I had the opportunity to play this fairly new Ragnar Brothers release a few weekends back while visiting my good friend Mark Jackson in Nashville. I enjoyed the game so much, that I immediately ordered a copy. I knew that our group would enjoy it, as it bears similarities to another Ragnar Brothers title, History of the World, as well as Avalon Hill's Britannia. The four British kings were Willerd, Steven, Keith and myself.
The game loosely (very loosely) recreates the militaristic history of England from William I through Richard III. OK ... perhaps it doesn't recreate anything, but it does use the time period and territory to tie-in a theme. It is no where near as historically close as Britannia or even History of the World, but at least there is a thematic element. This shouldn't be an obstacle unless you are looking for something which accurately portrays this historical time period. If you are, then don't give this game a second look. If, however, you are simply looking for an intriguing, challenging and decidedly different game to add to your repertoire, then give this one a closer look.
The components are typical of the Ragnar Brothers releases, cloth map; basic, rather bland counters and simple, yet efficient player aid cards. I did laminate the player aid cards in order to prevent wear and tear. The rule book is very clear with only one or two ambiguities. My main complain is the color scheme on the tokens. The player colors are green, blue, purple and a rather reddish-pinkish color. The enemy tokens are black, while the mercenaries are pink. This causes two problems. First, the pink mercenaries look almost identical to the reddish-pinkish player tokens. Second, the black and purple colors are also very similar; Willerd had constant problems with this latter color scheme throughout the entire game. Why in the world aren't these types of things noticed during playtesting? It would have been SO easy to use other color combinations to avoid such confusion. Oh, well ...
The game itself has some very interesting mechanics and twists which take awhile for players to adjust to:
1) Turn order. A full game involves 24 turns, with each player having 6 turns (in a 4 player game). Before the game begins, players alternate placing their markers onto the turn order chart, thereby indicating which turns they will be active. The only restriction is that no player can move twice in a row. Thus, a player has the option of spreading out his turns over the course of the game, or bulking them relatively close together at a certain point during the game. When one adds the further consideration that only certain 'kings' will have access to invasions of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France, this choice of when to play is critical. Unfortunately, after two games, I still don't have a firm grasp on optimum strategies during this placement phase. It seems that experienced players may well have an edge in this department, so advice to new players should be given in order to avoid an unfair advantage.
2) Players also use troops of their opponents. This flies in the face of conventional game design and mechanics. Each turn, in addition to his own tokens, a player's force pool consists of tokens from most, if not all, of your opponents, as well as mercenaries and enemy forces. The mix is determined mostly at random, as tokens are grabbed from a common pool (a handy cloth bag is conveniently provided). At the conclusion of a turn, a player may move tokens from his own forces into the 'array', but the number of friendly troops available is limited to an initial supply of 12 tokens. Most players opt to spread these forces out over the course of their six turns. Since a player's 'array' consists of 10 forces, the bulk on any one turn will be determined randomly.
The challenge is to use the forces of your opponents to clear the way for your own forces so that you may personally seize and control the more valuable territories. Although you are forced to utilize your opponent's forces, ultimately you wish to leave as few of them on the map as possible. A common tactic is to use their forces to defeat enemy tokens in a region, then have the enemy counter-attack and eliminate your opponent's tokens. The ability to accomplish this, however, is predicated on the counter mix available in your array.
Although this aspect of the game is radically different and presents unique challenges, it can also prove troublesome. The random nature of the drawing of tokens each turn does present the possibility that a player may be unlucky in the draw and have few of his own tokens at his disposal during the course of the game. Odds probably should equal out over the course of a 24 turn game, but it is possible that a player may be put at a strong disadvantage. I guess the ultimate challenge is to best utilize the forces you have at your disposal, no matter what the fates lay in your lap.
3) Attacking. This aspect of the game takes awhile ... quite awhile ... to get your brain wrapped around. There are several preconditions which dictate where and how you can attack:
a) Enemy present. If a country has ANY regions occupied by enemy forces, players MUST attack these common enemy before attacking each other. Any player may use ANY territory within that country as the launching pad for such an assault, provided the territory is not occupied by the enemy. Thus, you can actually begin your assault from a territory occupied by an opponent! You see, all players are allies in ousting the despicable enemy.
