Monday, March 19, 2007

Saracens Take Jerusalem (Crusade Declared a Success Regardless)

Thursday saw Eric and I facing off over the Holy Land in a game of Crusader Rex, a Columbia block-game set during the Crusades - the 3rd Crusade, to be exact - in the late 1100s (1187-1192). I'll state right up front that my knowledge of this historical period is sketchy at best, so I don't have much to say as to whether the game "accurately simulates" anything - but I can also say up front that our game Thursday was an enjoyable, and closely fought, match between Saracens and Franks (aka Crusaders).

It's probably important to note, as well, that we were playing with the 1.4 version of the rules (the latest, to the best of my knowledge) - I had played Crusader Rex early last year (with the rule set as initially released) and found it much less balanced, with the Franks having a very tough time of it. I lost again - this time playing the Saracens - but enjoyed the experience much more than last time, as it felt as though both of us were in the game up to the very last. If a single die-roll had gone differently (Eric's garrison in Egypt, doing winter attrition) on the last turn, I'd have won. In fact, after the game, Eric pointed out a move I could (probably should) have made and won the game outright (taking Acre with a small force from Damascus - it would have required a forced march, but Eric didn't have the forces he would needed drive me back out, and had left it un-garrisoned). Sadly, I didn't see this - I had forgotten that I could force march, and discounted that move as it was 4 stops away from Damascus, rather than the 3 my units could move normally. Ah well - the game was very tight, and tense throughout - as the Saracens, I never really felt as though I was at risk of losing my starting locations (other than Egypt), but I was constantly under pressure trying to react to Eric's attacks, especially on Jerusalem and Tripoli, and also had to see to the defenses of my home cities (which I did poorly for Egypt, but did fairly well for Aleppo and Damascus).

In our match, it became clear that the two sides were pushed to take very different approaches - Eric, as the Franks, tended to concentrate his forces into the few major locations, while the Saracens, under my command, also tended to form large forces (a side-effect of the typical Columbia rule allowing a group of units to be activated and moved en-masse), but Saracen units are more mobile than the Franks typically are (a movement of 3, compared to a typical movement of 2 for most of the Franks, with some exceptions).

The victory conditions of the game are whoever controls a majority of the 7 major cities - Antioch & Aleppo in the north, Tripoli, Damascus & Acre in the middle, and Jerusalem & Egypt in the south - win after the final turn in 1192, OR if either player ever controls all 7 of those cities they win immediately. I suspect the "sudden death" ending isn't terribly common, because it's quite tough to take a major city if it has any garrison to speak of!

As the Saracens, my forces started out in control of Aleppo, Damascus and Egypt, which puts the Saracens on the offensive in that they must take at least one of the other major cities in order to have a chance at victory. Fairly early in our match, I was able to take Tripoli, on the coast of Lebanon, as well as gathering a strong force in Tiberias, just west of Acre, but also close enough to Jerusalem to be a threat.

This brings to mind another interesting element of Crusader Rex - Winter, which is the last of six rounds in each year, are typically used to disperse your forces (making them harder to gather and use easily), as you are required to have forces winter in towns that have enough capacity to handle them. If you winter in a town friendly to your side, you can hold 3 times the normal capacity of a town you have captured from your opponent. This forces, at the end of each year, both players to disperse their units in order to avoid being eliminated by the harsh winters. The Saracens also have an added challenge - normally, in winter, units can use the value of the city they are quartered in to rebuild their strength. Saracen units, however, only get the full benefit of this if they are in their home city (stated on each block, and where they start) - otherwise, it costs them 2 town points to restore 1 point on a block away from home. I don't recall this rule from my initial playing, and it is the one that I think most successfully balances the Saracen mobility - Saracen units can travel very quickly across the board, but it doesn't do to get them TOO far from home, especially if they've seen battle, as they become difficult to restore to full strength when not in their home locales.

Most of the battles in our game were in cities initially controlled by the Franks - other than capturing Egypt with the French crusader blocks, due to my unwisely leaving Egypt ungarrisoned, the Franks never brought the battle to the Saracen home countries - which I suspect is accurate, given that the trigger of these crusades was, apparently, the Saracens taking Jerusalem. I am certain that, had I been more alert, I could have taken the game (I never really felt as though I had a chance at the "all seven cities" victory condition, but I probably should have been able to keep 5 of the seven).

Eric asked me if I had ever felt "threatened" as the Saracen - as I mentioned, I didn't feel as though my "home" territories were threatened, no, but I felt constantly under pressure from the Franks, especially as the English and French Crusaders entered the game (the Germans showed up so late as to not have any effect on the game, other than to secure Antioch). Those units are so dominating - especially given the ability to use the Knights Charge - doubling the number of dice rolled at the risk of some hits to your units - that they were definitely a focus of my defense. I suspect that is probably as it should be - the Saracens need to go on the offensive, and if they can keep the pressure up, they should. One of my failings was I didn't follow up a late year strong showing in a battle in Antioch, where I knew the Franks were weak, even with points to rebuild. I should have attacked Antioch again early the next year, as that would have given me the potential of eliminating more of the Frank defenders while they were weakened from the previous combat.

I really enjoyed our playing of Crusader Rex - much more so than my first playing, due in large part to the rules improvements, although it might also have had to do with being the Saracens as opposed to the Franks in my first playing. I need to give this game a try as the Franks, with the current rules, to fully form an opinion, but this was an entertaining evening, only lasting a bit longer than our aim of 3 hours (I think we wrapped up around 11:30 or so, after getting started around 8:15 or 8:20). I really like the "block games" in general - both the "fog of war" element, and the stepped losses, really make for an elegant system that wraps quite a bit of decisions into a simple implementation. The map and "history" in this particular version is definitely interested - especially given that a lot of these places are still in the news today (for similar reasons).

As to our next game, I am likely to select either BattleLore or C&C:Ancients - largely this will depend on whether Eric has BattleLore (if he does, that's my choice). Until next week, then!


Eric said...

Excellent writeup, Tim. I think you remembered the flow of events more clearly than I.

I would definitely be interested in trying this again as the Saracens as well. In fact, let's just plan on doing that in two weeks as my next selection.

BTW, I do own BattleLore, so we'll get that on the table this week.

Tim said...

Cool - BattleLore it is.

I was thinking either the "Wizards & Lore" scenario (with just a level 1 Wizard each), or the scenario (name forgotten, but it's a couple after the Wizards & Lore one) that has a level 1 of most of the loremasters.

I'm fine with either, really, but would definitely want a scenario with lore in it, as that's the significant new element in BattleLore that I'd like to try!