The basic idea is you're building up an empire from pretty close to scratch. You start with a city on a hex grid and 6 wood and need to expand your empire by acquiring resources and turning them into more resources or into winning the game. There are 10 types of goods in the game as resources to manage along with needing to manage your population, your city real estate, your world map zone of control, and your pollution. Your first 4 dudes are free but beyond that if you want more people you need to pay an increasing amount of resources to unlock more dudes.
For example, to start the game you might spend 1 of your starting wood on a building in your city, the cart shop. This building lets you stick a man in it to gather resources on the world map. So you might put one of your 4 free guys in there with another wood and tell him to build a lumbermill. This will let you pick a tree hex on the board and chop it and all adjacent trees down. Each turn you'll get one of those wood until they're all gone at which point you'll get the guy back. So you can spend 1 wood and 5 turns of a guy to get 5 wood, which you will use in future turns to build more buildings or get even more stuff. Or maybe you want to send him fishing instead, so you can get some fish which you can use to get another guy and then send that guy out for wood. Or stone...
Using land for farming, mining, or fishing pollutes it, so you can only use it once. On top of that you have to pollute 3 hexes each turn, so you pretty quickly run out of usable space. Just like in real life the solution to the problem tends to be to just expand which will give you more hexes to pull raw resources from or just to dump your pollution. The over world map has a reasonable but not excessive amount of space, so you don't get to expand much at all before you run into other players. You can't really attack other players perse, but you do get to dump your pollution onto places they might want to use. Also if you build extra cities in your expanding you get to put even more pollution onto the board each turn!
Finally, every turn you need to have more and more food in storage or your people start to die. This isn't as bad as it sounds and at the same time is actually much worse than it sounds. When people die you don't lose population or anything of the sort, all that happens is you have to put a grave into your city for each dead person. This eats up space you were probably planning to use on buildings that do things to help you win the game, though, which could be a problem. You can fix this by storing excess food, or by building extra cities just to hold dead people, or by building specific buildings which can help with this problem like the granary (+3 food each turn for the purposes of famine) or the hospital (remove 5 graves from your city each turn).Run out of room for graves and you need to start stacking them onto your buildings which will disable them. Run out of buildings to disable and you lose the game!
So you have all these resources and things to manage... How do you win? That's the beauty of the game. You get to pick your winning condition! One of the buildings you can build is called the cathedral, and when you build it you get to pick a patron saint. There are 5 different saints you can choose and the one you pick determines what you're trying to do in order to win and gives you a special power that helps you accomplish your chosen goal. Your options are:
- Build all 20 of your population houses. The bonus provided to help this along is whenever you build two houses at once you get the cheaper one for free. House costs range from free to 6 resources and you need to have room in your cities for all 20 houses.
- Build at least one of every single building in the game. The bonus for doing this one is you can rearrange your buildings at any time. Some of the buildings have really weird shapes (think Princes of Florence) and a few of them need to actually connect together for optimal use. (There's a university and 4 faculties which together are so big they occupy an entire city. Build them apart and you need a worked in each faculty to operate them, but build them beside the university and you just need 1 worker to power all of them at once.)
- Own 3 of every food and luxury good in the game. There are 4 of each, so this amounts to having 24 specific goods on hand at one time to win. The bonus to help do this is you can store an infinite number of goods in your cathedral. (Typically you can't store anything at all, so you have to discard anything you don't use. You can build a storage building which lets you hold one good per square of the storage assuming you put a guy on it. So this bonus saves you a guy a turn, and a wood, and the space in your city that would have gone to storage.)
- Completely engulf another player's zone of control within your own. Normally you control 2 hexes around your cities and inns but there is a building you can build to increase that to 3 along with one that lets you control lakes and such. The bonus for trying to do this one is you get 1 fish when you build your cathedral and you get an extra fish each time someone else builds a cathedral. So, at most, 4 fish. You use food to build extra guys and importantly for this victory condition you also use food to build the inns which expand your territory. This feels like the weakest bonus but it also seems like the easiest win condition if any of the other players are slow to expand.
- Any 2 of the above victory conditions. As a bonus you get all of the above bonuses. As a balancing penalty you cannot change your patron saint. (Normally you can use one of the university faculties to destroy your cathedral and rebuild it but since you get a lot of bonuses for choosing this patron saint you can't blow it up.)
Also helping the replayability is the game comes with a large number of double sided hexes to use building the overland map so you end up with a different distribution of terrain to use each game.
I actually got to play the game a second time on Sunday as well and it was pretty great each time. I played the super saint both times and came close to winning the first time and won pretty handily the second time. Both games played out very differently mostly because of the way famine works in the game. Basically the number of people who die increases by one each turn. So the first turn everyone gets 0 graves. The second turn everyone gets 1 grave. And so on. But there are ways to raise or lower that number as the game goes on. The first game people aggressively spent resources to lower the number (which costs you resources and benefits everyone) and the second game no one did. On top of that in the second game I aggressively tried to raise the number as much as possible since I was the super saint and felt I could use the bonuses to mitigate the damage and also if people have to spend time dealing with graves it will slow them down and I wanted that time to get 2 winning conditions. It worked; two of the players got completely overwhelmed with graves. We even ran out of grave tokens and needed to use other things to sub in.
The game takes in the 2-3 hour range to play (and likely gets shorter as people get used to the mechanics). I think I'd like to play a lot more of it, but it would be a reasonable investment to pick up a copy. So the question then is: does it sound interesting enough that people would play it?