Rurik: Dawn of Kiev looks like a Kickstarter game. The box is big, it is stuffed with cards and miniatures and options, and it takes up a goodly amount of table space. You can almost see the stretch goals reached as you pull each component from its carefully designed custom tray. Yet for all its girth and bombast, the beating heart of the game–the thing that separates it from the pack and makes it most interesting–is the strategy board, an unassuming piece of cardboard, manipulated with simple wooden pawns, while the plastic miniatures watch from their positions on the main board.
Rurik: Dawn of Kiev feels, to me, a lot like Wallenstein designed for the current Euro/American hybrid game zeitgeist. And as long as you aren’t expecting a game of gruesome battles or backdoor negotiations, it’s quite good within that context.
In Rurik, players are one of the many and various children of Vladimir the Great–the rulebook says he had sixteen(!)–duking it out to become ruler once Vladimir has passed. Players display their rulerly chops through amassing troops, constructing buildings, and taxing the land while also putting down rebellions and sparring with their would-be coheirs.
Rurik is won by collecting victory points, which come from one of three sources: the claim board (which tracks players’ progress in ruling territories, owning buildings, and loading trade goods on their boats as well as their willingness to use the hammer of their military to smash the opposition), deed cards (kind of like “trick shots” that are accomplished during the game), and secret goals, awarded at game’s end based on fulfilling their objective during the game. For a game with a big map board and lots of moving parts, Rurik is surprisingly–one might even say refreshingly–focused.
Each round follows three phases: strategy, actions, and claim.
As I’ve already alluded to, I’m partial to the strategy phase. The strategy phase is where players map out the actions they plan to take in the coming action phase. Again, players who have played Wallenstein–the original hybrid game (with its mixture of wargame counters and Euro sensibilities)–will see something familiar here: first you assign your resources, then you carry out your plans. This simulation of historic war is interesting and engaging. Essentially, your generals don’t have cell phones, and once you set your plans in motion, you can’t readily switch signals.
So I like programmed action in this context. Rurik’s innovation here is that rather than each player planning separately and simultaneously (as in Wallenstein), players plan together in turn on a central action board. It’s less a game of outthinking your opponents (as Wallenstein) and more like an auction. The board is divided into columns for each action–muster, move, attack, tax, build, and scheme–and the action at the top of the column is more powerful than the action at the bottom. Each player has a number of advisers, each bearing a number from 1 to 5, and in turn order, players assign them to the board. A 5 adviser is more powerful than a 1, and as advisers are added to the board, weaker advisers get bumped to worse actions. You might think, Well, always reserve your better advisers for the action you care about most. But–well, it’s not that simple.
Complicating things is that while higher numbers are more powerful in claiming the top spots on the planning board, in the action phase, your advisers activate in numerical order low to high. Taking that mega tax action is awesome–but you might be ousted from the regions you want to tax before that happens, or some upstart might tax that region before you get a chance. Or you might be dying to muster troops but lose the ground where you needed those troops most by the time they arrive. So players are constantly balancing which actions they need most (and with the highest strength) with when they need these actions to activate during the round. And really, like most good Euro games, you want to do everything in a around but aren’t likely to be able to.
And then further complicating things is that an adviser can, in the words of A Knight’s Tale, “change their stars.” Or more accurately, players can send their advisers to the board with a bribe that temporarily boosts their number, earning them a better spot in line. That 1 can become a 6 with enough greased palms. What this means is that the advisers players are holding back–public information–are not the full story: they might be promoted beyond their apparent usefulness.
Because of the bribes, I’ve seen strange things: a player’s high-numbered adviser–usually a shoe-in for the juiciest action–being bumped to the bottom of the column, taking the weakest one. This also leaves other, less contested columns open to big rewards for little expenditure. The publisher has described the strategy board as “auction programming,” and that is apt: players are essentially bidding for the actions they want to take, and once a bid is laid, it can’t be taken back or adjusted. Similar to Amun-Re, this isn’t a haggling auction game: you start with your best offer or you watch as your precious actions slip through your fingers.
This system makes timing crucial. Players are not required to play their advisers in order, from 1 to 5, so players have to weigh when to engage in a big show of force, dropping their 5, and when to receive whatever the going rate is for their adviser. Sometimes going first is a boon–you can be sure to snatch up dwindling spaces in columns before they’re all gone–and sometimes going last is to your advantage so you can respond to what the other players are doing, making sure your bribes get you the most bang for your buck. Rurik wisely does not move the first-player marker around the table automatically; rather, the player who claims the top space in the scheme column assigns it as they will, and I’ve seen players take the bear for themselves or pass it to their lefthand neighbor, depending on their designs for the next round.
