In Council of Four you and your opponents are striving to become the best merchants, by building emporiums in cities throughout the land. But to build, you have influence the councils in each of the three regions, and this negotiation is the crux of the game.
The board shows the regions with cities and connecting roads. You’ll notice that the city names all begin with a different letter, from A through to O. Also present are the four councils – one for each region, plus the Kings’ council – more on them in a bit. Each council is populated by four councillors of various colours. You begin the game with six influence cards, a little gold, and some assistants. On your turn you always collect an influence card, and then choose one of four available actions. The actions are as follows:
Pay influence cards that match the colours of councillors in order to pick up a building permit. If you don’t have (or don’t want to play) matching cards, you can part-purchase by spending gold, although doing so can get expensive. Having obtained a permit, another action is build an emporium: you flip an obtained permit face-down, and place an emporium in a city that matches the letter on the permit. Doing so gets you an instant reward (money, cards, points, or assistants) but not only that, will get you the rewards from all the other cities you are connected to that have your emporiums in them! So building a chain of cities can be very rewarding, although as the game continues it gets harder to do so – for every opponent with an already emporium in the city when you build, you must spend an assistant.
If the colours of the councillors aren’t matching your cards, a third action is electing a new councillor: simply slide a new councillor in of your choice into the council, causing the ‘oldest’ member to fall out the other end. Doing so also gets you four coins!
The fourth action is building emporiums without permits, which is where the King’s Council comes in – discard matching influence cards to do so. This can only be done in the city currently occupied by the king. You can move the king around the cities, but every city he travels between will cost you 2 gold. Finally, there are also some extra actions you can take involving your assistants: changing the available permit tiles for instance, or electing a councillor – but without getting the monetary reward for doing so as your main action. You can also pay three assistants to take an extra turn!
So on a turn by turn basis everything is reasonably simple, and fast-moving. But crucial to winning the game is grabbing bonuses: there are bonuses for being first to build an emporium in each city of a given region, and bonuses to be had for being first to build an emporium in each type of city: gold for instance will get you 20 points, as there are five gold cities, whereas the easy-to-achieve blue cities only get 5 points. The game end is triggered when any player places their last emporium on the board.
They didn’t exactly go to town on the packaging: my copy of Council of Four is a beige image of people looking a bit bored or irritable. I believe the second edition remedies this by going full-irritability. Neither really sings out ‘come play this game’ – but I’m glad I did, because this is pretty neat. There are temptations everywhere – chaining your emporiums across connected cities keeps the good stuff coming in, but surely you want to grab a couple of bonus tiles too – if not more. Build a hand of influence cards to grab a permit cheaply, or blow the expense and take the one you need right now? You want to keep your gold supply healthy if you can, but it’s no good being cash-rich for the sake of it – it’s a race of sorts, as when one person places their final emporium the game end is triggered, and at that point being rich doesn’t mean a great deal – all the other players get a final turn, then it’s game over!
No direct conflict here, but certainly players can spot what bonuses each other are going for, and do their best to mess with their plans.
That first bamboozling play out of the way, Council of Four plays pretty rapidly, though there may be the odd pause when someone's best-laid-plans turn out to be not so well laid after all.
Nothing too grisly. There's the temptation to chain your buildings across the board in order to keep the good stuff coming in, but then again, grabbing those bonuses might mean breaking the chain...
The board can be set up different ways, the cards are always shuffled, as are the building permits.