Il Principe is the new game from Mind the Move, the folks who brought us last year's OltreMare. I was not a big OltreMare fan. I found it to be clunky and not well-balanced, and not offering much in the way of player flexibility or interesting choices. It's not a game I would veto if friends wanted to play it, but it's solidly at bottom of my third string. Not to mix metaphors.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find I feel about the same for Il Principe. I usually like to give a thumbnail sketch of how a game works in these things, but Il Principe is so thematically awkward, and has such a sense of being a bunch of game bits fed into a blender, that it's hard without reverting to a blow-by-blow of the sequence of play. Something which I'm not going to do. While the difference between a functional theme and a good theme may not amount to that much compared to similar differences in quality of game-play, a theme that doesn't function at all can really hurt even a mechanically sound game.
Anyway, I didn't find Il Principe to be bad, per se, just awkward and uninspiring. Some mechanisms were thrown together, and a game came out. The game appears to function, which in fairness is saying something, but just barely, and like OltreMare before it this is a game about figuring out how the game works, not about actually making decisions or judgments or enjoying the theme or anything else that usually makes a game fun for me personally. Some people love this kind of puzzle game, but usually it's got to have something else too. Puerto Rico, for example, certainly has an element of being a puzzle, and is rather popular I'm told – but it brings a lot of other things to the table as well. For me, Il Principe just feels disjointed, and lacks the idea, the magnet that gets you back for more play. It's Puerto Rico without the nice theme, the clever central driver of the roles, and the interacting special powers.
I played Caylus again in close proximity to Il Principe, and I realize that it is in this same mold; but for me, Caylus works much better. While Caylus's theming is not great, it's pretty good next to Il Principe. While the rules are a bit fiddly, they settle down quickly. I find my opinion of Caylus hasn't changed much from when I first played it: it's a solid and enjoyable game. You get to make interesting evaluations (how to balance all the different stuff – favors, resource acquisition, turn order, money) and strategic decisions (as you have to save resources and money over several turns). But things are just slightly creaky in a number of ways: it takes a touch too long to play, the choices sometimes seem a bit constrained (a chunk of your worker placements are going to have to be fairly obvious resource gathering plays), and things are often a bit fiddly, like the endless paying of a buck to operate a building.
Regardless, I like Caylus. It's a solid B game, maybe a 4 out of 5. Interesting, definitely good for some short-term play, and one of the better games from Essen. It's a very good game for a small game publisher, but ultimately not a game that is likely to go over the top and get solid replay over an extended period and earn a permanent spot in my collection.