Monarch is a game of card combinations for three or four players ages 12 and up from designer Mary Flanagan with art by Kate Adams.
The game, published by Mary Flanagan, was a surprise hit at board game convention Gen Con this summer. It has a suggested price of $44.95 and can be found online for about $15 less.
In Monarch, players take on the role of princesses trying to prove to their mother that they can rule the most effectively, earning the right to succeed her.
How it works:
The game has two types of tiles that make up the board, farm tiles and village tiles. Nine are selected randomly and put in a three-by-three grid.
Each sister begins with five gold and five food, which she’ll use to buy from the market.
The market deck is shuffled and the top five cards are placed face up. In the market deck, there are land improvements, which can be placed on top of the tiles on the board to create a better harvest or a higher yield in taxes. There are eight moon cards which sometimes force negotiation between the sisters. Others offer benefits or obstacles. Six unwanted guests will take away points from the player they are visiting at the end of the game.
And then there are the court cards. These are the heart of the game. The sisters collect court cards, which give points, often based on how they are played in combination with other court cards and improvements on the board.
The game ends at the end of the round in which at least one player has collected seven court cards.
There are four main paths to victory, represented by the card types. There are also five banners, which players can collect when they have two of a particular type of card, as well as one for balance. The banners give a special ability during the game and bonus points at the end.
On her turn, a sister may either harvest, by collecting the number of food available on the board, or tax the villages. To tax, she must pay food equal to the number of villages on the board, then she collects the gold available from the villages.
She can use her gold and food to buy and play as many cards as she would like from the market, replenishing it as she goes. She can also pay three gold to “sweep” the market, discarding all the cards in the market and drawing new ones.
For folks who want to play with just two players, there are official rules available on Board Game Geek.
Why you might buy Monarch:
The art in Monarch is like no other game. Each card is a gorgeous painting. I watched a video of the game and thought it looked dark and bland. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The art is a bit dark, but it is stunning.
The card combinations in Monarch create dilemmas. Cards can be played together for lots of points, but some cards cancel each other out. You don’t want fireworks and a canon together, for instance.
That’s one of the fun things about Monarch. If you have a group that’s so inclined, you can introduce a bit of storytelling about the characters you’re collecting in your court.
The Moon cards also push the social element of the game. Often, the sisters have to come up with a donation together to get something good. And when one sister either doesn’t have the goods to participate or doesn’t have to put in quite as much as another, there’s a good bit of tension. She may find herself with an unwanted guest on the next turn.
Monarch doesn’t have a lot of that kind of direct interaction, but it has enough to keep players engaged with each other. Since everyone is playing from the same board, which produces resources, that creates social tension as well. The game also includes lots of denying other players what they’re working on.
The gameplay is straightforward, and the reference cards tell players exactly what they need to do on each turn. You can have new players involved and feeling confident in less than five minutes.
Why you might not buy Monarch:
Because it’s so straightforward, I’m a little concerned about whether it will start to feel the same after awhile. That may be mitigated by the fact that cards will always be available at different times during the game.
There’s quite a bit of luck involved, since you can’t control what cards are available to buy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you don’t like luck, you won’t like Monarch.
If powerful cards come up early in the game — particularly those that provide a discount — it can skew the game in favor of one player. It would take a very skilled player to even compete.
The numbers on the cards, particularly their costs, are quite small. If you’re playing with someone who has any trouble seeing, they’ll be picking up the cards and looking at them a lot.
I love playing Monarch, partly because I love looking at it.
I also like having a game that is easy to introduce to new players, one that can help them learn several concepts that will be useful in more advanced games.
I wish there were more Moon cards that forced negotiation, as that is a major strength of the game. I also think they would be more effective if they were spaced evenly throughout the deck, since a bad shuffle can make them come up frequently and then not at all.
I also appreciate how Monarch hints at narrative, but creates room for players to tell their own story within the game. And since it’s not forced, people who just want to play the strategy can do that, too.
Plus it’s refreshing to have a well-designed game with female characters that doesn’t resort to stereotypes or a girly feel.
Full disclosure: I got a review copy of Monarch from Mary Flanagan. I was not required to write a positive review. These are my honest opinions.