Marriage is what brings us together today.
Because war isn’t always easy. You can’t just go off attacking whoever you want and expect to keep the support of the church. (And it’s the era of the crusades, so you need the church’s support if you want your kingdom to go anywhere). You need a good reason. Perhaps they stole something from you, or perhaps a prince gravely insulted your mother. Maybe your spies can work up something.
In any case… maybe war isn’t the answer. Maybe it’s marrying off your cruel, weak son to form a pact. After all, in Crusader Kings it doesn’t really matter how you get there – as long as you lead your dynasty to triumph.
How It Plays
Based on a popular PC game, Crusader Kings entails trying to expand your medieval kingdom through warfare, political alliances, and arranged marriages. You’ll also need to send someone off to do some crusading once in a while, as well as build castles, tax your kingdom, and have children.
The core mechanism involves a trait bag. Green and red tokens – “traits” – are in the bag, and whenever an action has a chance of failure you draw a random trait. Green is a success, red is failure. However, each action has specific traits that when drawn have the opposite result of their color. For example, “cruel,” a red trait, is good for warfare, while “chaste,” a green trait, is not so good for marriage. Most actions only require one success, but there are effects that can require additional successes and/or add additional draws.
Whenever a new character is added to the board, a trait token is assigned to them. That token sticks with them, even when they’re married off. Additional traits are sometimes added via events. However, only when a character becomes King/Queen do their traits get added to your trait bag.
The game is divided into 3 eras, made up of 3 rounds each. At the start of each era, players will draw a set of cards to form their hand, choosing from crusade cards, warfare cards, realm cards, intrigue cards, and tax cards.
When a round begins, you get a chance to arrange a marriage for one of your lonely family members. You can try to arrange a marriage with another player’s character, exchanging money, territory, or development cards as players see fit. A successful marriage with another player awards both of you a Pact, which aids in warfare. You can also marry the leaders of neutral territories – requiring a trait draw if that leader’s trait is green – which forms a pact, and allows you to peacefully annex the territory later by sending in a foot soldier.
Next, each player selects 2 action cards from their hand and places them face down in order they want to resolve them. Each action card does the following based on their type:
- Tax cards gain you money for each region on the board you control.
- Warfare allows you to mobilize soldiers (add minis to the board) or attack with those soldiers.
- Intrigue cards let you plot against other players – causing unrest in a territory, manufacture Casus Belli (causes for war), or even assassinate characters. Alternatively you can Overthrow a region in unrest, causing it to become neutral.
- Realm cards lets you construct castles in your regions (for a token pull and a price), or purchase Development cards that give you permanent abilities.
- Crusade cards send one of your family members on a crusade, which is required once per round. A successful crusade gives you a permanent ability, a token on the crusade track, and a red trait token added to your bag.
Each Action card also has an event on it that generally either hurts the player who played it, or helps another player. These effects can take money, create Casus Belli, or cause children to be born.
A note on combat – you cannot invade another player’s region unless you are already At War, or have a Casus Belli against them. The easiest way to get a Casus Belli is to use Intrigue to manufacture one, but you can also gain one against a player who attacks you, who abandons a pact, or who attempts Intrigue against you and fails.
After the 2 actions are resolved, the round ends, players must pay for any soldiers on the board, and kings age. When a king/queen reaches a 4th age token, you get to remove a trait token from the bag – but when they hit their 5th, they die and a new king/queen is crowned. (If your line of succession is empty when your ruler dies… it’s bad news).
When the game ends – after 3 Eras or when the end of the Crusader track is reached – points are tallied. Points primarily come from controlling regions on the board. But you also earn them for having built the most castles, having the most upgrades, having the most tokens on the Crusader track, being the player who reached the end of the Crusade track, and having the first player token.
The Dark Ages
Translating a computer game into a board game can be tricky. It has been done well; XCOM is one of my favorite board games, I’ve heard great things about Gears of War, and there are a couple decent Civilization board games.
But despite both being “games,” video games and board games are two different families. PC games have a distinct advantage over board games in certain areas – including the ability to handle complex math, randomization effects, and non-player activities behind the scenes. PC games are also easily saved and thus played over a longer period of time, at the player’s leisure, and without having to drag four friends over for a couple hours each time you want to dive in. (I’m not arguing that PC games are better than board games – they just do different things.)
I guess the point I’m trying to make is you can’t just “convert” a PC game into a board game. Mechanisms rarely translate well, so the focus should be primarily on style or theme. You can capture the “feel” of a video game while utilizing board game mechanisms.
You may have already guessed what I’m about to say; in all this, Crusader Kings has failed. The board game has potential, but rather than strike at the core of what makes the PC game interesting, it tries to cover a broad range of mechanisms that just don’t translate well. The result is an underdeveloped mishmash of unfulfilling mechanisms in a game that lasts too long while leaving you feel like you barely accomplished anything.
There’s a lot to dig into here, and I’m going to try to avoid beating a dead horse here by exploring every issue I have with the game. Let’s cover the core mechanism: the trait bag. Why doesn’t it work? How is it exemplary of the rest of the game? And from there I’ll lightly touch on a few other frustrating elements.
Like everything else, the trait bag it has potential, but is simply poorly implemented.
