Every now and again when I’m not at work, or trying to kill myself on skates, or trying to parent, or operating an illegal underground cutthroat Matchbox car racing league, I get to play games. Even more rarely, I get to write about them. This means that nowadays if I’m writing about a game, I’m doing so with a game that I love. Today that love is for Guildhall, designed by Hope Hwang and published by Alderac Entertainment Group.
Guildhall is a set collection card game for 2-4 players. Between its medieval motif and when it was published, you would think that it is a part of the Tempest series. While it has no ties to Tempest, I like to think of it as what the peasantry is doing while the nobles plot and scheme…which curiously enough, also involves plotting and scheming. I learned it from watching YOU, Dad.
The main deck of cards for play is comprised of six professions (Assassin, Historian, Dancer, Farmer, Weaver, Trader) and five colors (red, gold, green, blue, purple). The colors here matter for gameplay, but I’d like to tip my hat to AEG on two fronts for the colors. First, the colors are very vivid and solid. When I look across the table to see what you have in play, I don’t have to ask if your Farmer is green or gold. While I’m not colorblind, I would think that they are different enough that those that are wouldn’t have any problems distinguishing one from another; but if they did, every color also has an accompanying symbol for further distinguishing. AEG’s Production Dept. was ahead of the curve on this. You’re forgiven for Nightfall. Back to the game.
How it works:
There’s not a lot in the box, but there’s a lot in the box. There are 2 decks of cards; a small deck of VP cards, and a larger deck of cards for the game play. At the start of the game, the larger deck is shuffled and each player is dealt 9 cards. With these cards, they can choose and discard as many as they like and redraw up to 9. The only cards you will typically discard will be duplicates of the same color/profession (i.e. 2 gold Historians). After you redraw, you put three cards into play to begin your guild chapters. Once all players have done this, the actual game starts.
On your turn, you have two actions you can take, and three options as to what you can do with those actions.
1. Discard as many cards from your hand as you like and redraw to 6. You’ll typically do this if you have a bunch of duplicates, if your hand is very small (lacking a lot of options) or if you’re going for the “Hail Mary” play and digging for a specific card.
2. Play a profession card from your hand to your play area and resolve its effects (resolving effects is optional, though it is rare that you wouldn’t want to). The effects of the cards increase in power the more you already have in play. For example, if you have 0 Farmers in your guildhall when you play your first, you get nothing. If you have 1-2 Farmers already in your guildhall when you play your third, you’ll collect a coin that’s worth a victory point. You can’t play the same profession twice in the same turn, nor can you play a profession card that you already have in play (you can’t play a green Dancer if your guildhall contains a green Dancer) At the end of your turn, cards played in this fashion will join the existing chapters, building towards the set. Once you collect one of each color of a profession, the whole stack is flipped upside down and removed from play, which leads to the third action…
3. You can purchase a single Victory Point card by turning in 1-2 completed guilds. There’s a spread of five Victory Point cards at any time, when one is purchased, another is drawn to replace it. Some of them are a strict point gain, while others have a smaller value but have an effect when you purchase them, such as drawing cards, trading cards with other players or gaining additional actions. The game is won by being the first player to score 20 points.
The cast of players
Now that you have the basic ideas of what you can do and the ultimate goal, the game gets interesting. As mentioned previously, each of the professions has an ability that scales with how many you already have in play. All of these abilities are communicated to the players via symbology. When I first saw them, I groaned and thought I was looking at another 7 Wonders. Don’t get me wrong, I love 7 Wonders, but I didn’t understand the symbology the first several games, and to this date I often have to look up what specific cards mean from the Cities and Leaders expansions. Guildhall’s symbology is very easy to understand. Let’s look at our colorful cast of characters.
Dancer is one of, if not THE most popular profession, and with damn good reason. First, she gives you a bonus action, so effectively she doesn’t take an action to play. Second, she draws cards, how many cards determined by how many Dancers you already have in your guildhall. . Seeing how under normal circumstances it takes actions both to play profession cards and to draw cards, Dancers come at a high premium. Expect them to be frequently traded from you and murdered to death.
Farmers are a powerful and slightly underrated profession. They don’t change the board state much. They don’t draw cards, give you actions, hinder your opponents or set up other guilds. What they DO do is contribute directly to your winning path. With 0 Farmers in your guildhall, you get squat. Zilch. Zero. You get NOTHING! You LOSE! GOOD DAY, SIR! Once you have 1, your 2nd and 3rd each get you a coin token, worth 1 VP. Your 4th and 5th each score 2 coin tokens. This means that taking the slow road to Farmville will net you SIX VP, and this is making the assumption that no tricks were played by you or that your Farmers were left unmolested by your opponent(s), a bit of an unlikely scenario. I haven’t seen the win pulled off with no VP cards, but I’ve seen it come close to happening a bunch of times. They are an excellent push to get you to the magic 20 quickly.
