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Crusader Kings: Lead Your Dynasty to Triumph

I wasn't very surprised to see a game like Sid Meier's Civilization adapted to a board game. Civ (the computer game) was always heavily inspired by board games to begin it, and so it's mechanics translated easily back into board game formats without losing much other than the broader scope of the PC game.

Paradox's Crusader Kings, on the other hand, is a totally different beast of a PC game. It is an insanely complicated, system-based blend of grand strategy game, RPG, and social sim. It simulates thousands of individual characters across hundreds of countries and duchies through dozens of generations. The possibility space is vast. As such, I would never have expected to see anyone attempt to try to boil down this deep historical simulation into a tabletop board game. Well, I guess I shouldn't say "never". In this age of every media property being adapted to board game formats, I suppose it was inevitable for someone to try.

And someone did try. In 2019, a year before the release of the Crusader Kings III PC game, Swedish board game manufacturer Fria Ligen ("Free League Publishing") released a board game version licensed by Paradox. I received the game as a gift last fall (during the height of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic), and so didn't get to start playing the game until well into 2021, when we finally felt a little more comfortable meeting up with friends.

As much a story-generator as a board game

For any PC players coming to the board game, there is something very important that you should know about Crusader Kings: the Board Game: it's focus is largely on the story-telling aspect of the Crusader Kings experience. If you play the Crusader Kings PC game as a hardcore strategy game, then you will probably find the board game lacking in that respect. The Crusader Kings board game is as much a story generator as it is a strategy game -- perhaps moreso.

As a story generator, my friends and I have found Crusader Kings to be very entertaining. It's certainly one of the better story-telling games that I've ever played.

Each action card will include a random event that is either disruptive to the current player,
or which benefits another player.

The way that Crusader Kings creates its little stories is through the random events of each player's action cards, and through the resolution of events by drawing trait tokens. Each turn, a player plays a pre-selected card from their hand. You perform your chosen action, and then you resolve a random event on the card. All cards, except for the "Crusade" action cards, will have a random event that is either harmful to the active player, or which provides a benefit to another player (usually the next player in the turn order).

Many actions and card events will also require that the player draw traits from a bag (similar to a die roll in most other games). Each player character starts with a pre-determined set of traits at the start of the game, and can acquire new traits through marriages, succession, or other events. All your traits go into a bag, and you draw one or more blindly from the bag to resolve a given trait check and determine the outcome of an event.

Player actions, card events, and trait draws, thus combine together to create emergent stories in both the short and long term. Sometimes these little stories can play out over the course of a few actions or turns. Other times, game-long narratives can form.

Bastards, incest, and fratricide ... It's one of those games

In one game, my king married the duchess of a neighboring independent country, giving me a pact with that country. A couple turns later, another player played a card that caused that duchess (now my king's spouse) to die in childbirth, and the following turn, the card I played caused my pact with the neighboring country to be dissolved. These are all independent events that weren't actually related, and the fact that the dissolution of the pact happened to be the same country of the duchess I married was completely incidental. Nonetheless, the occurrence in quick succession created this little narrative in my mind in which the neighboring country's ruling family was so heartbroken and resentful of me for letting their daughter die in my care that they canceled the pact. Applying this sort of context to the events in the game makes the board feel more alive.

Character traits combine with the random events to create emergent narratives.

In another game, a rival player's king had a daughter with the "gardener" trait. A subsequent event gave her the additional "illiterate" trait. A few turns later, another random event caused her to die of poisoning. We joked that she died of eating a poison berry from her own garden because she was too illiterate to read that the berry she was planting was poisonous. When that same player had another daughter later in the game, and she also acquired the "gardener" trait, we all chuckled.

In yet another instance, my first player-king united Germany and had a son named Rudolph who was randomly assigned the "chaste" trait. I kept trying to marry Prince Rudolph off to other duchesses with positive traits, but I kept failing the action by drawing the "chaste" token. Eventually, Rudolph inherited the throne with only his two sisters as possible successors, so out of desperation, I married him off to a random noble in my own character deck, and that random noble drew the "inbred" trait.

