Citadels is a game where players attempt to build city districts. The player who builds eight districts first signals the end of the game, and the player with the most points wins. The game relies on some simple mechanics and a simple internal economy but it relies even more heavily on unpredictability to maintain tension and to ensure players have fun.
Cards: In Citadels, there are district cards and character cards. District cards have a cost represented by a number of gold in the top left hand corner of the card. The district cards also have a type, which is indicated by a coloured circle on the bottom left hand corner of the card. The type of card determines which player collects income on that card or if that card has special abilities (which are described on the card). There are eight characters in the game. Each card has a rank number, which indicates which order the character will be played.
Rounds: Citadels is played over a series of rounds, each of which have four steps. The first step is to remove characters from the deck. One random card is drawn and set facedown at the centre of the table and is not used for that round. Depending on the number of players (if playing with 4-7 players), a second set of cards are drawn from the deck and placed face-up on the table and will not be used for that round. The second step is choosing a character. The player with the crown marker takes a card from the character deck, secretly chooses a character, and then passes it to their left. This player continues this action, and passes the cards to their left, and the next player continues this action until all players have a character. If playing with two or three players, each player plays the round with two characters each, thus having two turns each round. The mechanics of choosing a character changes if there are two, three, or seven players. If playing with two players, the player with the crown marker shuffles the character deck and a character is discarded face down on the table, then the player choses a character and passes the deck over to the other player. That player chooses a character and discards a character, and passes the deck to the other player, who continues that action until each player has two cards. The last player to choose a character will choose one character and discard the other. In a three-player game, the player with the crown marker shuffles the character deck and a character is discarded face down on the table. The player takes a card from the deck, and passes it to their left. That player takes a card, and passes the deck to their left. This continues until each player has two cards. The last player to choose a character will choose one character and discard the other. In a seven player game, the last player to choose a character gets to choose between the card handed to them, and the card that was discarded face down at random. The third step is the player turns. The crown calls out the players based on their rank (indicated on the card). It is that player’s turn when their character is called. In the fourth step, the round ends, all the cards are collected, shuffled, and a new round begins. When a player builds eight districts, this signals the last round of the game.
Turns: The player, on their turn, reveals their character and takes their turn. Players begin by taking an action of either taking two gold from the bank or drawing two district cards, keeping one and discarding the other. The player can then build a district if they have enough gold pieces to do so (the cost of a district is indicated on the district card). At any point in the turn, the character can use their abilities indicated on the card only once, but they may choose not to.
Catch-up Mechanic: The warlord and thief are able to affect opponents negatively. This enables a player who may be in the lead to become a target. If played successfully, the warlord and thief can overthrow a player’s overall wealth in a game. This can be advantageous to players who are behind in scoring points.
Resource Management: Players must manage the amount of gold pieces they have at any time in order to build a district card and must also manage the amount of points that they have in game and the amount of points opponents have, as well. This is because the first player to achieve 8 districts signals the last turn of the game. If a player builds 8 districts, but another player has more points, then the player will end the game without scoring the highest points and will not win. Players must also manage how many coins they have and how many points they have in the game as this will create a situation where they may be targeted by the thief or warlord.
Achievements: Players work to achieve building their cities by paying to play district cards. As the cities are built, district cards stand as achievements of having successfully strategized to achieve that goal. As the game goes on, players may target opponents by attempting to destroy their cities with the warlord card.
Combos: Players are generally rewarded by doing a combination of moves that allows them to have enough resources to build cities or strategically disadvantage opponents. The successful completion of a combo that is played out over many turns is rewarded usually by the ability to build a district and thus score points. This boosts engagement in the game, and also influences the time it takes to play the game since a player will try to use a combination of moves, having played many characters, to achieve a goal.
Urgent Optimism: Players are self-motivated to build districts that have the highest cost so they can win by having the most points. Players are looking for a win by seeing their strategy come to life. There are levels of high engagement as players play their cards in a strategic way that gains them the most amount of points.
Loss Aversion: Players are often motivated to choose characters that will minimize the chance of being punished by another player. For example, a player may choose a bishop card if they believe a player with the warlord card to destroy one of their districts. The bishop character prevents the player’s districts from being destroyed by the warlord that round.
Role-playing: Each player in the game receives a new character each round. The players must effectively use the character’s power on their turn in order to achieve a desired outcome. Players will strategize not only which character they wish to have, but how they will best use that character’s ability, while at the same time being aware of the other characters that opponents may have. The players are called out by rank (indicated on the card) by the player with the wooden crown marker. The wooden crown marker is given to the king. The player with the marker is the first player to choose a character card during the next round.
