Celtica is the latest game from Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer. It supports five players and it can be played in well under forty-five minutes.
Kiesling and Kramer have teamed up to bring us several games over the years. Perhaps their most well known collaborations are Java, Mexica, and Tikal, A.K.A. the Mask Trilogy. In the case of Celtica, that illustrious pedigree is probably a disadvantage. Tikal, Java and Mexica are all very deep gamers' games, pinnacles of angst and deep strategy built on an action point mechanic that has players agonizing over which of the many possible actions they will take on a given turn. Celtica couldn't be more different. Celtica is an extremely simple, family friendly game with a very large helping of luck. Does that make it a bad game? No. But it does mean that players who are expecting another game like Tikal are going to be sorely disappointed.
Celtica's box art is a pretty good indication of what you can expect to find inside the box. The cover is adorned with lush, colorful art that evokes the magic and mystery of the Celtic druids. There's no two ways about it. This is a gorgeous game. Inside the box you'll find one of the most attractive game boards to come along in a long time. Also included are five very attractive, oversized wooden druid pawns, a rule book, two decks of cards and 90 tiles. The artwork on the cards is equally beautiful. Each card depicts one of five different colored druids, one for each of the druid pawns. Everyone who I've shown the game to has immediately remarked on the beauty of the artwork. It's truly stunning.
Ten Celtic amulets have been broken up and their pieces have been scattered. Five druids wander from location to location seeking out pieces of the amulets with the aid of the players. Whichever player helps the druids recover the most complete amulets wins the game.
Each player's goal is to assemble as many complete amulets as possible. Each amulet consists of nine distinct pieces: four corners, four edges and a center. Each amulet is identical except for the art on the center pieces. Each piece in an amulet is distinguished by a unique color: for instance the top left corner of each amulet is green.
At the start of the game, the amulet tiles are shuffled and each player is given two pieces at random. Nine pieces are then placed face up at the top of the board. Whenever pieces are recovered, they are taken from the face up pieces and more pieces are drawn to replace them.
The game board depicts a path that winds its way around a lush island, making several stops along the way. Locations on the path include ruins, ancient Druidic holy sites, and Celtic settlements. The path is linear. There are no branches. The druid markers are placed at the start of the path and they progress along the path in one direction. When one of them reaches the end, it signals the final turn of the game.
At the start of each turn, players receive five druid cards. Druid cards come in five colors, one for each druid in the game. A turn is divided up into a number of rounds where each player plays in turn until all players have played all of their druid cards. In turn, each player chooses a number of cards from his hand and plays them. The only restriction is that all cards must be the same color. For each card played, the appropriate druid is moved that many spaces on the track and the action associated with that space is taken.
Whenever a druid lands on a settlement, the player recovers a number of amulet pieces (shown on the board) and adds them to his play area.
Whenever a druid lands on a holy site, the player MAY draw a single card from the druid deck and place it face down in front of him. If drawn, this card MUST be played on that players next turn in addition to any other matching cards that the player may wish to add from his hand. Deciding whether or not to draw that extra card is one of the more important decisions in the game. Taking the card prolongs your turn but also dramatically increases the risk that you'll be forced to move a druid onto a ruin.
If a druid lands on a ruin, the player must give up a number of pieces but in return he gets to draw a single experience card from the experience deck. Experience cards are used just like druid cards (and except for the artwork on the back and the addition of a symbol on the front they are identical). The only difference is that experience cards aren't used to determine when the turn ends (they can be kept from turn to turn) and at the end of the game they can be exchanged for additional tiles.
Except for a few details, that's really all there is to the game rules.
Celtica is an extremely simple game and therein lies the rub. The fact that Kiesling and Kramer are known for deeper games like Tikal and Java has hurt this game by creating the false expectation that this would be similar in depth (hence its lackluster rating on BGG). In fact, it's nowhere near as deep. This is a fast, light family game that offers some very limited strategic possibilities but in the end is largely dominated by the luck of the draw. On each turn you really have very few choices and those choices are heavily governed by the mix of cards in your hand. This is particularly true if you play the game with four or five players, since between plays the board can have changed so much as to make long term planning impossible. With two or three players the game becomes a little more strategic... but not much.
Is Celtica a bad game? No. As far as light family games go you could do much worse. I've enjoyed every game I've played. But you do have to go into each game with the knowledge that the game's outcome is largely beyond your control.
Strangely enough, this game has been getting a surprising amount of table time with our gaming group. Our group normally dislikes luck-heavy games (for example, while I rather liked Beowulf, many in our group did not) but for some reason they seem to have taken a shine to Celtica. I think the short playing time, coupled with the pretty artwork have something to do with it. As a closer, Celtica is ideal since by the end of the night everyone is a bit tired and ready for something light and fast that doesn't involve much thought.
Celtica will never be a classic but taken for what it is: a light, fast family game with pretty pieces, it can be a lot of fun. Just don't expect another Tikal.