The French Revolution is a period where one can typically find little to laugh about, unless the mass slaughter of tens-of-thousands of people tickles your historical fancy or massages your deep-seeded hate for European aristocracy. The bloody period did much to shape modern world politics, abolished slavery in French-held territories and opened the door to the rise to Napoleon Bonaparte, but the popular symbol that lingers in most people’s minds is the guillotine.
Developed as an efficient and humane manner of execution, the guillotine was a perfect symbol for the Age of Enlightenment-fuelled violence of the French Revolution — a combination of vicious violence and modern invention. Executions of King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and countless other nobles and members of the ruling class were public events during the Reign of Terror of the Revolutionary period. Ironically, Maximilien Robespierre, one of the architects of the Reign of Terror would also meet his death at the guillotine when public sentiment turned against the violence of the era. Beyond the French Revolution, the guillotine would remain a prominent mode of execution for prisoners worldwide and a mode of terror for governments such as the German Third Reich well into the late 20th-century.
Guillotine, the 1998 card game from Wizards of the Coast, uses the Reign of Terror as a jumping-off point for an unlikely comical, fast-paced and enjoyable game. Playing in about a half-hour, the game is framed over three days (or rounds) of executions with a steady flow of nobles lined up ready to be rid of their heads. Players score points through the value of nobles executed, playing cards to garner extra points, bump valuable nobles to the head of the line and steal from other players along the way.
The game is set up with an initial queue of 12 nobles lined up before a cardboard standing guillotine. Players are then dealt five Action cards to begin. Each player’s turn involves three steps. First, a player may use an Action card as an option. Next, the player collects the Noble at the front of the line, adding the card to their pool of victims points in front of them. Finally, the player draws back an Action card from the pile.
Once a line of nobles is eliminated at the guillotine, the day ends and the next row of 12 nobles is dealt out with play continuing in turn. After the second day and a third day of executions is complete, players score points from their collected noble victims and the highest score wins.
Within the game there’s a surprising amount of strategy as players not only collect their own most valuable victims, but also do what they can to prevent their opponents from doing the same through play of Action cards.
Action cards bump nobles up and down the line, reshuffle the line, cause other players to lose nobles they’ve collected and rescue potentially-high-scoring nobles from a certain death.
Potential Noble victims come in color-coded cards: Civic (green), Royalty (purple), Church (blue), Military (red) and Negative (grey). The grey-colored cards have negative point values, killing innocents or other crowd favorites. Collecting cards in certain color may result in additional bonus points made active by playing specific Action cards. Collecting combinations of nobles like the Count and Countess together or multiple Palace Guards can also reap bonus points.
Managing your own Action cards, your pool of scored nobles and the line of upcoming noble victims creates a great deal of dynamic play within the simple card-based mechanic. The card illustrations are comical and include a number of historical personalities such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre himself, offering a mildly-educational element to the broadly-historical game.
While execution is a grisly theme, older kids will find the game to be entertaining when played along with a group of adults. Like a lot of historically-themed gaming, the nastier bits are pretty well glossed-over in Guillotine. The game does provide some great entertainment for a fast and fun Reign of Terror of your own as the dishes are cleared, the desserts are gobbled up and the last of the French noble class is once again marched to their doom.