If you can’t tell, I think this mechanism is utterly brilliant. Even though the game includes very well-made components, almost all of that chrome melts away when you’re focused on the action board.
And Rurik wisely keeps the focus there. The actions, once you’ve obtained them through your advisers, are mostly straightforward. Each icon is easy to explain, and most turns during the action phase are quick. The crown icon lets you put a troop on the board; the boot lets you move one. Each sword icon lets you remove another piece in your region. These are the actions that give the strategy board meaning, and games are won and lost based on what happens on the main map of “Kieven Rus.” But make no mistake: while what happens on the map board with the miniatures and the buildings is by no means uninteresting, the strategy board is what is likely to leave the largest impression once the game is back in the box.
And part of this is because once you’ve moved on to the action phase of the round, most of what happens is fairly standard for the kind of game Rurik is. You’re trying to “rule” (have more pieces) in a region than your opponents, and you do this by adding your troops and removing theirs. The buildings add some interest here–each has a different ability when built, along with fulfilling a scoring condition–but the area control of the game will be familiar to players who have played games like El Grande or, again, Wallenstein.
But what really calls Wallenstein to mind is how Rurik looks like a game all about conflict, but it’s really not. Similar to Wallenstein, it’s more important for players to vaunt their strength than to actually prove it, which is why points are granted at the end of the game for the player who attacked other players the most. Fighting with your coheirs may be necessary, but like most family drama, it is often executed at great personal cost. Most points are gained through clever allocation of troops and shifting control of the board. You don’t have to rule all the board at once, and while ruling is nice (it makes building and taxing easier), players can still accomplish their goals even without being the one in control.
You see, each round ends with the claim phase, when players track their progress. But the interesting thing here is that while players can move up on the claim tracks, they can never move down. You can rule five regions one turn and two the next, and your legacy is still remembered for its heyday. Granted, players are generally rewarded for holding on to their gains–it’s easier to move two steps forward if you haven’t taken three steps back–but this claim system allows players to shift gears quickly if someone has destroyed their plans or to capitalize on opponents’ weakness. I like this. I also like that the points granted by the claim board are more difficult to get the farther up the track they are. Holding five regions is difficult and worth 5 points–not too shabby in a game where a winning score is often around 20. But if you can hold five regions including Kiev and Novsgorod, that’s worth a game-changing 8 points. Similarly, getting 9 goods on your boat might get you 5 points, but if you can completely fill your boat–meaning you’ve taxed for every kind of good (no mean feat)–you’ll get 8 points.
The way points escalate feels balanced for the kind of work you have to do to achieve each objective, and it also rewards other strategies than just straight conquering territory. In one game, it was clear I couldn’t win by ruling, but I recognized that I had a decent shot at getting my buildings in seven adjacent regions. This gave me something to work toward while my opponents squabbled over their hold on Kiev. This, too, is like Wallenstein, where getting buildings out is often overlooked as a viable strategy.
There are a few other systems at play in Rurik, and they represent most of the American side of the hybrid game. Deed cards–drafted at round’s end–give players goals that, if accomplished, grant a point or two at the end of the game and provide an immediate benefit (usually an extra action of some kind). Scheme cards, which are given their own column on the strategy board, also provide additional actions or bonuses that players can utilize on their turn to bolster a main action taken or to do something completely different. Rebel troops–similar to farmers in Wallenstein, which seed the board at the start of the game–grant one-off bonuses when they are defeated. And each player receives an asymmetrical player power at the start of the game, represented by a larger-than-normal leader miniature that is placed on the board.
This stuff is probably necessary to attract attention and provide variety–I’ve seen my share of glazed-over looks when I present straight Euro games–but they represent the portion of Rurik that I’m less thrilled about because the uncertainty they introduce removes some of the teeth from the strategy board.
This is most pronounced in the scheme cards. The scheme cards do make sense in the game. Your placements on the strategy board forecast what you’re likely to do. To build or tax in a region you don’t rule requires extra build or tax points. The scheme track allows you to, essentially, trade what might be a better (or at least a guaranteed) action now for a secret one later, one that opponents might not suspect. What makes a little less sense is how varied the scheme cards are in power. For example, one card requires you to pay a coin to grab a deed card before the end of the round–that’s handy, and pretty nice! At least, it seems that way until you see another player get a scheme card that grants a deed card and a coin–essentially a 2-coin swing based on a random draw.