We made a running joke that my "chaste" prince Rudolph was actually a "confirmed bachelor", and that he became so desperate to produce an heir that he married an inbred cousin. The two never had children. Instead the stress of the marriage (including infidelities by his wife) caused Rudolph to age and die prematurely. During Rudolph's final turns as king, my rivals conspired together to invade the duchies belonging to King Rudolph's sisters, who were both killed in the assaults. The premature death of King Rudolph and lack of any siblings or children to inherit lead to my Germanic kingdom collapsing into civil war and costing me the game.

My "confirmed bachelor" king died prematurely from stress of his inbred cousin-wife's infidelities,
leaving no heir and leading to a civil war and a total collapse of the German empire.

This little emergent story of my "confirmed bachelor" king, and his inbred cousin-wife who forced him into an early grave through marital infidelities and inability to provide an heir was entertaining enough that I didn't mind losing the game in a catastrophic collapse in the final rounds of gameplay.

Heck, there was even a game in which I had the highly-skilled sister of my own ruling king plot to murder the king (her brother) in order to take the throne and add her and her spouse's valuable green tokens to my trait bag. Yep, it's that kind of game!

So yes, the game can swing wildly due to luck. If you're the kind of player who hates having your plans thwarted by the luck of a draw or a random event outside of your control, then you will probably not enjoy Crusader Kings. But if you and your fellow players can let your imaginations do a little bit extra work to add some context and flavor to these random events and trait draws, then this game is thoroughly enjoyable, whether you win or lose.

I've played other games, such as Arabian Nights that too heavily emphasize the random story-generation, and the players feel like they have almost no agency or control in what happens to their characters. Crusader Kings manages to strike a nice balance between player agency and the randomness of the events. You have multiple ways of mitigating risk and shifting the randomness in your favor, so what happens rarely feels like it is completely outside of your control or your ability to meaningfully react.

I deliberately played a card forcing my own inept ruling king to be deposed by his more competent sister's coup.

Traits are the driving force

For a game that is so heavily based around story generation instead of hardcore strategy, the 2 or 3 hour playtime can seem a bit long. Thankfully, individual turns tend to be very short, and the game flows at a fairly brisk and steady pace. The most deliberation is done during a phase that happens simultaneously, which also prevents down-time from getting too out of hand. Most actions also affect one or more other players, which keeps the players as active participants in other players' turns, whether they are having their territory sieged, or they are the target of a fortuitous random event.

The game is largely driven by accumulated character traits, and so a big part of strategy is managing the traits in your bag. You generally want green (positive) trait tokens, since they allow you to succeed at most actions or events. However, certain green traits act as automatic fails for certain actions, and certain red traits act as automatic successes for certain actions.

Players accumulate traits over the course of the game.

For example, the trait "Cruel" is a negative (red) trait that is generally undesirable. However, it counts as an automatic success for warfare actions (including attempting a crusade). On the other end of the spectrum, the "Kind" trait is positive (green), but it counts as an automatic fail for war actions. Thus, if you have one or more Cruel tokens in your bag, you'll tend to be more successful at war and crusades.

Marriages can add the tokens of your spouse into your draw bag. Also, if your ruling king character dies (either from old age, a random event, or some nefarious plot by an opponent), the eldest child or sibling will inherit the throne. That successor will keep all the previous tokens, and will add his or her own token(s) to the bag, in addition to any token(s) belonging to the successor's spouse (if applicable). So you'll want to carefully consider how you manage your royal family and who you chose to marry, so that you'll get the traits that will lead to the most success.

It is unfortunate that, for a game that is completely driven by the player characters' traits, it sadly under-utilizes the traits of other characters. Traits for independent dukes and duchesses don't have much effect (if any), unless they are married to a player's king or queen. The duchies aren't harder or easier to invade if the non-player duke or duchess has certain aggressive or pacifistic traits (respectfully), the characters aren't harder or easier to marry based on whether they're attractive or lustful or chaste, and so on.

NPC and family member traits feel under-utilized.

