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CRUSADER KINGS
A FREE LEAGUE boardgame based on the Steam PC game by  PARADOX INTERACTIVE
On Steam:  Basic Game: £29.99   CK2 Dynasty Starter Bundle: £55.38    CK2 Royal Collection Bundle: £148.88   CK2 Imperial Collection Bundle: £207.14
3D Boardgame (bought online): from £65.95 for the base boardgame through to £149.99 for the Base game plus the Councillors & Inventions 20 miniature expansion.

  

CRUSADER KINGS is a board game created from the Actions found within a computer game, which I unfortunately have not played and thus have no prior knowledge to, though the historical theme is quite well acknowledged if not entirely accurate. The board game was financed on Kickstarter, presumably by many fans of the original PC game on Steam. It does seem that if you have played the electronic game then you will some idea of what to expect, however, this as a boardgame doesn't flow as well as it does (I have been informed) as an electronic game. 

When you first open the box and see all the pieces your impression has to be WoW! Whether that is a good 'wow' or not depends on the type of game you were expecting - an historical gamer might see the colours as too bright and the pieces therefore much like children's toys (and therefore they'd like the expansion pieces better as they are grey and more detailed and will take to being painted much better), whereas a 'family/casual gamer would be happy with player colours being so identifiable - twenty infantry in 5 bright colours (4 each colour) and forty similarly brightly coloured cavalry (8 per side) and 10 grey miniature castle pieces (all sculpted by Anton Angheluta) immediately say you should expect a wargame, the box art reveals the setting is medieval eras.

Unfortunately as you read through the rules you soon discover that these knights are nothing more than elaborate markers - I am guessing that Kickstarter buyers will have seen these evolve from cardboard tokens to plastic knights as one of the stretch goals; they may not do much but they do look good on the board and add some truly bright colours to the historically drabness of medieval Europe. Just to note that the expansion box of 24 grey plastic miniatures are much better sculpted (also by Anton Angheluta) and produced; they are also mostly replacements for Tokens or cards.

  

There are 20 pages of rules which are mainly all text with very few illustrations and about as few examples of play. This is, in our opinion (it was mentioned many times by our players) a game that requires someone who knows how to play it to teach it as the rules are long and not easy to digest, especially on the first read through, though more specific examples would have been helpful. If you don't have someone who already knows this game there are two reasonable suggestions. One is to have your best rules reader spend time reading them and then playing through a solo scenario. The other is to look online (youtube) to find someone who has put up a video of it. In this case I would evade Tom Vasel and the Dice Tower (usually a good review source) and anyone who does what they refer to as an unboxing, because they barely touch on the rules and how to play, they just give a very basic idea of what is supposed to happen, not how it happens. There is a video put out by a group of players including the designer (or the production company - the accents were fairly strong, my hearing isn't 100% and the sound fluctuated) which I seriously suggest you definitely bypass. It is shot from directly above, is out of focus, uses a board that is different from the one that comes with the game and, as mentioned, has poor sound quality. To be honest I am really surprised they put this online.

I found a very good you-tuber by the name of 'Jeff'. He has put his 'How to Play' in several parts, which is great for new players (Crusader kings solitaire rules and playthrough pt1 etc.) the problem with it is that to get through all the videos will take about 3-4 hours to watch. To be able to play our first game we read the rules and watched the videos as we did so, skipping the video forward where necessary. I will stick my neck out and say that someone unfamiiar with the electronic game and also semi-historical tabletop miniatures games will find the rules bemusing, possibly to the point of not being able to play/understand the game even after several read-throughs. We persevered, as noted, and afterwards found CRUSADER KINGS to be a reasonably challenging, often amusing, entertainment, possibly a little too long at times being the main complaint.

  

I have mentioned the Rules being a mite 'heavy' (certainly not the best presented rules book I have enTokened) and this is quantified by there being a three-page (at the moment) FAQ file on Boardgamegeek. The plastic pieces of the game and expansion, are either the good (colourful / grey) or not so good (colourful / bendable) depending on your personal viewpoint. But with the majority of the game's components being of card/cardboard I feel I should also make some comments on this. The board, this is a tri-fold heavy board that shows a map of 12th Century Medieval Europe with the five (game) Realms beautifully designed and delicately tinted in the identification colour of the associated Dynastys. Germanic (Black) Frankish (Blue) English (Red) Italian (Green) and Iberian (Yellow). Also found on Boardgamegeek and well worth printing is a pdf file that is worth opening and printing off. It is a 2-page reference sheet that covers a lot more important information than the reference cards in the game.

