If I was going to design a Crusader Kings board game, this would not be it. There’s a certain level of profusion I’d expect from a work derived from the massively complex PC simulation. The video game is full of rigor and depth, demanding many hours of input before you’re simply comfortable and many more before you’ve grasped a basic understanding of strategy. This cardboard version is not that. Not one bit.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s an oddity to be sure, as expectations don’t align with reality and this doesn’t quite service the fans the product is seeking. But as an abstracted table-top design intent on providing a good time – there is definitely measurable success here.
The cardboard Crusader Kings is a straightforward area control game. It requires a relatively laid-back 150 minute commitment. You control a prominent nation in medieval Europe and are crowned victor by gobbling up fertile countryside. There are no asymmetric abilities, complex CRTs, or even more than one type of combat unit. Simple, as I said.
There are really two interesting things going on here. The first has nothing to do with the Crusader Kings property. Rounds consist of programming a series of three action cards and then resolving them, player-by-player, one-by-one. These action cards let you tax your people, conspire to assassinate other nobles, and fabricate evidence to declare war (a neat two-step process faithful to its influence). You can march into other player’s areas or claim inventions such as plate mail or the longbow. When it’s your turn you flip your top card and perform the action. Then it’s on to your opponent until it gets back around to you.
There is strong variety here, particularly with orders like Intrigue which allow multiple options – spying, assassinating, and gaining casus beli. While the overall gameplay is relatively simple, you will spend some time with your heads down weighing considerations during the first couple of plays.
The truly compelling aspect of this action system is not in the actions themselves but in their second use as an event deck. Immediately after executing your order the event at the center of the card fires. This means you must weigh each action programmed on two axes, often forcing difficult decisions such as feeling immense pressure to tax and fill your coffers to support the war effort, however, in doing so you will allow your neighbor to give birth and expand their royal family.
Other events harm you gifting another player the opportunity to place unrest on your territories and shrink their economic spoils. Few will offer assistance to the current player, however these are often paired with weaker actions such as the lackluster Crusade.
Speaking of, let’s dig into Crusade a bit. This feels as though it should be one of the key components of the design given the name on the box. Initially it looks as though it’s been handled with care as a separate track which lines the outside of the board. But it’s a bit of a farce.
Crusade is not a delicious decision in the game but rather a forced requirement. Each player must perform a Crusade action exactly once per age – a division of three rounds and nine actions – but the rewards are purely in gaining mechanical special abilities that often feel similar to one another and a bit underwhelming. The real failure here is that this does not function as a viable path to victory.
While I understand the design was necessarily abstracted to provide an accessible experience, it would have greatly benefited from offering a legitimate second way to gain victory points beyond simply controlling land back home. In its current state it functions as obligation which simply requires a bit of strategic thought on when you will give up your primary action to attend to this cost. It’s not entirely an afterthought, but it is somewhat limp.
But back to those events – they’re a mixed bag. The tactical decision space via hand management is compelling and produces some of the best moments of the game, yet it’s not entirely fulfilling. The niggle here is that your events always affect the player to your left. This produces an odd relationship where you have your hands in the fate of that neighbor, dictating almost entirely whether their family can grow and prosper. This works for the most part, simply due to the incentive to play cards that will help your opponent, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I admire the concept more than the implementation I suppose.
The second mechanism of interest is one of bag building. You have this neat little sack full of circular tokens with script such as cruel, humble, or godless. These are traits of your king and queen, their various quirks and eccentricities distilled to fickle cardboard. As you perform various actions in the game you will need to draw tokens from your bag with your traits both aiding and hindering your efforts.
This is Crusader Kings killer quality. While bag building in itself is nothing new, we’ve never quite seen it like this. What this offers is a more narrative focused system of resolution. You don’t simply fail to convince that neighboring region to wed their daughter to your son, you fail because your family is known to be deceitful or possessed. It’s colorful and enticing as a focus of play.
Your bag will shift as you’re given opportunities to cull the dregs of your lineage or add new entries as your children become adults and replace their parents upon the throne. The bag functions as this wonderful gene pool of your progeny, each generation leaving their indelible touch while also being unable to completely escape the sins of the past. Maybe Geoffrey is cruel, but his father Frederick absolutely was and it still taints the soil upon which your estate flounders.
This level of rich thematic storytelling reaches beyond setting and elevates the experience. It attains a degree of amplitude that’s fitting of its inspiration and those moments of triumph and agony are the closest we get to the PC game.
Better yet, between the finer stages are interludes of absolute hilarity. In a prior play I spent a large portion of the game listless as I failed check after check. The culprit? My newly wed Queen whose clubfoot trait thwarted my attempts to construct a castle and foiled an assassination attempt I was enacting. My belly ached from laughter.
Of course those vagaries of chance and the outright randomness of this system can stymie the good vibes. There are ways to mitigate bad luck such as paying coin to draw more tokens, but it can still be a downright capricious fellow. Again, this is not a game of grand planning and the execution of a life’s strategic work. It’s an at times silly game of area control with some nifty, and memorable moments peppered throughout.
It’s also a very pretty game. The board is gorgeous with its earthen tones and scattered miniatures. There are some accessibility issues as parsing information is more difficult than it should be. This is exclusively caused by the denoting of control with plastic knights. These aren’t units or army strength, they’re merely showing ownership. The smaller dudes with swords and maces are the ones that are actually waging war and costing you upkeep. While not a deal breaker, it often causes confusion with newcomers and creates a landscape which is somewhat difficult to parse.
Crusader Kings is a board game that’s a bit of a surprise. It’s not at all what one is expecting upon opening that box, yet there’s also a pleasant discovery in that joy of the trait system. Like a dynasty’s cloth bag full of various boons and needles, this one is a mixed result that pulls in a couple of directions.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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