MEDIEVAL ACADEMY is a wonderfully creative boardgame for 2 -5 players aged 8 years old and upwards. It is designed by Nicolas Poncin and published by French games company BLUE COCKER
As I haven't played any game similar I feel that I can freely say it has a unique mechanic that makes it playable in the family gaming mode with Mum, Dad and Children enjoying a simple 30-40 minutes of boardgame fun and also by discerning strategy boardgames players who want a short but satisfying challenge. It is card driven (the deck are called "learning cards") and thus there is an element of luck involved, but the designer has made a great attempt at keeping this to the minimum by employing the occasionally used mechanic where players are dealt a hand of cards, remove one for themselves, then pass the others on to the next player, placing the kept cards aside and doing this until each player's hand is back to five cards. The timer mechanic (it says a sand timer on the rules booklet but actually it is a scroll-shaped tile marked 1-6 and a counter showing a sand-timer) not only shows what Round is being played - the game is played over just six Rounds - but also which direction the cards are passed each Round, to the left or to the right shown by arrows curling around the Roman numbers.
There is no actual board, instead there are 7 large double-sided tiles - the basic game side has no border, the other sides have a faint white border and different options which are used for the six advanced game variants; there are also rules for an "Advanced game" plus two variations for 2 players. The choice of using large tiles rather than a board opens up so many possibilities to slightly change the game just by mixing up the way the tiles are laid out. This review is mainly about the basic game though as this is the game-play that is most likely to be the deciding factor for potential purchasers. The basic play is also such an enjoyable game that with or without the variants I will happily play Medieval Academy regularly.
So what is it that makes me so enthusiastic about Medieval Academy ? Well let's begin with the box and take it from there. Blue Cocker have decided to put the game in a mid-sized box that makes it more portable and thus more likely to be played in homes, clubs and at conventions. The tiles are colourful, superbly illustrated and do away with having a cumbersome folding board, they can also be positioned on the table randomly, though there is a specific order shown that makes end-of-round scoring easier. However you lay out the Tiles it is imperative to have the Gallantry Tile first as its extra movement awards affect the other Tiles.
Each of the tiles is represented by one of the suits (colour and symbol) on the "learning" cards, with the sword icon representing both the Knight on Foot and the Knight on his Horse. The other cards are the White Rose of Gallantry, the Dragon of Questing , the Crown of the King and the Book of Education. The tiles also have a running track of circles, a scroll that shows the rounds in which the tile is scored, and the rewards available.
A player's turn is simply playing one of their five cards and placing an ID Token in the appropriate position on the running track of the Token represented by the learning card they play; landing on the same space as another Token places your Token on top and in pole position, being the furthest round the track at the end of a scoring round gains you the better advantage reward. A round is completed when all players have played FOUR of the cards from their hand - the fifth card is never played.
The larger scrolls on the top left of the tile show the rounds in which the tile is scored whilst the smaller scroll shows when the Tokens are returned to the base space and the previous scores on that track no longer count. On the right top of the tile is the reward and another clever thing about the game is that these rewards may be positive or negative Victory Points or they may be a means to gaining VPs at a later date. There are many options for players throughout the game but the most important decisions are the choice of cards they keep, the cards they play and the order in which they play them, which can be extremely important as you want to end up either in the lead by being the furthest round the track or by being the top Token on the stack which is furthest round the track. A scoring takes place at the end of every Round for 3 of the Tiles - the two Knight tiles and the Gallantry tile, the Book and the Crown at the end of the 3rd Round and ALL Tiles at the end of the sixth Round. Several of the tiles have an assortment of shields associated with them that count as VPs, mostly positive but some negative. The furthest player marker round the track gets the better reward, but any marker remaining on the start space of the track never gets a positive reward though they do get the highest negative shield for the tile if there is one.
The Gallantry Tile is a good one to win early on as it allows you to move one of your markers (Tokens) 3 spaces on any track, with the second and third places on the track earning 2 and 1 space accordingly. The good thing is, the player who gets the 3 points spends them last so they are given a total view of all the boards prior to scoring and can move the marker that is most advantageous to them. There are no VPs for Gallantry itself but you can gain VPs by moving a marker on a Tile that does give them. The two Knights Tiles both give 3, 2 and 1 positive VPs, the Dragon (Quests) scores 17, 10 and 4 VPs at the end of the game, Charity scores -10 and -5 also at the end of the game, Education has negatives of 3 or 1 VPs every Round and the Kings Service Tile scores either 6 or 12 for all players whose markers reach the 6 or the 12 spaces, scoring only on the 3rd and the 6th Rounds.
MEDIEVAL ACADEMY is a clever, astute, fine game of balance and decision with just a modicum of luck. It works equally well as a regular board-gamer's strategy game or a family game. Unlike many 2-5 player games where there is no excitement for both players. The basic rules for Medieval Academy would allow for 2 players to go through the motions but not really be enough to make the game a good challenge which is why Lancelot has been introduced as a third player. It is obvious that this game isn't just a bunch of mechanics thrown together in the hope they will meld, for the designer and play-testers have done a superb job ensuring that everything about the game from the Sword as player-turn marker, and the reading of the rules to the playing of the last piece and the final scoring not only flows easily but means that the experience of playing is great fun for all. My opinion is that this is definitely a game that should be in every gamer's collection.