The political deduction genre may be starting to feel like a crowded field, but Cursed Court justifies attention with the flair and elegance of its design. Not everything comes together as intended, but the core conceit is a strong focal point of its design. In the game, you take on the persona of a noble enacting schemes against other nobles, which requires some savvy in order to win. To climb the ladder of chaos, some basic logistics are key: knowing who is where, with whom, and when, are all essential to your success.
Cursed Court brings these aspects out with no-nonsense visualization, stylistically presenting you only with information you need to know. The nobles consist of nine characters of varying rank, and they will inhabit 18 regions on the board. Each region, which can be either a location or an event, corresponds to three or four nobles who might be found there, each of which are thematically appropriate. You can expect the Courtesan to appear at the Masquerade or the Opera for example, but you won’t be seeing her at the Church or Regicide. As you can see on the board, its design leaves you certain who will can be found at any given location.
The goal of the game is to predict, via wagers, which noble will appear at each location. You will be rewarded for correct bets, but you can also use your wagers defensively or offensively. You have the option of taking over an opponent’s bet, which also lets you bait the opposition into betting on a useless area. The addition of hidden information helps you play these mind games and keep the other players guessing.
At the start of play, you get dealt two cards from the deck of nobles. The deck contains three of each noble, but the dealing is unusual. You see, you will not be holding these cards; you will be sharing each of them with the player on your right and left, one each, and keeping them secret from the other players. This small bit of information is crucial, because it tells you two nobles that you know for sure will appear by the end of the round, but so do the players to your left and right. While you make wagers, you will need to be careful not to reveal too much of what you know to other players, who can capitalize on their conclusions.
Cursed Court takes place over three years, and each year is divided into three seasons. During these seasons, which are effectively rounds, you will place a wager marker on a spot on the board, which will correspond either to a noble or to a region. You will gain one point every time a noble appears, but on a region you will only gain points if every noble associated with that region appears. However, you stand to gain far more points there than on any given noble if you are correct.
Each round is fairly straightforward. After dealing the facedown cards, you will pass the first player marker and then draw a card face up for all players to see. At that point, each player can wager in one of two ways. A new wager, on an untouched location, simply requires placing your wager marker on a yet unclaimed location. You can wager with 0 coins if you want, but there are many reasons you may choose not to. Starting with a larger wager can lure opponents into trying to take a useless location away from you or make for a defensive maneuver if you want to discourage opponents from taking that location away from you.
If you do not want to wager on a fresh location, you can instead bump a wager, or take over an opponent’s location. Bumping requires doubling the number of coins that are currently there. The goal of this rule is to make betting ramp up quickly, forcing you to make hard choices about what you find valuable. Your maneuvering cannot be gradual and doesn’t leave space for a long con. I might have preferred allowing for a more deliberate pace, but there is some merit to adding more weight to every decision. Each person has 20 coins to bet with, so 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 are the only levels to bet with. You can also choose to place more than double, placing 11 instead of 8 coins for example, which makes a wager impossible to beat at a lower cost.
In my experience, playing around with these numbers was not too complicated, as the numbers are fairly small. At the same time, it felt odd to be weighing numbers, their doubles, and the limits of 20. I am sure there is some balancing underlying all of these decisions, but you may find it strange for 11 to be the most significant number in the game.
That said, there is a true elegance in the simple mechanisms that make Cursed Court stand out as a mind game. If you believe you need a certain location you have many options. You can spend many resources to clinch it for yourself, ignore it entirely in the hopes that you can snatch it from your opponents once their resources have run out, bid low to send the message that it’s a fake out, and much more. It might sound that the double and triple bluffing at the heart of Cursed Court makes it too much to handle, but rounds are short and your goals during play are easy to grasp.
The season ends if no one has any more wagers to make or all players have the same number of wager tokens in play, and the game ends after three rounds. At the end of a season you simply turn all face down cards face up and recover points based on locations you successfully control. That means that coins only exist to exert influence over locations, and ultimately only matter as a means of establishing that influence. The amount you invest doesn’t matter, only whether you end up controlling it, so you are left more freedom to make tricky plays.