The traits of characters in the player's family also feel sadly utilized. There is a rule that allows players to assign siblings and children as dukes or duchesses of territories that you control. If you do so, and you invade another territory from your duke or duchess' territory, then the duke or duchess' trait(s) is added to your bag (for the invasion trait draw only). Other than that, the traits of players besides the ruling kings or queens are never used.

Even if you send a family member on a crusade, the rules don't say anything about adding that character's trait(s) to your trait check. A family member's trait(s) get added to the draw if that character is a duke or duchess and participates in military action, but not if they go on a crusade? This seems like a curious contradiction / oversight in the rules. This seems to be an open question on the board game geek forums, but I think it makes enough sense that I'll probably house-rule it into all future sessions (pending clarification from the actual developers).

There's other silly little limitations to the way that traits work and are enforced. For example, a eldest child with the "Bastard" trait can still inherit the throne, even if there are younger, non-bastard children who could have maintained the bloodline. There's no option for the player to disinherit a bastard and allow a blood family member to take the throne. You can plot to murder the bastard child, but it would be nice if there were a "disinherit" plot that didn't require killing the character.

The PC game also allows characters to have
traits that seem mutually exclusive.

There's also no rule that I'm aware of that prevents players or characters from having mutually-exclusive traits simultaneously. For example, any character can be both "Pious" and "Godless" at the same time, or both "Kind" and "Cruel", and both "Chaste" and "Lustful". To be fair though, the Crusader Kings III PC game also occasionally allows characters to accumulate mutually-exclusive traits.

An heir to the throne

My friends and I also have some complaints about the endgame and how victory is decided. First and foremost, we all feel like the game ends a bit too soon. Unless a king or queen dies prematurely, each player will only have to go through a single succession before the game ends. This means that in too many games, most players can go through the entire second half of the game without having to worry about having an eligible heir to the throne. It would be nice if the game were designed such that normal play would result in having rulers die of old age in the last round or two of the game so that maintaining your dynasty is a relevant concern for every player throughout the entire game.

The Crusade Track is also a curious mechanic. For one thing, the length of the Crusade Track doesn't scale with player count at all. In a 3-player game, there will only be a total of 9 Crusade actions possible, and no one will ever reach Jerusalem. The only exception is if one or more players use the Archbishop development card to take a second Crusade action in a given era. However, there's only 2 Archbishop cards in the entire deck. It's not guaranteed to show up in a 3-player game, and it's impractical (given the limited number of actions available to each player in the game) for any one player to waste actions to cycle through the development deck.

On the other end of the spectrum, a 5-player game allows for the possibility of ending the game at the start of the second era (less than halfway through the total game). If all 5 players take their Crusade action in the first round, and all 5 pass the trait check, the game will end. Even with a failed crusade or two, the player(s) in the lead will likely rush to finish the final crusade early in the third era and end the game prematurely.

The Crusade Track feels very disconnected from the rest of the game.

One of the things that hurts Crusader Kings as a strategy game is that the limited number of victory points available, and the lack of component scaling based on the number of players, means that the lead can swing wildly in the final rounds of play. A player who played well the entire game can suddenly have their kingdom crumble if a couple rivals team up against her. And the last-second trading of one of the 4 victory tokens in the game can completely decide the outcome.

With only 8 knight tokens and 4 army tokens, players can also double the size of a small kingdom, or lose half their kingdom, in a single round. And since unrest doesn't cost any victory points at the end of the game, there's no check at all against a player mobilizing all 4 armies in the final round, spending all her gold to force successful invasions, and then not be able to pay maintenance on those armies at the end of the game. So players can totally overreach in the final round, capture territory that they can't possible hold, and potentially win the game without any consequences for their short-sighted aggression.

A medium-weight introduction to epic strategy gaming?

I have other nitpicks with the components of the game. It would be nice if the game included cards or tokens for the Crusade bonuses that could be handed out to the player who earns each one. That way, players can more easily see which bonuses affect them, without having to all crane their necks to read the text on one end of the board, or ask the player sitting in front of the Crusade track to remind everyone of who has what bonus. I guess I could print out my own.

There's also some minor issues with accounting. Once players start drawing extra cards, it can become difficult to keep track of which round you're in, since there's no token to track the round count. It might also be hard for players to remember who has and hasn't performed a crusade action in a given era -- especially in games with 4 or 5 players. This can open the game up to either cheating or honest mistakes. I use age tokens in the corner of the board to denote which round we're in, and I also ask that players keep their played Crusade card faceup in front of them until the end of the era, as a reminder to themselves and other players that they have already performed a Crusade action.

Plague can spread through the continent, destroying armies and upsetting the best-laid plans.

The rulebook also includes rules for playing a solo game against "A.I. players", and defines the behaviors of those A.I.s for their turns. This was handy while we were all social distancing and quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021. It would suck to spend a hundred bucks on a board game and not be able to play it at all because of circumstances outside of one's control (such as a pandemic). Unfortunately, the A.I.s don't work very well, and I really can't recommend Crusader Kings as a single-player game. Maybe it works fine as a two-player game with A.I.s in a pinch, but I feel the game still plays best with 4 or 5 players.

For those who might be fans of the PC game, and who are looking for an experience as strategically deep, you're going to be disappointed. This is a board game, after all, which needs to be playable without computerized overhead within a few hour time span. I guess Free League and Paradox could have gone full-blown Twilight Imperium with this one, such that the game takes a week to play, but that would severely limit the game's potential audience, and make it very hard for people who want to play the game to find other people who are willing to play it.

Case in point, I love board games; I love epic-length board games; and I love space 4x games; but even I don't own Twilight Imperium! I'm perfectly content to get my space 4x fix from Eclipse or Star Trek:Ascendancy (which is actually one of my favorite tabletop games!). I have a friend who owns a copy of Twilight Imperium, but we've never had the time to organize a game, in large part because of the fact that I have a "normal" 9-5 weekdays office job, while most of my friends here in Vegas work in the service or hospitality industry and all have different, conflicting work schedules. It's hard enough to find a single weekend in a month in which 4 or 5 of us are available to sit down for an afternoon-long tabletop game -- let alone be able to play a game that might take multiple sessions over multiple days to finish.

The game comes with convenient storage for the figures and draw bags for trait tokens,
but the draw bags are oversized, and it's hard to cram it all back in the box.

So long story short, I appreciate that this board game has been simplified and condensed to be playable in that 3-ish hour time frame.

That doesn't mean that I don't wish that the game had been a little bit more ambitious in its complexity or scope, especially at the $100 price point. I do wish that specific traits were a bit more impactful, and that independent character traits had some effect. I wish that the average game had enough turns to expect to go through more than just a single succession. I wish that the game's map had included more of Europe, such as Scandinavia and parts of Russia, and maybe even -- I don't know -- Jerusalem (you know, the place where the "Crusade" part of the game's title happens).

WHAT I LIKE

  • Emergent story generation
  • Character traits completely drive gameplay
  • Cost / benefit of playing a useful action, but also giving a benefit to another player
  • Simultaneous plotting and simple actions reduces downtime and keeps pace up
  • Feels epic, but is still playable within 2 or 3 hours
  • Includes rules for playing solo against an A.I.

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Victories don't always feel earned
  • Traits for non-player characters seem under-utilized
  • Rarely need a successor in second half of the game
  • Crusade feels distant and disjoint from rest of game
  • A.I.s break rules and are immune to many negative events

FINAL GRADE: C+

Manufacturer: Free League Publishing | Ion Game Design, Paradox Interactive.
Lead Designers: Tomas Härenstam, Nils Karlén, Jon Manker, Martin Takaichi
Artists: Ola Larsson, Johanna Pettersson
Original release: 20 August, 2019
MSRP: $100 USD
Player(s): 3-5 players (with optional solo and 2-player rules vs NPC A.I.)
Game Length: 3 hours
Official site: www.kickstarter.com/projects/1192053011/crusader-kings-the-board-game-lead-your-dynasty-to

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