    

The Board shown on the Kickstarter page displays a third edge in use where the randomly drawn Culture Character cards are placed. The finished game board doesn't have this section, instead these cards are positioned on empty areas (where there is no Knight) in each Realm. Some of the rules, cards and tokens that are in the box are left overs from the pre-play-test game (such as the titles of the cards and the Pious token) which does suggest that to reach the printing date the publishers had to push through with the game as it was at that point.

The playing cards are of a linen-like card but are also rather thin, so much care is required when using them. Talking of requiring much care, and this happened first hand to me, (I later saw it on a video) the card Tokens and tokens are exceptionally well designed and detailed but unfortunately the majority of the die-cutting has left one small tag which is apt to tear or rip the printed part of the Token, unless you use a craft knife or are extremely careful pushing them out. If you do manage to push them out do not use your fingers to remove the extraneous piece, please use (or get someone capable) a craft knife very carefully.

 

If you have read down this far, and I do hope you have, you may now be of the opinion that I do not like CRUSADER KINGS and I couldn't blame you if you did. I have been fair and truthful but also a mite negative, though hopefully these notes will help you if you read them prior to playing your first game, before opening the box even. In my way of writing I do not see the notes as derisory or destructive, they are meant honestly as constructive and hopefully somewhat useful to you.

CRUSADER KINGS has six 'complete scenarios' on pages 28-34. These are short precis about one of the Crusades and a component setup for each of the Dynastys, including the House card. Each Dynasty, by colour, has their own House card or cards, though in fact only the Frankish have just one House, that being House Capet. Iberia have Jimenez Dynasty and House of Ivrea; English have House of Blois, House of Plantagenet, House of Normandy; Germanic have Habsburg, Hohenstaufen, Salian Dynasty and Italy have Casa D'Altavilla, Anjou, Arpad Dynasty and Casa Canossa. Each House/Dynasty has a different King for each scenario and each King has personal Traits, these being represented by the Trait's description printed on either a Red or a Green Token, each King having two of each. Traits are very important and the random drawing of them is actually the main mechanic of the game. Draw Green for Success, Drawn Red for Failure, unless (there has to be a twist) there is a Critical Trait in which case the Trait identification colouring is reversed.

 

It doesn't matter which King your Dynasty has this is an unusual war game in as much as you can play a full scenario without initiating combat, though if you do it is very difficult [not impossible] to win. As you would expect the Knights of each Dynasty always start in the same realm, though generally in different regions; remember the Knights are just territory markers which becomes confusing when you are considering combat. Thus the setup for each game/scenario is always the same though the regions used may differ.

Each game is broken into three Eras that themselves are split into three Rounds that themselves contain two Turns, hence a game is played over 18 Turns. The Action cards, of which there are over 150, are laid on their spaces on the board in five different stacks; Realm, Intrigue, War, Tax, and Crusade. Players have to draw 8 of these of which only six will be played, 2 per Turn; at least one of which has to be a Crusade card; the different decks each have their own icon, such as crossed shovel and hammer for Build/Develop. These icons come into play when they are found on drawn Trait tokens as they cause the Critical Trait Check. Gold can often be obtained by playing Tax cards, though with unfortunate luck your Tax card draw may, for instance, result in you having to play a Crop-Failure token.

 

Each card has two main parts but actually it has three. The first part is the title. Realm = Build/Develop;  Intrigue = Plot/Overthrow; War = Mobilise/Invade; Tax = Tax and Crusade which actually is named 'Crusade'. To Action this part of the card is optional. The second part of the card, in my view, are the Critical Traits - each type of Action card has the same two Traits, for example all Crusade cards have Kind (green) & Cruel (red) and the War cards for instance do not have the word 'War' in their title, instead it is Mobilise/Invade with critical Traits also of Kind/Cruel. Tax cards do not have Critical Traits.

