I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of Crusader Kings the Board Game and during a weekend with my friends I decided to bust it out. Why you may ask? Because I was with my friends but more importantly I had one of the most informed people on tabletop RPGing in my household and I needed his thoughts on it. After all I play board games but this guy has turned it into a fine science. So he was kind enough to do a write up on his thoughts and initial impressions of the game. Check it out and let us know what you think.
We have our initial analysis. We had 4 first-time players, we played a single game, with Scenario 1, there were several scenarios available to us but we thought to go with the first.
The game has a solid design quality. The plastic miniatures are well detailed. The trait bags are of good quality. The map is very clear to read. The dynasties are obviously representing a source material that should be very recognisable to those that have played the PC game. The different sections of the board for card pools are clear and make for a clean setup.
The rules are methodically laid out for setting up the game but feel overly complex. The structure of the game is based on nested loops: 3 Eras, each containing 3 Rounds, each containing 2 Turns. This will feel quite familiar to people who have played games like Nations or 7 Wonders. Unlike those games however there is no progression or scoring with the changing Eras, so the game is ultimately just 18 Turns with a number of periodic clean-up and setup phases.
The individual player rules cards are vital for working your way through the process but there is little to distinguish where in the overarching structure you currently are, with no Era/Round/Turn marker on the board and we often found ourselves accidentally skipping phases and having to rewind to catch a missed Dynasty phase.
The first playthrough of the game was messy with numerous actions being taken without full comprehension of their effect. The rulebook was passed around like a hot potato and was not always exactly clear about how play should progress. While it does look like this game has been playtested, some work could still be done on clarifying the rulebook.
The majority of the game is spent taking Actions. These include taxing your lands, building castles, mobilizing forces, assassinations, invading territory and sending your family members out on crusades. Each Era the Player forms a hand of 8 Action Cards, choosing 2 cards to play for each of 3 Rounds (playing 6 of the 8 cards before reforming their hand). Each Action Card comes with a consequence however, as Taxation causes uprisings, Mobilizing Troops breaks Pacts, and Queens are popping out children faster than history can track their names.
The flavour of the PC game, and its historical source material is evident throughout these actions and their consequential events. A lot of love and attention has been put into giving the feel of an ever-changing dynasty and the stories that come from it.
The Trait System
Crusader Kings adds more flavour to the mix by assigning random trait tokens to each character in the game. The Kind, Lustful King Robert V, and his Strong Wife Helene have three children Louis the Drunkard, Ugly Cathaline and Pious Henry. These traits are a key element to the humorous narrative that the game helps the players create. “Guillaume the Godless goes on Crusades… unsure of why but successfully claiming victory for his ‘faith’ nonetheless…”
These traits hold another fundamental role in the game though. Positive traits are coloured green, while the negative are red. As dynasties reshuffle and new monarchs ascend their traits join an ever-growing pool of their family’s history and form the games luck element. Most Actions require a draw from this trait pool with success coming through drawing positive traits.
On paper, this is an intriguing (if not completely novel) mechanic that should reward strategy by allowing players to modify their luck. In practice however, the main methods by which the Trait pool is modified are out of the player’s hands (random traits assigned to children or independent spouses and/or cards played by other players). The result is a system where players can play very strategically and yet get repeatedly punished by compounded bad luck earlier in the game.
The Trait system offers further confusion with its use of Critical symbols. Each Action has an associated positive trait and a negative trait that flip from success to fail or vice versa. The Kind trait, for example, is a success in most instances but a fail when going to war, whereas cruelty is usually a negative trait but a success for war. The flavour of this is logical and there has certainly been some thought put into how this can promote certain styles of play for different factions, but it has a jarring effect on the aesthetics and semiotics of the game.
When a player has to choose between two green Traits, modern boardgame design will instinctively draw the player to the one with more Critical symbols as they’ll feel like an added bonus; this is the worse choice for this game. This could have been solved with some intuitive tweaks (e.g. a red X through the symbol on the green tiles, or a green circle around the symbol on the red tiles) that would have made a big difference in the way these are perceived.
