Crusader Kings (the board game)

The middle of 2019 is shaping up to be big in terms of Kickstarter delivery here. The latest was Crusader Kings, a board game from Free League based on the video game by the same name from Paradox Entertainment. The impossibly complex, deep, brain-melting video game that maybe 10 people I know actually play. The board game is easier.

I’ve taken a swing a CKII many times! Well, the tutorial at least. I make it through the tutorial and then, fighting a headache and the lingering sense that I’m not as smart as I think I am, put it away for six months. But based on my extensive experience with the tutorial, the boardgame does a good job capturing its vibe.

Crusader Kings (the board game, hereafter CKtBG) is a scenario-based wargame-ish game. Each player (1 to 5) plays a dynasty of kings/queens and their siblings and children. Family is massively important in CKtBG since it provides clear succession in the event of your monarch’s death. And monarchs will die. Misadventure, age, shit luck, nobody gets out of here alive.

Speaking of shit luck: much like the video game, CKtBG requires you sit down and get ready for the experience. That’s code for “hardcore rules-loving strategists may very well fucking hate this game.” Lots of the game is driven by the relentless stream of events that pop up throughout the game. The mechanism is super clever! There are five decks representing the five categories of actions you take in the game — building your Realm, conducting Intrigue, collecting Taxes, waging War, and going to the Crusades. Every card in, say, the Realm deck will give you the choice of building (castles) or developing (ie buying inventions and councillors). And then when you’re done with that, you execute the event attached to it. This means, usually, that the player before you has decided on what your events might be. And sometimes you get screwed so very much worse due to opponents’ careful timing. Most of the time, the players need to accomplish what they need to accomplish, and the events aren’t so carefully considered. It’s a neat trick but it also leads to slow play.

In the two-player try-out game we played last night, I got starved for heirs because most of the opportunities to get a kid rely on other players playing events that give you babies. And usually, baby-making means your monarch has a spouse (I saw one chance to produce a bastard). Should that spouse die without giving you an heir, welp, you’re outta luck until you remarry. So yeah: murdering spouses and kids is A Thing.

I think my favorite part of CKtBG is how you resolve uncertain actions. Most actions require a “trait check.” Every player has a little drawstring bag, into which went the chits representing the first traits that came with your monarch — in the first scenario, there were two red “bad” traits and two green “good” traits. The basic rule is you draw one chit and if it’s green, you succeed. You can also plow money into more draws (up to +2). The twist is that almost every action has “critical draws” that invert that math. Like if you want to go to War or Crusade, kindness becomes red (it’s normally green) and cruelty becomes green (it’s normally red). Neat! As your dynasty evolves, more chits go into your bag. As your monarch ages, traits come back out of the bag. It’s a little deckbuilder-y, and it definitely drives play. My opponent ended up with lots of cruel chits in his bag, which prompted him to War and Crusade but kind of give up on marrying good spouses or attempting delicate spywork.

Thankfully, scoring is pretty straightforward: 1 victory point for every territory you directly control, with a hard cap of 8 territories. Then there are four achievements in contention — most progress on the Crusades, most developments, most castles, and first one to Jerusalem — each also worth 1 VP. The tiebreaker is Crusade progress, i.e. how many of your dynasty’s shields you’ve put on the Crusade track. It’s all very transparent and easy to evaluate on the board.

CKtBG reminds me of several other games in a similar vein, but is still its own thing. It reminds me of Fief in the heavy emphasis on marriage, dynastic pacts, and complex political calculations — and in the experience-focused (swingy shit luck) element. It reminds me of Warrior Knights in the territory grab and technology advancement. And there are little bits from elsewhere.

I’m not sure I love CKtBG but on first play, I really do like it a lot. There’s one expansion for it, where your inventions become more important via little miniatures you can deploy to the map for additional effect. We didn’t play with that but it didn’t look like it’d be hard to add. I also need to play it with four or five players, I think, to really appreciate the political complexity of the game. With just two of us and a single NPC player (it comes with clever “AI” tactics that remind me a lot of the NPC flowcharts in COIN games) there was very little of that to our game.

More information and some nice photos of the game are at their Kickstarter page, but please consider clicking my Amazon affiliate links above if you plan on buying it.

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