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Reviews - Grand Tribunal
by Brian Darnell

Grand Tribunal coverGrand Tribunal
Published by Atlas Games
Designed by Phillip R. Chase
Released July 2006
110 cards, 99 game tokens, game board, rules sheet, six-sided die (components)
3-5 Players (12 and up), 60-90 minutes

Grand Tribunal is a board game from Atlas Games set in the Ars Magica world. Having no idea what Ars Magica is all about, I'm going to stick to a review of the board game on its own.

The general idea is that the players are mages out to prove their worth by competing in a series of three contests (tribunals) to see who can make the most worthy magic items. These magic items are judged based upon criteria that the players themselves put forth during the game.

Spelling it out
Grand Tribunal is presented in a reasonably attractive manner. The game comes in a fairly small box (8.5" X 10" X 2"), which is a bonus for those with limited storage space. A central game board marks various areas the cards and chips should be placed. The card artwork is good, though there are not many unique images (all Spells of a type have the same picture, as do Item and Resource cards).

Included are three main types of cards: Items, Spells, and Resources. Item cards are used by the players as a base; without items, one cannot score any points. Spells are used to enhance items, and also can be cast (and discarded) to have some effect in the game. Resources are special abilities that don't directly help to score points, but can make it easier in certain ways.

Among the chips, there are three types as well. Award chips are roughly poker-chip like in three colors (Blue, Red, or Yellow) and denote the winners of the tribunals. Vis chips are smaller and black, roughly equivalent to a tiddlywink. Voting chips are the same size and shape as Vis, but white.

The rulebook is a single sheet, folded to make four pages, so it is fairly brief. There are some issues with the rules as presented, but Atlas provides some corrections and clarifications on the game's web page. I highly recommend looking these over - especially the FAQ/Errata - before trying to play this game.

Invoking the Tribunal
The game begins with each player getting 12 Vis and a hand of five cards (1 item, 1 spell, and 3 of a type of their choice). The first player is the first Praeco (which isn't defined in the rules, but seems to be some sort of political position) and places three voting tokens on three different spots on the board. There are voting spots for each of the Item types (Orbs, Potions, Scrolls, Staves, Talismans, and Wands), as well as each of the Spell types (Alchemical, Elemental, Runic, and Thaumaturgical). The basic idea is to play voting tokens in spots that will benefit you the most by matching types with your items and spells. Players can also call upon special resource cards that allow them to gain some sort of advantage; for example reducing the cost of a certain type of spell.

After placing the voting tokens, the first player takes two actions, which must be different from each other. Then play passes to the next player who then takes two actions, and around clockwise until reaching the last player. Then the Praeco pawn passes and there is a new start player who places three votes and starts the round of actions. After each player has been Praeco once, then there is a tribunal.

There are several choices players can make for actions. One can take an item or spell (from either the three face up cards or from the deck). Another action is to place a voting token on any space. Alternatively, a player can advance their Spells or Items by taking some of their Vis and placing it on the cards. Items have varying advance costs, while spells all have a cost of two Vis. Still more things a player can do with an action: Cast a Spell (if it and the Item are active and it is installed on the Item); play a Resource card; or extract Vis (gain 1 Vis, or gain 2 Vis during the final tribunal). There are also activities that take both actions on a player's turn - Draw a Resource Card, or Gather Vis. Gathering Vis is a way to get a lot of Vis, but it will also benefit the other players by giving them a lesser amount of Vis for free.

Once each player has been Praeco once and all have finished their actions, each active Item is automatically entered in the tribunal contest. Players look at their Items and figure out how many votes it gains by comparing the item type and any spell types installed on that item to the voting spaces. For example, if someone has an Orb with an Alchemical spell on it, then they count the number of votes on 'Orb' and add it to the number of votes on 'Alchemical'. The Item with the most votes wins first place and gets a blue award chip. Second place gets a red chip, and third gets a yellow one.

Items score points based upon what place they won in the contest - blue is (item base value + # of installed spells + other modifier) x4, while each place after that decreases the multiplier (2nd gets 3x, 3rd gets 2x, runners-up all get 1x). Any item that wins an award chip will not be entered in any future tribunals. After three tribunals the scores are added up and whoever has the most wins.

Mystical notations
A few issues jumped out at us while playing the game:

  • A player, after being Praeco, has an extended downtime while waiting through nearly two full rounds of actions for their next turn.
  • With five players, it was very easy to run out of Vis tokens, and we also ran out of spells.
  • The spells with no special effect are boring. Either all spells should do something, or the "vanilla" ones should have a lower cost, or something. Also, the items have no effects to make them different, just different costs and spell slots.
  • The option to pay two Vis to keep a spell in one's sanctum after casting it seemed both overly powerful and boring; players who got the few awesome spells cast them repeatedly.
  • Due to the way scoring works, having an item win 3rd place is often worse than being a runner-up, especially in the first tribunal. This is because the runner-up will earn points again in the next tribunal. Therefore it will earn at least as many points as it would have for a 3rd place prize, often getting even more.

On the positive side, the collective voting mechanic worked well and made gameplay interesting. Additionally, a player who manages their Vis carefully will gain an advantage late in the game, adding another aspect to engage strategic thinkers.

The game strictly out of the box is confusing and missing the Vis management portion, but a net-savvy person could look at Atlas' website and put some effort into figuring it out. With the corrections on the website, the game works much better. With 3-4 players, the game has enough bits in it to accommodate everyone without having to improvise. With 5 players, there aren't enough Vis tokens or enough spell cards.

Grand Tribunal is a playable, moderately fun game with some interesting mechanics. Most people I played with said they would play again. However, given the huge array of great games out there, I wouldn't recommend it unless you're an Ars Magica fan, or maybe someone who really likes the theme otherwise.

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