The “Dark Ages” always had an ominous ring to it. Landed nobles lorded it over their subjects and collected fealty from their titled vassals, meanwhile owning all of their own privilege to the crown itself. This, of course, meant lots of knights riding around bashing each other on the heads over fertile fiefdoms, and some useless ones, because nobles always needed more land to give away. It was a vicious cycle. Denis the Peasant was certainly right – violence was inherent to the system. Will you be living off of and repressing your subjects? Or end up digging through the lovely filth?
How it Plays
In Medieval Mastery, you are a lord of the realm seeking to increase your lands by conquest. There are other nobles that will stand in your way and endeavor to drive you out in their own bid for dominance. You must utilize your unique strengths, orchestrate your knights, and manage a hand of “resource” cards in order to successfully expand and conquer.
The map varies each game as you arrange a number of random terrain tiles in a manner predetermined by player count. This is the “realm” over which you and the other feudal barons will contest. Each hexagonal tile represents a fief worth from 1-3 points. Most of them also provide a bonus to its owner or another unique effect which will influence play at a specific point. You use dice to expand, but not in the usual manner. These dice are merely counters signifying the strength of your knights in each territory. They are not combat randomizers.
You start the game with a castle (terrain tile) and 6 knights – as represented by one die with the six pips facing up. In some cases, you may begin with one or two Homelands tiles next to your castle, in which case your 6 knights are evenly distributed amongst them. In the basic game, castles may not be attacked or captured. You also start the game with three random, unique abilities, called Artefacts (yes, with an ‘e’ – the designer is British). Each player receives a Crown, a Scepter, and an Orb which remain permanently in play and are activated under certain conditions. Finally, each noble has a common deck of 18 cards. Most of these are Conflict and Support cards which add strength in combat. Four of them are Resource cards which provide a rules-breaking power. Normally your hand limit is 5 cards.
Turns in Medieval Mastery proceed in a structured, straight-forward manner. There are some steps to follow, but thankfully there is a handy reference on the back of the rule book. First, you begin by placing 3 knights in your castle – either adding a new die, increasing the existing one, or a combination thereof, if necessary. Then you may play a Resource card if you have one, followed by the option of triggering your Crown’s ability, which can only be used once per turn.
After that, you get to redistribute the knights in your lands. Essentially, knights occupying any fief that is connected to your castle, either directly adjacent or via an unbroken line of supply, may be reorganized in any manner you see fit as long as the total number does not increase, individual tiles have no more than a maximum of 6 knights, and you do not abandon any previously owned fief. In the next step, advancing, you may march up to 6 knights from your home castle to any empty or enemy-occupied fief adjacent to one of your own – and to which you can trace an unbroken line of march.
Naturally, combat ensues when advancing into an enemy controlled fief. The order of battle is likewise very structured. First both players replenish their hand to 5 cards. Then apply any modifiers from Scepters. At that point, each combatant plays a Conflict card from their hand face down. These have strengths from 2-5. They are revealed simultaneously and added to the number of knights engaged to calculate combat strength. Some territory characteristics may also modify these values.
Then players exchange opportunities to play Support cards to increase their combat values. When satisfied or exhausted of Support cards, the army of greatest strength is victorious and inflicts a number of casualties equal to the difference in combat values. The rest of the vanquished knights limp back to their home castle. The winner may likely use their special Orb’s ability at this time, as well. If the defender wins, he retains the fief. If the attacker is successful, he captures that fief and resolves its benefit/effect, if applicable.
After combat, the player finishes his round by playing any Resource cards which he did not use previously, or may have drawn during the combat phase. He can also now take advantage of his Crown’s power if he did not do so earlier. Finally, he restores any Artefact cards destroyed during his last turn.
The first player to conquer 13 points worth of fiefs immediately wins, subjugating all other players. They must swear oaths of love and fealty to him as their rightful liege. Of course, while it might be nice to have all these vassals, you’re just as beholden to some lord above you. In the feudal system, there’s always someone higher up on the food chain. Except for the king. And as we all know, it’s good to be the king.
Knight of the Realm or Court Jester?
Chess was the first abstract board game in history to paste on a medieval theme. At least, if that’s not true, then it ought to be. I can’t be bothered with research right now and it makes sense when you think about it. Whatever. My point is that Medieval Mastery is simply the latest game to do so. In spite of the great artwork and the throwing around of words like knights, fiefs, and crowns, this design is decidedly abstract with a heavy metal – as in armor – veneer.
Even though it lacks thematic integration – oh, never mind, I’ll just be blunt. Medieval Mastery is thematically disappointing, even a bit misleading. It’s one thing to have a conquest game with cubes or dice representing troops, instead of sculpted miniatures. That’s maybe not as engaging, but it’s fine. Yet this design talks about a conquest game based on the feudal system and set in Middle Ages France. Aside from French place names for each castle, none of that is evident through play. However, there is still an interesting mix of Eurogame and Ameritrash elements – at least for fans of that growing genre.
