It's debatable whether CDG's make good solitaire games. Some are wholly unsuited for it, and those in which the unpredictable and unseeable plans of the opponent are essential are just a plain bore for solitaire. A few, however, rise above and are capable of creating extremely satisfying solo experiences. I've found Kingdom of Heaven to be one such game. Sometimes it's not balanced, sometimes it's not fair, but every time it delivers such an interesting narrative uncannily similar to the actual messy campaigns of the period. For this, I chose the First Crusade, which is a fairly straightforward scenario in many respects, and I hope to show potential new players some of the fun aspects of the game.
For the uninitiated: Kingdom of Heaven: The Crusader States 1097-1291 is a card-driven game (CDG) with point-to-point movement modeling the Crusades period through a series of scenarios. One player is the pro-Christian faction and the other is the pro-Muslim faction. Taking a realpolitik view of the situation, this doesn't mean that all Christian factions will always be on the Christian side nor that all Muslim factions will also be on the Muslim side. The game has a fun diplomacy system that models the fickleness of loyalties. For instance Byzantium is as often a foe to the crusaders as they are an ally. Cards have an operations value used to move commanders and troops, they have an event that can be played instead of the operation points, and they also each have a siege event that benefits either the attacker or the defender in a siege. Oh yes, sieges. They're a big deal. Storming the castle Inigo Monotoya style is not something you generally do in this game. Rather, there's a whole sub-game of trying to gain the advantage in a siege, starving out defenders, sallying against attackers and generally trying to either wear down your opponent before any direct wall-scaling heroics can be considered. It's awesome.
Today's main course is scenario A: The First Crusade.
Game setup was fairly simple. The Seljuks control most of the Levant, save a few Byzantine strongholds and a patch of Armenia. The Fatimids rule in Egypt and start out inactive. And then we got the crusader, gathered in an enormous doomstack in Constantinople and poised to cross Asia Minor.
So what's it all about? Victory conditions for the first crusade are fairly intuitive. The crusaders want the important stuff (Acre, Antioch, Jerusalem, etc.), and the Muslims want to keep them from getting it. Easy peasy, conquest-squeezy. To simulate the political instability of the Seljuks, the Seljuk units in the southern Levant are inactive until the region is attacked by hostile forces. This means that the Muslims have relatively few resources in the first turn, but already in turn 2, they receive massive reinforcements. The Christian death stack is powerful, but will wear down over time.
The Crusaders play the first card and makes for the Holy Land, under the tenuous leadership of Toulouse. A Seljuk emir stands in the way of the Crusader army as it crosses Asia Minor (taking significant attrition on the way), and fail to avoid battle. The Seljuks are crushed, the emir dead, and the Crusaders march on Seleukia, and demands its surrender. The castle acquiesces.
It feels good to be a doomstack.
Now, the Muslims play the card Plan of Attack, which allows to move several leaders in one go. The gather the armies of Aleppo, Damascus and the Seljuks in hopes of inflicting some early causalities on the crusaders. This oriental grand armée is led by the Seljuk leader Kerbogha. He's an alright tactician, but his greatest strength is in how many troops he can lead at any given time.
Now, the Christians have a plan of attack of their own, and split their forces with the card Combined Attack. Their plan is to face Kerbogha's army with one army and then lead another one into the County of Edessa region. The Muslims annoy them by playing Aggrieved Subordinate, which forces to crusader army off to face Kerbogha to leave a commander and some troops behind. Already now, Christian infighting is rearing its scary face...
Speaking of, each of the crusader commanders are greedy bastards. If they take a city, one of them will claim it as theirs and not move a mile from it. As the crusader army advances, it also gets thinner and thinner as its leaders set up their own demesnes. It's a neat mechanic that provides a challenge to the Christian player when planning as the crusaders.
The larger crusader force, still under Toulouse's leadership but leaving a prissy Bohemond and his entourage behind, attacks Kerbogha's army. With the card Field Fortifications, Kerbogha digs in and hope to give a good fight.
