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Subject: Ortus Regni: An Anglo-Saxon-themed Experience rss

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John R.
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Note: This review is based on ~80 plays with the computer (Windows) version of Ortus Regni, mostly in two-player matches (of which over two dozen were against human opponents online) but including some three- and four-player games against the AI. I have also played several three-player games using a print-and-play copy.


Ortus Regni is a card game from Jon Sudbury Games in which players take the role of warring Earls during Britain's Anglo-Saxon period (5th - 11th c. CE), though certain elements (formalized jousts, the importance of market towns) are drawn more from the time after the Norman invasion. Each player builds a custom deck of 24 cards (plus a 25th to represent their palace) from a collection of 15 that are limited by the number of cards in the source deck to six of any one type. From this Earl Deck each player strives to establish and maintain a collection of Fiefs that are their power base and to vanquish their opponents by political and/or military means while simultaneously dealing with the depredations of the Viking invaders, who can sometimes be convinced to turn their unwelcome attentions against an enemy if you have sufficient influence over them. When your last Fief is destroyed you are out of the game; alternatively, you perish of old age if your deck runs out and you have been unable to bequeath your Earldom to an heir. The winner is the last surviving player. Game time is usually in the 15-45 minute range, but a two-player game using the software version might take as little as five minutes, while a game of four-plus players with physical decks could take an hour.

The game itself uses 28 different cards that are distinguished solely by the pictures on them (apparently drawn mainly from period paintings or similar sources) and which are distributed among several different decks. Some people have called this an 'affectation', and it certainly does make learning the game more of a challenge, but the designers have clearly opted for a certain 'feel' and it works - the cards give one an impression of playing a game that might actually have existed a thousand years ago. While this will not be everyone's cup of mead, those who appreciate the visual appeal of unique game components, such as ornate chess sets or games like Cathedral, will probably like it. For a more in-depth explanation of the designer's philosophy, see here. Jon Sudbury Games has also published a variety of player mats for several scenarios and variants, which allow you to play the game in different ways.

The physical version of the game is, as far as I know, available only through the publisher and comes in a two-player version for $45 USD (plus shipping) with a pair of two-player expansions ($35 USD each) to bring the maximum number of players up to six. Based on the images on the company's website and comments here on BGG it looks like a well-made product but is unfortunately out of my price range at the present time. The designers have obviously made a conscious decision to market this as a high-quality game - almost an 'experience' - which will unfortunately shut out potential buyers who can't afford to drop a hundred bucks on a single purchase. The lack of text on the cards further risks limiting its appeal, so I don't expect to see it getting significant play at the FLGS. OR will probably remain a niche game.

For those who can't afford the full package and/or don't want to deal with textless cards, a PnP version is available to try out with friends. The main advantage of the PnP version - aside from price, of course - is that the cards have some reminder text on them, which helps a great deal with the learning curve. Unfortunately, the cards in this version are approximately 55 x 80 mm and the best-fitting sleeves I could find were about 56 x 87 (and, sadly, of mediocre quality), meaning I had to trim the tops from almost 500 cards to make a four-player game.

Most accessible is the software version, which displays the default (non-text) cards but allows you to display detailed information about each one by clicking and holding the mouse pointer over the card's image. This is the version with which I'm most familiar and is an excellent adjunct to the physical card game (or on its own) as it permits players to climb the moderately steep learning curve in a shorter time by playing quick matches against an AI. It is available free for Mac and Windows (you can't do much better than that!) from the Ortus Regni website and allows two- or three-player games against computer opponents; for a small fee ($3.99 USD) you can purchase the upgrade and create a profile that opens up a four-player option as well as the opportunity to play online against other humans. A version for iPad should be out in the next month or two. Custom decks can be saved with your profile and accessed from any machine running the software. One can of course purchase the computer version and play it without buying the physical game, and I strongly suspect that this modality will be the one that attracts the most users.


General game play

Each player in Ortus Regni begins with a hand of five cards. During their turn, a player performs a single action (usually, but not always, involving the play of a card) and any number of free actions before ending by drawing one card from their Earl Deck. When all players have completed their turns, and if certain conditions are met, a chit is drawn from a bag representing the influence each player has with the Vikings and the winner decides who the Norsemen will attack. A timing mechanism determines exactly when the Vikings enter the game; combat among Earls delays them while currying influence with them hastens their arrival, but without modifications to their behaviour they will first arrive at the end of the eighth turn.

