omnis vestra substructio est serva nobis
Expansions that add an additional board face a pretty big challenge: adding the right balance of risk and reward to justify venturing off the main board (which already has enough paths to victory to make a complete game).
If the risks are high, or the rewards are light, players will skip the expansion altogether.
The Crusades expansion to Fief goes big on reward to avoid this problem, then tries to make players pay for them in blood.
But let's take a step back.
Mechanically, the Crusades expansion offers an additional board where no less than five (5!) VP titles can be won by Lords who manage invade the Holy Land and get out alive.
Once a crusade has been called by a Cardinal or Pope, it will take place over a two turn cycle. In the first turn, players can send lords and armies to the holy land (abandoning their holdings on the main board) and attack one of a set of challenges equal to total number of Lords on crusade.
The Crusading Lords choose their objectives in rank order, so Kings choose before Dukes, Dukes before Counts, Counts before Barons. Ties in rank go to the Lord with the biggest army. Lords can team up to tackle an objective together, but the ranking Lord divvies up the spoils and battle losses however they see fit. Meaning: teaming up with an opponent will almost never pay off.
Objectives vary from caravan raids (fight a single SP2 Saracen to win 4 Deniers) to conquer Jerusalem (fight a fortified city stocked with seven SP Saracens at SP14).
Now, anyone familiar with the Fief battle rules is probably wondering if I wrote that wrong. "But that would mean," they would say, "A Lord with a massive army would be rolling a single die vs three defense dice."
Yes, that is what that means. And unless you are a Lady with D'arc AND a Secret Passage card, those odds are not going to get better. Besieging is of limited value, as the crusade will end after the following turn - so only a single die of the city's attacker penalty can be offset.
Not that the second turn of the Crusade is any picnic. It is called Saladin's Revenge, and it translates into Saladin and four Knights (SP13) rolling into each objective in the Holy Land - just as each one (in turn) gets reinforced by between 1 and 5 Saracens.
Saladin gathers any Saracen survivors from any objective, plus reinforcements, and attacks one objective after another.
If you're getting the sense that the odds of success in the Holy Land are long, you're halfway there.
There are 12 crusade objectives, only 5 of which offer VPs, and you draw an objective for each Lord on crusade. In a four player game, a good showing on Crusade might have 4 Lords. So, 4 draws out of 12 - you might not draw anything with a VP, but then everything with a VP is a fortified city.
Were you to draw Jerusalem, it would go in the first slot, meaning that if no crusading Lord felt up to it, Saladin would roll in on his revenge round, pick up 14SPs of Saracens AND 10SPs of reinforcements, add them to his 13SPs he already had-
-and then roll into the next objective with a 37SP army.
Which is a long form way of saying the Holy Lands are going to try mightily to wipe your Lords and armies off the map. Lords who are still outside the walls of their objective when Saladin rolls in can choose discretion over valor and leave empty handed (whereupon Saladin will take his horde over to the neighboring objective). A two turn commitment to come home empty handed is one of the happier outcomes.
While your Lords are away, Crusades offers a nice thematic rule that their Fortified Cities are under protection of the church - so Lords who attack them become renegades (essentially excommunicated). This is a nice touch, and could offer a beleaguered Lord a way out of a difficult spot. "Sorry old boy, I've popped off to Crusade, so attack my city at the cost of your mortal soul."
There are rules where (if the knightly Grand Masters are in play) Teutonic or Templar Lords are obligated to go on Crusade, so a cunning Cardinal/Pope could exploit this to send their opponents to face death in the outremer. Thematically, this is interesting - but any player who is adding Templars is unlikely to be surprised by a Templar election AND a call to crusade.
Boil the Crusades expansion down and what do you end up with?
You have a late game option to send your Lords (and your best army/bag of tricks) on a high risk mission to randomly be offered the chance to win:
* an Arab Physician (protection vs plague/assassination)
* between 4 and 20 Deniers
(First choice going to the highest title/best army)
Late game, if the VPs are locked away in unassailable cities, this may be tempting.
But when you add in the possibility that you could send your best Lord & a host of troops and draw only non-VP objectives, you have to question the design. What should be (literally) a Hail Mary tactic for a lagging player, is hamstrung by a mechanic that makes the odds of VP payout even longer if your Lord is going alone. Players who feel they can get their 4th VP on the main board will happily let you go solo into the Holy Land.
The rule where the ranking Lord divides the spoils/casualties feels thematically right, but absolutely guts any hope of teamwork on Crusade. If you don't have a marriage alliance, you will fight alone in the outremer.
I enjoy Fief, and I love the theme - but Crusades is an expansion that has not gotten the mix right for my tastes. High risk for highly uncertain reward is not enough to justify the resources and overhead it takes to add the outremer to the game.
Thanks for writing this up. I haven't played Fief with this expansion yet - but want to soon.
I don't mind one my lord being a renegade if this gives me a new fief title