Risk and Reward: Players press their luck by managing the risk of having an opponent activate a character’s ability in a way that would disrupt the player’s strategy. For example, a player may try to collect a lot of gold pieces but if another player catches on to their strategy, the thief will most likely try to target them.
Goal: The goal of the game is to have the most points by the end of the game (when any player builds their eight district, it signals the end of the game). A player receives one point for the combined cost of all the districts cards in their city. If there is a tie, the player with the most gold wins.
Bonuses: If a player has at least one district in each of the five colours by the end of the game, they receive three additional points. If the player was the first to build all eight district, they receive three points. If any other player manages to build eight districts by the end of the last round, they receive two additional points. There are also certain district cards that act as bonuses for the player and affect the mechanics of the game.
As mentioned before, players must manage the amount of gold pieces they have at any time in order to build a district, manage the amount of points that they have in game, and manage the amount of points opponents have. At all times, players must also come up with strategies to come out on top while remaining unpredictable to opponents. This creates some interesting, tense moments where players will try and predict the strategies of others in order to thwart their plans. At the same time, a player is aware that are doing the same, so players will try to appear unpredictable to others. Players may choose the king card in order to be the next player to choose a character first, but that can make the player a target as well. When they choose a character, they may take a character that, in the hands of an opponent, would put them at a disadvantage in order to ensure that that character is not played against them that round. Overall, the mechanics ensure that player unpredictability is high, that the player has an adaptable strategy in order to build the most profitable districts, that players outwit opponents, and that players overthrow opponents who are in the lead. On the other hand, the mechanics of the game also diminish interest, since choosing a character can be a lengthy process and while that player is choosing their character, all opponents are idle waiting for their move. This happens again during the round as each player takes their turn. There is a lot of downtime in Citadels and although the mechanics create the magic of playing the game, the downtime negatively affects the game’s aesthetics.
The aesthetics of the game, according to the MDA Framework are submission, that is a “game as pastime” and challenge, that is “game as obstacle course” (Hunicke et al. 2). Players have fun and are emotionally invested in the game as they attempt to get the most points by employing strategies that undermine opponents, while at the same time staying unpredictable so that opponents do not employ their own strategies to undermine them.
The tangible concrete resource in the game is the gold counter. Gold pieces can be used to cover the cost of building a district. Each player is given two gold at the beginning of the game. If there is a tie, the player with the most gold wins. The intangible abstract resource is the cost of building a district, as this ultimately becomes the point system in the game. The collection of gold pieces can occur if a player chooses to collect two gold pieces on their turn, or if they play a character that collects on a certain district type that the player has already built. The somewhat random draw of cards and other player’s choices affect how many gold pieces a player may collect in a round, therefore creating stability in a dynamic economic system by ensuring not one player is more advantaged than another throughout the game.
Citadels maximizes uncertainty to ensure that the players remain engaged and to create tense moments throughout the entire gameplay. The game employs player unpredictability, randomness, analytic complexity, hidden information, and the uncertainty of perception outlined by Costikyan. The game relies heavily on player unpredictability. At any point in the game, all players are attempting to understand each other’s strategies. A player’s choice of character and the way they use that character’s special ability ultimately affects the entire game. All players must make meaningful actions in the game keeping this fact in mind, and to ensure that they themselves are unpredictable enough so that another player does not attempt to block them in some fashion from achieving their goal. The game also relies on randomness; the character cards are first shuffled, and the district cards are also shuffled. Each player is dealt four random district cards at the beginning of the game. Random character cards may also be discarded at the beginning of each round. This creates tension in the game, as players are never sure what other characters are at play, who has these characters, and how it will affect their own gameplay and strategy. Equally, the game relies heavily on analytic complexity, which is when “players need to think about what to do, have to parse a complicated decision tree, and perhaps are uncertain, even as they make a decision, that it is necessarily the correct decision to make” (Costikyan 86). Players must manage their economies, while ensuring that they score the most points, and need to make meaningful choices in spite of other player’s complicated decision trees. Overall, the combined mechanics, resources, and uncertainty all contribute to players having to be analytically aware of actions that may affect them from scoring. The game also relies on hidden information, as characters are hidden from players until they are called by the player with the crown marker. Randomness and player unpredictability contribute further to hidden information, as players who choose character cards first may have strategies that will affect another player negatively. Finally, the game relies on the uncertainty of perception; it is difficult to know what is going on in the game space, as the mechanics ensure that each player’s characters are hidden until they are revealed.
Costikyan, Greg. Uncertainty in games. MIT Press, 2013.
Hunicke, Robin, et al. “MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research.” Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI, vol. 4, 2004.