Way, way back in the prehistoric mists of the year 2000, a man called Bruno Faidutti invented a card game. He called it Citadels, and the people rejoiced, for it let them build pretty little towns while engaging in a battle of bluffs with their friends, using the powers of medieval characters like kings and assassins to help them win the game. About 13 years later, Faidutti realised you could probably ditch the town-building bit and just go all-in on the bluffing, and Mascarade was born.
Hidden role games are ten-a-penny these days of course, but Mascarade outshines them all immediately in one area – this game is gorgeous. The 14 large-format character cards are brimming with beauty. The implacable Judge. The repugnant Bishop. The terrifying Witch, complete with blue-eyed voodoo doll and bottled potion of heaven knows what. These are some serious works of art.
For all its resplendence, it’s a simple game at heart. Each player start with six coins and a single character card, and is looking to use the character powers to increase their coin haul to 13 and win the game. Different characters will let you collect coins from the bank, steal from other players or even lower your win condition to 10 coins through the aptly-named (and devilishly suave) Cheat.
Sounds straightforward, right? Well it would be, barring the significant shortcomings of the human memory. You see, the card held by each player is kept face down, and four rounds of swapping before the game truly begins means it’s rare you’ll start off knowing exactly which card you’re holding. Players can peek at their card during their turn, of course, but this takes up YOUR ENTIRE TURN. Not only do you lose the option to use the card’s ability this turn, but you can guarantee that now you’re in the know that card will have been swapped out from under you before your turn comes round again.
Didn’t I mention? The second action you can choose on your turn is to swap cards with another player. Like all the best stuff at masquerade balls you do this under the table, and can pretend to swap if you prefer. Like a dockyards con of Find the Lady, you’re looking to confuse everyone watching and sow doubt in their minds about which card is where. Unlike down at the docks, however, much of the time the poor mug you end up scrambling is yourself. It sounds laughably easy to pick up two cards and remember which is which while shuffling them under the table. In fact, you can afford to let your concentration lapse for just a seco… nope, it’s gone. Disaster. Laughs burst out from round the table as your eyes become vacant and your shuffling slows. The only upside here is that if you haven’t a clue what card you’re holding, there’s precious little chance everyone else will.
The third and final action is where the real dance begins, however. You see, you don’t actually have to control a card to use its ability. Loudly announce that you ARE the King, and if no one calls you out you take the coins no matter what card lies in front of you. Without revealing it. This would be useless if there was no penalty to calling out, but Faidutti’s thought of that too, the clever so-and-so. Each other player can also claim to be the character chosen, with everyone doing so revealing their cards at once. Wrong claims, including those by the player whose turn it is, mean paying a coin into the courthouse. Show the right card and you get to use the card’s power, even if it’s not your go. Woohoo!
It’s a doozy of a conceit. I’ve seen people go through whole games bagging cash with the queen or king, only to get called out at the last and reveal they’ve been the witch all along. Sometimes they genuinely thought they WERE the King, adding a whole other layer to their powers of deception. It sounds like a no-brainer that *someone* will call out the person repeatedly claiming to be the Queen, but who wants to risk being wrong and paying into the middle, especially when you’ve got your own con on the go? Just one or two coins can be the difference between the winner and the also rans, never mind that a flurry of wrong calls will see whoever has the Judge scoop up the fines flooding the courthouse and steal the win.
Mascarade can handle anything from two to 13 players, although it shines best with between six and ten. Bigger games bring increasing chaos, and ensure there’s no way you’ll keep track of what more than a handful of the table is holding. Two and three-player games are a different beast altogether, and I don’t think Bruno Faidutti would argue much if it was suggested they’re not really where the joy of Mascarade lies.
Wait, there’s more! Late last year publisher Repos – who call themselves the Sombrero-wearing Belgians if anyone’s interested in having bad dreams – released the imaginatively-titled Mascarade: The Expansion to properly shake things up in the base game. The 13 new characters include the Puppet Master, who can make players physically swap places at the table, and the Damned, who knocks the player out of the game if he’s ever revealed. Crumbs.
You’d be mad not to bag yourself a copy of this, expansion or no. Both boxes are super cheap and take up less space than a single Game of Thrones novel, which means shoving it in a bag as you head out to meet your friends is a no-brainer – which is just what you’ll feel like two minutes into your first game. I’m the Queen!
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