This rule can be used to a player's advantage as a player can expand his holdings in a country, yet leave one or two territories occupied by enemy forces. This forces that player's opponents to oust the enemy before turning their attentions to the player.
b) Enemy NOT present. When enemy are NOT present in a country, players are free to attack each other. However, if you desire to use your own forces in an attack, such attacks must be launched from an adjacent territory you currently control. If you do not control any territories in that country, you must first land at the country's port and battle for that territory. Then, you are free to continue your assaults from there. If you are using an opponent's armies to attack, the attack must come from a territory controlled by that player. Otherwise, the port must first be assaulted as described above.
If you desire to use enemy tokens in the attack, they spring up in rebellion in the territory marked with a banner and expand from there.
c) Where one can attack. Each turn, the active player represents the king for that time period. The turn order chart lists the country that the active player, if he opts to attack, MUST use his own troops (known as 'royal' troops). He cannot use these 'royal' troops in campaigns in any other country on that turn. However, he is free to use any of his other forces in either the country listed OR in ONE and ONLY ONE other country. These restrictions make the initial decisions on when to take your turns vital ones.
4) Taxing. Although a player has six turns, he can only opt to 'score' and take victory points on three of those turns. Which three is left to the player's discretion. Players score 1, 2 or 3 points per territory, dependent upon the actual territory they occupy. When a player opts to 'tax', he scores double for his territories, but every other player also scores for the territories they occupy. Again, the decision on when to tax is a key one. Often, it may appear advantageous for a player to tax, but the result would also give one or more opponents a substantial amount of points. I try to tax only when the victory point spread between me and my opponents is considerable.
As you can well guess, keeping these rules and restrictions straight is not an easy task. Confusion is quite common, and one must keep a careful eye that everyone is adhering to these rules.
Attacking itself is quite easy, with no dice being rolled or charts consulted. Players must simply place more forces into an area than their opponent. Combat is resolved by removing ALL tokens, enemy and friendly, except the strongest friendly troop. Since troops come in three basic strengths ... archers (1), men at arms (2) and knights (3) ... deciding how best to utilize these troops for expansion, together with any mercenaries you have at your disposal ... is a vital key to your ultimate success or failure.
As mentioned, the game lasts 24 turns, with each player having six turns. Turns are usually relatively quick and an entire game clocks in between 2 - 3 hours. This is much faster than a typical game of Britannia or History of the World and seems to settle in between the two in terms of strategy. There is a lot to think about in this game, with many key decisions to be made throughout. Admittedly, the unique mechanics make it a bit more difficult to grasp, but the effort is well worthwhile. It's a shame that the old Avalon Hill is not around any longer as this one would have fit extremely well in its repertoire.
In my first game a few weeks back, I had placed the majority of my 'turn order' tokens in the first half of the game. I shot way ahead on victory points, but my opponents conspired to eliminate most of my forces from the map during the final half of the game. Thus, my lead eventually evaporated and victory was not to be mine. Keith followed a similar tactic in this game and seemed destined to suffer the same fate.
However, being discounted was to be his saving grace. Steven, Willerd and I were all in positions of strength and had several scoring opportunities remaining. Thus, we each exerted great efforts in eliminating each other's troops and ignoring Keith. Suddenly, as the game began to approach its conclusion, we all realized that Keith, although having no 'tax' opportunities remaining, was still gaining a steady supply of victory points on each of our taxations. We did manage to eliminate several of his troops during the final few turns, but it wasn't enough to overcome his lead. Another interesting fact is that Keith did not control the valuable city of London during most of the game, so that city is not essential to victory.
Turn 12 (midway point): Steven 43, Keith 42, Willerd 32, Greg 28
Finals: Keith 129, Greg 115, Willerd 115, Steven 98
Ratings: Steven 8.5, Keith 8, Greg 8, Willerd 7