The Road. No, Not That One.
It’s a rare game that can make me laugh out loud. Alf Seegert’s The Road to Canterbury managed it no fewer than a half-dozen times. The setting shoulders plenty of that load. As medieval pardoners, it’s your task to earn some coin from pilgrims as they journey to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket — except you happen to be the most miserable brand of fraud alive. Everything about you is a fake. Your certificates of pardon, the “sins” you’ve convinced the pilgrims burden their immortal souls, and certainly the furball of Saint Felix you’re passing off as a holy relic. Appropriately, the only score that matters is how many shillings you’ve bilked.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Hardly have we set out upon our pilgrimage, and already we talk as though we’ve arrived in Canterbury. Let us return to the origin of these troubles. Perhaps the telling will make an exemplum to rival Chaucer’s.
Or maybe not. In Seegert’s version, crime happens to pay very well indeed.
As I mentioned, The Road to Canterbury is about shaking down pilgrims. For the most part, this is done by playing sin cards to discompose their righteous souls, followed by pardon cards that will loose their shackles and prepare them to meet their Maker. Which they will likely do, by the way. While your pardons have been forged, the anxiety of so many sins weighs upon the caravan’s wayfarers. Too heavy a load and they’re liable to fall ill with distress. Good thing you can also sell them their last rites.
This process is simpler than it might sound. At any given moment there are three gullible pilgrims to take advantage of. Turns consist of playing a single card: sins pile up in front of their pilgrim, pardons flip over those sins in exchange for coin, and relics occasionally turn the proceedings on their head.
The action of placing a card is as straightforward as possible. What makes this compelling is Seegert’s ability to design games that function almost like pocket watches, gears and tourbillons seeming simple in their own right, but setting every other component into motion at the slightest touch.
The placement of a sin card, for example, is an escalation of that pilgrim’s value both to yourself and to any rival fraudsters. The more sins you pardon with a single certificate, the more money you earn. But more sins means more sin cards, which means more turns, which means more opportunities for those rivals to feast upon the meal you laid out for yourself. Most cards are drawn from a face-up pool, making it possible to follow what your rivals are holding. Similarly, since The Road to Canterbury only accommodates two or three players, there’s never so much information that it becomes impossible to keep straight. But pardoners are also free to draw at random. This is a gamble; chance could fill one’s hand with useless pardons or the most valuable card at the table. In either case, pushing multiple sins onto a single rube promises a huge payout. Just not necessarily for you.
And that’s just one example. Every pardon also increases your standing with a pilgrim’s caravan, doling out additional payments at stops along the road and when they arrive at their destination. At first glance these benefits may seem persnickety, perhaps even too plentiful for their own good. In every category there’s a reward for first, second, and third place. Why award fifteen, seven, and three coins to everyone who appealed to a particular caravan? Are these precise distributions? Are they covering up for poor performance with a minor reward? Are they normalizing everybody’s scores? In practice, however, the results are far more assured than that: awards are granted because attaining any standing at all is the result of deliberate action, not the default. More often, only one pardoner will appeal to a particular caravan, or be in the running for a pilgrim’s affections, or be named England’s most infamous pusher of deadly sins. These aren’t pity prizes. They’re prizes for setting as many gears and wheels into motion as possible with only the choicest plays.
While The Road to Canterbury sidesteps some of the pratfalls of other area majority games, it never entirely escapes from the confines of its clockwork prison. The obvious example is that where relic cards are at least evocative, there’s no distinction between the sins themselves. Wrath, envy, and lust will never be more than red and dark green and orange. Gluttony will never gobble up more than its fair share of pardons. Pride never cometh before the fall. This is, of course, a stretch as far as complaints go, and isn’t such an issue that the game is reduced to mere color-matching. Its setting is too sturdy for that, and never quite disappears from the mind’s eye. But it’s one explanation for why The Road to Canterbury can careen between sparkling wit and a bad case of cotton mouth. Comedic one moment, dry the next.
A better illustration is the game’s reliance on tiebreakers. When a pilgrim dies, the pardoner with the most favor in that caravan earns a pocketful of shillings. What’s the tiebreaker for when a pair of pardoners have weaseled their way into the same encampment? Whomever holds the most sin cards. This makes mechanical sense; sins are often less attractive than pardons and relics, so players are nudged into holding onto more of them than their rivals. But this concession to the game’s inner workings doesn’t quite make the leap to its more thematic half. The result is a sort of bipolarity, vibrant yet machine-like, like a waxen mannequin.
Then again, it’s possible that this is one game best appreciated within its proper context. The Road to Canterbury is a decade old. Seegert has honed his skills over the intervening years, particularly with titles such as Illumination and Haven. His games read like love letters: here to Chaucer, elsewhere to other crannies of literature. This affection and warmth are as much hallmarks of his designs as the clockwork he layers over one another. In this case, the latter portions are more visible. To some degree, they distract from the game’s banter with its source material. Still, as with Seegert’s other notable titles, The Road to Canterbury is cheerfully atypical and loaded with wit. Its designer was less seasoned when he created it — but with a game this sharply playable, this playful, it’s hard to worry too much about what it would look like had it been authored today.
A complimentary copy was provided.