House of Borgia Review

Disclaimer: This review is from a review copy of the game that was provided by Talon Strikes Studios to Open Seat Gaming, but opinions are our own based on several plays of the game.

Disclaimer 2: Marti is now a social media contractor for Talon Strikes Games and, even though she didn’t write this review, wanted to make sure that was clear for reasons of transparency. 

Game: House of Borgia
Publisher: Talon Strikes Studios, Gamelyn Games
Design: Scott Almes
Art: Ian RosenthalerBenjamin Shulman

Mechanisms: Betting and bluffing, Dice rolling
Number of Players: 2 – 6
Game Time: 30 minutes

Description: House of Borgia sees players vying for control of the church in 1492. The pope has died and 6 cardinals are in the running to ascend. Can you get your secret puppet enough influence to claim the title and win the game?

Each player is given a screen and a number of dice based on player count (players start with the same amount of dice as each other), then are dealt a puppet card in secret. This is the cardinal they want to get the most influence, but without giving away who they’re supporting. The cardinal mats are shuffled and placed in a ladder randomly. Each starts with 2 influence. The rumor cards and stands, as well as the antipope marker, are placed nearby.

House of Borgia is played over a series of rounds, each of which consists of these 3 phases:

  1. Bidding and Action
  2. Calling a Bluff
  3. Rallying Influence

First, all players roll their dice behind their screen. Then, the start/turn player begins by making a bid. A bid consists of a number and an action (die face). There are 5 actions in the game and the 6th die face is Fate, or wild. The bid is declaring how many of a specific die face/action the player thinks are amongst all dice in play, for all players, and they are declaring they want to take that action. Here are the 5 actions:

  1. Bribe – Move a cardinal mat to the top or bottom of the ladder, as long as it wasn’t already in that position (i.e.: you can’t “move” the top cardinal to the top since he’s already there).
  2. Poison – Remove 2 influence tokens from amongst the cardinal mats. This can be 2 from the same mat or 1 from two different mats.
  3. Judgement – Move 2 influence tokens between cardinal mats. You can either move 2 from a single mat to another single mat, or 1 from each of two mats to two other mats.
  4. Accusation – Accuse a cardinal of being the antipope and place the marker on their mat. While the marker remains, that cardinal cannot gain or lose influence (though they can still be moved via Bribe).
  5. Rumor – Place or move a rumor card in front of another player, indicating you think that cardinal is their puppet. Each player can only have one rumor in front of them. You can never affect yourself with this action (i.e.: you cannot place or remove a rumor in front of you).

A bid could look like: 3 Poison, 4 Rumor, 6 Accusation. Once a player bids, the next player clockwise has a chance to call their bluff. If they don’t, the player carries out the declared action and the next player must make a bid that is at least 1 higher than the last bid, but they can select any action. So a bid of 3 Poison could be followed by a bid of 4 Rumor, or 5 Bribe, etc.

If the next player calls a bidding player’s bluff, all players must reveal their dice and the symbols for the bid are added up (remembering that Fate is wild and counts as any other symbol).

  • If the bidding player is found to be bluffing (there are less dice of the declared action than their bid), they return one of their dice to the box and are not allowed to perform the bid action.
  • If the bidding player’s bid is found to be true, they carry out the declared action and the next player who called their bluff returns one of their dice to the box.

Someone will always lose a die when a bluff is called, and this is how the game progresses. After the bluff is resolved, the game proceeds to Rallying Influence: add influence tokens to the cardinals in the top positions based on player count. Then the round ends and you proceed with the next round. The player that lost a die in the round just ending is the start player for the next round.

The endgame is triggered after the round in which any player loses their last die. The players reveal their puppet cards and give 2 influence to their puppet cardinal for each die they had left. If any players had the rumor card matching their puppet card in front of them at the end of the game, their cardinal is removed from the ladder and has no impact on final scoring, and that player cannot win. The cardinal with the most influence remaining in the ladder wins the election and the player with their puppet card wins. If no one has that cardinal’s puppet card then nobody wins.

Review: Social deduction games typically play themselves as party games, in player size and in mechanics. House of Borgia is not technically listed as a social deduction game on BGG, but each player has a hidden puppet so it definitely involves some deduction. Capping at 6 players, though, it plays more like a strategy game. You spend the game thinking: how can I maneuver my puppet to the top without revealing who I’m supporting while simultaneously dealing with the randomness of the dice rolls?

As such, the game is surprisingly deep, strategically. You’re limited in your options, if your bluff is called you generally want to be able to have at least a couple of the action you selected amongst your dice so that hopefully others have enough to meet your bid overall, but you still want to try and get more influence onto your puppet. At the same time, you need to keep track of how many dice your opponents still have left (and are left total), and potentially maneuver your bid such that the person after you will allow it through but then is in a tough position themselves for their next bid.

The antipope marker throws an interesting wrench into the mix. You generally are wanting to put it on the leader to prevent them from gaining anymore influence, however since it also prevents influence from being removed it makes it harder to then even that cardinal back out with the rest. We found that putting it on a cardinal at or near the top of the ladder towards the end of a round to prevent their influence gain from the end of round adjustments works well, but I’m sure there are other creative strategies you can pull off with it.

Something that’s harder to anticipate but requires keeping track through the whole game are the end game bonuses for remaining dice. 2 influence per die can cause HUGE swings in the final score. My cardinal in our most recent game doubled his influence because I had 3 dice remaining at the end which caused him to go from second lowest to second highest influence and almost won me the game. Sarah, who had 4 dice remaining in that same game, would have handily won the game with her 8 influence boost if we hadn’t gotten a lucky Rumor guess and caused her to be eliminated.

There is minor player elimination in this game in the form of the Rumor cards, which some people may not like. All players remain in the game until the end, so it’s not as bad as being eliminated in an early round like some other games, but there is potential to be eliminated when you otherwise would have won the game (as in the example above with Sarah) so keep that in mind when you’re considering whether this game is right for you or your group.

Try, Buy, Deny: If you like hidden identity games and/or bluffing, I would recommend you try House of Borgia. It’s an interesting theme for the mechanics of the game, but won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Game on!
Scott

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