Designed by: Eric Lang
Published by: CMON
Playtime: 60-90 Minutes
Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.
The Godfather is one of the most well-known movies of all time, beloved by thousands upon thousands of people who sat in rapt attention as they watched the story of Don Vito Corleone, as played by Marlon Brando in his greatest performance. And now, since we live in a time where various licenses are being used to create great games we’re getting a boardgame version of the movie courtesy of designer Eric Lang and publisher CMON. So is it an offer we can’t refuse?
In true mafia fashion your goal is to control turf within New York, fulfil illicit jobs using ill-gotten goods and ultimately line your pockets with as much cash as possible, because whoever is richest at the end of the game walks away as the winner. You’ll be doing this through four acts (each named after the movie’s acts) by plopping down thugs and family members who’ll shake down businesses and exert their influence over the city.
Although the game does boast the Godfather name it’s fair to say that if you were looking for something that mimics the film’s plot or even allows you to forge new stories within the movie’s universe then this isn’t it. It seems more content to evoke the feeling of the Godfather, albeit in a loose sense. Truth be told, this could be a mafia-themed game without the Godfather name on the bix and it wouldn’t make a difference, so the license does feel a bit wasted. With that said the Godfather name is obviously a huge boon in terms of drawing interest.
But we do get a fairly lavish production, though a few flaws hold it back. For starters every player gets their own set of miniatures made of a few thugs and several family members, as well as a beautiful hinted tin made to look like a suitcase in which you’ll be hiding cash throughout the game. On top of that there are stackable control tokens, as well as a plastic horse’s head token to track the first player, a car for indicating the current phase and a miniature of Don from the Godfather movies for tracking the current act. I mean, when you think about it money could have just been hidden under something cheaper, and the miniatures of the Don, car and horse’s head could all have simply been tokens. It’s all stuff that adds to the RRP, but that also makes the whole game feel a bit more special.
Where the production value doesn’t impress is in the cards. Every single job card, and the back of every card in the game, features the exact same picture of Don Corleone. While it’s certainly a beautifully done portrait of one of the most famous movie characters of all time having all of your job cards featuring it feels lazy. The cards depicting the various illicit goods you grab throughout the game also look utterly boring.
So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of running your own mafia family. The first thing you’ll be doing is taking it in turns to dispatch thugs and family members into the city of New York in order to shake down the various businesses, earning yourself booze, weapons, blood money and narcotics in order to fulfil jobs which act as your primary way of earning cash. Your basic thugs can be popped down on the single square space of any business on the board in order to shake up the front, earning whatever is displayed on the bottom of the businesses’ space.
Your family members, though, are much more influential and powerful, so instead of being placed on a single business, they get their own circular spaces on the board that sit between two or more bits of turf, turf being the different areas that New York is split into that you fight for control over. When you pop a family member on to the board they’ll not only influence multiple areas of the map, which is important later, but they’ll shake down the rear of every single business in all adjacent regions, which can net you a whole host of stuff. On a single space, for example, it’s potentially possible to get cards or actions from a total of six businesses, which is a lot of stuff indeed.
So what can you do with your many illegally earned goods? Complete jobs, is the answer. Instead of placing a thug or family member on your turn you can instead opt to complete a job card (you start with two and many businesses let you draw more) from either your hand or from the publically available ones on the side of the board which get refreshed at the start of each new act. To complete one you simply discard whatever is shown on the job, so if it needs three weapon cards or two piles of blood money that’s what you discard before then claiming the benefits which come in the form of cash and a special action, such as gunning down someone’s thug/family member in order to free up a space or even stealing money from another player. In a lovely touch any figures that get gunned down are tossed into the Hudson River until the start of the next act.
Cash is important because it’s the way you win, essentially acting as victory points at the end of the game. However, there’s a small problem; at the end of each act you have to pay tribute to Don Corleone by discarding down to the indicated number of cards, and considering this is a game where you’ll collect oodles of cards having to get rid of some is a challenging prospect. This is where the beautiful little tin suitcases come into play as they’re used to squirrel away money, and only cash stored within these hinged tins counts at the end of the game, a nice thematic touch as it’s basically you hiding your questionably gotten gains from the Don. To hide your cash you just need to pop a thug or family member down wherever a business has the appropriate icon, at which point you’re allowed to choose one cash card from your hand to toss into the tin. Choose wisely though, because many job cards allow other players to steal cash from your suitcase, and before you place cash inside the tin you need to openly display it to all the other players, meaning if you only squirrel away the big $3 or $5 bills they’ll probably target you more than anyone else. A savvy player might opt to pop a few $1 or $2 into their suitcase since they get to choose which cards the opponent gets.
