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Wulf Corbett
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Think of this as an alternative history game. A what-if. What if an unlucky bunch of alien would-be conquerors landed in England just as an army was being raised to fight the French, were mistaken for demons, discovered their high technology and energy-based combat systems were unsuited to resisting lance and longbow arrow, left a functional spaceship with sufficient automatic systems to allow the Englishmen to take the High Crusade against the demons into space, and thereby bring about the fall of a Galactic Empire by sword…

Well, yes, OK, so it’s a fantasy. A damn fine one too, based on the novel by Poul Anderson, a writer who never wrote anything I didn’t enjoy! This has to count as an officially sanctioned game, given that he wrote a short story to accompany it in the same magazine issue! The game picks up as the Crusaders have conquered their first planet, and sets two players in the roles of Sir Richard and his Crusaders, and the Wersgorix Empire. The Crusader player must conquer planets, convert thrall races to his cause, ally independent races, and take the fight to the Empire’s core. The Wersgorix player has to… well, stop him.

To the game itself…

Physical Components

This game comes as the feature piece in Ares magazine issue 16, back in the winter of 1983. The rules take up 16 pages, although there’s a couple of pages worth of art, and one picturing the counters. The art bears some mention. The full colour cover of the magazine, repeated in whole and in part in black & white within the game, is by Larry Elmore, depicting, presumably, Sir Richard astride his warhorse putting a machine-gun armed alien dune buggy to the sword… Elmore seems to either be loved or hated, I’m on the loving side (purely platonic, you understand), but as this one includes neither dragons nor shapely young women it’s quite a departure for Elmore, and may be more acceptable…

The rules themselves are clearly enough written (although there’s a line missing on magazine page 37, it’s easily worked out), but possibly not as well organised as they could be. They’re written in a more wordy, less lawyer-ese style than many other games, which I view as a relief, mostly. Layout and printing is straightforward and easily read.

The map is lovely to behold, by David LaForce. It depicts, mostly, the planets of the Empire. Each planet is colourfully depicted taking up multiple hexes, usually 4 or 7. Groups of planets are connected into Defence Zones of 4 or 5, with similarly coloured auras round each planet, and a satellite hex connected by lines. There are a few unconnected planets too, for the Independent Races. Around the actual map and a collection of tables are record tracks. The tables are grey text on the black background, not my favourite combination, and may cause some problems reading some of the text! The tracks (which, as you’ll see, will be well used!) are not boxes, but just big blocky stylised numbers. They could be clearer too, although it’s obviously easy to see which number must be which since they only go from 0 to 10! Overall it’s a really nice mapsheet.

The counters are pretty standard for the early eighties. 200 counters on one sheet, matt finished, with black print on a single colour per counter, either a silhouette, or alphanumeric info, or both. The silhouettes are primarily ships, castles, pistols or heraldic symbols (for the Crusaders and their fiefdom markers). There are a LOT of markers amongst these, most of which will be placed on the tracks on the mapsheet. Print & diecutting quality is good, overall the counters are decent & useable, given their vintage.

Gameplay

So, what do you DO then? A game turn consists of the following steps:
A. Reinforcements & Random Events: All thralls, fiefdoms and allies supply reinforcements, and both sides roll for random events.
B. Crusader Conversion Phase: Any Crusader on a Wersgorix thrall race planet may attempt to convert them to the just cause.
C. Crusader Feifdom Assignment and Title Phase: All converted thrall races must be assigned to a fiefdom under the leadership of one of the Crusaders. Trouble is, each can have only a limited number according to his rank, and only someone of higher rank can grant rank… So one of the problems of the game is to build a Cathedral, elect a New Pope, have him crown a King, and get the King to start handing out titles! Otherwise the Crusader player could soon start to struggle to find a place for new converts, and have to make them wards of the church (and out of the game…)
D. Crusader Movement Phase: The Crusader player moves armies and fleets around…
E. Crusader Combat Phase: …and fights with them!
F. Crusader Alliance Phase: Alliances with the few independent races is achieved by diplomatic contact either by random event or by visiting their planets.
G. Wersgorix Alert Phase: The Empire takes some time to mobilise, and only planets near the action can activate at first.
H. Wersgorix Movement Phase: They move…
I. Wersgorix Combat Phase: …and fight.
J. Alliance Disruption Phase: Where the Empire tries to mess up Crusader alliances diplomatically.
K. Game Turn Record Phase: Aaaand start all over again…

That all seems pretty straightforward, and, at its core, this game is. There’s a lot of ‘chrome’ on it though. Fleet and Army strengths are not represented directly on the map – there’s a strength counter matching each fleet & army counter, which is placed on one of those mapsheet tracks instead. Less of a stacking problem, and possibly more readable, but there can be a LOT of fleets and armies around, and keeping track of what marker represents which one will need a lot of attention. Counters are bright enough, but the text on them could be bigger (or maybe it’s just my eyes…). There are also markers & tracks or spaces for Crusader rank, which former thrall race is in which Crusader’s fief, and others. Planets can have Forts, Fortresses (these include anti-spacecraft weapons), garrisons, a castle, a church or cathedral, and a marker for which side they’re on! There’s a lot of info on the map, but it’s all ON the map – there’s no paperwork bookkeeping as far as I can see.

Random events are highly variable. Reinforcements, treachery, ionic storms, rumours of the Holy Grail, etc. The usual stuff. Well, usual for this sort of story.