War is unsurprisingly a key element of Crusader Kings but we barely scraped the surface of it in our first game. Committing to attacking another player requires three separate Actions: Mobilizing forces, Declaring Cassus Belli, and Invading. Three actions are 1/6 of the game which may be wasted with a single dud draw from the Trait bag, so the economic cost of a lost fight is a steep barrier of entry.
Comparatively the cost of annexing independent nations was much lower (2 actions, no-fail chance) so most players opted for the cheaper safer option. This was a mistake it seems (see End Game below).
Cassus Belli was another instance of a hole in the rulebook. It appears to be a crux to the PVP combat and yet is only mentioned in sections without getting a distinct section on its own. It was unclear whether the three inter-Dynasty attitudes (Pacts, Cassu-Belli, War) were always two-way, and there are a few too many instances of actions modifying these attitudes without reminders on cards or the player rule cards. Ultimately there is a lot of complication here that probably needs to be better laid out or simplified. Being aware of all of these circumstances may have helped promote PVP combat, but for beginners, they often just added confusion.
In similar fashion to the symbolism issues on the trait tokens, the primary miniatures for the game are knight models that stand proudly on each of a player’s territories. These miniatures have no other function in the game and are not used for PVP or Crusading. Instead, less impressive infantrymen are used for attacking. This choice may be reflective of the PC game in some way but is a touch disappointing for board game symbolism.
The End Game
The game claims to be a 3-hour game and we’d usually add about half the time again for the first play. After four hours we had finished just two Eras (of three) and decided to call it a day. The game was not progressing much faster than when we started, the turn sequence had drained us and grown tiring. We progressed to an early scoring (an option which is offered in the rulebook).
In stark comparison to the complexity of the game, the scoring is overly simplified. So simplified in fact that it brings into question a lot of the gameplay mechanics. Points are scored for territory ownership and being the first to achieve specific achievements.
In terms of the final scoring, the game’s action economy is highly questionable. The first player can spend 6 gold on the first turn to buy three development cards and get a point (1 action, no roll, 1 point). The first player to crusade twice gets a point (2 actions, 2 rolls, 1 point). The first player to build 3 castles gets a point (3 build, 2-3 taxations, 3 rolls, 1 point). All other points are claimed through Invading territory which takes 2-3 actions. The vast majority of actions taken do not score points and are spent modifying board states for little overall gain.
The game feels torn between focusing the player on 1) Crusading, 2) Juggling Flavourful Dynasties, 3) Managing the Primary Loop, and 4) Invading each other that it doesn’t actually do any of these very well.
The smallest of niggles in comparison to everything above, but if you’re going to provide five sheets of punch-out tokens, please include some baggies in the box to store them in. This is slowly being adopted by the board games industry and needs to be drilled into companies more. If a player can’t easily separate tokens when they come to replay a game they’re less likely to replay it, and therefore less likely to want to buy expansions, sequels, etc.
For fans of the Crusader Kings series, there are probably a lot of references in this box that will mean a lot to them. The game mechanics feel like they’re emulating a computer game, unfortunately to the detriment of itself. While it’s far from the worst of its genre, it doesn’t particularly stand out either. If you’re not playing this for its Crusader King’s nostalgia you’d probably be better off with a game with more grounded mechanics. (Scythe, El Grande, Nations, etc.)
Room for Improvement
- Rulebook updates to fill holes, and overall improvement of clarity
- Scoring for more than just territories, and/or more frequent scoring to push players to PVP more
- New Action cards for each Era to help track Eras, and to help bring people who are behind back into the game. (there’s nothing worse than losing a 4-hour game 20 minutes in)
Stay tuned to GamEir. Also, if you’re interested, converse with us on Twitter (@gam_eir), Facebook (@GamEir), and Instagram (@GamEir). Check out our videos on Twitch (GamEir) and YouTube (GamEir) and we’ll give you all the latest content.