Intrigue ★★★★

Do you hate your friends? Do you love to play games but think Panzerblitz was a bit short on player interaction? Is your idea of jolly fun to lie, manipulate and cheat others of their ill-earned money?

Well, then Intrigue might just be the game for you.

MEAN

Intrigue is one of the meanest games ever created. Locked in a small box with barely two pages of rules, lies a game that can only be compared to Diplomacy, 18XX and The Republic of Rome. It’s one of the purest, most direct negotiation games I’ve ever played.

As a non-descript noble you need to be the player with the most money to win. The only way to earn that money is to send your family members to your opponent’s courts for a salary. And, of course, the only way to convince other players to hire your useless chemist son is to bribe them.

Here’s how it works. At the start of each turn, players check if they have applicants in their court. Then they go around, hand extended, asking for money and platitudes from the houses involved. After all players have discussed their terms and paid, the court owner does as he pleases, because bribes are not binding in any way, shape or form. Once he’s done dealing with applicants, he sends his own, repeating the cycle.

Promised them a salary of ten thousand florins? Well, you can stick them to the three thousand slot. Wronged you on the last turn? Well, guess who is not getting a job. And if you already had a job and didn’t offer enough when a new applicant comes around? You can banish them to a desert island.

It can’t be overstated how evil this whole procedure is. One might assume Intrigue is an auction game and that a higher bribe would give better results but this is not true at all. Players can do as they please and there’s nothing you can do but trust they’ll do the right thing.

TRUST

That’s what makes Intrigue so brilliant. The whole game is about trust. You need trust to attract applicants to your court but spend it when you reject them. If you are too mean or too quick to fire your previous applicants, nobody will give you a bribe.

Intrigue is the only game in which I’ve seen players apologize for being backstabbed. After all, you might not get the knife out of your back, but you might get some cash. You have to earn the trust of those who wronged you so you can take their money and wrong them instead.

Since the game is extremely simple the only way to do that is through negotiation. You must form alliances, make deals, yell, suggest and threaten on your quest to be the richest player at the table. Board position is meaningless, all that matters is getting others to give you more money.

Here the designer had a small, but very clever idea: Bribes in order, please. Oh, and you can’t go back and change your offer after you make it. This keeps the game going on smoothly and prevents it from getting bogged down.

SELF-BALANCE

Unfortunately, this simplicity also makes Intrigue a little too self-balancing. Since money is trackable and nothing else matters, the trust you can put in a player is proportional to how little money they have. Rich players can’t be trusted or they’ll win, poor players can be freely given money because they are no menace.

Hence, it doesn’t really matter if you give a player two or ten thousand because the table will instantly compensate for it. Nothing is permanent and mistakes too easily reversed. The way the game stabilizes takes away the weight of your actions. I’ve seen players give away all their money in frustration and see it all come back. It’s what keeps Intrigue short of being a perennial classic.

Be warned that Intrigue requires perfectly competitive behaviour. If a player decides to avenge himself after being wronged instead of playing to increase his victory margins, the game will dissolve into nothingness. But if your friends can take the heat and don’t fear the backstab, it will provide a fantastic experience.

My old edition of the game, published by AMIGO has very poor components which are neither good-looking nor durable. Most notably, the courts are put together from cards, which is a very low-budget replacement for an actual board. The new edition by Igiari is much better in this regard, as it has better illustrations and proper cardboard.

Either way, one does not pay for the quality of components but the design. And Intrigue is a clever one. It communicates its ideas clearly and stands out in the crowded negotiation genre through its bribe mechanism. It’s well worth playing by fans of treacherous games or those daring enough to try one.

INTRIGUE (1994)
DESIGN Stefan Dorra ART Eckhard Freytag
Markus Wagner
PUBLISHER AMIGO LENGTH 45 Minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS 4-5 (Best with 4-5) SCORE ★★★★

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