The Muslim army is basically annihilated. Kerbogha himself is taken prisoner, and his ally, Ridwan the lord of Aleppo, is captured as well. It's a disaster for the Muslims, who try to reinforce the vulnerable city of Antioch with Madrasas Preach Jihad. This allows them to put some extra units on the board.
Now, the Christian power play of the week. The card County of Edessa's event basically allows the Christians to take over Edessa effortlessly if they move an army into the region. And so they do. Assisted by local seditious Armenians, the princeling Baldwin and his merry men rush in and declared Edessa a county. A Christian county!
While quickly taking the castle of Alexandretta, the crusaders prepare to strike for Aleppo as well, and Muslims move some troops there for defense. Aleppo is besieged, and Bohemond catches up with the army in Alexandretta after deciding he does want to go crusading with his friends anyways. And so, he prepares to continue to Antioch.
As Bohemond places Antioch under siege, the first turn ends with two major crusade targets and Muslim strongholds threatened. Duqaq, lord of Aleppo, defends Antioch, while his own city is defended by a ramshackle force of local troops and reinforcements from Damascus.
The Muslims are in a bad spot, and decide to basically let the Christians have this turn and wear themselves out. Captured leaders can be bought back by giving the opposing faction a card from your hand, and the Muslims buy back both Kerbogha and Ridwan, but can't mobilize them this turn. Furthermore, the Christians decide to gamble and take the Fatimid Diplomacy card. It's a special scenario card that either faction can put into their hand at the beginning of Turn 2. When play, a die is rolled, and the otherwise neutral and inactive Fatimid decide to do something. More on that later.
Thus, the Christians start out with a whopping nine cards on their hand. To make matters worse for the Muslims, the Crusaders draw both Crusaders Arrive (which gives them reinforcements) and On To Jerusalem! (which allows them to conduct a fervor-fueled long march towards the Holy City, presumably while shouting the card's title)
The Christians press on Aleppo and use a siege event to construct a siege tower, but are hit back by an event that forces them to take punishing attrition. For the first time in this game, a crusader unit goes to the Christian Dead Pile.
The Muslims basically try and stall for time, alternating between passing and discarding cards to try Fortunes of War (where a random card is drawn and its siege event applied), but they have no luck delaying the crusaders at Aleppo. Furthermore, the Christians play Crusaders Arrive, and the Antioch force is bolstered by the anachronistic arrival of Duke Leopold.
"A crusader is never late. Nor is he early. He conducts holy war precisely when he means to."
On their next turn, the Christians play Fatimid Diplomacy and roll the die. The result is a 6, "Fatimid Expeditionary Force". The Fatimid commander Al-Afdal becomes a Christian ally and moves into the Holy Land, but there's a catch: In order to score victory points for cities captured by him, there must also be a Christian leader present. This will soon be incredibly important.
The Christians next take Aleppo, but the Muslims plays Dispute Over Division of Booty to shake them up a bit. Though fighting each other in arguments over vases and titles, the Christian force in Aleppo takes no hits as the Christians decide to reduce the losses with a card play. This is bad for the Christians, since they need soldiers to defend Aleppo while the rest marches to Jerusalem.
And march to Jerusalem they do.
With the On To Jerusalem card, a Christian army under Toulouse (leaving behind another leader to lord as Prince of Aleppo) takes some attrition damage as they place the Holy City under siege. The Muslims try another fortune of war to no avail, and on the next Christian turn, Al-Afdal joins the Crusader army.
Despairing, the Muslims try another fortune of war.
It's an epidemic.
