Guilds of London Review

Guilds of London
Tasty Minstrel Games
Tony Boydell
Tony Boydell, Klemens Franz, Charlie Paull

Guilds of London is an interesting take on area control, with a card-driven core that has lots of potential.  Unfortunately, a maddening amount of icons and a relative lack of interesting choices (albeit punctuated occasionally by really cool, active turns) made Guilds of London a bit of a dry pill for us to swallow.

Guilds of London is an area control/set collection game in which each player is fighting for a controlling chunk of the, well, guilds of London.  Over the course of the game, players will send their workers to exert influence over the guilds, securing victory points as they gain majority holdings.  The board, actually a group of tiles, represents all the different guilds and their affiliations, as well as the rewards for gaining control over them.

Jess:  Oh man, this looks great!  I love worker placement, and…wait, what are aaaaall these symbols?

Andrew:  Yeah, ok that’s worth talking about in a bit, but let’s do the gameplay summary thing.  Also, brace yourself for the word ‘guild’, like, a billion times.

This is how things begin. The board will grow over the course of the game to accommodate new guilds.

On a player’s turn, they can take as many actions as they can afford, spending cards in one of three ways:

  • Hire a liveryman – Liverymen are your influence markers, and this action lets you send one from the supply to the guildhall, which acts as a home base of sorts.
  • Move a liveryman – This action will let you move liverymen around the board, either from the guildhall to a guild, or from one guild to another
  • Special ability – Every card has a special ability, and each card’s ability can be resolved instead of using that card to either hire or move a liveryman.
The scoreboard/turn tracker, where goal cards are stashed, neutral pawns are stored, and sailors go to earn points.

Each guild has a certain threshold of liverymen that indicates it’s ripe and ready to be eaten.  By which I mean majority will be determined and awarded to a player.  If, at the end of a round, one or more guilds has hit this critical threshold, a resolution phase takes place:

  • Negotiation – In this step, players are able to spend neutral liverymen to remove some of the liverymen belonging to other players.  Once everyone has had their fill of casually strong-arming their fellow players off the guild, we proceed to…
  • Voting – Here, majority for the guild is determined.  We care about first and second place majority, most of the time.
  • Rewards – Each guild grants valuable perks to the player who controls it, as well as a consolation prize for the player in second place.  The player who wins will also be allowed to permanently place a liveryman on the flipped-over guild tile, as that can influence end-of-game scoring.
This tile is ready to pop

This process essentially repeats throughout the game, with players deploying and moving liverymen, taking advantage of special card actions, and undercutting each other for tile majorities until the game ends, at which point end-game goal cards are assessed, final points are awarded, and a winner declared.

Each guild gives a reward for first place majority, and second place gets a little kicker.

Andrew:  Ok, we need to talk about a few things here.  Guilds of London isn’t a broken game by any stretch, but it does suffer from some difficulties that have to be addressed.

First, the rulebook.  While it is not incapable of passing on the essential gameplay mechanisms of the game, Guilds of London’s rule book isn’t particularly clear on a few things.  It doesn’t define its terms up-front, and players will need to read quite carefully to avoid missing key gameplay concepts, like the fact that neutral liverymen are there to tip majority balance by displacing player liverymen, or just what the hell a beadle is anyway.

End-game scoring cards. It is not uncommon for each player to amass a pile of these.

This is compounded greatly by the plethora of unique icons which Guilds of London uses in lieu of written words.  I like iconography a great deal – good icons can make a game streamlined and also language independent.  However, either because of genuine printing errors or because after several plays I still can’t quite figure them all out, there are cards whose functions are unclear at best.

Just a small sample.

Further, there are two card explanation sheets that come with the game which are covered in explanations; however, they each cover very specific cards (which would be fine, if they covered every card), and also don’t cover every card, so it is entirely possible to spend time searching for a closer explanation of a card only to discover that it is one which has been seemingly randomly omitted from the in-depth explanation of the game rules.

For all this, it’s not all here.

Jess:  Now it may seem a little petty to ding a game so heavily for its rule book and iconography, but we found this to be a pretty substantial barrier of entry and it definitely affected how much fun we had with Guilds of London.

And these complaints aside, we found that the gameplay in Guilds of London simply wasn’t compelling for us.  While I absolutely adore games which use the same components in multiple ways, the glut of icon-driven actions each card offers creates far too much temptation for analysis paralysis, while the back-stabby undermining of the “negotiation” phase of resolving tiles (read: not an actual negotiation) made it too common for a player to work really hard to establish a majority over the course of several rounds, only to have it meaninglessly cut down by another player at little cost to themselves.

Once you do manage to score majority, you flip the tile over and leave a liveryman there to denote it as yours. This matters for end scoring.

Further, we did find it a little troublesome that, often, the best thing you could do for yourself was to vie for second place on any given tile.  And while that strategy is perfectly valid, and we actually really liked that the second-place bonus would sometimes mitigate the runaway leader potential, ultimately it, too, felt like it never quite lead to interesting decisions.

The appeal promised by Guilds of London is that each play and card represents a broad range of possibilities.  However, the tactical applications are limited not just by the generally obtuse iconography (I know, I should get over it, but in multiple plays it didn’t feel like it was getting any easier), but also by the general dearth of cards.  You will spend cards to do everything in Guilds of London, and will only draw 2 cards every round (or 4, assuming you did nothing that round).  For a game with a set limit on number of turns, those dead turns where you draw back up feel agonizing.

Three cards with similar, but not identical iconography. Good luck.

Jess:  So where does that all leave us?  Well, Guilds of London is a game with some good ideas but ultimately, we find it flawed and generally unengaging.

Andrew:  Yeah.  And I don’t like that it feels like in order to play my best, I need to constantly at least ride other players’ coattails, if not undermine them completely.

Jess:  All of which sucks, because I really wanted to like it, based on its core concepts.

Guilds of London simply wasn’t for us.  We appreciated the art and some of the concepts behind its design, but at the end of the day, its gameplay simply didn’t offer enough to keep us hooked – while the potential for cool, big plays were there and did occasionally go off in a very satisfying way, ultimately, it was far more frequent that we found ourselves starved for cards and without meaningful choices to make.  And while we appreciate its ambition, some of the issues with Guilds of London’s delivery and presentation were really difficult to overlook.

(Gameosity received a review copy of this title.  We were not otherwise compensated.)

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