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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Papal Pilgrimage: A preview of the sequel to Avignon

The microgame format that Love Letter popularized poses a considerable design challenge.  Fewer cards mean players face statistically fewer different situations.  Pared down to a skeletal structure, a microgame really has to make every card significant and capitalize on every opportunity for interaction. John du Bois introduced a clever two-player tug-of-war in this format with the 2016 Button Shy game Avignon: A Clash of Popes.  To that tight little design Button Shy Games is Kickstarting a sequel, Avignon: Pilgrimage, that introduces new characters that can stand alone as a separate game or that players can mix in with the original Avignon for a variety of interactions.

The games are set during the Western Schism of the Catholic Church in the late 14th century, when rival popes in Avignon and Rome sought to wrest control of the Church from one another.  Each player represents one of the papal factions recruiting key figures into the supporting congregation of Avignon or Rome to solidify that pope's control.  

Avignon in both its original format and its sequel constitutes a logic puzzle of card interactions with the goal of moving character cards to one's own side of the table.  Available actions are simple.  The complexity comes in the individual character card "Petition" actions that manipulate the positions of cards and the victory conditions.  The new sequel, Avignon: Pilgrimage, introduces a number of mechanics relying on the relative positions of other characters on the table and thereby adds a new layer of interactive depth.

The five locations on the road to papal legitimacy
between Avignon and Rome.  The Ascetic is shown in
Genoa, which is where he really wants to be.
The game consists of twelve cards, each depicting one of six characters.  Five cards are dealt in a row on the table between the players.  The starting row represents Genoa.  A card can be moved from Genoa in one direction to Florence, to Rome, and then to the Roman player's congregation.  Or it can move from Genoa in the other direction to Nice, to Avignon, and then to the Avignon player's congregation.  The goal is to collect three characters into one's own congregation - or to meet the special victory condition of a character in play.

Available actions to a player are to pull a character one space closer, to push a character one space further, to excommunicate a character (removing it from its location and replacing it with another character from the draw deck), or to petition a character (activating its special ability).  The crucial rule in Avignon is that although a player takes two actions per turn, they must be different actions.  So only one character can be petitioned for its special effect; only one character can be pulled; only one character can be excommunicated.  So good game play consists of recognizing and implementing the right combinations of actions to gain ground on the opponent in a lasting way.

Some Pilgrimage characters seem more interesting than others.  Petitioning the Courtesan pulls a character whose position is closer to the opponent than is the Courtesan; so her position generally benefits the player to whom she is closer.  The Canonist allows switching the positions of two characters, then pulling one and pushing the other.  Petitioning the Nuncio pushes him one space and then pulls all other characters that are in his new location - essentially having him trade places with everyone else in that location.  

Other characters seem less interesting.  Petitioning the Vicar pushes a Vicar (or Bishop from the original Avignon) two spaces, excommunicates another character, and pulls that character one space - a move that seems to make a considerable position sacrifice in exchange for a random character replacement.  An Ascetic ending the turn in Rome or Avignon automatically moves one space closer to Genoa, making him particularly difficult to recruit (and thereby less interesting).  The Scribe allows a player whose turn starts with the Scribe in Genoa to win with only two characters in his or her congregation.  This effect can be a game-ending (and random-feeling) consequence of pulling a character into one's congregation only to see that character replaced by the Scribe in Genoa to start the opponent's turn.

Having played Avignon: Clash of Popes and Avignon: Pilgrimage separately, I look forward to mixing them together and seeing the cards from both sets interact with each other.  I expect the logical conundrums to deepen even further, and I always enjoy when a small-footprint game turns into a little brain-cell-burner.

Unlike many microgames, there is no hidden information (beyond the draw deck) and no bluffing, so this is not a social game of getting inside the opponent's head.  People who like quick microgames with real logic challenges will like both Avignon games.  Pilgrimage by itself is a bit more dynamic but also a bit uneven relative to the original.  All in all there is a lot of game in this small footprint.

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