On the Euro side, you have the strategy of manipulating your knights for optimal effectiveness, as well as the hand management aspect. Both of these require planning. Organizing your knights in particular can be a little puzzle in itself. You have a great deal of freedom in assigning them, but usually do so only once per turn before you advance. So you need to balance the defense of your current holdings with the need to muster enough strength at your castle with which to make an assault. Thankfully, you can leave your castle empty for an advance, but other places need an adequate garrison because most offensives include the maximum 6 knights. However, if you manage your hand right, you might be able to reserve some strong Conflict and Support cards to bolster weaker defenses, when necessary. Plus effectively using your Resource cards, unique Artefact abilities, and special terrain bonuses is key to gaining the tactical advantage.
On the Ameritrash side, the design is highly interactive for one. It’s more than just a means of slowing down or penalizing opponents. Because it’s a conquest game, it is of the “I gain, you lose” variety. When successful, one player advances in the same proportion by which the other digresses. Second, there are variable powers from Artefacts. Lastly, there’s a good deal of randomness in which of those you are dealt at the start of the game, as well as in what cards your draw for your hand, and when, during play.
Combat is chiefly representative of this dichotomy between German- and American-style characteristics. Battle is not resolved by random dice rolls (although one Conflict card does allow you to roll a die in lieu of a fixed value). Instead, you have a hand of cards to choose from. Play as high as you can to ensure victory as much as possible, and by as large a margin as possible. Or take a guess and play just enough that you think is needed to secure the field – or a tie in the case of defense. However, the cards in your hand can vary tremendously. It’s not uncommon to have only one or two Conflict cards to choose from, or to have zero Support cards with which to add to your combat strength, and then for either to be fairly useless anyway. Unfortunately as a result, combat often falls flat. Luck of the draw can be so random that it’s frustrating. Meanwhile, the whole process still feels mathematical enough that it’s just not all that exciting.
So when considering “the forest over the trees,” Medieval Mastery will likely appeal mainly to experienced gamers in the center; those who appreciate a combination of both determinative and arbitrary elements. Outside of that group, the attraction will be limited. There are too many steps and icons for it to be a gateway game. Too much randomness and interaction will send entrenched Euro gamers to hole up in their keeps. And the thematic failings and mathematical combat will keep many Ameritrash and conquest gamers at sword’s length.
Still, what about those “trees,” or details? There are some compelling elements here. Variability is one of the game’s strengths and the replay value is off the chain mail. The map will be different every game and you only use all of the tiles with 6 players. There will be plenty of fun and interesting amalgamations between terrain effects. Plus you receive different combinations of Crowns, Scepters, and Orbs every session. Some unique abilities and terrain bonuses seem better than others – but opinions will vary with a little experimentation. And if that variation isn’t enough, there are also some optional rules to add which can change some significant components of play! The design is certainly ripe for customization.
At its core, though, Medieval Mastery is very much player-driven. Luck certainly influences what you can do with via hand management, but you still have choices to make that very much impact play – both on your own turn and on that of your opponents’ subsequent actions. I also like how the design encourages combat. Aside from a couple of terrain effects, the primary means to replenish your hand is to battle. Sitting back as a spectator only means those 4 nifty Resource cards remain buried in your deck and untapped.
Medieval Mastery also scales extremely well. The designed map layouts are formulated to balance each player’s opportunities no matter the numerical configuration. Practically speaking, though, the game shines more with 4-6. Two-player games are fine, very chess-like, but lack excitement. In 3-player games there’s a risk of two beating up on each other to the third’s advantage. With more players, there’s some chaos to shake things up and meaningful prospects to engage in effective diplomacy.
Aside from that, the game can be a little fiddly in redistributing knights. As the game progresses and your armies multiply, you may want some measure on hand to keep track of your overall numbers so as to avoid accidentally losing or gaining strength during reallocation. And beware bumping the map when moving about it. As with all tile-based games, it is easy to jostle them, requiring frequent tidying. This is especially problematic when playing with kids and, believe me, you’ll come this close to banishing them from your kingdom!
For a first-time production, Medieval Mastery is well-made. This is the 2nd edition, but still the company’s first publication. The tiles are thinner than what most gamers will be used to, but still thick enough. The cards are sturdy with a nice glossy finish. I recommend sleeves as they tend to stick together – but mainly because they see a lot of shuffling and handling. The artwork is very good. Indeed I would have liked to see more of it on the cards and Artefacts, but you know, cost. And there are lots of dice. This is a good value in regards to its price point.
Medieval Mastery is a light conflict game. Interaction is a central component, but it’s not heavy, spiteful, nor overly frustrating. There is a nice puzzle aspect in allocating knights that balances well with a reasonable amount of randomness. It is quite abstract and falls disappointingly short on theme, more cerebral than narrative. But this freshman design from the young publisher is a solid entry in the growing catalog of Ameritrash-Eurogame hybrids. It’s easy on the eyes, exercises the mind, and lasts just long enough to satisfy without over-staying its welcome.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Chaos Publishing for providing a review copy of Medieval Mastery.