Underneath these two possibilities is an Event that must be activated; these are different on each card for all Action cards and although you must Action them they sometimes need something else, such as a 'pact' to be in place, before you can. Events are usually good for opponents and not so good for the player, except for Crusade which may favour either.

Dynasties are allowed to make Pacts and Deals among each other although there are certain things noted in the rules that cannot be traded. The majority of trades include Spouses and Gold, Territories and future Military assistance, or even next born heirs are legitimate (even if the next born heir isn't) trades. Deals struck should be kept, but this is Medieval Europe where no-one trusted anyone most of the time. Like the game Diplomacy, if you renege on a deal once you are unlikely to ever get a deal again.

 

There are no dice involved in the game but the drawing of Traits does somewhat resemble the D6 method where you require 'N' number of successes depending on what Action you are attempting. Trait Checks are used to determine just about everything and the way they occur is the drawing of chits/Tokens from your personal draw-string bag. Sometimes you need to draw only one success other checks require multiple successes. You only get one free drawer so you need to spend Gold to get more draws, though there is a limit to what you can spend. Opponents who do not want you to succeed, and have a fair amount of spare Gold can spend it to negate your successes. If you only need one success and you pay - always prior to making the draw - to pull three Tokens from your bag, you will always succeed at first because there will only be 4 Tokens, 2 of each colour, in your bag. Even if one of the Tokens drawn has the icon that matches the Action and thus making it a Critical Trait Check. Drawing 3 Tokens from 4 means you will get one or two Green and/or one or two Red ones. This is written in the rules but perhaps not as clearly as it could have been.

Unlike most territory controlling games CRUSADER KINGS makes it quite difficult to invade and take over an opposing or even an empty (independent) territory. To begin with they need a Casus Belli (an act or situation that provokes or justifies a war) against the controlling Dynasty. You must also have an Army mobilised (an Army means one to four Infantry in adjacent Territories, note 'Infantry' not Knights) and make a successful Trait Check. However the defender can force the necessity of more than one success by having a Castle in the target Territory, and/or a Foot Soldier in the target Territory, there is a Duke or Duchess in charge of the Territory (ie it is a Duchy) plus there are other modifiers from Action cards etc. Kings and Queens may grant (or revoke) Duke or Duchess status to their Siblings and Children, thus strengthening the Territory that Noble occupies, without a Trait check.

The longer the game goes on the harder and often more bloody it can become. Any character, including reigning Monarchs, may be assassinated, Councillors can be bribed, Kings can divorce Queens (one assumes that Queens can divorce husbands as in Medieval times a reigning Queen did not give over her reign to the man she married, except to another King - in CRUSADER KINGS ruling Kings and ruling Queens may not marry). Territories can be invaded but the attacking invader only has one chance per Turn to invade and pillage, though an unsuccessful invasion may well cause a counterattack. It's a lot harder than in almost every other war game I have played - in fact I am wracking my brains to think of one where invasion into just one territory is harder. This is probably realistic, certainly more realistic than in games where one side takes the territory and the opposition take it back on their Turn, with ease, although a failed invasion could invoke a retaliating Token attack if the correct pieces are in place in the target territory.

 

Being the Medieval period Kings and Queens and their families will, if they are lucky, age and then die. More likely they will die on a Crusade, but if not they will die after receiving their fifth Age Token. As it is mandatory to go on a Crusade every Turn it is imperative that you have at least one male heir that you can send instead of the King, thus reiterating the reason not to go on a Crusade on your first turn. Should the King be your only male he has to go and with him goes your chance of winning. If instead of a King your Dynasty is ruled by a Queen then, with no male heirs, she would have to go, however if your King had a Queen when he went to the Crusades and died, she does not take over the reign. We have, on a couple of occasions, gone against the rules and allowed the Queen (spouse) to take over just to keep the player in the game. If the King dies with no heir then a Succession Crisis is triggered and the player's Dynasty is almost obliterated. They lose half their Gold, rounded up, and half, also rounded up, of their Territories, losing Knights and Infantry from them. Coming back from this against established players is as near to impossible in a game as you are likely to get. 

