turns making incremental progress building these small buildings in these different districts, slowly building upward and outward.
But players are also levying taxes and getting money based on the city’s prosperity, which goes up every time a building is built. So eventually the city grows prosperous enough that players can start building bigger, more expensive buildings. And these 2-spot buildings not only provide a need for the district in which they are built, but also for neighboring districts, as well.
And these buildings also increase the city’s prosperity by a large amount, leading to even bigger, more expensive and prosperous 4-spot buildings that provide needs to districts all over the map. It’s cool because you get this sort of snow-balling effect due to the linear nature of how tax funds increase with increasing city prosperity, so at the beginning of the game things progress slowly, but once the ball gets rolling, you only have a handful of turns before the end of the game (when the city reaches 300 prosperity).
In fact, I would say hands-down the best part of this game is the learning curve. You get plenty of time at the beginning of the game to figure out the basic mechanics of need providing, and just when you’re getting bored of that, larger buildings become affordable and the game gets much more interesting and dynamic. Of course, a down side to that is that I fear the beginning of the game may bore me even more were I to play it again.
So the majority of a player’s points comes from just building buildings, but a good percentage also comes from being the person who provides the majority of needs in a district. So it is largely an area control game where you want to get down as many of your cubes (representing needs being met) as possible. What this lead to however, given that everyone is looking at the same board, is that on any given turn, there is likely a single best build action for the majority of players – like building that medium commerce building next to 3 districts that don’t yet have commerce, or building that large religion building right smack in the center of town for lots of points and 6 religion needs met – and it is just a matter of whether the person whose turn it is has enough money to make that build. If not, they’ll just levy taxes and look for the new Best Move on their next turn.
Essentially, there is very little player customization. Every player is playing the board in almost the exact same way and for me that is not very interesting. There are some points awarded at the end of the game for providing more needs of a certain type than an other player, so people could focus on meeting specific needs across the town, but if players aren’t making that Best Move on their turn in favor of doing something more in line with whatever specific needs they’re shooting for, it seems likely they would be losing more points than they would gain. Plus I have seen people easily shoot from last to first in a need category by building one of the large buildings at the end of the game.
In the end, there seems to be very little room for planning, and whether you can pull of a big point-grabbing move when your turn rolls around is largely a crapshoot. Did your opponents’ moves lead to a big move for you? Did you levy taxes last turn so that you actually have enough money to make the move this turn?
And then when you do make the big move, everybody around the table is like, “Aww! I was going to do that!” Sure, it’s fun to rain on other people’s parades, but at the same time, it makes me long for a game with more player customization.