Assassin – Ah, the good old days, when everyone had a trade an earned an honest living. Dancers entertained, Farmers provided food for all, Weavers created goods and Assassins murdered people. These were simple, more honest times. Assassins, as you may have guessed, kill other cards. At 0-1 in your guildhall, they kill one card from an opponent’s guildhall (believe me, there have been many a game where I wished that I could assassinate my own people). At 2-3 in your guildhall, they can kill 2 cards from different stacks, and at 4 they can kill any 2 cards in an opponent’s guildhall. Assassins are the most direct disruption element in Guildhall. Common uses include killing cards in a 4 high stack (thereby making the guild harder to close) or killing cards with higher benefits from having lots of them (like Dancers and Farmers)
Weavers are not the craft artisans that their name implies, as much as The Weavers of Fate and Destiny. Weavers are probably my favorite of the professions after Dancers. If Dancers aren’t your number 1 pick, you’re doing this game (and probably life) all wrong. With 0-1 Weavers, you take a card from your hand and place it directly into your guildhall. With 2 or 3 Weavers, you play 2 cards from your hand to your guildhall and return one card from your guildhall to your hand. With 4 or the 5th Weaver, you play X cards from your hand into your guildhall, and pull 2 back into your hand. Since you’re not playing the cards by themselves, you do not get to resolve their effects, but you are expediting the process of completing guilds. Also, when someone plays the green Weaver, they are bound by gamer law to sing it to the tune of “Dream Weaver”
Traders…well, trade things. Brilliant. Sometimes I amaze myself with the stunningly clever way I describe things. This is one of the more difficult cards to play, because at lower levels, you have to make fair(ish) trades. By which I mean that you can’t give them something that they don’t need (i.e., you can’t trade someone a purple Weaver if they already have one in play). You can use it to complete guilds, but at the cost of helping your opponent do the same. At 0-1, you trade 1 card for 1 card. At 2-3, you can trade 2 cards for 2 cards, and with the 4th and 5th, you can arrange for stack for stack. They don’t have to be even. Yes, I will take your 4 Assassins, and in exchange, I offer you this single red Historian. Deal of the century!
Historians tell the tale of our little thriving empires. Or at least that’s what you think they would do. Similar to the Weaver, their title is misleading. Historians manipulate time and reality by pulling cards out of the discard pile and putting them directly into your guildhall, effectively resurrecting the card. At 0-1, you can do this with the top card of the discard pile. If it happens to be something you need, awesome. If not, it’s kind of a waste to play the Historian. At 2-3, you get to look through the discard pile and place a single card into your guildhall. This is especially powerful late game after some completed guilds have been cashed in for points, because it is guaranteed that all 5 colors of a single profession will be available. With the powerful 4th and 5th, you get to look through the discard pile and pull 2 cards. If you’ve read this far and don’t understand why that’s bonkers, then I recommend waiting for my upcoming review on Chutes and Ladders.
OK, I get it, but what do I do?
Guildhall’s strategy runs pretty deep, and this is where the real meat of the game is. As described above, each of the professions has a special ability. These abilities combine and play with each other in all sorts of interesting ways. Here are a few of the more direct pointers and combos I like to employ.
Choose your starting guilds carefully. It’s a good idea to start a Farmer in play, that way when you play your first Farmer from your hand, you get a VP coin from it. It’s also good to seed a Dancer if you have one in your opening hand. The rest of them don’t do anything extra fancy unless you have two of them already, but some of these can be devastating.
Assassin + Historian. It takes two actions to pull off, but you get to deny your opponent a card that they need while giving yourself something key.
Dancer/Farmer + Weaver. Once you have 2 Weavers in play, your 3rd, 4th and 5th will require you to pull card(s) back into your hand, which will allow you to double dip on abilities. While this is great with any of them, it’s especially awesome with the point gaining Farmers and the card drawing Dancers.
Pay attention to the abilities in the VP card spread. Some of them will grant lopsided trades or outright card theft. Using this to complete more guilds not only hurts your opponent and sets you up for more scoring, but protects your near-completed guilds as well.
Things what I like about Guildhall:
There are many things I love about Guildhall. It has quick setup and takedown. It is easy to teach, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The game narrative changes over the course of the experience, starting with cards with little impact and slowly building into big exciting plays. The gameplay is deliciously tense, and using every single action counts, especially in the final turns. The game even has a built-in catch-up mechanic in that the most powerful plays are generally ones that complete guilds, and completing guilds have two side effects. 1) The sudden loss of power cards leaves you weak. Remember how awesome it was when you played that Dancer and got 4 cards and an action? It was almost as cool as the time you got 5 cards and an action! Remember the time after that? When you only got an action? The price of glory is power. 2) You lost all that power, and then you have to spend time buying VP cards. Yes, these are how you ultimately win the game, but the play of the game where all the action is keeps marching on without you. Lastly, the game plays wildly different at 2 than it does at 3-4. It’s a great game at any number, but for me, it shines brightest in head to head play. So, yeah. Easy. Do you like games that are easy to teach, don’t take forever, have a surprising amount of depth and are a lot of fun? Then yes, Guildhall is for you.
Ugh. You’re such a fanboy. Tell me something you DON’T like about Guildhall.
There is one thing. A poor shuffle can lead to a bad game. By the nature of the game, the cards tend to clump up in groups, so be sure to give it a very thorough shuffle in between games. Failure to do so can create situations like one player getting a bunch of Dancers, which provides a super advantage over the other player(s).
Thoughts as a Designer:
Guildhall hits a perfect sweet spot with me as a game that is not too heavy, but not filler and fluff. Guildhall also has a full size expansion called Job Faire with six new professions. You can play these independently, or mix and match between the two sets. It adds a bit to the set up time, but adds to the already impressive replay value exponentially.
It’s a very solid design with not a lot of room for improvement in this person’s opinion, so I will use this “Thoughts as a Designer” space to say, that I would like to see more. Looking at their upcoming release calendar, it doesn’t look like there are current plans for another set, but I’ve been thinking about ideas for new cards. It’s a fun mental exercise to come up with ideas that are not already covered by other cards that are still interesting and balanced.
Not every game is for everybody, but if someone tells me that they don’t like Guildhall, I probably don’t think of them as a person of quality, and questionably as a person at all.
This post is dedicated to one of my faithful readers and supporters, Elyce, who I will likely never actually meet in person. Thanks for the harassment, Elyce. It’s the loving needling of people like you that keep me scribbling here 4 times a year. (I promise I will write more frequently) (I mean it this time) (I know I said I meant it last time) (But for real this time. For really real.) (Why are you looking at me like that?) (Like you don’t believe me?)