In Lord of the Chords, designers Jonathan Ng, Phang Jun Yu and Keith Teo have come up with a game that's fun to play yet one where you'll almost certainly be improving your understanding of music theory as you play.
The gameplay itself is reasonably straightforward. On your turn you draft three cards from a face-up display of six (three cards displaying music notes; three displaying actions). Cards are drafted to your hand. You can then take three actions (oddly referred to as 'moves' in the rules, tho' there is no board and so no pawns or meeples to actually move). You can play and discard an action card to take the action indicated; you can play a note card from your hand to your individual tableau; you can shift a note in your tableau from one chord to another; you can trade notes for Accidental Tokens (which add a sharp or flat to a note, for example, to change a D# to an E); or you can spend two 'moves' to take another card from the replenished display. A key signature tile is always displayed and you will be trying to collect it by playing to your tableau a completed diatonic triad chord within that key signature.
Non-musicians may already be lost at this point so it's important to point out that the possible three-note chords for each key signature are all displayed on that key signature tile. That means non-musicians can simply look at the seven possible sets of three notes displayed on the tile and try to build one or more of those sets. You can have more than one incomplete chord in your tableau as that increases your likelihood of being able to pick up and play the notes needed to complete a chord and seize the key signature tile. The downside is that when the key signature tile is taken and a new one appears, any notes in an incomplete chord have to be discarded if they are off-key to the new key signature (ie: cannot be used to make one of the chords displayed on the new tile).
You'll be making use of unique powers on the instrument tiles which you'll draw at the start of the game but often the key to victory is the judicious use of Accidentals to alter the pitch of a note. If you're not a musician, you'll soon pick up the fact that, for example a D# is the same pitch as E flat. This is helpfully illustrated on the note cards. You may be puzzled tho' at learning that not all notes have the same equivalence because the intervals between notes are not uniform. This, however, isn't going to trouble players of the basic game.
To become the Lord of the Chords and win the game, you have to be the first to collect three key signature tiles. This isn't as easy as it sounds because the action cards make Lord of the Chords a surprisingly cutthroat 'take that' game where players will be stealing cards and sabotaging each other's tableaus. It's as if the designers had been inspired by Salieri's rivalry of Mozart in Amadeus!
If this is all there were to Lord of the Chords, it would be a fun but light diversion. This, however, is only the most basic game. Chords can be extended beyond the three notes shown on the key signature tiles. Certain completed chords can be stolen by an opponent but they are immune if the chord has an 8th. This is where the game began to stretch beyond and then way beyond my admittedly minimal knowledge or understanding of music theory. Musicians and those with a firmer grounding in music theory will more readily appreciate the notes needed to add 9th, 11th and 13th extensions to their chords. I'm afraid I was already well out of my depth before I tried to comprehend the section in the rules on Perfect and Plagal Cadences. That said, I've certainly improved my still very limited understanding of music theory by playing this game, and I can see how those learning music theory would get a real kick out of playing the more advanced extensions of Lord of the Chords.
And there's a lot here. The game includes five extension packs; packaged as sealed booster packs and each containing 10 or 11 action cards or style cards that affect play; so Lord of the Chords is a game that's designed to expand alongside your musical knowledge. The game even incorporates optional cards representing H notes; which I gather are used in parts of Central and Eastern Europe to represent a note a semitone below C (in parts of Germany, B is apparently B flat - who knew?). At the other end of the musical knowledge spectrum, the rules include a Allegro Mode variant aimed at younger players. This is a speed, pattern recognition game that just uses the note cards, Accidental Tokens and key signature cards.
Lord of the Chords is lovingly produced. The cards are well finished, the plastic Accidental Tokens have a poker chip weight to them, and there are other markers that take the form of plastic guitar plectrums. The box also contains a foldout plastic keyboard. This appears purely decorative, in that it serves no gameplay purpose, but, if you are so minded, it can be used as a carrybox for the game components in place of the cardboard box.
Lord of the Chords will make an idea gift for any board game-playing musicians in the family and certainly for anyone learning music theory.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)