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My Lord, is this world true?

A Review of Crusader Kings

by Lawrence Hung

The PC game is very popular in Hong Kong among the board wargamers. Last week in the meeting there was a group playing this PC-converted wargame. Since I have the game I suggest to play it too. It's almost instantly easy to gather four people together to play this game. Victor, Lorricount, David and I will join in the struggle of the Houses during the medieval time, replicating stories and experiences in the Game of Thrones. There is another PC-converted board wargame coming - Europa Universalis (right now it is in Kickstarter stage). Incidentally, both games are produced by the Scandinavian companies. Does it speak something?

Just as in the PC game, the elements of combat are downplayed unless you choose specific scenario in the PC game. We played the first scenario "The Kingdom of Jerusalem" in this boardgame in which victory is to be achieved by gaining the dominions in Europe. Altogether there are six scenarios and one of them is a tournament scenario. The rulebook is beautiful by any standard and the components are colourful, mainly illustrated with pictures from the PC game. The rules are not that long and a game can be easily completed in an afternoon, with three rounds in each of the three turns. There are even a few pages on the strategies of playing the game with specific role like Exapnder, Aggressor, Builder, etc. for you to choose and adapt to. They advise you on the composition of your Action cards (more on that below) and what to do in the first turn. A sign for showing the development efforts by the publisher. In addition, IMHO, this game is highly suitable for a solitaire game of story-telling, seeing the rise and fall of the houses on the European continent, and there is already a file of solitaire rules you can find here on BGG.

To conduct an action in the game, the character traits tokens are used to satisfy the "traits check" by drawing the green (success) tokens blindly from player's bag. Red tokens mean failure to meet the test. A nice twist to the rule is that each action (except for Develop, Mobilize and Tax actions) indicates one specific negative (red) trait, meaning success when drawn, and one specific positive (green) traits meaning failure. They are called "critical" traits. For example, in a War action, a green "Kind" trait is an automatic failure while a red "Cruel" is an automatic success. Most of the time the actions taken in the game cost money in golds and should meet the required trait (token) test. As a result, you should familiarize with the critical traits associated with specific actions and develop a strategy that suits the trait tokens available in the bag, while collecting them during the game.

The War Cards Critical Traits

I had three daughters in the game and relatively, my German King was spare from the many plot assassinations by the Italian player (Victor), unlike David's British Kingdom, who was the main target. Two of my daughters were married into the nobles (i.e. independent territories) and thus forming a pact with them. Later on, they were "invaded" (well technically they are not but just like Czechoslovakia during WWII, they are annexed "peacefully"), gaining control of the vassals and consolidating into the Kingdom of Germany. In the end, both Germany and France (Lorricount) shared the victory with a tied at 5VPs. The general consensus is that the game is best for five players instead of four.

The German King and His Wife

Daughters of the German King

A key feature of the game is the use of Action cards. Each player draws up to eight cards to form his hand. There are five types of Action cards, covering the general aspects of Kingdom management: Realm, Intrigue, War, Tax and Crusade. They can perform specific actions in the game plus trigger of events. For examples, Realm cards can spend golds to build a castle or develop Inventions or (inviting) Councillors (there is an expansion game to have more of these cards). Intrigue cards can Plot or Overthrow target player. A player can conduct up to four plots (Manufacture Casus Belli, Incite Unrest, Murder, Bribe and Divorce) with a single action as long as they are not targeting the same territory or character with the same type of plot action (note: a single player can be targeted multiple times). Each successive plot cost more golds to act though. A long-term planning to plot against other with sufficient (six) golds is something that is too horrific to even think about. Overthrow can cause uprising in a territory under unrest, removing the original player's control and ultimately becoming an independent territory.

A writ brought back from the Holy Land by the German Crusade Action card to summon the Italian

The German Salian Dynasty

You need a Casus Belli and an army (Foot Soldier) mobilized before you conduct an "Invade" action with War cards. The Mobilize action succeeds automatically but the Invade action requires a trait check. Additional army support from the adjacent territories (one's own, or territories in a Pact with you) give extra trait draws, increasing the chance of success. Surprisingly, these Pact support doesn't require a mobilized army. Modifiers from Development Cards, events on Action Cards, and the Crusade Track may also give the Invader extra trait draws for free. The Crusader Track measures the progress of the crusaders to the final destination - the holy city of Jerusalem. It is divided into boxes and confers bonuses to a number of other things and the effects are cumulative. If trait check for the Crusader action is successful, a Dynasty Shield of your house is placed on the Crusader Track. Up to four shields of a particular house can be placed on the track but you can remove a shield in the lower box (the associated bonus would be lost) and place one on the higher box.

The bird-eye view of the board

The Crusader Track

Lastly, Tax action can be conducted to collect a gold for each territory under your control. No trait test is required. A Castle or a Harvest token in the territory gives one extra gold each. Castles won't get destroyed in a war and so whoever controls it gains that extra gold. Other modifiers to the amount of gold include events, Dukedom, Crusader bonus, and Development card effects. In our game, when I taxed because of empty national treasury, the plague spread out to all the adjacent territories which failed trait checks (somewhat odd to relate plague with trait). Territories in plague produce no gold but the plague would be removed the next time the territories are taxed, indicating that the money would be diverted to clean up the mess instead.

Saxony, under Duchess Hildegund, was in unrest

French and Italian territories

We ended the game when Britain reached Jerusalem and became a King of the city.  France and Germany both had three tokens on the Crusader track but France was the first to place two dynasty shields on it (meaning putting in more resources earlier than any other houses). Italy was just one short of a Castle to achieve "Builder" (requires three castles) to earn a VP. German controlled four territories while France three. So both France and Germany were tied with 5VPs and shared the victory according to the rules. Italy had four VPs while Britain had two for the territories they had. No one achieved "Inventor" with four Development cards.

End game positions

Overall, I find the design quite polished, tight and closely knotted together with all kinds of actions, in an attempt to bring out the general mechanics in the computer game. To that end, the boardgame succeeds in literal translations of all the essential elements in the computer game. For any players who are a fanboy of the original computer game, this is a must for "re-living" the world inside the game, i.e. a game of another game.

For those who have no experience with the computer game before, they might find the world strange to enter into and a bit overwhelmed by the intense plotting and huge number of events happening (one event for one action card!). There should be a lot of interactions among the players but it seems to be lacking in our game. Understandably, people don't know even how and what to bargain and trade with each other, given that pacts, traits and actions cards cannot be traded. However, I am sure there is still a room to explore with.


After all, there are five other scenarios, including one for the tournament that we can pick up for another game. The initial reaction from the players in the group is that there is not a lot of wars on the board. But to those who knows the computer game, it is very hard and cost a lot to raise an army and conduct a war against the others. Managing house affairs is always troubling. The game needs the right group of people and I can understand why people are not as excited as me if they expected different thing. The Euroish mechanics might not be for everyone. To me, I enjoy Crusader Kings because of the computer game as it is quite an epic historical simulation of the complex events and very immersive, largely due to the awesome computer graphics on the components. The miniatures are very nice too. There is no action to imprison a court member. I do miss it though.

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