Sunday, March 18, 2007

No need for a 4th Crusade. We're fine.

Game: Crusader Rex
Franks: Eric
Saracens: Tim

I decided to pull out Crusader Rex this week. This is Columbia Game's block game covering the 3rd Crusade. I had received it as a birthday present from my mother-in-law, and had been looking forward to trying this one long before that.

We randomly chose sides, and I ended up with the Franks.

I had never played before, and Tim had played under the original 1.0 version of the rules. In that version it was very hard for the Franks to win. The rules are up to version 1.4 now, and the balance seems to be coming close. Some would say the Franks are now favored, but it's apparently close enough to make a good game of it.

The Basics

The game is played on what is essentially a point-to-point map of the Levant. (the modern Middle East Mediterranean coastline) There are a number of cities on the map, but only seven of them really matter. (Aleppo, Antioch, Damascus, Tripoli, Acre, Jerusalem, Egypt. Yeah, I know Egypt's not a city.) The Franks start the game in possession of Antioch, Tripoli, Acre, and Jerusalem. Victory conditions are controlling the majority of the 7 key cities at the end of the game, or an auto-victory is possible if you control all seven simultaneously.

The game lasts 6 years (1187-1192). Each year has six turns, the last of which is a winter turn with limited actions available. At the beginning of each turn, each player is dealt 6 cards from a 25-card deck. The cards are numbered 1-3, with four event cards. The numbered cards determine a couple things. First, the Franks will go first each turn unless the Saracen card is numbered higher. Second, the card you play determines the number of actions you get. An action is (usually) either activating a city containing your blocks for movement, or activating a friendly city to act as a muster point to which all blocks in range can move.

Combat can either be done as a field battle or a siege. What I believe are standard block-game mechanics apply. (I've only played Hammer of the Scots, so I have a limited experience with block games.) Each block has three combat-related ratings: strength, combat quickness, and combat effectiveness. (The latter two are my terms – I don't recall what the official names for these ratings are.) Strength runs from 1 to 4 and determines the number of dice you roll. These are indicated by triangles around the edge of the stickers on the blocks, and you rotate your block whenever you take a hit (thus losing strength.) Combat Quickness is a rating from A to C. A's go before B's before C's. Combat effectiveness is a rating from 1 to 4. When you roll dice, every die showing a number equal to or less than your Combat Effectiveness is a hit. Hits must be applied to the strongest opposing block at that moment. If there's a tie, the block's owner chooses who takes the hit. Combat is not considered simultaneous – there is a definite and defined sequence to the events. Finally, the defending side in a battle goes before the attacking side, and the attackers must retreat if the battle reaches a 4th round with blocks still on the field from both sides.

Sieges change combat somewhat. If the defenders stay within the city, it takes two hits for them to lose a strength point. Also, the storming side is limited to twice the city rating in active blocks while the defender is limited to the city rating as a defense force. Defenders can sally out, but lose the double-hit advantage on defense. If the siege reaches 2nd and subsequent turns, defenders are subject to attrition, which is basically a 50/50 shot at losing a strength point at the end of each turn. Relief forces are also possible, turning the besiegers into defenders.

The winter turn is usually one where you try to position yourself so you don't lose any blocks due to attrition, and maximize your replenishment opportunities. Sieges can't be prosecuted over the winter except in the case where you play the Winter Campaign card in the final turn, and losses on the besieging side are likely.

At the end of every turn after the first year, each side draws a block from their replacement pool, placing it either directly on the map, or into one of three holding boxes in the case of Crusaders.

My attempt at creating a Permanent Crusader State

I wasn't really sure how to start off in my quest to conquer the Holy Land. The three cities I needed to take – Damascus, Aleppo, and Egypt, are all rather well fortified. Between, there are lots Saracens scattered hither and yon. I needed to try taking these cities while holding what I already possessed. Of course, merely holding on to what I started with would win the game for me. I decided to muster my scattered units into a handful of larger forces. My thoughts were it would be easier to move them in cases of a bad hand, and I could always split a force apart right before wintering if losses needed to be healed. So, I spent the first half of the first turn mustering troops together.