The cards in one's Earl Deck are divided into Properties (land), Face cards (people) and Political cards (mainly actions/events). Typical actions involve establishing a new Fief by laying down a Castle or Palace card, adding Properties (Land, Market Town, Church or Cathedral) to an existing Fief, installing a Lord (a Prince, Vassal, Monk or Champion face card) in a Fief, summoning a Mercenary army, recruiting Knights or Infantry from the Army Card Deck (if you have the Lands to support them), sending an emissary (Monk or Vassal) to the Vikings, playing a political card (Treachery, Intrigue, Banquet, Banner) or attacking another player. Free actions include placing Towers for defensive purposes by playing one or more cards face down or moving army cards from one's Army Card Pool to the garrisons associated with the Mercenary or King cards.

Combat involves fielding a number of Lords and/or Army Cards against an opponent; Lands are required to support Army Cards in a battle unless they are part of the garrisons attached to Mercenaries or the King. Targets may be an opponent's Towers, the properties attached to a Fief (a Raid), or the Fief itself (the Castle or Palace; a Siege). Each attacking unit does either 0, 1 or 2 damage; each defending unit and each Tower absorbs 1 point of incoming damage each (though the Towers are destroyed only if the attack targets them directly). In a Raid or Siege, any remaining damage is applied to the Properties or the Fief itself - the former can take 1 damage each, the latter can take 2 (Castle) or 3 (Palace) before being destroyed. In most cases, Lords return to their home Fiefs at the end of the battle even if they have taken damage, whereas Armies and Mercenaries are destroyed when they take a hit. To determine the outcome of each engagement, a card is drawn from the Battle Deck - there is a small chance that the attacker or defender may achieve a one-sided victory (1/8 each), in which case Lords on the other side may be captured and must be ransomed by paying Properties to the victor or else they are killed (the Vikings never take captives). Occasionally the Church (the player with the Cathedral or the most Churches in play) gets to decide who wins (also 1/8 chance). In Raids and Sieges, an attacker with Prince or Vassal Lords on the field may capture up to two destroyed Properties as spoils of war, which are added to their own Fiefs.

Another form of combat is the Joust. By playing a Banner card, a player announces their intention to hold a tourney, and other players may either refuse to participate by playing a Banner card of their own, or they may pledge an entire Fief as a prize and possibly send a Prince, Vassal or Champion to tilt in the lists. The Joust is resolved by drawing two cards from the Joust deck to go with each Lord, and the winner is the Earl with the highest hand. Joust cards are either Princes, Vassals or 'No Luck' cards; Champions are wild and Princes are worth more than Vassals. The losing lords are discarded and the winner claims the offered Fiefs.

Banner cards can also be used to claim the King card, which has an attached garrison equal to the number of players minus one, to which all players other than the King must contribute one unit if they can upon his ascension to the throne. The King is killed only if the owning Earl is removed from the game.

Additionally, Treachery or Intrigue cards can be used to weaken an enemy or strengthen yourself at another's expense. The Intrigue card allows you to steal a Mercenary (and any accompanying garrison), up to two cards from an opponent's Army Card pool, or as many as two Properties attached to a single Fief. The Treachery card, on the other hand, forces an opponent to discard two cards from their hand or assassinates a Mercenary or a Lord; if the slain Lord is not a Prince, their Fief is lost as well. Treachery and Intrigue can be blocked by playing an Allies card, after which players may also contribute Vassals to the dispute - if the attacker plays more Vassals than the defender, the attacker wins and their manoeuvre is successful.

Finally, one can bequeath one's Earldom to an heir by playing a Banner card on a Prince Lord - both are discarded and all discards are reshuffled into one's Earl Deck. If one player has the Cathedral, no other player can bequeath unless they have a Church in a Fief. Only one Cathedral may be in play at any one time.


A few comments on strategy

This is a deck design game so one's success is based, at least in part, on the ability to combine different cards in combinations that will defeat other players. The Quick Reference Guide suggests several basic combinations - Lands and Armies, Lords, Politics, and Church & Emissary decks.

One potentially weak point of the game appears to be that, in my experience (at least thus far), certain deck designs (especially those that are heavily weighted toward Politics) can be very difficult to defeat without another of the same or similar type. It is therefore possible to be badly steamrollered if you and your opponent choose significantly different strategies. In a two-player game this can be critical, but with more participants the game takes on a different tone and players with particularly nasty decks might find themselves targeted early on as a 'first strike' strategy (i.e. 'get them before they get you'). Still, the deck design mechanic hasn't stopped Magic: The Gathering from being a major success, and at least in OR your opponent doesn't have any cards that you don't either.

One BGG commenter mentioned losing on the second or third turn, which can happen, but a simple solution is to adopt a suggestion made by the OR designers that no combat or Treachery/Intrigue be permitted during the first two turns. And while it is possible in a multi-player game to kill off an opponent early, one often wants to keep one's enemies relatively equal in strength (but weaker than oneself, naturally!) in hopes that they will direct at least some of their hostility toward each other (divide and conquer).