A successful Crusade has the player placing one of their Dynasty Shields on the Crusade Track heading towards the Kingdom of Jerusalem, this final space on the track being one of the two game-ending possibilities, the three Eras being fully completed being the other. Each space on the Crusades Track gives the Dynasty a Bonus which is accumulative with your other Shields bonuses already on the track. The journey to Jerusalem offers somewhat random bonuses to players as only one Shield is allowed per space and no player may have more than 4 Shields on the Track, and because as you must place a Shield on the lowest unoccupied space on the Track when you are successful on a Crusade you cannot choose the bonus you want. This does offer a small chance for a bluff-type tactic where you keep the other players guessing as to when you play your Crusade card for the Era. Only one Crusade card is played by each player each Era unless they have the Archbishop Development card, thus having 4 Dynasty Shields on the Track isn't an easy task.

As marriage is also of a major importance in this game the designer has added a little light-hearted humour by including the [optional] Glitterhoof card. This is a horse made famous in the second edition of the computer game and is eligible to be a spouse for either a King or a Queen. Royalty who marry Glitterhoof cannot have children and neither can Glitterhoof lead a Crusade (even using our rules-bending-family-friendly-playing - we have to draw the line somewhere). Glitterhoof's saving factor is that it's (Glitterhoof can marry a Male or Female heir) Trait is always Green.

You can offer marriage to a player's heir or even King you only have to ask that player and receive an answer in the affirmative. This is a quick way to end any conflict or possible conflict between the two Dynasties. You can marry or attempt (Trait test) to marry one of the eligible characters on the board (as a card), one of the heirs to an opponent's throne, the King/Queen themselves (without a spouse) or randomly from an opponent's stack of characters. Characters that are face up on the board or on a player's personal board (exception King/Queen and spouse) will already have a random Trait allocated and visible on them. Characters from the Trait decks are allocated a Trait when they are brought into play.

 

When a character is married their Trait is placed in the bag of their owner. This, and the way the Traits are used, puts CRUSADER KINGS in the deck-building genre, sort of! (Bag-Building just doesn't sound right). When you are drawing Trait Tokens to succeed at an Action if said Action requires more than one success then the Tokens drawn remain out of the bag until the final draw has been made. There are different ways you can change the result you get in the draw, one being mentioned already 'critical' and another is that you can 'sacrifice' the drawn token to switch its result. This can be a good way of getting rid of a Red Token that isn't likely to be affected by a 'critical Trait' card but you may also choose to lose a Green Token to get a good result now but lower your chances of success for later draws. The whole Trait drawing mechanic negates the use of any numerical random determinator device, ie dice, and gives the player a greater euphoric feeling when successful than simply rolling a die or drawing a card from a deck. 

  

Slipping back to marriage for a moment, Kings and Queens need spouses to produce natural heirs to their thrones and to add Tokens to their pool, therefore when a monarch gets married the Trait on the spouse is placed in the player's bag. When children are born they are given random Traits which they take with them wherever they go (unless they die). Monarchs may only have three children and no matter in which order they come along it follows Medieval times as it is the first born (eldest) male who will be the first heir. Monarchs may begin with siblings and/or children, given to them by the scenario otherwise they have children who are moved along the lineage into the Monarch and siblings slots when the King or Queen dies. If the King dies or divorces his spouse retires, but as far as we understand, a ruling Queen cannot marry a ruling King from another Dynasty, but if a ruling Queen marries a sibling or child from another Dynasty I cannot find (under Marry) what is supposed to happen. The sibling cannot be the new King logically and so we have played that she continues to reign until she dies and then her 'escort' becomes King. This may not be correct but we are once again back to the clarity of the rules book (or its non-clarity).