Meanwhile, Tim decided Jerusalem looked like a ripe target. I don't recall if it was in the first turn, or early second, but Jerusalem fell rather easily. I spent most of the first two or three turns feeling like I was in constant regrouping mode. In some ways, it felt very much like playing the Americans in Twilight Struggle. I was holding on against a Saracen onslaught trying to chip away while waiting for reinforcements (Crusaders) to arrive.

Between Jerusalem and a couple other sieges that were over quick, I was really beginning to wonder if it was a sane choice to retreat to the castle when given the opportunity. It seemed that the doubled resistance on defense was more than offset by double the number of attackers. It didn't help that the majority of the Saracens were A-rated, and the Franks only have two A-rated blocks in the entire army. This meant Tim was nearly always going first in combat whether he was attacking or not. It was becoming very difficult to pull off the slow attrition plan I had in mind.

Sometime around mid game Tripoli fell. I think it changed hands three times during the game.

The Crusaders slowly started trickling into the replacement pools. I actually got all three English before any French or Germans appeared, getting the English (the strongest Crusader force) to arrive in 1190. My first goal with the English was to retake Tripoli. It didn't go well. In fact, the English died to a man. The only thing that made it feel any better was that it was at the hands of Saladin himself. In the 1190 year, I think Tim went first every turn. He definitely took the initiative at that point. I was left with control of only Acre and Antioch, and was relatively weak. It wasn't looking good.

As 1191 arrived Tim was looking like he was preparing to go for the kill. He was amassing forces in Damascus and Aleppo, and was slowly trying to expand a wedge between my forces. At this point, the French arrived. And, at this point, Tim had left Egypt empty. After all, there wasn't much I could do in the south without abandoning Acre, and that meant Egypt should have been safe. Except for the fact that the French could land in any friendly port and Ascalon (two cities away from Egypt and behind Tim's lines) was a friendly port. So, the French landed in Ascalon and headed straight to Egypt. That put the score at 4-3 with one turn left.

Early in 1192, the Germans finally arrived and amassed in Antioch. That made it nearly impossible to take. So, I had two options left to pull off a victory – take Jerusalem or Tripoli. I had eight blocks within striking range of Tripoli, but one was north and the other south. It would take multiple activations to pull it off. I also had a force centered in Acre. It was too far away to support Egypt, and Tim had clearly abandoned any thought of taking Acre and was reinforcing Tripoli. So, I left Acre empty and trundled off to Jerusalem.

On the next-to-last turn of the year, Jerusalem finally fell into my hands. Meanwhile, Tim was besieging Egypt. I was leading at this point 4-3. On the final turn, the siege of Egypt left Tim and I down to one block each, both with a single strength point left. It came down to Winter Attrition in Egypt to decide the game. If I failed the roll, Tim won. If not, I did.

Fortunately, the roll went my way and the Franks held on for a 4-3 victory.

As this was my first playing, I know there was loads of sub-optimal play. Tim, to be sure, missed an opening in the final turn where he could have taken Acre by a forced march. (I had left a gap in my defense-in-depth. I had single units in Tiberias, Caesarea, and Sidon. If the latter had been in Tyre, I had all the approaches blocked. As it stood, he had an opening.)

That said, I enjoyed the experience quite a bit. I constantly felt like I was constantly on the verge of collapse, but still managed to hang on and eek out a victory. I think Tim certainly could have been more aggressive as he never really was threatened the entire game.

This one's definitely a keeper. The decisions are tense - at least in the fact that you have to consider the resulting board position of any particular move - and there seems to be a variety of feasible strategies. And, given we literally went down to the final die roll, it seems they've got the balance issues somewhat figured out.


Next week's game will be Tim's choice on Wednesday, and I haven't heard word one about what it'll be. Looks like we'll be on a regular schedule for a while with the exception of the first week of April as Tim's off to the Gathering.

1 comment:

Yehuda said...

I don't recall if it was in the first turn, or early second, but Jerusalem fell rather easily.

Well there's a big shock.