One of the awesome parts of going to conventions and spending more than my fair share of free time playing games is that I often stumble upon some pretty spectacular games from unusual places. The Kingdoms of Crusaders is one such find.
Right Games is a Russian company dedicated to bringing its board and card games to the English market. Just as Rio Grande often does with German games, so Right Games does with their Russian counterparts. I can tell you, I was excited to see what these Russian games were like.
One of the first cultural differences came when I read this line from the rules: "The Kingdoms of Crusaders game is dedicated to one of the most romantic periods of European History - the Crusades." A different spin on that era, to be sure.
The Basics. Kingdoms of Crusaders is a little bit set collection, a little bit bluffing, and a little bit random. The players sit across from each other and each have a strip that identifies their playing area. They can play cards into five different piles. On a turn, the player will draw one card then play one card into one of the piles on his or her side. Each pile gets four cards, and twenty cards later (forty if you count both players) the game is over.
Each card has a top row with between one and five symbols on it. The best card has all five. The worst cards have only one. But most have a few. When played down, you want to collect sets of the same symbol. So having four red symbols is better than three or two. And the played cards are in full view of the opponents, so they know the strength of your army.
After the game is done, the players compare their card stacks. Whoever has more sets of four wins. If there is a tie, then the strongest "suit" wins. The symbols are in order of strength from weakest to strongest. If there is still a tie then it goes to sets of three, and so on. The player who wins at least three of the five piles is the victor.
The Feel. I’m tempted to say that the feel is "tense," but the game plays too fast for that to be completely accurate. Instead, I’ll say that Kingdoms of Crusaders feels like strategic bluffery. Yes, that’s a thing. If you don’t believe me, try some KoC.
Frankly, when I read the rules, I thought that this would be a particularly unfun game. Set collection is generally not interesting to me, and the five play piles reminded me a lot of the non-fun Lost Cities. A few plays later and I found it pleasant. A few more plays and suddenly a whole world of cutthroat deception was revealed.
Unlike Lost Cities, any card can be played in any of the five piles. This opens up a lot of choice and strategy and prevents KoC from being too determinative. Plus there is extreme strategy around playing the cards. Sometimes it can be good to play a few cards down on a pile where your opponent doesn’t have any cards. He or she may either give up and use it as a discard or wait to see if you continue playing strong, which reduces their potential play piles.
Sometimes it’s good to start several piles, forcing an opponent to compete against you. And sometimes it’s good to go head-to-head, playing everywhere your opponent does.The ranking system encourages you to start a pile with a red banner. Otherwise any old pile of banners has a good chance to beat you.
The game is replete with opportunities to analyze your opponent and attempt to counteract them. There are also interesting gambits available. After all, you only need to win three of five piles. So having a "throw away" pile isn’t always a bad idea.
Kingdoms of Crusaders plays quickly and, unlike the math in Lost Cities, the only arithmetic you’ll need is the ability to count to four. The only potential negative with this game is that there are some truly awful cards. By the end of the game, I’m often holding a pile of terrible cards hoping to top-deck something worth playing. Luck can be a little swingy, but isn’t too hard to counteract with careful planning.
Components: 2.5 of 5. The rulebook translation is ... adequate. You can definitely get a complete understanding of the game, but the grammar and syntax are a little wonky. The cards are on good stock, but you really only need the very tops. The rest is taken up with black and white Crusades-era inspired artwork. Neat, I suppose, but not really my thing. It also has some awful paper thin chits, but those are only used in a three- and four-player game (which requires two copies of the game). Finally, the small strips designed to separate your five piles are actually far too small for their purpose. Still, they are unnecessary for gameplay so it’s no great hindrance. Overall, though, you have everything you need to play.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. As with most card games, there will be some times when you just get bad draws. It happens. And, based on the spread of the cards, during the course of the game you’ll get more bad draws than good, forcing you to use more cards from your hand. But that isn’t the major factor in the game. Instead you’ll have to look at the available information (what’s in your hand, what you’ve played, and what your opponent has played) and do the best with what you’ve got. Best of all, that could be any number of things. There is rarely an obvious best move. Sometimes you gamble a bit, hoping the draws will be good. It leads to intense and engaging gameplay.
Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Kingdoms of Crusaders is easy to learn and the symbol order is intuitive. Still, there’s a lot of strategy from a simple ruleset. But unlike the simple rules, the strategies are varied and (can be) subtle. In a given game, you can play your cards or simply try to play your opponent. And despite the number of options, the bluffing, and the considerations of where and what to play, the game speeds along. After all, you only get to play 20 cards total. It makes for a quick game, and the Wife and I will play multiple games in a given session.
Replayability: 4 of 5. This is the sort of game that is quick enough to allow multiple games in the same play session. Plus, there is enough depth of play to keep the game from getting stale. Every play of mine has been exciting as I try different tactics and gambits. And I expect that, as both players become more advanced, the game will only get richer.
Spite: 1.5 of 5. There are no "take that" cards that force an opponent to discard or otherwise directly damage them. However, as a bluffing game, there will always be a modicum of spite. Saving up a killer card that seals your victory until after an opponent has spent their good cards trying to defeat you is especially satisfying.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. The most important thing is that this game is fun. Yes it has a wacky translation and the cards are largely taken up by irrelevant art. Still, the breadth and depth of opportunities and strategy in this game is amazing - especially considering the simple ruleset that renders it extraordinarily easy to teach. "Easy to learn but difficult to master," is a tired cliche in the gaming world, but this game really fits that description. I would recommend this to any duo eager to move beyond Lost Cities.
(A special thanks to Right Games, who can be found at Essen in Hall 7, Booth 7-05, for providing a review copy of the Kingdoms of Crusaders.)
(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot)