Let me tell you a story about Queen Adelaide. She was quite Clever, and she was married to a Strong man. She cared deeply about her family’s bloodline, so much so that she murdered her brother and nephew in order to take the throne so that their negative traits wouldn’t be passed on. She hatched a plot to have her brother, the king, murdered but her Dim-witted nephew was next in line for the throne. Thus she framed her nephew as a witch and had him burned at the stake. The bloodline was saved and, most importantly, I didn’t have to put any negative Traits in my Trait bag. Instead I was able to slip Adelaide and her husband’s positive traits in, giving me a better chance at future glory.
Adelaide’s story is only one vignette from the tapestry of ridiculous tales that have been spun, and unraveled, in our various games of Crusader Kings. The best part of Adelaide’s murder rampage is that I initiated it against myself, all in the name of keeping a few negative traits away from my precious Trait bag. You see, Crusader Kings is a strategy game where success and failure in nearly every venture are determined by the traits that you draw from your bag. Half of the Traits are “good” green traits that contain such descriptors as Strong, Pious, and Brave, while the other half are “bad” red traits that contain such negatives as Lame, Ignorant, and Haughty. As you play through the game, people with various traits will find their way into your family, and if you aren’t careful, those undesirable traits can become a permanent part of your dynasty.
It’s not quite as simple as green/good and red/ bad though. Some Traits are “critical” traits, and count as the opposite when drawn for the actions that pertains to. That means that with careful dynasty management you can fill your bag with Traits in such a way that some actions will be impossible for you to fail at. While, at the end of the day (and game) you win or lose Crusader Kings by the amount of land that you control, with a few points for achievements sprinkled in, the majority of your time spent with the game will be in trying to get those traits that you need into your bag, while avoiding the negative traits that will hold you back. It’s in that pursuit that the fun of Crusader Kings is really found, and where all of the ridiculous, hilarious, aggravating and, most importantly, memorable stories are found.
Crusader Kings is a strategy game, but if you slap it down on your table hoping for a purely strategic experience it’s going to leave you wanting. Every turn you play one card, take the action, or actions, allowed by the card. Most actions require you to reach into your trait bag and pull out one or more Trait tokens to see if you succeeded or failed. You can pay money for additional draws, and your opponents can pay to cancel your additional draws and, assuming that you succeed, you carry out that action. Actions range from taxing your territories, to manufacturing Cassus Belli against an opponent in order to be able to attack their territory, to buying technological upgrades, to sending someone out to fight in the Crusades and so on. In each round you plan out two actions, and the order that you are going to take them in, and then you take turns with the other players playing one card, taking the action, and then resolving the event listed on the card you played. It’s entirely possible to form and attempt to carry out strategies, and the method of doing so is relatively straightforward, but it’s nearly impossible to plan for all of the various Events, and how they might shake up the game before you get to exercise your grand scheme.
Every card that is played by a player will have some sort of Event printed on it. These events often result in simple things, such as the birth of a child for the next player in line who has a married monarch, but they can also result in absolutely ludicrous things happening, like the aforementioned burning at the stake of a person in your dynasty that has been accused of being a witch. You can plan out which cards you will play, which often gives you at least some control of the Events that will happen that you trigger, but there is no way to know what Events your opponents are going to play nor how they are going to effect you or shake things up in the game. This lends the game a semi-random element that is impossible to predict, but it’s not simply there to cause confusion and chaos. Instead, the game does a wonderful job of making you feel that no matter how well you plan and prepare, life is going to throw you some serious curve-balls, especially when you are playing on such a grand stage as the one presented in the game.
Not every Event that plays out will be bad for you, and not every Event is good for your opponents, but you have to consider how the Events that you play will effect either your empire or your opponents, which means that rather than simply being random for random’s sake, the Events, and how vital their impact on the game can be, actually become part of the strategy of the game. It’s also these Events that lead to the best moments of storytelling that Crusader Kings has to offer. The best laid plans of mice and kings can be laid waste when one moment you are poised to strike at the heart of your enemy via Cassu Belli manufactured by your spymaster and the next moment you are dealing with an outbreak of the plague across your lands and the birth of a club-footed son.
