25th Oct2019

‘Crusader Kings’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

crusaderkings-box

I certainly don’t envy the team tasked with converting one of the most epic grand strategy videogames of all time into a reasonably mass-market board game adaptation, but the designers of Crusader Kings have certainly given it their best shot. Buoyed by funding from a well received Kickstarter, this adaptation of the Paradox Interactive classic comes with hundreds of cards and a large number of lavishly produced and detailed miniatures, even though some of the card stock is of a lower standard than I expect.

Crusader Kings weighs in at an impressive five and a half kilograms after punching, and when you open the box you’ll be met with an overwhelming amount of stuff, as well as a fairly thick manual. Despite all the pieces however, the game itself is relatively simple, and it uses a card based action system to drive the main part of each turn. The design team has worked hard to capture the key concepts from the original game, so you can expect Kings to marry, have children and age, and for alliances to be forged and broken.

War and expansion are important, but the act of declaring war is more formal than it is in most games that share a similar archetype – and broadly speaking Crusader Kings is an area control game with lots of other metagames bolted onto it. Control of Europe during the Middle Ages is the aim, but as the title suggests, declaring and participating in Crusades is a key way to score points and advance your influence, even though the target of such Crusades (usually Jerusalem and the Holy Land) are not depicted on the board.

Another key feature of the original game that is captured here is that of traits – both positive and negative. Each character will have one or more traits (and they may be added or taken away during the game) that count towards certain events. Your King, in particular, will have his traits thrown into a draw bag to be used in determining the success or failure of certain actions. Draw a negative red token when taking an action, for example, and you’ll usually fail (with certain specific exceptions) or draw a green one and pass. Players can almost always pay one gold to draw an additional token, increasing their odds of success, but the decision to pay (or not) must be made before the first draw.

At the beginning of each Era, the players draw eight cards from the five decks on board. Each deck represents actions relating to a specific area, such as Politics, Crusades, War and so on, and whilst there are some restrictions, players are free to choose cards from the decks that they think will suit what they want to do. The players then each choose two of their cards and place them face down in the order they wish to play them. These cards are then resolved, with the top card being resolved by each player in turn order, then the second card. The final two cards (you’ll recall that six were drawn) are not used.

During this phase, you’ll learn to either love or hate Crusader Kings, depending on your outlook. Firstly, each card allows the player to take an action relating to the symbol on it – which relates to the specific deck the card came from. In that regard, at least, the players have control. The bit where control is lost and luck takes over is in the event text on each card, which is very often bad and either affects the player using the card, or their neighbour. Cards can make a spouse die during childbirth, or they may bear a healthy child. They might give your King leprosy, ageing him, or they may even simply kill him.

It’s during the resolution of these events that a lot of the token drawing is done, and so you can kind of get situations where you spend money or effort just to mitigate a negative effect that you never wanted to play anyway. You might waste all your money to draw extra tokens to take the marry action (which is free and doesn’t require a card) but then have your wife die in childbirth because you can’t save her. On the other hand, this luck of the draw affects everyone the same way, and because eight cards are drawn, you won’t have to use the two worst.

One part of this style of gameplay that I do quite like is that sometimes a bad event can come with an upside, and if you play it as your fifth or sixth card, you’ll have four or five actions beforehand to prepare. As an example, you might have a card that kills your King unless you have a Court Physician, and a good way to prevent the King’s death is simply to hire one before that card is played. The downside here, of course, is that if someone hires the only face up Court Physician (which comes from an invention deck) then your plan may go disastrously wrong.

When you sit back and think, that’s actually where the Crusader Kings style play begins to show itself. Off board deals can be made and you can freely trade more or less anything. If you need a Court Physician, why not ask France to give you theirs, in exchange for offering them your sisters hand in marriage? This might seem like a poor trade for them, but you’ll also quickly learn that having a King die without an heir is one of the worst possible things that can happen in the game, and therefore an easy (and guaranteed) way to ensure a spouse is to make such a trade. Even better if the player offering the trade has a card that bestows a child upon their neighbour – a powerful and valuable combination offer.

This kind of off board trading is more or less essential in making the game enjoyable, and as such, I found Crusader Kings played best at five players without any doubt. At three it’s dull because two opposing players will either be played by the AI or simply placed as tokens on the board (as you see in my pictures) to block out space, whilst at four, things improve but you still have one AI or blanked out player. Personally, I have no time or interest for introducing AI controlled players in multiplayer games, although the inclusion of different AI’s (aggressive, builder etc) is great for potential solo players or pairs who enjoy such things.

Crusader Kings is a large and impressive game when set out, and it has some good ideas. The card draw and action system is interesting, though I wish the average level of punishment that cards dish out was lower. It can often feel like you will draw a hand of terrible cards and when that happens, it’s hard to plot a route that leads to anything other than ruin. I also would have preferred more viable options for playing at less than five players, including perhaps some scenarios that worked at those counts specifically.

Fans of the video game are likely to find themselves on familiar territory once they have played three or four games. It takes some time, I’ve found, to get into a rhythm of making off board deals and really using the systems in this game, and whilst the rules are not complex, the level of understanding needed to properly use them is fairly high. Certainly a game that rewards invested time, rather than one that impresses on the first play, leading me to question how often I will have the full player count of experienced players required to really make the most of it.

***½  3.5/5

Crusader Kings is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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