Movement is pretty standard, armies need fleets to move from planet to planet, fleets can move to a few possible destination planets from any point (they MUST end movement on a planet), armies only move one hex a turn (but planets are only a few hexes in size, remember).

Combat is a slightly strange experience in this game. Actually calculating who wins is pretty standard. Total up attack & defence strengths, with restrictions like armies can’t attack fleets, etc. Subtract the defender’s total from the attacker’s and locate the relevant column on a table. There’s one for the Crusaders, and one for the Wersgorix & Crusader allies (both on the mapsheet). Various factors cause column shifts, then cross reference the column with a roll of 2d6. Now comes the odd bit… While the Wersgorix attack table has a standard numeric loss result table for attacker or defender, when the Crusader is on the attack the result isn’t damage or strength losses, it’s one of 10 possible results in the rulebook. These are little stories rather than just numbers. For examples, result 2 in a fleet battle reads:
“Your navigators are poorly trained and you come into the combat area too fast. You lose 2 strength points and the enemy loses 1”
While entry D for an army battle (fleets get numeric results, armies get alphabetic ones (easier to remember) is:
“The leaders of each side had a parley. Through Bravado and guile, you manage to arrange a truce. No combat occurs.”
Now, this is very much in keeping with the source novel, but there are only 10 each of these, so the most common is going to crop up quite often. It’s going to sound a bit tedious after a time; maybe numbers would have done just as well! A nice touch though.

There’s one other result of combat, and quite a novel one. One of the possible outcomes of a successful combat is gaining knowledge of the opposition – if a battle results in loss to the enemy with no loss to the victor, they gain 1 IQ point (if Wersgorix) or 1 Equipment Point (if Crusader). These are tracked on the mapsheet with their own markers (of course…), and can be used to influence combats, convert or reconvert thrall races, nuke Forts, etc…

The basis of the game is the conversion of former Wersgorix thrall races to the Crusader’s cause, and the Wersgorix attempts to reconvert them (both die rolls with modifiers). The Crusaders start off with a fairly powerful single army and fleet, but they are irreplaceable without finding support amongst the Empire’s thralls. The Empire starts off with pretty damn impressive forces, but all inactive – alerting them is priority 1! Thereafter, the Crusader player has a lot of work to do. He has to convert thrall races, which can require different methods of persuasion per race (agrarians need no special action, spiritualists need a church, warlike races need a castle – one each can be built in a turn). He needs leaders of sufficient rank to control them. He needs to make alliances. He needs to spend his Equipment Points carefully, but must attack and gain ground, Equipment, allies and converted thralls. The Wersgorix player needs to alert planets (just a die roll with modifiers), attack occupied planets, gain IQ points, break alliances, reconvert thralls and drive back the Crusaders. Those original Crusaders are the core of the game. There are only 5 of them, and they are irreplaceable!

The verdict
OK, so, is it a good game? Well, it’s certainly interesting, the rules are clear, although often involved (I haven’t even discussed capturing leaders & treachery…) and there’s a lot of on-board bookkeeping with all the markers and counters. After a good read, I’m very interested in playing this game. It reminds me of another Ares magazine game, Albion. It has similarly involved individuals, events and lots of counters, but this is much simpler to read, and the map is clearer! Overall, I would certainly like to play this, but it might get a bit confusing with so many markers. Despite the strange background, it should play as a pretty standard space empire combat game, barring the random events and the Crusader Combat Table results. Nonetheless, that should be enough to keep up the interest!
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Ray
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Wulf Corbett wrote:
The rules themselves are clearly enough written (although there’s a line missing on magazine page 37, it’s easily worked out), but possibly not as well organised as they could be. They’re written in a more wordy, less lawyer-ese style than many other games, which I view as a relief, mostly. Layout and printing is straightforward and easily read.
I really had trouble following these rules. I understand that TSR was trying to take rules lawyering away from all the terminology of SPI and make it more English friendly, but they're so verbose and really have trouble sticking to consistent terminology.
 
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Wulf Corbett
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I think it depends on how you approach your rules. I'm perfectly happy so long as I THINK I understand what's meant and it seems logical, others want their terminology precise and minimal. It's the same when I'm reading rules by Mongoose Publishing - other people complain all the time that the rules are imprecise, I have no problems (and have had confirmed with the writer that I've got it right). By the way, Ares IS SPI, but maybe you know more abou]t them than I do, all I know is what's on the magazine.
 
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Ray
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Wulf Corbett wrote:
By the way, Ares IS SPI, but maybe you know more about them than I do, all I know is what's on the magazine.
Issue 11 was the last 100% SPI issue (issue 12 was composed by SPI staff, but mailed by TSR to resubscribers after they paid creditors and freed up assets). Each succeeding issue had less and less of the SPI elements and by this issue (#16) was entirely TSR created (although they still used the SPI name on the cover which they owned).

An ex-SPI employee's take on SPI (including the TSR changeover) can be found at: http://www.costik.com/spisins.html
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Wulf Corbett
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Very interesting reading, thanks. I thought there was more to it.
 
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I've been crazy, couldn't you tell. I threw stones at the stars, but the whole sky fell.
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Well, once again we find that clowning and anarchy don't mix.
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Welcome to the ranks of repeat winners of the Cordwainer Bird Award. You've won another 3 GG tip for this review. Again, I'd like to see a review of how it plays, though I appreciate your perspective.

Here's the Cordwainer Bird Award GeekList for those who would like to help whittle the list of unreviewed science fiction, fantasy and horror games.
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