Full disclosure: A review copy of Cursed Court was provided by Atlas Games.
So I’m checking out another game from Atlas Games, publisher of the solid deckbuilder with a super-weird-theme, Witches of the Revolution. This theme is, frankly, a bit more run-of-the-mill with the whole “kingdoms and intrigue”, but hey I like the art so I’m gonna give it a once-over.
In Cursed Court, you play as lesser nobles trying to figure out which Nobles (I keep typing Noodles for some reason) are going to be most in favor at the end of the year. If you are favored by them, well, it stands to reason that you might stop being a lesser noble and might become an actual Noble with a title. It’s a good goal to have, I suppose. The problem is, you’re not the only person trying to convince these Nobles that they should support you. Will you be able to impress them?
Game’s pretty easy to set up. Lay out the board on your table:
Leave some space to the side, about the same size as the board. (Give or take.) Give each player coins in a color of their choice:
There will also be score markers, but they’re not particularly exciting to photograph. They come in the same colors, so put the relevant ones on the 0 on the board’s scoring track. Also give them four crowns in the same color:
Now, shuffle the cards:
Give one player the Start Marker and set the Scoring Tokens on 0:
Once you’ve done that, you’re basically ready to start!
A standard game of Cursed Court is played over three Years, though frankly you can play as many years as you want, if you’d like. You do you. I generally just treat each “year” as a full game and we play until we’re done, but, like I said, no real preference.
Each year is composed like so:
- Deal cards: Deal a single card in between each pair of players, such that everyone has a card on their left and a card on their right. Players can (and should) look at the cards on their left and right.
- At three players, deal two cards between each player. Each player will have to cards on their left and right.
- At two players, deal each player two cards. Each player will just have those two cards and cannot look at their opponent’s cards.
- Spring. Each player plays until all players have one bet on the board.
- Summer. Each player plays until all players have two bets on the board.
- Autumn. Each player plays until all players have three bets on the board.
- Winter. Each player plays until all players have four bets on the board.
- Score points. Players tally their scores and convert successful bets into points.
I’ll explain more. Each season is effectively one turn in which players see some information publicly and then use that information and their private information to make a wager. A season works as follows:
- Deal a card: Flip a card off of the deck and place it face-up in the space you left near the board in the area mimicking its placement on the board. If you drew a King, for instance, you’d place it in the top-right spot in the empty area.
- Make a bet: Starting with the player holding the Start Marker, you may make a new wager or bump an existing player. This will happen until every player has the same number of crowns on the board.
- Make a new wager: Place a crown and zero or more coins on any unoccupied space. You are betting that that card will appear in the tableau you are building at the end of the round. If you place on a noble, you are betting that one or more of the noble cards will appear. If you place on a region, you are betting that all of those cards will appear at least once in the tableau by the end of the round. If it helps, all players will discard the cards on their left and right to the tableau at the end of the round.
- Bump an existing player: If you like someone else’s bet, you can take it … for a price. In order to bump a player, you must place at least double their existing bet and a crown on that space (or at least one coin if they bet zero). They’ll get their crown back. You cannot bump yourself.
Note that play continues in turn order until every player has the same number of crowns on the board. This means that if you’ve already bet your limit for a Season (you have the same number of crowns on the board as the current season number), your turn gets skipped. This allows bumped players to take extra turns, and they will take more turns than players who never got bumped. If you get bumped by a bumped player after you skipped your turn, you take your turn the next time you would come up in turn order.
- Pass the Start Marker. If this is not the last Season of the year, pass the Start Marker to that player’s left. That player will be the first player to make a bet next Season.
After the fourth season in a year, you move on to Scoring! Scoring works as follows:
- Put every card between players into the Tableau, face-up.
- Remove crowns and chips that do not score points. This helps keep the board manageable. A bet that doesn’t score points is a bet made on a noble that doesn’t appear in the tableau or a bet made on a region that does not have all cards in that region present in the tableau.
- Score remaining bets. Everything that is left on the board scores as follows:
- Nobles: Nobles score based on how many nobles of that type are in the tableau:
- 1 Noble: 1 point
- 2 Nobles: 2 points
- 3 Nobles: 5 points
- 4 Nobles: 8 points
- Regions: Regions score based on their color:
- Red Regions: 3 points
- Blue Regions: 4 points
- Nobles: Nobles score based on how many nobles of that type are in the tableau:
Tally the scores and the player with the most points wins the year! Or just keep the scoreboard and shuffle the cards in the tableau back into the deck and play another year. Best of three wins!
