You glance around the marble pillar, gazing out across the courtyard of the Doge’s palace, peering into the alcove across the way. Blast, despite their elaborate masks, you can see that it’s those damn Foscari again, and what’s worse is that they are getting awfully cozy with the guildmaster of the scribes, a political contact you know your family desperately needs. You whistle a low note and a shadowy figure sidles up to you in the gloom. You drop a couple of Ducats in his outstretched palm and watch as he swiftly glides across the courtyard, like a fleeing shadow, disappearing into the alcove next to the Foscari. Around the yellow-clad family, the lights suddenly go out and when the lamplight returns, all that is left is a pile of crumpled bodies. You look at your family members around you and smile. The guildmaster’s favor is as good as yours.
|The Doge’s palace, its halls filled with guests.|
This is the world of Masques, a game published by Fantasy Flight Games set in Venice during the Renaissance. Set during a masquerade ball in which various prestigious families are competing for the favor of five guilds, all in an effort to impress the newly appointed Doge of Venice, Masques is a game of betrayal, brandishing and backstabbing. This is a game in which it is just as important to keep an eye on your competitors, keeping track of their accomplishments and what their goals could be, as it is to set and accomplish your own.
|The guest cards, Ducats and Favor Tokens|
Played by two to four players, each player takes the role of one of four Venetian families, each represented by a color (either green, pink, blue or red). The board itself is a collection of cards, each of which represents a room in the Doge’s palace with the spaces in between them representing hallways. Each room contains either a Ducat (Venetian money) or a favor token for one of the five guilds in Venice (represented by either a picture of grapes, a Bible, a treasure chest, a scroll or two crossed swords). These favor tokens are the key to victory. In order to win, a player needs either one favor point in each of the guilds, or to get one of them all the way to four points.
|The four playable families: The Veniers, Morosinis, Contarinis and Dondolos|
How do you obtain one of these favor tokens, you ask? Well, on each player’s turn, they will place a guest card in one of the hallways that separate the rooms. Once all the hallways are filled, the contents of the rooms are divided up between the players. You see, on each guest card, there is an influence value. Whichever guest has the higher influence value gets the contents of the room between them and the other guest. However, if both guests have the same influence value, the token stays on the board for the next round, denying both players the satisfaction of their hard-won prize. Just to make things a little more difficult, there is a fifth family present at the party, designated by the color yellow. This family is not controlled by any of the players and any tokens that they win also stay on the board for the next round.
|A player’s scorecards beneath the palace. (This player has obtained 1 grape, 2 swords, 0 scrolls, 0 chests and 1 Bible)|
What makes this game so intriguing to me (and also makes it rife with backstab-ery) is that you don’t have much control over what cards (or guests) you start out with when a round begins. Yes, you may have a guest card of your own family with an influence value of four, but you may have two two’s and a three… all belonging to families other than your own. So, Masques quickly becomes a game in which you are looking at the board, trying to place a card that belongs to an opponent in place that either will cancel their own endeavors, or keep them out of your way.
|A corner of the Doge’s palace, here we can see the Veniers and Dondolos knocking each other out over a bunch of grapes while a Gondolier and a member of the sneaky, non-playable Foscari family watches on.|
Of course, there are also the agents to consider. On each player’s turn, they can choose to hire an agent, each of which has the ability to move cards around on the board (or in the case of the Assassin, reduce a guest’s influence to zero) which can be perfect monkey wrench to throw into your opponents carefully constructed machination. In the end, Masques has a chaotic “Oh, I see what you’re doing there, take THAT!” quality to it, but it never gets out of hand. When I play, I don’t feel like there is too much going on that I can’t see the patterns evolving. When I lose at a game of Masques, I find that it is the most satisfying type of loss, one in which I can see what my mistakes were and learn from them for the next time I play. I will say that Masques has another great, sought-after quality in a game: as soon as it is done, I want to play again. Overall, Masques may be intimidating at first (and I certainly would not use it to introduce board gaming to someone new to the concept) but at its core it is a simple game, but with great strategic depth, and that is something that makes me want to don my mask again and again.