[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house eurogamer, @Farmerlenny, and his deadly enemy the thematic space-loving @Futurewolfie. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]
We here at iSlaytheDragon.com are always on the lookout for new and interesting games. So when the call (or rather e-mail) came in asking us to take a look at four Russian games published for the first time in English by Right Games, we could not refuse.
Each day this week we will be taking a look at the four games in turn and letting you know what we think about them. We will begin this series with a look at The Kingdoms of Crusaders.
How It Works
In The Kingdoms of Crusaders, two players face-off in a battle to win the most ground. There are five territories where cards can be played. Players begin with five cards in their hand, and each turn follows a very simple turn order: draw a card, play a card to one of the five areas. This game does not get any simpler to teach.
However, within this simple framework there are many choices to be had, as well as lots of tension. Along the top of each card are five spots for potential symbols, each symbol representing a different type of warrior, and each symbol getting more powerful from left to right (the rightmost symbol—the banner of a crusader—is the strongest).
Okay, before I explain any further, I should make one point clear: the theme of the game is completely irrelevant—which might actually be a good thing. The rules describe the game as “dedicated to one of the most romantic periods of European history,” but at least stateside, this doesn’t reflect the modern sensibility. Still, each card bears gorgeous woodcuts by Gustave Dore (which the box calls “unique”—perhaps for their time, but certainly not today), but while these provide a pretty diversion while your opponent takes his turn, have zero influence on the game. All that matters in this game are the symbols along the top of the cards, and these could be different kinds of animals just as well as warriors. That being said, I love the look of this game, even if it doesn’t matter. Okay, back to the gameplay.
Each card can bear up to five symbols. Territories are won by collecting sets of symbols at each territory. Each territory can only hold four cards (the game ends after each player has played twenty cards), so the strongest unit of warriors is a regiment (four of a kind), followed by a battalion (three of a kind) and then a company (two of a kind). The winner of a territory is the player who has the most regiments. If players are tied in number of regiments, the player with the strongest regiment (the set of symbols farthest right) wins. If players tie in strongest regiment and number of regiments, the territory is decided by battalions, and so on. Whoever wins the most territories wins the game.
The Kingdoms of Crusaders doesn’t look like much, but it really packs a punch. When @Futurewolfie explained the rules to me, I was waiting for the catch. “So…then what?” But as the game unfolded, I realized just how much potential was held in these cards.
My wife described the game like Poker, and in some ways it really is—like you’re playing five hands at once. You are collecting sets like in Poker, with sets decided by number and then rank. But the game is really like Poker in the amount of bluffing that takes place.
You see, if you play a single lance (the weakest rank) as a starting card for a territory, you are telling your opponent that you don’t care about it because you are limiting your options. You only have a chance at a single regiment, and that regiment is the weakest kind. Your opponent can take it easily with little effort, and you’ve tipped your hand too soon. If you lead with a stronger card, though, your opponent doesn’t know what to think. Each territory becomes a battle of escalation until one player can’t keep up. And one player won’t be able to keep up, because there are five territories to manage.
In that sense, there is a decent amount of luck in the game: the cards you draw determine, in some regard, whether you can fight for certain territories. But the game seems more to me like a subtle game of bid and bluff, with a good match not being decided until the last few cards are played. The better player will allocate resources most effectively and usually beat the “lucky” player.
There are a few criticisms that can be leveled against The Kingdoms of Crusaders. First, the battle line pieces are flimsy and untranslated (really giving the impression that the theme doesn’t matter). Second, the theme is virtually nonexistent (this isn’t my criticism; I don’t mind themeless games so long as they’re fun). And finally, the ranks are not entirely balanced. There are the same number of lance (weakest) and banner (strongest) symbols in the deck, so each seems as likely to come up as the other. It seems like it would add greater tension to the game if the powerful symbols were scarcer because putting them in a territory would be more of a gamble. But really, this criticism is minor, as the deck is uneven for both players and the bulk of the game will be the management of one’s own resources—where will the banner symbols be played to greatest effect?
The Kingdoms of Crusaders was a surprise to me because it was so simple to learn and yet so elegant. It does a great job of building tension, and in a good game, the tension will last until the very last card. It packs all of this into ten to fifteen minutes, which can easily allow multiple games over a lunch hour. I think The Kingdoms of Crusaders is one of the best two-player-only games I’ve played. It’s definitely worthy of your consideration.
(I should also mention that the game can be expanded to include three or four players, but you must have two copies of the game. We have one copy, and really, I think two players is where this game shines.)
This isn’t an overly complex game, so I don’t have much to add. It’s true, this is highly non-thematic, so if you’re looking for a game that emulates kingdoms and crusading… look elsewhere, you wont find it here. It is easy to learn and accessible, and plays quickly. The name may sound intimidating to non-gamers, but once you explain the rules, it feels much more like solitaire (though more interactive) or like @FarmerLenny said, poker.
I will disagree with @Farmerlenny on one point – the rarity of banner icons, or rather lack thereof. It is important to remember that a set of 2 regiments will beat a set of only 1 regiment – so if you complete a set with 4 brown spears and 4 blue bows, you beat out a set of 4 red banners. It’s only when you tie in the number of regiments that victory goes to the most powerful regiment – an easy fact to forget, and may cause a loss of a region you thought you had clinched. That being said, the card setup is skewed towards single-icon cards. I believe there are 4 of each icon in single-icon cards, followed by 2 of each sets of 2 icons, and I believe 1 of 3, 4, and 5-sets. The distribution of the cards means that laying a set of reds isn’t necessarily a trump set, and you have to sacrifice some regions in order to conquer others.
Kingdom of Crusaders, to be honest, is not my favorite type of game – but that’s mostly a personal preference thing. But I still enjoy playing it, because it’s simple, quick, strategic, and very tense – you just never know if the other player has exactly the card that will defeat you and the game is rarely decided until the very end.
Disclosure: Right Games sent a copy of The Kingdoms of Crusaders to iSlaytheDragon for review.