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Does anyone else think the Queen looks like Cersei? Crusader Kings may be familiar to readers of this blog from a computer game of th...

Crusader Kings Crusader Kings

Crusader Kings

Crusader Kings

Does anyone else think the Queen looks like Cersei?
Crusader Kings may be familiar to readers of this blog from a computer game of the same name.  Free League Publishing and Paradox Interactive have tried to distil the essence of the long, expansive, crunchy computer game into a much shorter a play-in-an-evening board game.  Have they been successful? Read on…

The title ‘Crusader Kings’ is a bit of a misnomer for this game.  The whole Crusades aspect of the board game is largely abstracted away into a progress track at the bottom of the board.  What this game should be called is Family Fortunes – Medieval edition.  Your prime focus is making babies, marrying off your heirs and spares and expanding into rival territories, through subterfuge or direct conflict.

Four Player set up

At the start of the game, each player is given a historical family and King to rule over, for example, The House of Normandy led by William the Conqueror.  Managing your King and their children and siblings’ Traits (positive and negative); i.e. making sure your Dim-witted daughter marries the Lustful Son of an opponent, differentiates this game from the crowded medieval Europe dudes-on-a-map archetype.

Gameplay

The game is played over three Eras, each comprising three Rounds, which again have two turns…  This is fairly standard fare for most Euro gamers but is a bit of a departure from a wargamers UGOIGO experience.  In a turn, one Action Card per player is resolved and it is the selection and playing of these cards (during a Turn) which really drives the game forward.  The game will normally end after 18 turns for each player or if any player reaches the Jerusalem space of the crusade progress track before then.
The Crusade Track in all its glory...
The slowest part of the game, but arguably the most important, is the beginning of each round, where each player attempts to make a marriage for a member of their family and chooses two of the eight action cards in their hand to play on their turns.  They must also choose the order in which they’re played during the turn, which does have significant consequences.  Once all players are familiar with the different actions there is little down-time between your turns as every other player's Action card may also affect you in some way.  

Your starting King and family will have specific traits, but thereafter every character in the game, has a randomised trait that is either positive (green trait – example: Strong, Honest, Pious, Scholar etc.) or negative (red trait – example: Imbecile, Deceitful, Lunatic, Lustful etc.) which will gradually feed into your trait bag and are used to check whether any attempted action throughout the game is successful or not via a Trait Check.
5 Player - 2nd Era, things are getting busy

Trait Checks are the unique selling point of this game and provide the jeopardy and a lot of the story which this game tells.  A Trait Check is where a player draws traits from their bag hoping to draw a green (success) trait in order to complete the chosen action.  Every action also has a Critical Trait – if that particular trait is drawn during the check then a green trait is actually treated as a failure and red as a success. 

For me, the addition of Critical Traits provides thematic immersion and also an element of strategic thinking.  For example, if am attempting a Build Action which has Critical Traits of Humble (Green) and Ambitious (Red) and I draw any green except Humble I am successful and can plonk a castle down in a territory I control. If I draw Ambitious, which on any other Trait Check would fail, I can still build my castle as it is the Critical Trait for Build.
Invest to draw an extra Trait.  Lucky that a Critical Trait (Deceitful) was drawn

Aligning marriages to reflect the traits and critical traits that you want to further your families influence is where the strategic piece comes in.  Often you are desperate to make sure your ruler has an heir that any marriage will do, but it is a sweet feeling when you’re able to snag first player (by successfully crusading) and marry an available partner with the Cruel trait.  Although this is a negative trait it is considered critical for Crusading and Invading and you can choose more of those actions in future knowing you’re more likely to succeed.

I like games where I don’t have absolute control of the units in my command.  It seems fitting to me that even if I order something to happen in my territories, it doesn’t necessarily occur.  I wouldn’t appreciate this aspect in an economic game but where I am trying to control a lunatic son or imbecilic daughter as part of my dynasty it feels apt.  Often in this game, it is the memorable failures that develop the story of your dynasty more than an automatic Tax action for example.
Child  #1 needs to die

During each Era, every player will play 6 of their 8 actions cards.  The action cards are drawn from 5 decks and there are a specified minimum and maximum number of draws for each deck.  For example, you can’t just draw 8 Realm cards that allow you to Build/Develop on your turn.  The only mandatory card draw is at least one from the Crusade deck (which incidentally is a good way to kill your Drunkard King in favour of his Brave son).

