I, Chess, take you, Dominion, to be my lawful wedded wife, to stack and build decks with, for better draws and for worse, for lots of buys and just one, in the base game and in expansions, to sleeve and build custom inserts for; from this day forward until death do us part.
I, Dominion, take you, Chess, to be my lawful wedded husband, to line up and attack with, for sacrifices and promotions, for mobility and forced moves, in blitzes and in stalemates, to polish and place in felt cases; from this day forward until death do us part.
Nine months later…
How it Plays
For the Crown is a Chess variant with an element of deck-building. Or, would that be a deck-building variant with an element of Chess? Wait, maybe it’s a Chess-building element with a variant deck? Grrr… Anyway, the learning curve for this unique creation is not too steep if you know how to play both Chess and Dominion. If you’re only familiar with one of those sources of inspiration, well then, at least you’re half-way home. If both are a foreign concept, unfortunately this review may not enlightenment you much – explaining two games is simply beyond the scope of our average reviews. Instead I’ll assume that most readers know the bare essentials of Chess and Dominion (Ed. Note: see our review of that one, at least) and proceed to discuss how For the Crown diverges from, or meshes the two, in significant ways.
The object of For the Crown is to take the crown. Just like in Chess, your goal is to capture the opposing sovereign. However, there may be more than one, in which case you need them all. Unlike Chess, the game starts with just the two opposing kings on the board. Now wouldn’t it be really cool to watch them duel it out, mono-a-mono, like real men in some Medieval MMA bout? Alas, as we all know, war is old men talking and young me dying. So you will be adding units to the board hoping that they’ll take the regal coronet for you and just hand it over, thank you very much.
Some of these available units are standard Chess pieces – queens, rooks, knights, clergy, and pawns – which all move and attack in the traditional manner, as any Karpov, Kasparov, and Fischer should know. Beyond those, For the Crown, 2nd Edition, adds a further eighteen units. Some of these allow for a variation in movement and attack from the customary pieces. Others offer a completely different range of mobility. Furthermore all of them are identified by a certain type (sovereign, pious, heavy, foot, etc.) that can impact play in certain situations.
To acquire your army you’ll need to build up a personal deck. Just like in Dominion, you start with ten basic cards, can acquire more from a common pool, and will use them all as treasure to buy more cards or for various actions. Unlike Dominion, you will be trashing a good number of cards for a special purpose and there is an extra turn phase thrown in. However, you will still be shuffling a lot, so keep a court servant close at hand.
A turn in For the Crown consists of four phases: Order, Action, Buy, and Housekeeping. Every card has two effects from which to choose from and that can apply in one or two phases. During your order phase (unique from Dominion), you may march or attack with a unit, deploy one from your barracks onto the board, or play a card with a special order effect. Movement is similar to Chess, although here you are not actually required to move. Plus you are allowed to move into check-mate. That is assuming you have multiple sovereign pieces on the board, and don’t mind sacrificing one. Otherwise such a move would demonstrate a competency perhaps better fitted for checkers. Some special order effects grant you additional marches, attacks, or deployments. In that case, then an individual unit may only receive one order per turn, unless its unique ability happens to grant it multiple moves.
The action phase (as in Dominion) lets you play one card for a special ability. It might let you draw more cards, exchange cards, or reveal cards from your deck; or trash a card from your hand in exchange for one from the central pool. It also may give you an additional buy for the next phase and/or treasure in which to spend in it. However, you also have the option to train a soldier as your action. Most cards can train a specific unit, which you can recruit by trashing that card during this phase and then placing that unit’s counter in your barracks. You may then deploy that piece to the board in a subsequent turn’s order phase. So in order to recruit, first you must buy the unit’s card in the buy phase (see next), then train it in the action phase, then deploy it in the order phase. This all requires a minimum of three turns since those phases appear in exactly the reverse order! Uncle Sam’s method of hitting up local high schools seems so much simpler, now.
The final active segment of your turn is the buy phase. As in Dominion, you’ll play any treasure effects from your hand, add it to any treasure received from cards played in previous phases, and then purchase a card from the central supply that’s cost does not exceed your total earned. I guess royalty in the Middle Ages were good at balancing their budgets. Cards range in price from two to nine gold. If you have any additional buys from order and/or action effects, then the total value of all purchased cards must not exceed your available gold.
When finished with your shopping spree, discard all cards that you played, bought, and/or have remaining in your hand and draw five new ones for your next turn. This housekeeping phase (clean-up in Dominion) completes your turn. Of course, you’re the king. You hire some one for this type of work, right?
Good to be the King?
The oft-parodied introduction to the old Dragnet series boasted, “The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Well, creator Jeremy Lennert doesn’t even hold back there, going as far to identify and explain his game’s synthesis of Chess and Dominion at length in the rulebook’s designer notes. So does that make it Cheminion? Domess? Or something else entirely?
Well, I’m not exactly sure. I have a hunch that it will feel differently to individuals based on their experiences with both inspirational titles, specifically, and their gaming resumes, generally. I’m a bigger Dominion fan as opposed to Chess, and so the deck-building aspect resonated more prominently with me. I can say that For the Crown is one very intriguing and extremely interesting design.