Yup, while worker-placement games are often relaxed affairs where the only real head-on collisions come from using a spot someone else wanted the Godfather theme here means that there are more chances for outright aggression through jobs that let you gun down opponent’s figures or steal their cash. Meanwhile, Erik Lang has confirmed that he did deliberately design the game so that there are objectively better places for you to place family members in terms of simply getting more stuff in a bid to make being the first player more valuable. It works, too, as during my time with the game a lot of players would use one of their thugs or family members to get the first player token so they could choose where to go first during the next act. Furthermore, since businesses only have a single space for thugs there’s always a rush to grab resources for jobs before another player gets to them, although I did find the game to be a bit too generous with how easy it was to acquire the blood money, weapons and booze needed to complete jobs.
Once everyone has finished placing their family members and thugs the game moves on to its next phase; Turf Control. The city is divided into numerous segments, and to determine who controls a piece of turn you must count up how many of each player’s thugs are currently placed within it and how many family members are adjacent. This is one of the big reasons family members are so important because they can count toward control of multiple pieces of turf at once. For each bit of turf you work out who has the most influence and then that players pops down one of their control markers on the board or on top of any previous markers, indicating that they’re currently the player in charge. This has two benefits; firstly whenever a player shakes down the front of a business in a patch of turf you control you’ll also get the benefits, and secondly during final scoring players get extra cash for each piece of turf containing more of their markers than anyone else’s.
This worker placement and area control blend together create some fun decisions that you have to make. Do you place a thug or family member to get what you need right now for a valuable job or do you consider forgoing immediate cash or items in favour of getting control of an area for the next round or ensuring dominance during final scoring? Since each piece of turf you have domination over at the end of the game is worth $5 it can be a tricky decision to make.
The penultimate phase before paying tribute to the Don is a chance for players to bid cash from their suitcase on a number of ally cards that are laid out at the start of each new act. These get more powerful as the game goes on and grant a few different abilities, like the Hollywood Producer who’ll hand you $5 for every bit of turf you currently control, a potentially game-changing card when used right. While they are kept in your hand and are thus subject to having to pay tribute to the Don you can otherwise keep them and reuse abilities, so weighing up their potential usefulness against the amount of cash, which let us not forget are actually victory points, creates an intriguing decision. I also appreciate how the secret bidding is handled by putting your chosen amount in the lid of your suitcase before the whole table reveals their bid simultaneously. Whoever has decided to splash the most money gets first pick of the available allies.
As you progress to each new act you’ll place a new building tile onto the board, and thus over the course of the game a total of four extra businesses will pop up on top of those already printed on the board and any others that were placed at the start due to the number of players sitting at the table. You’ll also get two extra family members in order to let you take advantage of the new businesses opening up across the city. Both of these things create a light sense of progression that I enjoyed.
Eric Lang brings the three layers of worker placement, area control and secret bidding together with a deft hand, each affecting the others enough to make your decisions feel impactful. And from a critical standpoint Lang has done very little wrong here. Everything feels solid and well designed.
So why don’t I love it? Why doesn’t it quite click with me? All the pieces are there for something that should suit me perfectly because after all I freaking love worker-placement games. And yet while I found the Godfather to be an enjoyable game it always felt a little flat and lifeless. I liked playing it, yet I never got excited about playing it.
Does that mean it’s a bad game? Absolutely not! Eric Lang has earned his reputation for a reason having produced numerous games beloved by many. His skill has led to this being a solid, enjoyable cardboard recreation of The Godfather that combines a few different mechanics into a satisfying set of decisions, and perhaps the best compliment I can give to Corleone’s Empire is that it’s actually quite easy to learn, yet its mechanics hide some genuine depth, making it a really good choice for folks just getting into playing board games. They can learn the rules quickly, have fun playing and over the course of a few games they’ll discover some of the small subtleties behind winning.
It just…it just doesn’t quite click for me. Still, while it may never be my first choice of game to drag off the shelf if anyone asks if I want to play it I’d be happy too. It’s an offer In couldn’t refuse.