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The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible Board Game Review

WBG Score: 9

Player Count: 2-4

You’ll like this if you like: Tiletum, Brass: Birmingham.

Published by: Hobby World

Designed by: Stan Kordonskiy

This is a free review copy. See our review policy here

I've come across some varied opinions about this game, and it's important to address them with honesty. While some concerns are rooted in the origins of the publisher, I can empathise with that perspective. However, I struggle to understand criticisms about the lack of tension in the game itself.

To be candid, I deliberated whether to review this game. The timing of releasing a game about Ivan The Terrible, particularly by a Russian publisher, may understandably raise eyebrows. Yet, delving into historical context reveals a more nuanced understanding of the figure. While not excusing any wrongdoing, it's worth noting that perceptions may be skewed by mistranslations or misinterpretations of his nickname. Although I believe he did kill his own son!

I acknowledge the complexities surrounding supporting businesses from certain regions, especially given ongoing conflicts. However, I firmly believe in separating politics from the product itself. Evaluating a game should be based on its merits alone. It is not the publisher or designers fault for what their country is doing. Therefore, this review will focus solely on the game's mechanics and experience. Ultimately, each individual must decide their stance on the broader political landscape.

So, with that said, let's get this to the table and see how this plays.

The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible Board Game Review

How To Set Up The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible

Place the board in the middle of the table and place the Tsar's Favour tokens on the 10, 20, and 30 spots on the Victory Point track. Then shuffle the six Assignment cards and lay out five face up below the Kremlin Chambers, one per Chamber. Place the last one face down nearby.

Now, gather up all the Goods pieces and Coin tokens to make a pile by the side of the board and then place the Round Marker on the top on the Round track on the 1550's space. Next, shuffle the Region tokens with the dark background and stack four face down at the bottom of the Round track on the 1580's space, then place four face down with the light and dark background onto the other three round spaces, as well as four face up onto each region on the board.

Now, take the Spoils tokens and shuffle them face down, placing as many as needed for your player count face up into the Field of War on the main board: three for two players, five for three players, and six for four players. Stick the rest nearby, face down. Now shuffle the Trade tokens and place ten of them into the round slots on the waterways on the map. The rest can sit next to the board, face down. Then shuffle the Title and Estate decks separately and flip three cards from each deck as a display. If you're playing with just two players, flip two cards from each deck instead. Keep the decks next to their displays for easy access.

Now for player setup. Each person takes their chosen colour's components: Player's Pad, Victory Point and Tsar's Favour markers, two Seal tokens, three Boyar pieces, six Building pieces, and ten Warrior pieces. place all these in front of each player. Each player will also take one Grain, Wood, Stone, and three coins from the pool. Placing these on their player boards. Each player will then place their Victory Point Marker onto the 0 space of the Victory Point track. Everybody's Tsar's Favour markers go on the Tsar Favour track on the main board in random order, starting from the top. If you've got three or two players, leave the bottom spaces empty. then pass the First Player token to the player sitting to the left of whoever's Tsar's Favour marker is on the lowest spot.

The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible Board Game Review

Lastly, shuffle up the Project deck and deal three cards to each player. Take a peek at them, keep one secret, and shuffle the rest back into the deck. Then reveal six cards from the Project deck and lay them out face up as a display. Keep the deck next to the display. Now that everything's set up, let the games begin!

How To Play The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible

The game plays over four rounds. Each round has two main phases, as well as a clean up phase. In the Planning phase, starting with the first player, players will take it in turns to place one of their three Boyar pieces onto one of the five chambers at the bottom of the board. Each chamber has two actions. The main one everyone can do, and a secondary one shown on the right shaded in yellow that only the player who bids the most coin in each round can do. Ties are broken by the player higher on the Tsar's favour. Players place money with their Boyars as they place them, and cannot add or remove money after they have been placed. But you only spend the money if you are the winning bidder. All other players get their money back, but then do not get to carry out the secondary action.

Once all players have placed all of their Boyars, play moves to the Action phase. Here, starting with the first player, players will take it in turns to move one Boyar from the chamber they placed it in during the Planning phase, down to the bottom area of the chamber to carry out the main action. Then if they were the highest bidder, they will add one of their two seals to the room and carry out the secondary action too. They will then move their Boyar onto the main board to a City matching the colour shown on the Assignment card below the Chamber. Unless the Assignment cards shows an 'X', in which case you will simply gain one coin, and if you have the secondary action, increase your space on the Tsar favour track, .

The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible Board Game Review

The first Chamber lets you gain resources from three cities you have a presence in. The resource for each city is shown under the city's name on the main board. Then, if you have the secondary action, you can gain the benefits of one of these three cities for a second time.