As mentioned, there are lots of interesting variants, each with their own name. I’ll explain them, here:
The Court Remembers
In this variant, rather than shuffling the tableau back into the deck after each year, leave the cards out for the rest of the game. How good’s your memory? If you want to play a kinder version, you may leave the cards face-up. The more intense version should test your memory a bit, especially by Year 3.
The Coinless Court
This is the Friendly Introductory Version for Nice Gamers, as it removes bumping and plays without coins. If you want to bet in a region or on a Noble, you may place your Crown there as long as there is not already one of your Crowns on that space. Organize Crowns from North (top of board) to South (bottom of board) in a space to indicate which crown got their first (you can also stack them, if you’re feeling ambitious).
When you score, each successive Crown earns one fewer point. So if there were 3 Dukes and four players all put their Crowns on that space, the first Crown earns 5, the second 4, and the third earns 3.
The Great Exchange
If you want to play an endurance round or run your own tournament, this might be the version for you. In this one, each player starts with 100 coins (you may want to use the various colors of chips as various denominations, unless you already own poker chips). When you would remove your non-scoring bets from the board, just remove the Crown instead and leave the bet on the board. Whichever player scores the most points at the end of a year takes all chips still on the board and adds them to their supply for use in subsequent years. Rough! You’ll probably see the bets get a bit crazier as a result.
This is an elimination challenge, now! When only one player has chips left, they’re declared the winner!
If you want to get really intense you can also allow players to buy back in and get another 100 chips.
The Royal Masquerade
If you really want to mess with other players, this might be a good variant for you. Take a sharpie or some white-out or something and mark one Crown of every color underneath the Crown, where it can’t be seen. This Crown is your Feint Crown. You only use this for your Bamboozle Bets. Basically, when you play this one, you cannot score points with it; it and any coins you bet are returned to you at the end of a year, before the face-down cards are added to the tableau (though that doesn’t really matter).
If you’re using this with The Great Exchange, the player who played their Feint Crown gets their coins back, not the winner of the year. This adds another level of intrigue to the game.
Player Count Differences
Honestly, it’s really interesting at all player counts. At two, it’s definitely a game of trying to read the other player and get a sense of what they’re betting on. At higher player counts, it’s more reading between the lines and seeing what people are betting to try and figure out what nobody has so that you can avoid it. They’re kind of similar but also fairly different play styles, so I don’t really have a strong recommendation of a player count to play this at. I will say that I prefer playing a single round variant of this game at higher player counts, as the rounds take a fairly long time with more players just due to analysis paralysis.
- Go for the bamboozles. If you can trick an opponent into placing on a space (or, better yet, bumping you off of a space that you know is worthless) then you’re doing good work. You need to convince people that you know things that you know aren’t correct, if you can.
- Don’t bamboozle yourself. If you try too hard to fake out your opponents, you might be left with a bunch of very unproductive bets that won’t score you any points. Remember, first and foremost, you need to score points if you want to win. That’s … usually true for games.
- Sometimes you gotta bet big. If you think that you might have a high-scoring play, you can try and calculate the expected value of going for it, sure, or you can just … go for it. Sometimes that means hoping you get lucky on the flop or hoping that you read your opponents correctly and you can set yourself up for a big play, but don’t feel bad about slapping down a bunch of coins even if you’re not totally confident in your life choices.
- I find that betting 8 is better than betting 11. Sure, at 11 nobody can block your bet, but most players that I’ve played with seem to also be hesitant about playing 16 chips. If they want it they can take it, but that basically renders them incapable of playing for the rest of the round. It’s a huge tradeoff, at that point.
- Don’t just bet low. It’s tempting to bet low so that you’ll be left with all your chips at the end of a round, but you also run the risk that you’ll get knocked off of high-value spaces by 8s or 9s, meaning that they can play two sets of 8 chips but you’d have to play 16 chips to take either of those back. That’s great for them but terrible for you. Obviously, as a counterpoint, you shouldn’t just slam 20 chips down on the first spot that catches your eye, either.