Influence with the Vikings can be particularly useful by directing them to attack other players' Towers, leaving them vulnerable to follow-up attacks by oneself or other players. In larger games the Vikings attack less often but with larger forces, so turtling, sending multiple emissaries or establishing multiple Fiefs and keeping large Army reserves are all valid strategies in this case.

Several of the people with whom I've played the PnP version were concerned about the 'randomness' in the Combat and Joust decks - they felt that the Attacker/Defender Wins options in the former and the 'poker hand' mechanic of the latter led to implausible defeats of strong opponents by weak forces, making the game 'swingy'. I acknowledge that this is true to a degree, and that those who prefer euro games may not enjoy this aspect of the game, but it can be addressed to some extent with good deck design and cautious play. History has in many cases turned on the outcome of single battles that most people would have thought were foregone conclusions and the chance of losing a battle in which you have the upper hand or surviving 'against all odds' doesn't personally put me off. A 'Defender Wins' battle result at the right time can really save your ass, often by preserving your army at a critical moment and allowing you to turn the tide of the game over the next couple of turns. I'd also point out that a Defender Wins result by one feeble Infantry against your eight attacking Knights will only cost you one Knight and leave the remainder of your Army free to fight again the next day, so it doesn't necessarily amount to total destruction (that said, Attacker or Defender Wins when both forces are large can be a major disaster). Counting the combat cards, building Churches or a Cathedral, establishing several small 'throw-away' Fiefs to ante in Jousts (aka not putting all your eggs in one basket), and having a decent number of Princes, Champions and Banners in one's deck can all be used to mitigate and even take advantage of the game's random aspect.


Evaluation

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I currently have only the software (with the upgrade for online play) and a print-and-play version that has so far seen only three plays. I have not seen a physical copy of the game but the website photos (and several comments made here on BGG) suggest that it is quite impressive - if you can afford it. Under these circumstances I obviously can't evaluate the components of the actual game, and attempting to do so for the print-and-play version would be unfair. For those who don't enjoy textless cards the training decks are available in the physical package or the print-and-play.

I have, however, played the software version extensively and it in particular goes a long way toward enhancing the learning experience. It is well worth playing on its own and the basic package is FREE on Mac and Windows platforms. I understand that the company is planning further changes and additions to the software to enhance online play, but it is a complete and polished product as it stands and obviously not something that has been rushed into production. If quick two- or three-player bouts against an AI are all you want, or as an arena in which to learn and practice the game, this is an excellent option and one that I highly recommended for anyone interested in (or even curious about) Ortus Regni. The upgrade is inexpensive and worth it for the online play but also because the dynamics of the game are rather different with more players and so it offers additional challenges and experiences. In some respects the software version is even better than the physical game because it plays more quickly - you don't have to deal with drawing cards and moving them around on the table and the computer calculates most of the damage allocation as well.

The rules and quick reference guide (both available in PDF format on the web site and in print form in the physical copy of the game) are fairly well-written, if a bit long, and some of the nuances may escape you on the first few read-throughs. It is sometimes difficult to find specific details in the documents when you need to and the diagrams can be difficult to grasp, especially when you haven't yet memorized the cards. One of the reasons I didn't back the Kickstarter (again, aside from price) was that I couldn't get a good sense of how the game would actually play just from reading the rules, but the release of the software version allowed me to jump in and learn while playing. I recommend reading the rules thoroughly, followed by the Quick Reference Guide, then playing a few dozen games against the Easy computer AI with several different decks. Then you can bump up the difficulty level and prepare to get smashed. Games with three and four players substantially moderate the effects of imbalance between different decks.

The theme and the 'feel' of the game are very strong and the gameplay itself is good overall. OR offers an interesting blend of mechanics and strategies and a range of options on most turns, though at times you can do little but wait and hope for a lucky break in the card draws (a problem that is inherent in most deck-based games by their very nature). The Vikings offer an interesting catch-up mechanism if they happen to turn their attention to your enemy at a critical juncture, and bequeathing offers another path to victory if you can stay alive long enough to have your opponents succumb to old age.

Some people will definitely be turned off by the random aspects of the game, and this is a legitimate point - if you consider a 1/8 chance of losing a combat in which you massively outnumber your opponent to be intolerable, you will not be happy with this game. The decks in play set the general tone, and some are stronger than others, but in the end the Fates are the ultimate arbiters of victory. Trying your best to survive through a bad situation and hoping that Divine Providence will finally smile on you adds to rather than subtracts from the tension the game creates and meshes well thematically with the importance of the Church in medieval society. Normal battles in OR are generally quite deterministic, but history often turns on critical points, and in my opinion Ortus Regni's mechanics usually do a wonderful job of striking a balance between luck and planning.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


--------------------

Theme: 10/10

Components
* physical game: N/A (unable to evaluate)
* content & clarity of rules/guides: 6/10
* software: 8/10

Gameplay: 8/10
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