Reiner Knizia’s and Valley Games’ Municipium is one of my favorite releases of 2008. It’s a classic recent Knizia game, reminiscent of Blue Moon, Blue Moon City, Tower of Babel, and Beowulf in its ability to cram so many interesting decisions and so much flavor into such a relatively small set of rules and a relatively short but high-intensity playing time.
When I think about the overwhelming majority of games, I think about them having a couple or a few distinct game systems that interact in interesting ways. Take Agricola: you’ve got game systems for growing crops and maintaining herds of animals and playing occupations, but those game systems interact only lightly, in the sense that you have limited actions to spend on one or the other, but your farm and your herds are managed separately.
In Municipium, there is a lot of stuff going on – competition for citizens, the Praefect, building special powers, and turn order – but everything interacts heavily with everything else, and it’s hard to pick out individual game systems. Even thought it might look like a worker placement or area control game, it’s not; it seems to me really just a single large system which has some elements of both.
Which leads me to what is my biggest problem with Municipium, and that is how to pitch it when people ask you what you want to play. Games are easier to pitch when they are like something. The classic example for me is Agricola, which to some people can be sold as “a lot like Caylus, but actually fun”. When a game fits into nice categories, like tile-laying or auction or negotiation or area-control, or more recently worker-placement or role-selection, it’s easy to sell. You can get 80% of the way there using a few words to describe the basic idea, and then talk about what makes the game unique or unusual (like Agricola’s asymmetric player positions and diversity of cards). This doesn’t work here.
Interestingly, I’ve decided that the best way to sell recent Knizia games like Blue Moon City, Beowulf, and Municipium is to go directly to the theme and not try to pitch mechanisms at all. After all, the large majority of gamers buy and play games for their themes, however expressed, not their mechanical workings. Even though these recent Knizias are fairly simple rules-wise, the mechanisms are too involved or ambiguous to explain in a brief pitch. Trying to sell Beowulf as an auction game is not the way to go, even though the central driver sort of looks like it might be an auction, and the same goes for selling Municipium as an area-control game. But if you describe it as influence-gathering in Imperial Rome, talk about influencing the citizens or the Praefect or going to the Baths to hobnob with the rich and powerful or the Tavern to get your opponents drunk, that’s something you can get traction with. And, helpfully, it’s what the game basically delivers.