The mix works fascinatingly well, despite the two games’ great disparity. Now, I can’t say for sure how Chess purists will react. The historic strategy game is already a heavy experience, void of any luck, with hundreds of years of analysis behind it. Sure, it has its variants, but few are viewed as legitimate and none are as random as adding a card game element. However, modern board gamers, especially fans of deck-building, should appreciate that mechanism’s implementation in For the Crown as giving it a purpose – that of feeding and supporting the match on the board – as opposed to just building a deck as a means unto an end.
Immediately, players familiar with Chess and Dominion will recognize a simple rules set that belies a greater, hidden depth and complexity – both strategically and tactically. On the one hand, turns are straight-forward, clearly defined, and not complicated. Other than keeping track of all the different ways individual units can march and attack, learning the game is relatively easy. On the other hand, once you know how to play, you can quickly get bogged down deciding what to play. As in Chess, you must plan and stubbornly stick to your general offensive, while at the same time accounting for and reacting to your opponent’s moves. And in a similar vein as Dominion, you must methodically build a coherent and strong deck for the long haul, while preparing at the same time to deal with poor hands as best as possible.
You will be tempted many times to deviate from your strategy based on what cards your opponent buys, what units he trains and deploys, and what moves he makes on the board. Sometimes you will be forced to alter your plans. How and when you react to your adversary’s actions, paired with more tough choices about which cards to buy and how to use them, create an amazing mixture of deep analysis, tension, indecision, double-guessing, and cunning. And it starts right out of the gate.
The two types of cards you begin with allow you to only train pawns. One has a weak order effect and the other provides 1 treasure in the buy phase. You’ll probably use a few of the former to get some warm bodies out on the board, but may want to keep the latter for their gold value. Then you need to decide if you’re buying cards for the units they provide or for their orders/actions. Essentially, do you start to fatten up your deck first? Or do you build up an army? If so, maybe you want to skip the lowly pawns and quickly go for the better pieces? Maybe you think you’ll keep it balanced, but that’s not easy to accomplish. It can take some time to build an efficient deck with sufficient treasure and the right cards to get that gold out of your deck and in your hand.
There are not enough actions to do everything that you want. Therefore, in equal measure, you will need stubbornness to stick with your strategy, patience to let it unfold, and instinct to know when to strike. The recruiting mechanism is apprehensively brilliant. First, it takes multiple turns to buy, recruit, and deploy a unit – so you need to plan ahead. Second, you must weigh the effects of trashing the card as opposed to keeping it for its order, action, or treasure benefits in ensuing turns. Sometimes the choice will be relatively easy, but I guarantee that won’t always be the case.
The number and diversity of units present both a positive and negative aspect. Again, aside from the traditional Chess pieces which are available for purchase every game, there are eighteen unique units in For the Crown, 2nd Edition. Of positive note, no more than ten of these will be accessible in any given game as you choose which decks to include. This allows for some tremendous replay value in the long run as you can experiment with a wide variety of combinations. Typically you’ll balance the selection between unit designations, but there is some tremendous fun to be had in concentrating in specific areas. We played one game with mostly leaping units (restrictive and chaotic) and another with ones all having short range mobility (took even longer). The drawback to this unit variety is in keeping track of their movement attributes and other abilities. Some march and attack in different ways (like the pawn), further complicating matters. Of course, keeping track isn’t significant in only planning for your own moves; but you must watch your opponent’s pieces and note how they threaten your own forces. You will reference the rulebook and individual cards frequently. After a handful of plays, I still can get caught off guard – one time it cost me the game!
This edition is offered as a boxed game, a recent production change in some of Victory Point’s titles, eschewing the ziplock polybags for the more traditional presentation. There is also a noticeable improvement in the components over the first edition. The cards are a bit thicker with polished graphics and design. The counters are hefty, though the art is generic. Be advised that you will need to wipe down the edges of each counter after punching them due to the laser cutting process leaving a sooty residue (and you’ll need more than the one napkin included). The box includes three small baggies for the counters, but we required just one more (which I swiped from another VPG boxed game). The board is mounted and cut into three sections that fit like a puzzle. Mine has one blemish (a long air bubble) and some uneveness where the sections meet, but generally works (a thinner, one-piece cardboard game mat is also included but does not lay flat). Lastly, the rulebook is slick, full-color, laid out well, and covers all that you need to know.
For the Crown is a surprisingly good 2-player option for hobby gamers who like to analyze and develop long-term strategy with minimal randomness. Just be prepared for a tense and lengthier session. While the box says 30-60 minutes, all of our games have easily exceeded an hour, and a few went longer than two. The good news is I was never bored, as even during my opponent’s turn, I was constantly planning ahead, analyzing my hand, thinking about my next unit, reviewing the cards available for purchase, and keeping an eye on his moves. There will be very little consorting with the enemy during this brain-burner.
So, yeah, this is not a casual game. Sure, you can play it that way, I suppose, but any two moderately competitive and seasoned gamers will not. For the Crown gives you a wonderful opportunity to fire the strategic synapses and there’s a lot to keep track of and make you think. The rules are certainly simple enough for kids and non-gamers to grasp, but the deeper complexities may intimidate them. Aside from the rare prodigy, an experienced gamer will beat the casual one every time. Despite this being an entry in VPG’s “Casual Cards” line, this unique and meaty title is not for the timid.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing a review copy of For the Crown.