The most insane thing about Crusader Kings’ insanity is that it works … if you go into it with the right mind set that is. If you want to play a strategy war game where the savviest tactician will reign supreme then you are most likely going to be let down by this game. If you want a game where insane stories unfold before your eyes, and everyone is doing their absolute best to follow through with their plans while dealing with the ridiculous, the mundane, the overlooked and the future consequences of past actions then you are going to have a blast with this game.
If you are a fan of the video game series that this board game is based on then you’ll know what kind of crazy antics to expect when you get this to the table but, and that’s a big BUT, if you haven’t played many board games before then you are going to have to spend some serious effort getting through and parsing out the rules for Crusader Kings. In spite of how simple the initial gameplay loop of Crusader Kings is (pick your hand of cards, pick two cards to play, play one card at a time each turn) the sheer volume of things that you can do, especially with the Plot/Overthrow cards, can leave new players’ heads spinning. For example: In order to launch a military assault on another player you have to manufacture Cassus Belli against them. This requires a successful Plot card. You then need to Mobilize troops on a future turn. After you’ve mobilized your troops you need to pay their upkeep. Once you have your invading army ready, and a legal target, you then need to play another Mobilize/Invade card on a future turn, and then succeed at a check to see if you managed to actually win the battle.
The gameplay is straightforward, but the systems and requirements of many actions can be complex. Top all of that off with the fact that crazy Events shake things up constantly and you end up with a game that feels like a ridiculous, entertaining, chaotic free-for-all that really shouldn’t work as well as it does. But it does. It’s fun. It’s a LOT of fun. If you want the feeling of courtly intrigue during the middle ages, the plots, the ridiculous bureaucracy, the scheming neighbors and the matching of wits of the potentially witless then Crusader Kings is a game for you, as long as you are willing to put in the initial work of parsing all of the rules out. This isn’t a grand strategy game where the most tactically skilled player is going to come out on top every time, instead this is a dynastic-strategy simulator where the person who manages the chaos, intrigue and rolls with the punches the most gracefully is usually going to come out on top, and boy is it a lot of fun.
A note on player count: Crusader Kings can be played at any player count, from 1 to 5. There is an included solitaire mode that features a few different AI personalities that can be used to flesh the game out to any player count. Playing with the AI is serviceable, but the game is at its best with a table full of players, all doing their best to control the chaos while creating memorable stories together.
A note on “chrome”: Crusader Kings’ doesn’t have the best quality components. The card stock is thin and the minis are only decent, and the rulebook contains some contradictions and obsolete rules. There is an official faq available that clarifies the rules, but be warned that there is an obsolete rule near the beginning that completely changes the way the game is scored, so if you are going to buy a copy of the game looking up the faq is an absolute must.
The bottom line:
Crusader Kings is an excellent take on the strategy video game series that inspired it. On first blush this game looks like a grand-strategy game, and in a way it is, but in practice it’s far more focused on telling engaging, ridiculous and often hilarious stories. Spreading your influence and capturing territory is what’s going to win you the game, but you’ll have to manage political intrigue, unpredictable events, conniving opponents and quite possibly a demon possessed child in order to do so. This is a strategy game, but it’s for the players who want to create memorable stories more than for players who want to flex their tactical superiority, and while it’s easy to play once you comprehend all of the rules, there are enough rules here, and they are varied enough that it may prove to be quite the challenge to play if you haven’t played many board games before.
Get this game if:
You like games that tell memorable and often hilarious stories.
You like games that constantly throw you curve-balls, and leave it to you to manage the twists and turns as well as you can.
You like the idea of having to manage your dynastic bloodlines, and all of the positive and negatives that come along with your characters’ personalities as much as waging war.
You enjoy the computer games and want to share a similar experience with your friends at the table over a single evening rather than dozens of hours.
Avoid this game if:
You want a strategy game where tactics will guide you to victory every time.
You dislike random twists and turns in games.
You like to control your own destiny, rather than making do with the hand that destiny dealt you.
The copy of Crusader Kings Board Game used for this review was provided by Fria Ligan.
Where’s the score?
The TechRaptor tabletop team has decided that the content of our tabletop reviews is more important than an arbitrary numbered score. We feel that our critique and explanation thereof is more important than a static score, and all relevant information relating to a game, and whether it is worth your gaming dollar, is included in the body of our reviews.