The second Chamber lets you add Warriors from your resources onto the board, into a city you currently have a presence in. Alternatively, you can move a Warrior from one city to another. If they pass through a Waterway with a Trade token on it, you can then carry out one of the Waterway actions on your Player board. Flip this token, adding it to your player board, and carry out the action it shows on the reverse. If your Trade token slots are filled, replace a previous token. The secondary action here lets you do this three times instead of two.

The third Chamber lets you claim a new Project card or fulfil a previously claimed card. You can do this two times, or three if you have the secondary action. Project cards are fulfilled by paying the resources shown on the left. Then you gain the points shown on the right, and then one of three things happens. First, you can add a building onto the board in an area where you already have a presence but no other building. Second, you could add a Warrior to the Field of War, taking one of the face-up tokens and claiming its benefit. Or third, you could carry out two Trade actions from the available ones on your player board.

The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible Board Game Review

The fourth Chamber allows you to swap any two goods with any one good. You can also claim one of the harder-to-attain Foreign goods, and a second one if you have the secondary action.

In the fifth Chamber, you can take one of the face-up Estate or Title cards, and a second one if you have the Secondary action.

It's crucial to plan ahead and decide what you want to do, then carry out your actions accordingly to build your presence on the map, fulfil Projects, and earn points.

Players then score based on each of the four areas on the board. The player with the most influence gets the first pick of the two benefits for each area, while the player with the second-highest influence can take the other one. Influence is determined by players' Warriors, which give you one influence, and buildings and Boyars, which give you two influence each. In a two-player game, there is no second place for this, but the winning player must be ahead in influence by more than that area's scoring potential. Otherwise, the other player can choose which benefit the winning player gets. It's a nice little twist for the two-player version.

The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible Board Game Review

After all players have carried out the actions of their placed Boyars, refresh all Estate, Title, and Project cards, replace the four area scoring tiles, and ask each player to return all their Boyars and seals back to their supply. Finally, the Assignment cards are shuffled, including the one Assignment card not used that round, and five more are placed face up below each Chamber. Move the round marker down one space and start the next round.

At the end of the second and fourth rounds, there is additional scoring for any Title cards players have at these points, as well as for the player with the most favour and the player with the most Warriors in the Field of War. In the second round, all players get any Warriors in the Field of War back at this point. Otherwise, they stay there for the rest of the game. After the second round, any Trade spaces without a Token have their space refreshed; any Tsar Favour tokens not claimed on the points track are removed, and then the game will continue.

After the fourth round, players will also score points based on any leftover resources at a ratio of 2:1 for Foreign goods and 3:1 for normal goods and coins.

At any point during the game, on a player's turn, players can also carry out free actions. These may come from cards they have acquired during the game or the actions shown on their player board. These actions let players exchange goods/money for other goods/money, rearrange Trade Tokens on their board, or discard Trade tokens for Project cards.

After the fourth round, the player with the most points wins the game.

The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible Board Game Review

Is It Fun? The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible Board Game Review

This game is absolutely fantastic. From the midpoint of my first round, I was completely hooked. Every choice feels crucial, every move significant. You're constantly considering your opponents' actions and potential moves. You're strategising about which areas of the main board to control by the round's end and how to counter your opponents' strategies. Your brain is working overtime from the get-go to maximize your efficiency.

With only 12 turns in the game, there's a lot to accomplish, and some turns may take a while as you weigh your options. However, this doesn't slow down the game. While you're thinking, so are your opponents. I've encountered minimal frustration from slow play, although it could be an issue for some. Overall, the game maintains a brisk pace, with turns themselves being quick—it's just the thoughtful decision-making that may frustrate.

Visually, the game is stunning. The artwork is meticulously crafted, and the symbology are clear and straightforward. The rulebook even includes a helpful guide on the back for new players, making everything easy to understand right from the start.

The First Tsar: Ivan The Terrible Board Game Review

The theme of this game is fairly abstract. It's an economic, resource management Euro game with contract fulfillment. Throughout my gameplay, I never once felt like I was in a specific country or acting as a particular person. The era didn't even cross my mind. Instead, it felt like a crunchy strategy game where efficiency was key, targeting specific point combinations by aligning everything with my overall game plan. For instance, coordinating Project, Title, and Estate cards that complement each other—like cards that reward points for completing each type of Project—and then collecting and completing those projects while ensuring I had the right cards to generate the necessary resources all seemed straightforward. But discovering those combinations in the game, acquiring them, and executing them was incredibly satisfying.

I would recommend this game to any fan of economic Euro games who isn't deterred by or is even attracted to the abstract theme. As I mentioned in my introduction, this is a personal preference. I might not have initially chosen this game if I were browsing for a new one. However, after playing it multiple times, I'm delighted to have it in my collection because it strikes the perfect balance of weight, game length, and strategy to fit right into my personal sweet spot. It also works very well as a two-player game, which some Euros struggle with, delivering an engaging experience that remains tight and competitive until the end.

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