During the pandemic, opportunities to play board games en personne were obviously scarce outside the family bubble. Since restrictions have eased, returning to the table at the game group has been a much needed tonic. While some games are suited to online or solo play, there are plenty that require eye-to-eye contact, table talk and a general immediacy that doesn't happen down a telephone wire, however jacked up it is. Royal Secrets, designed by Vincent Bernet, published by Funnyfox and distributed in the UK by HachetteBoardGamesUK, is one such game and we enjoyed getting it to the table recently at our local game group.
Royal Secret's raison d'etre is that the 3 to 5 players are lobbying the King and Queen of France to gain Fleur-de-Lys tokens (victory points). In each of the seven rounds, both royals reveal a card with an Influence target which must be at least equalled by the players who go to that Audience. After a period of discussion, each player puts a first then a second card into their chosen Audience - one face up, one face down - until all have played and the cards are revealed. A successful audience is rewarded with victory points, failure loses victory points (usually more than would be gained), and the player who contributed most to a success gains a Favour (special ability) they can call upon later in the game. At the end, the player with the most victory points wins.
Unlike a courtier's powdered face, there are many wrinkles. Player order is determined by a parley token which is passed to a selected player until all have taken a turn. Hand management is key; players start with fewer cards than needed to participate in all seven Audiences, so timely use of the zero Influence cards is essential as they return to hand, especially if you have not played your Excusez Moi card by the last round and want to participate in that all-in foofaraw. The Favours gained vary in effectiveness, with some being so game changing (I'm looking at you, Master Stroke) that winning them or avoiding their consequent use can decide the game. For lower player counts and the rare X:1 split at the higher player counts, there is a deck of Cardinal cards to add suspense should a player find themselves tête-à-tête with the King or Queen.
With the art and design by Alain Boyet being magnifique, there is much to enjoy in Royal Secrets and we were très amusée playing it, even when - especially when, for some - Audiences went wrong and the vicious Valets spread their lies. But not all was sunshine in the court of le Roi Soleil...
Tiny tweaks like matching the colour of the Favour cards to those on the player aid and rules would have helped; the Fleur de Lys tokens could be less fiddly (especially to punch), though the boxes served their purpose in keeping scores hidden. The text on the player aid was small to the point of being illegible... for this seasoned statesmen at least.
Of the two main issues we had with the game, one was resolved through perseverance: the tie-break rule for winning a Favour is badly phrased (at least in its English translation) in the otherwise excellent rulebook; being unintuitive, it read as though all players, not just those involved, passed cards after a tie and, though that seemed de travers, as the player cards are colour coded, we reasoned it was to add more variability to the card play. We were also disappointed there was no end-game tie-break rule.
The main issue we dealt with by removing it after a couple of rounds: while the concept of choosing the next player to go is good in theory – and works well in practice in the lighter, quicker, Little Prince: Make Me a Planet (Ludonaute) – here it served only to complicate the decision space and slow play down to a pace contrary to the liveliness otherwise engendered by the game. At five players, that's an extra sixty or so decisions to add to a game that can easily run to an hour already. We pointedly binned the parley token.
Royal Secrets is not a game for people who need to be in control. It is a game of negotiation, semi-guessable chaos, and not just inevitable but mandatory betrayal. Because of that, players need to be aware going in that at some point they will be *ahem* royally screwed, likely by the other players but possibly by the non-player-character Cardinal too. The banter and interactivity levels are high, especially with more players which, as you can see from our 360º photo, meant bon temps were had by all.
(Review by David Fox)