Aside from the Crusade Deck, the other Action Card decks are the War deck (moving and invading with your army), Intrigue Deck (Plotting and Overthrowing other players control of territories), the Realm deck (building castles and giving your dynasty additional powers) and finally the Tax deck, which are the only action card which don’t require a Trait Check and provide the main source of income in the game. 
The box all packed up. Game will start in 30 minutes...
Each Action Card also has an event which will be triggered after the chosen action has been resolved. Generally, the events on the Realm, Intrigue and Tax cards are bad for the acting player or good to the other players.  Whereas the Crusade cards events are generally good for the acting player and bad for the others.  However, the risk of going on a crusade shouldn’t be underestimated. Your ruler could easily be killed triggering a succession, or crisis if there is no heir (a terrible outcome for your dynasty).
The 5 Action Decks
There are a variety of pitfalls in this game for the novice player and it does definitely reward repeated plays.  The game manual has even gone as far to advise new players not to crusade without an heir – which was something I didn’t appreciate on my very first teaching play through and immediately failed on a crusade.  I learnt not to do that again and we all agreed to reset the board state.  Don’t be like me, a Succession Crisis is not something you can come back from.
4 Player Initial Setup
In my very unsuccessful attempt to play the computer Crusader Kings II several years ago, I realised how important Casus Belli was in order to attack another kingdom.  The same is true in this game and War is an exercise in politics and logistics before actual combat, which is unfortunately abstracted out of the game to a quite disappointing Trait Check.  Albeit one in which the affected player(s) will invest in an attempt to sabotage the check.  In the plays I’ve had of the game, direct conflict almost seems like an after-thought.

The game provides six scenarios, the first five loosely describe a chronology of some of the notable crusades from history.  The sixth scenario is a tournament scenario designed for four players whom each starts with Casus Belli against another player.  This is designed for more direct conflict and succeeds to an extent but resolving battles feels almost as light as vanilla-Risk and consequently unsatisfying.
Rules book - is a little loose

Components

This game has come through a successful Kickstarter campaign and subsequently, all of the components and art look top quality.  I think the board and card art aesthetic is spot on.  The player boards are of normal card stock but are perfectly fine. The miniatures, although they are almost superfluous, look good albeit a bit large for my tastes.  And you get 6 good-quality drawstring bags in individual player colours. The level of quality in components is largely indicative of most Kickstarters these days in all but one area…
Lots of tokens and bits to play with

The tokens throughout the game were impossible to get out of the counter sheets without some tearing.  Some of the counter sheets were better than others but I had a distinct problem with two of the five sheets.  Even in the good sheets there was some tearing.  This was disappointing but I’ll put it down to a bad batch – glue running out, or punch out tool needed sharpening as the cause. As the rest of the components, even the insert, were of a high quality.

The rules provide a bot player to use when playing with fewer than 3 players.  Although I am pleased to see the inclusion of a bot for solo or 2 player use, due to the light tactical element and story-driven narrative I can’t see myself using or enjoying playing against the bots.  I just don’t think there’s enough mechanically to justify the time.  The game is best with three of four other opponents around the table and I hope that I can explore a bit further in those circumstances.

Criticisms

Mechanics are a little loose for my tastes and the combat is a bit disappointing.  I really like the theme and the story is, as other reviewers have suggested, really where this game shines.  The publishers have by necessity condensed the crunch and tactical weight of the computer game down into 2-½ - 3 enjoyable hours that can be easily finished in one sitting. 

The main strategic element of this game is building your trait bag.  This is a fun element and significantly drives the narrative, e.g. choosing the right spouse and murdering the wrong spouse to find a more suitable match but the strategy is limited in other areas of the game.  The crusades are more of a game timer than a viable strategy, although a successful crusade does provide additional powers.
Nice bags
The miniatures feel a little tacked on as well.  I imagine these were a stretch goal of the Kickstarter campaign, but in reality, the Control Tokens -represented by a large cavalry miniature serves to distract a little from the foot-soldiers of your actual army.  

Conclusion

This is a game that borrows my favourite mechanic from a wide variety of other games and remixes them into an enjoyable but less-coherent experience.  It takes the dual-natured action cards from Gloomhaven, the bag-building and chit-pull mechanic from Quacks of Quedlinburg, the pre-programmed movement from Colt Express and the theme of medieval European wars from so many other games.  If I had to pick a favourite element from those games then Crusader Kings has borrowed them all but unfortunately, it’s not quite the sum of its parts. 
Uggh - tear down is a right pain
The narrative arc that is played out is as good, and often as funny, as any I have experienced playing board games.  I will come back to this game and will enjoy subsequent plays of this for the story and inter-relationships that happen between mine and my opponents’ dynasties.  However, if I’m looking for a crunchy, tactical, bewildering experience that I experienced when faced with the computer game then this isn’t it but I am looking forward to seeing what the next video-game to board-game adaption is.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a plethora of board games be converted into digital form and come with companion apps, it is not so common for a computer game to make the transition into the cardboard world.  From recent memory, we’ve had Doom, XCOM the most successful mover has been This War of Mine.  However, I think we’ll continue to see more fusion between the two formats and I’m excited to see what that blending will look like in 5 years time.

Publisher:  Free League
BGG Page: boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/253574/crusader-kings
Players: 3-5
Designer: Tomas Härenstam
Playing Time: 3 hours


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