- Work with your sorta-partner. Neither you nor the player next to you benefits from anyone else knowing what your card is, so try to keep it on the down-low. If you immediately bet on that Noble, then you’re just shouting from the mountaintop, “HEY, I HAVE THE DUKE”, which gives players more information than you have (since they know their two cards in addition to yours). Keep your cards pretty close to the chest.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Very simple game. It’s easy to teach and easy to set up, but has a lot of depth to it, which is always nice.
- Love the diverse art. It’s nice seeing a wide variety of people represented as the nine nobles. It’s also a really pretty board — bright, colorful, and the components are nice as well, save for one thing about the crown tokens.
- The chips are a nice weight. They’re not as heavy as Splendor’s chips, which are beautiful and perfect, but they have a nice feel to them and I appreciate that.
- Everyone has imperfect information, and that creates some really interesting gameplay. You cannot trust that anyone is not feinting, but eventually someone needs to do something to score points. Then again, it’s also fairly random what’s actually going to be scoreable at the end of a year, so it’s all a very confusing thing. Lots of fun.
- It’s a game that you can talk while playing. You don’t need to be too focused on the game between turns, so we definitely have a fair bit of table talk happening while we’ve played. It’s a great way to wind down a night of gaming since your focus isn’t super required.
- The variants are pretty neat. I’ve only played with the “remove cards from the game after each year” variant, but that one is superb. I’d love to play with the 100 Chip variant or the Feint variant (or both, together). Just gives the game a lot of replay value.
- Will probably need to sleeve the cards. Any game where it’s critical that the cards need to be the exact same (games with hidden information) I generally sleeve, as any damage to the cards can leak information to players unintentionally. Would be nice if the box had space for sleeved cards, but it doesn’t.
- Some of the icons on the board could be clearer or bigger. I’ve seen a few players make mistakes / miss good plays because the board is already fairly busy and each set of icons in a set region is rather small, so those two things combined tend to accidentally trick them into missing what they’re looking for. It would be nice to see a fix for that, somehow. There’s also no text on the Nobles’ images on the tiles, which is a bit rough, too.
- Some starting hands are just … worse than others. Generally “L” shapes are under-rewarded, which can be a frustrating way to start a round. If you have the Courtesan and the Duke, for instance, that’s not a Red Region or a Blue Region, and it’s not really useful information for either of the Nobles (other than it’s nonzero), so, that can be a bit irritating.
- Ow, the crown tokens are fairly sharp. Like sharper than you’d expect. I accidentally smacked my hand into one trying to catch a stack of coins that tipped over and almost stabbed myself a bit. Might be worth sanding down the pointy parts a bit before play, especially if you’re playing with younger folks. Just throwing that one out there.
- Can lead to a lot of analysis paralysis and long rounds. Players are trying to reconcile things that they know are true, things that they suspect are true, and things that they know are not true, and that can … take a while. Add in the fact that you cycle back to a player’s turn if they get bumped, and you might have some pretty long years of play ahead of you. There’s no good way to speed that up unless you get the players drunk, and even then that depends on the player, so I can’t recommend that. And this is vaguely a family-site, so … yeah I probably still can’t recommend that.
- I am generally skeptical of games that don’t have any state preserved between rounds relying on playing multiple rounds as part of a “game”. I think that it frustrates me because it locks you in for a set number of rounds when that doesn’t really matter all that much. It’s not like anything changes between rounds other than the start player, so you can pretty much play each round as though it were a “game”, rather than playing over three rounds per game. That’s how I plan to play it in the future, anyways. Sure, you get that nice sense of comeback if you win big in the third round, but, similar to Saboteur and Maskmen, it’s possible you underperform enough that you cannot win in the third round, and then it creates a perverse incentive for you to undermine the strategy of the game. That’s not fun for anyone, so I’d recommend trying to avoid that, if you can. Note that this doesn’t apply for some of the variants, as they do preserve some state (information or chips) between rounds.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Wow, Cursed Court surprised me. Sure, there are some quirks in the game, but honestly I spent an entire evening playing it and a few people almost bought it on the spot (I stopped one of them because we live together and they can literally play it whenever, but I mean you can spend your money however you’d like). That’s pretty high praise. I think if I’m being honest, it’s probably an absolutely incredible game to play with a few drinks, as the betting / wagering / information-leaking components become even muddier (and I expect people play faster). If this sort of game sounds like it’d even be slightly up your alley, I’d overwhelmingly encourage you to check it out! It really surprised me, but in a way that ensures I’ll definitely keep it around for a while.