Conceptually, it is interesting and thematic. Different character traits would indeed affect the effectiveness of actions a King or Queen might undertake. It’s an interesting idea that the characters – primarily the leader of your kingdom – bring their specific traits into play and skew the outcomes of war, production, politics. All that good stuff.
The execution, however, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s just too binary. Despite having a few dozen different traits, a majority of them have no specific effect on the game. They’re either pass or fail, good or bad. No nuance. Even the once that do have a greater effect – Cruel, for example, which succeeds for Warfare-related draws, or Ambitious which lets you build Castles – it’s still binary. It increases the odds of you succeeding when you go after a certain action, but it doesn’t result in any sense that your King’s cruelty is driving your kingdom toward war. It also doesn’t really encourage players to pursue particular traits. Even if you want to go a warfare route, you’re better off with a generic green trait that is always good for anything you want to do rather than a Cruel trait which is only good for War.
I’d argue that every single trait should be tied to an action – and it should be far less binary. Trait tokens don’t have to be a simple “yes” or “no” – some traits could help specific actions more than others.
Even moreso, though, I’d argue that using the trait bag as an action resolution mechanism is the wrong choice. Players are already required to draw their hand of action cards in advance, which affects what they’ll be able to do in a given Era. What if this was done by drawing traits instead? Then, instead of binary resolution – a complicated coin-flip, basically – the traits you draw would affect what actions you were able to pursue each round. You’d be motivated to get that Cruel trait, because otherwise you’re not going to war. Combining this with making every trait mean something, it becomes less about getting the “good” tokens and more about what strategies you want to pursue.
That wouldn’t fix everything, though, because the issues I’ve mentioned are compounded by the fact that it just isn’t easy to add traits to your bag. You start with 4 – two green, two red. The quickest way to add another is to get your king a spouse – important regardless, so you can have kids and develop a line of succession.
But beyond that, you won’t add many traits at all. Only when a character inherits the throne does his or her traits get added to the trait bag; this happens when your king dies, which by default will happen once per game thanks to old age. There are a few ways to hurry up the demise of your king, most of which are based on random events out of your control. You also add traits whenever you succeed at a Crusade, but those are always red traits. In a few very specific cases you can temporarily add traits from a non-ruling character, but only for combat.
Interestingly there is a glimpse here of What Might Have Been. Because only your King adds traits to the trait bag, you might have to work to arrange who will inherit the throne. By default it is your eldest son… but what if he happens to be a lazy, weak, rowdy coward? You might send him off to get married to another player’s character, in order to form a pact. Or maybe you’ll send him on a Crusade and hope he finds himself on the receiving end of a generously given mortal wound. Maybe you’ll just have him straight-up assassinated. If you can use him for something useful in the meantime – marrying someone from a neutral territory so you can gracefully annex that territory into your kingdom, for example – all the better.
When stuff like this happens… when you’re able to impact your kingdom with intentional actions like this? Well, that’s when this game is the most enjoyable.
This kind of thing is rare, though. Instead of constantly working on manipulating your kingdom to get the traits you want in your bag, you will add maybe 3-4 traits over the course of 9 rounds of play. It doesn’t give you any sense that you’ve accomplished anything, or that you’ve crafted a legacy or a kingdom that means anything in particular to you. All it means is that you’ve slightly adjusted the odds of what boils down to a complicated coin-flip you have to do to resolve certain actions.
It speaks to a lack of thought and care going into the mechanism. Why is it a bag of tokens instead of a coin toss or a die roll? Not because the mechanism enhances the strategy or feel of the game, but because it *feels* on the surface more “cool” or strategic than a die roll. But really it is not, at least not the way it is implemented.
This apparent lack of attention to detail is pervasive throughout the design. Many mechanisms feel like they are implemented because it’s more “gamery.” Why draw a hand from various card decks at the start of an era? Because it’s slightly more gamer-y than dealing random hands. Why select 2 action cards before you resolve either of them? Because it seems like a modern game-y thing to do. It doesn’t capture the feel of Crusader Kings at all.
There are plenty of weird design decisions everywhere. The primary way of scoring points, for example; the number of regions you control. But you can control a maximum of 8 regions. This is explicit in the rules, and implicit by the number of Knight miniatures. Most kingdoms start out with 5 regions already under their control.
There’s no engine-building to ramp up your activities. No dynamic warfare, which takes far too many actions within the scope of the game to resolve, and it’s far easier to defend territory anyway. The game board feels frozen in place, much like your trait bag. After 3 hours of play, it just won’t feel like you’ve accomplished much. It’s impossible to engage with the game in a meaningful way.
A lot of this stuff – the marriages, the lines of succession, the slow warfare – works just fine in the PC game because you can simulate years and years passing with all sorts of complex intrigue. In the limited span of a board game, it doesn’t work. Not like this.
I hate to rag on a game, but it’s hard to look at this game as anything other than a huge missed opportunity. With a 3-hr playtime and just about every mechanism across the board, I can’t really recommend it to anyone. Instead, I’d suggest looking at El Grande. While it lacks the marriage / political alliance element, there’s a lot more intrigue and jockeying for influence over territories in a European country in a tighter, far more interesting package.
iSlaytheDragon was provided a review copy of Crusader Kings by Free League.