Sometimes you get a box in the mail and are terrified the moment you open it up. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often with me and boardgames, but man… I have to admit that when I pulled Sigismundus Augustus: Dei gratia rex Poloniae from its packaging, a shiver of fear went over me. I mean, just look at that title… Anyhow, from the moment I set it up on the table and started reading through the instructions I knew that I was in for a hard time, but now that I’ve spent some time with it I’ve come to appreciate this very complicated but thoughtful game. Set in Poland in the 1500s and based around the activities of the court of Polish King Sigismundus II, players will look to emulate what happened during his reign by using a system of voting, bribery and worker placement. Be warned though – if you’re going to get into the game, prepare to invest a lot of time and brainpower. This one is a beast!
Played out over a series of eight rounds, everyone begins with at least one Office card which (generally) gives you money, points and a special ability. More Office cards become available through the game as you increase your power base, of course meaning that your money, points and available abilities increase incrementally as the game continues. However, just because you’ve got these cards at your disposal, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to use them to their full ability – when the worker placement part of the round comes along, it’s time to screw around with everyone else while furthering your own grasps for power.
Everyone begins with a minimum three workers at the start of this phase, all of which will be placed on spaces in the centre of the board that bestow one-off boons for that round. First placements are free, but if someone is already occupying a space that you have your eye on you will have to pay one coin for each worker already there. You’ll soon find that money talks in this part of the game, and it’s a great idea to be allowed to do whatever you like as long as you have the funds to back your actions up. Placing a worker could let you to move up the three Support tracks that represent the various highly ranked areas of society; a very important part of the game, as not only does your position on each of the tracks bring in a set number of votes to be used later on, the strongest player will also get an extra ability – an extra pawn for the worker placement part of the game, for example. You can also get money, attack your enemies or take on special characters who will need to be paid, of course, and can be stolen away from you if the amount you handed over when hiring them is exceeded by another player.
Players are ultimately working towards two goals – to place influence on Neighbouring Countries that are located around the outside of the board, and to manipulate Foreign Policy Direction track at the top of the board which will let you (hopefully) gain more points. When a country is scored, the most influential player also gains another special ability that will help them even more. The end of the round means voting for new Office cards where bribery is the order of the day. Votes can be bought and sold during this phase, with players offering their accrued tokens for cash – if you’re running low on funds, it can be a great way to put yourself in a position of power by sacrificing a little for a round. Laws are also invoked that will effect your abilities during the next round.
That’s the basic rundown on what happens in Sigismundus Augustus, but reading back it feels like that barely scratches the surface. There are few games out there that really capture the intricacies and political machinations of court life and present them to gamers in such depth, but designers Adam Kwapinski and Michal Sienko have done a sterling job. It feels less of a game and more like you’ve gone a few rounds with a particularly sneaky boxer after you’re done – this is a heavy game with lots going on, so be prepared for a challenge. Keeping track of everything can be difficult but concentration will reap rewards but I think the real challenge will be making people aware that the game exists. The official release is at this year’s Essen Spiel (despite the game originally being released back in 2012) and the unassuming look could have people just walk on by. If they do though, they’re missing out on one of the deepest gaming experiences available at the moment. Everything is so well balanced with each action you take having repercussions. You’ll constantly be second guessing yourself, talking yourself out of what could be good choices while also trying to react to the decisions of the other players. It’s mean, it’s cruel, it’s filled with people ruing their mistakes – and you should have it at the top of your list if you’re in need of a challenge.
Sigismundus Augustus: Dei gratia rex Poloniae was designed by Adam Kwapinski and Michal Sienko. First released through Fabryka Gier Historycznych (aka: Historical Games Factory) in 2012, the English language version (amongst others!) gets its official release at Essen this year. Between three and five players can take part with games taking around two to three hours. Just don’t go into it lightly!