This is mitigated somewhat by the scheme column itself. Actions higher in the column let you look at more cards before choosing one. But what if you don’t see the better cards at all, even with the best opportunity? It seems a little unfair that another player hatches a better scheme than you for no reason but dumb luck.
The variable power of the scheme cards is probably the thing that bothers me most about Rurik’s gameplay, and even that I’m mostly willing to overlook. The other hybrid elements aren’t my favorite, but they don’t bother me too much. Yes, the variable player powers are situational, but it’s up to the players to put themselves in the situations where they’re useful, and they don’t seem swingy or unbalanced. The deed cards are also situational, and you might not find one you want. But players can try to manipulate turn order to get a card they really want or to hope a better one comes out, and as I mentioned before, you can switch gears to try to fulfill these if you really want to. These elements don’t generally represent my preferences for the games I play, but they make sense for the kind of game Rurik is, and they’re not enough to turn me off to it. Again, the strategy board here really is that cool and covers a multitude of other would-be sins.
Rurik, for me, falls into a similar space as Eclipse: it’s a game I enjoy and will play, and it’s a great choice for satisfying mixed groups of Euro fans and gamers who prefer American-style games. I like it enough that it would probably be one of my top choices (if not top outright) for these situations , and I’d recommend it occasionally even among groups of straight Euro fans. But it’s a little more confrontational than my typical fare, so it’s not one I’d choose to be in frequent rotation, and the humongous box means it’s probably not one I’ll keep around for only occasional play. (For me, it’s a game I’d want in the group’s collection, if not necessarily in mine.)
The components in Rurik are excellent. The miniatures look nice, and the wooden components are very well done. I especially love the included trays to keep the game organized when it’s on the table. The iconography is clear and easy to explain, and the included player aids make teaching a breeze. It’s generally easy to see information, even from across the table. For a game with this many moving parts and subsystems, it is remarkably easy to manage.
The box for Rurik is large, but I don’t think it’s larger than other games of this type, so if you already have space on your shelf for Blood Rage and the like, that isn’t likely to be a concern here. I would say my main complaint is it can take a while to set up–several piles of cards, matching leader cards with their miniatures, etc.–but again, that’s not out of line for this style of game. It does have lots of variants and options included, which has a tendency to fluster me at setup. (“Okay…so how are we going to play it this time…?”) But the insert is nice, and it’s easy enough to keep them separate if you don’t intend to include them. And some players will want the option to randomize which regions have which goods (that makes a big difference) or to have a different method for choosing rebel rewards. In my copy, there’s even a mini-expansion that includes events.
I’ve played Rurik with one, three, and four players, and it scales pretty well. The strategy board is tighter with more players, although it’s double-sided, so the side for two players has fewer spaces than the side for three and four players. It’s definitely a tighter game with four than with three–even though the map includes more regions the more players there are, the strategy board can be brutal.
The solitaire version included in Rurik is decent and comes with an automated opponent that varies in strength. The opponent definitely gets more aggressive and harder to control as you scale up the difficulty. For my taste, while the solitaire game was okay, it was a little too much upkeep for me. On a continuum of what I like in a solitaire game, I’d rather have a simpler or non-automated opponent with less upkeep than a smarter one who has a complicated decision tree. Upkeep was easier the more I played, but this still wouldn’t be my first choice for a solitaire game just because there’s a lot to manage in that regard. But again, players who feel strongly about a solitaire game including a simulated opponent might feel differently.
Rurik: Dawn of Kiev is a surprise to me. I had overlooked it when it was first on Kickstarter because it looked like just another skirmishy combat game, but what I found in its box instead is a compelling area control game with a phenomenal mechanical hook. I do confess that, for my taste, I would probably prefer the strategy board married to a less confrontational game, but it’s a compelling enough mechanism to make me enjoy Rurik despite my ambivalence about some of the other aspects of the game. For players who already like games about jockeying for map position and supremacy, who like confrontational and interactive games designed with strong mechanical underpinnings, Rurik is an easy recommendation.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank PieceKeeper Games for providing us with a copy of Rurik: Dawn of Kiev for review.