Almost half the Fatimid force is reduced, and while the crusader units are basically unscathed, Toulouse crucially falls ill and goes to the Christian Force Pool. God smiles upon the faithful defenders, and the epidemic does not spread to the forces besieged in Jerusalem. The crusader army has no leader, and if Al-Afdal presses on, the Christians will get no Victory Points for Jerusalem. The Wrath of God has hit the crusaders, and the illness of Toulouse is an unmitigated disaster for their plans. They decide to focus on Antioch first, but even with Byzantine fleet helping out, they inflict only minor losses on Duqaq's defense force.
It seems that luck is running out for the Christians.
TURN 3: KERBOGHA STRIKES BACK
With the Christian capture of Jerusalem miraculously stalled and with Kerbogha back in the game, the Seljuks have their chance. They muster their main force with Kerbogha as leader in Acre, northwest of Jerusalem, and because of mustering rules, they are forced to spread out the rest of their troops across various castles. They does not worry the Muslims, since their main army can just pick up troops along the way.
Toulouse recovers from his illness and resurfaces in Edessa, since he could not be placed with the besieging crusader army at Jerusalemn. This means the Christians have to spend time getting him or another leader to the city, but when Toulouse rushes out, the Muslims interfere and play Heavy Rains. Toulouse can only advance two spaces. Yikes.
It's Kerbogha's hour of vengeance. He can safely ignore the siege of Jerusalem, since the Christians can't gain victory points for it anyways without a leader, so he marches north to teach the besiegers of Antioch a lesson. Along the way, he improves his army with the various forces spread out over the Seljuk castles. He can't quite reach Antioch yet however.
"I am become doomstack, destroyer of CRTs."
Frightened by the mountain of chits in the horizon, the Crusaders try to take Antioch, playing the Corsairs card to reduce it's RF to a measly 1. The Muslims play a card of their own.
It's another epidemic.
Almost no Crusader troops die, but two (two!!) of their leaders go to the Force Pool, falling ill. Since this is the last turn, this essentially means they're out of the game for good.
Leopold; he came, he saw, he fell ill.
Bohemond the Prissy is left in command of the Antioch army, and he assaults the city in a desperate attempt to save not only his reputation, but the whole enterprise of the First Crusade. Sadly, he does not inflict enough losses to take the city.
To the south, Kerbogha is laughing maniacally at the news as he marches his force to Antioch for the decisive battle. The Christians play Christian Impetuosity in an attempt to gain an edge, but it's to no avail. The Muslims roll high, and while taking heavy losses themselves, they completely wipe the crusader force, killing Bohemond in the process. Antioch is liberated and rejoices, but Kerbogha refuses to stay and party. He presses the advantage and immediately marches to besiege Aleppo, whose forces aren't exactly top notch.
Christian Dead Pile, post-Battle of Antioch, 1099 AD.
The Christians are doomed, and they know it. They try one last desperate gamble and play Well Supplied to get Toulouse to move towards Jerusalem in a move sure to inspire Catholics and hikers alike across the world.
But the Seljuks will have none of it, and Kerbogha lifts the siege of Aleppo to deal with the insistent would-be-king of Jerusalem. Toulouse botches his Avoid Battle roll. His army is annihilated, and he himself is taken prisoner. The remaining cards on the Christian hand are essentially useless now. They play Papal support to measly reinforce their men in Edessa and Aleppo, and on their last turn, the Muslims move Kerbogha into Damascus to announce eight weeks of feasting and celebration.
What a rollercoaster of emotions. For most of turn 2, I really thought the Christians had this one in the bag, but those epidemics really taught them a lesson. Furthermore, the Muslims sacrifice of two cards in turn 2 really paid off, and they ended up seizing the initiative. Had the Christians been able to take and hold Antioch, things might have been different.
I feel that Kingdom of Heaven is very much a storyteller's wargame. It gives you very concrete events with very concrete results, and the situations it produces are straight out of a medieval chronicle. There's grand ambition, infighting, sieges, battles, and that wonderful feeling of providential futility that medieval games ought to have. I hope you enjoyed this read and got a taste of some of the fun this game can be.