If a region is complete, you will receive either 3 or 4 points, based on whether it has 2 or 3 nobles respectively. For nobles, you will receive 1, 2, 5, 8 based on whether you get 1, 2, 3, 4 of a set of of that noble. Effectively you are only justified in betting on a noble if you are guaranteed to get a high number of multiples of them. Regions are a more valuable bet, but only if you can predict them accurately. More interesting about regions is that, while they are more risky, they reveal less about what you know. Putting resources on a specific noble telegraphs far more about your plans than a location would.
Gameplay is made very approachable by the design of the board. You can tell at a glance where every noble fits into the overall geography, and the card design helps this further. Each card is a no-nonsense full portrait of the characters, with their name stylistically written below. The regions aren’t depicted as lavishly, but this is probably necessary to make it clearer whose token is on which region. Everything about Cursed Court, from the board to cards and tokens, is delicately crafted to suit the fine appetites of the court. The betting chips are a firm plastic carved with intricate patterns, and your player tokens loom over the board as crown-topped towers of the aristocracy.
The characters are also rendered with an eye for the austere and diverse. The multiracial and gendered cast are designed to tell their story entirely through characterization, through pose to facial expression and wardrobe. All of the care put into these components helps to justify its $50 price point. That feels a little high for what comes down to a 30-45 minute card game, even if each of the pieces was made with excellent care.
Less care was put into the rulebook, it seems. There aren’t so much errors as there is questionable organization. It introduces some mechanisms before it explains what the main goal of the game is or how overall gameplay functions. At 8 pages it reads very quickly, but with some minor reorganization could have been shorter and more readable. Certain portions are taken up with examples that I don’t think people need, leading to wasted space. Key concepts are separated from where they are in play order to how they function. In a rulebook this short and a game this straightforward it is a very odd decision. An interpersonal explanation or online rule summary will supplant this rulebook fairly immediately, and it should.
The rulebook also rounds itself out with some optional rules to help you customize the game. These are exceptional, and might permanently change how you play the game at home. You can also choose to combine them if you so choose. My recommendation is play with the Coinless Court and Court Remembers, at least until you get your bearings with the game.
The Court Remembers suggests not shuffling the cards back into the deck between years, but only for the previous year (so by the end you don’t have two years’ results out). This leads to some card counting and enhances the bluffing at the table. You can choose whether to leave the excluded cards face up for easy reference or face down to test your memory.
Coinless Court has you betting only with crowns. You can’t bet more than once in the same region, but you can bump opponents. Priority and timing are key, and this change to the game makes it an exciting counterplay thing while teaching you more about the base game. You also reduce points in a region by 1 for each crown placed there previously. This mode is easier to play and has a heightened focus on bluffing, getting you well prepared for the full game.
The Great Exchange is less worthwhile: you play with 100 poker chips and there are no score markers. Rather, whoever has most points each year collects chips equal to all coins bet. Players are eliminated once they lose all chips until one person remains. I gather that the purpose of this mode is to teach you to properly understand the value of your tokens, but Great Exchange also takes longer to conclude than the other modes and eliminates players as it goes on.
Finally, in the Royal Masquerade the game’s owner secretly marks one crown of each color under its base. There is no way to do this provided in the game, so you have to find your own method. These marked crowns, called feints, do not score at the end of the round. Maybe the goal is to teach you more about bluffing, and add another element of uncertainty, but for my tastes it adds to much, to the point where it is difficult to track even your own maneuvers at times. I was only able to playtest certain combinations of variants, so it may be that there is something special I have been missing.
Cursed Court works best at four to five players. There is not enough going on at three, and at six you risk losing the ability to keep track of everything happening at the table. In some ways you do have more information because there are more players, but you are also contending with multiple levels of bluffing for each person.
The game length suggests that you play not once, but through three years, which sadly does not add much to the game. You reshuffle the deck each time, so you find nothing changes in each year apart from point totals. At that point you can choose to specifically bait one person or foil their plans, but only indirectly (and if they know you are doing it they could use your plans against you). This is far from a bad decision, but it lacks the impact necessary to do much more than prolong the game.
Designed by: Andrew Hanan
Published by: Atlas Games
Art: Lee Moyer
Age Rating: 13+
Time: 30-60 Minutes
Mechanics: Bluffing, Deduction, Wagering
Cursed Court is a stylish, creative, and highly modular test of your abilities at deduction and bluffing. I admire its use of simple mechanics to spur deep creativity, even if some of its choices do not help the overall experience.