 

I have already pointed out that Marriage and Children are a great, a major, part of CRUSADER KINGS, there is no getting away from the fact that you need to sire offspring and have a long-living healthy King - Kings can die of old age as well as on a Crusade so always ensure you have someone to move up. The rules require that at the start of each era you must take 8 cards from the piles of Action cards where you are allowed to take 1 or 2 Crusade cards. In the beginning you should always take two Crusade cards because you must play one Crusade card every era (ie one of the 6 cards you play from the 8 chosen has to be a Crusade card) and by choosing 2 cards it gives you a better chance of obtaining a card that is good for you. You usually do not begin with a lot of money so take Tax cards to gain the Gold and then spend some of it to ensure a Trait Check success, at first do save some Gold to ensure a successful Crusade. Of course a Tax card may deliver a new baby to the next player or the next player continuing round the table should no one have space to take another child, so we naturally assume it is possible for it to come back to you and therefore by trying to give a child to another player you may end up with it yourself.

Babies born are delivered as children and from the moment they are placed on the player's board/s they are given their Trait and they are immediately available to marry, were Medieval Times really like that? I thought to myself, and then I remembered the number of kids who were put on the Throne due to their family dying around them (is that actual History or am I remembering the plot of too many Disney movies?).

 

As previously mentioned, invasion of an opposing player's Territories is fairly difficult even though gaining Territories is the main way to get Victory Points. A reasonably good tactic is putting Gold into 'guaranteeing' Trait Draw successes and [sabotage] opposing player Trait Draw failures. Players also get VPs by earning Achievements, of which there are four. Once you have an Achievement you can lose it by falling below the requirements needed to achieve it in the first place.
Crusader: First to have two Dynasty Shields on the Crusade Track
Builder: First to have three Castles and control the Territories they are in.
Inventor: First to have four Development cards active 
King of Jerusalem: Reaching the 10th space on the Crusade Track ends the game - total VPs decide the winning player.

 

How do I explain CRUSADER KINGS to new players who are used to War-games or Euro games etc?
Well, there are lots of objectives to aim at, but not always enough time to reach the goals you set yourself, plus there are possibly too many distrActions.
It looks like it should be a war-game, but it isn't.
From the components it could be a miniatures game, but it isn't, and because of the slow and difficult process of gaining Territories it isn't really a World take-over game either.
It uses Historical Dynasties but with no truly historical theme, except to be Medieval-ish.
It breaks with logic when it wants to.
It forces players to have little choice by making them play 6 of 8 cards and even then controls the type and number of cards they can play.
There are a lot of components but the game revolves around one basic mechanic where luck can play a big part.

 

It is quite an expensive game in comparison to many others that include miniatures, and apart from the grey figures in the expansion set the minis in the game are a) not particularly good (spears and other parts are floppy and bendy) b) and the majority are redundant to the game as far as being of actual specific use by type - they look like Knights but they are Territory control markers, nothing more. 

You can play CRUSADER KINGS solo or with just one other player but in either case you will also meet Artificial Intelligence controlled Dynasties. Unfortunately there are times when the AI doesn't work and you have to [I quote] "do as well as you can for the AI". You can even play cooperative games with 2, 3 or 4 human players against one or more AI Dynasties; I have played a couple of solo games but so far no multi-player cooperative games, mainly because my friends and family enjoy picking on me and the word 'cooperative' isn't in their dictionary if left to option.

The thing is though that the designer and publishers believe there is a game here worthy of them putting up a fair amount of money to get copies made and Kickstarted. Because they have faith in it I continue to play it and although some of my players are no longer keen for it to be one of our regular session games I personally do not think it is a bad game. Using a well worn analogy, which I now dislike doing, it truly is a 'Marmite' game; there is no grey area between wanting to play it and never wanting to play it again. I am not a great fan of board games as solo games - I have a computer full of games I can play on my own - but I am leaning more and more to this being a solo or a two-player game (even with having to fudge it occasionally). 

As I occasionally like to add house-rules to games, generally when my friends and family players dislike something in a game so much thet we find a way round it, so I am trying to come up with a reasonable alternative to having to use six of the eight cards dealt each Turn as this feels like I am being manipulated rather than being the one doing the manipulating. If, for instance, I could pay a Gold to not Action the Event on a card or if I received a Gold for not playing a card in a Turn (ie discard 2 cards gain 1 Gold) I don't know. I haven't tried these ideas, they are just bouncing around in my brain and coming out through my fingers as I type. They may be complete trash or there might be a workable idea here, but even though I like the game I maybe feel it needs to loosen it's controlling grip a little.

© Chris Baylis 2011-2015