Monday, October 26, 2009

But what about the Princes?

(edit: major gaffe on my part, swapping Yorkist for Lancastrian - misread the initial setup while writing the blog and just went with that rather than thinking. The below text is now correct.)

Due to some of the physical constraints Mike mentioned in his last post, we were in need of a one, maybe two-week stop gap until we could get OCS Korea onto the table. Fortunately for me, Mike had recently received a perfect candidate for this exact purpose: Richard III, Columbia's most recent block game covering the Wars of the Roses. This is designed by Jerry Taylor, the designer of other gems such as Hammer of the Scots and Crusader Rex. I'd been looking forward to this one for a while, but hadn't gotten around to actually ordering it yet.

For those not familiar, a typical “block” game implements a “fog of war” mechanism through the unit strength only being visible to the owning player. Stickers are applied to one side of flat square blocks that are stood on end during play. Think Stratego. Richard III is no exception. For those more familiar, you'll recognize the game's heritage right away. The core game engine is very similar to Hammer of the Scots.

The gist of the game is that the Lancastrians are in power, and the Yorkists are attempting to gain control. Most blocks represent Nobles and their retinues, but there are also militia, bombards, and mercenaries.

A signature feature of this conflict was the wavering loyalties of many of the nobles. This is most famously exemplified by Lord Stanley changing sides on the field at the Battle of Bosworth. As you would expect, Nobles can switch loyalties here as well.

A brief rundown of the game goes as follows:

There is a deck of 25 cards. 19 of the cards provide action points, and six are events. You're dealt a hand of seven cards at the beginning of a seven-turn campaign. Each turn, you'll secretly choose one of the remaining cards in your hand and both players simultaneously reveal them. Higher numbered action card goes first, though events win out. If there's a tie, the current Pretender goes first.

During your turn, you can spend your action points to activate spaces to move or recruit units from your pool. If both sides have units in an area after both players activate, there's combat. At the end of each turn, there's a supply check. You do this seven times, then there's a Political Turn between campaigns. This is where levies and mercenaries disband, you check if the Pretender has usurped the thrown, and Nobles return home. Whomever is the King at the end of the final Political Turn after the third campaign is the victor. It's possible to score an automatic victory if you can manage to kill all your opponent's heirs as well.

For those that have played Hammer of the Scots or Crusader Rex, here's where I see the important differences:

  • Nobles can only change sides via a Treachery attempt during combat. This uses up the unit's attack for that round as well.

  • In combat, all of the hits from a single unit must be applied against the opposing strongest unit – you don't apply them hit-by-hit. This really changes the dynamics of multi-unit combat.

  • There isn't a “muster” option when spending action points. (you can't nominate an area for units to move to. Only from.

  • If both sides play an event simultaneously, it doesn't end the turn.

  • When the Nobles winter back home, it's more forgiving than in Hammer. Most Nobles have multiple “home” areas from which to choose.

  • When you recruit a unit, you choose it from your pool. It's not random.

There's a few other things that differ, but those are the highlights.

The starting situation is very asymmetrical. The Lancastrians start on the throne and in control of nearly the entire map. The Yorkists have to move their way onto the map and gain a foothold. They also have, as a general rule, stronger units than the Lancastrians. So, the Lancastrians are basically holding on trying to keep the Yorkists from getting themselves established.

I haven't gone through and analyzed the map comparing home areas for terrain advantages or anything like that. There's likely some other advantages to two sides have that we didn't notice in one playing.

But I did come up with this much to say: This might be Jerry Taylor's best game.

Given the popularity and success of Hammer of the Scots, that's saying something. Time will tell on balance (Crusader Rex certainly went through some tweaks getting the balance right) but Richard III seems cleaner and more forgiving than Hammer while keeping all the decision angst. Crusader will remain a good game, but a distant third to the other two.

If you're into this sort of game, this comes recommended. If you're not sure, but have been curious, this is a great entry point. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm predisposed to liking games on the War of the Roses (I've painted many a longbowman figure in my day) so I might be overlooking a wart or two. And we have only played the game once. This is going right to the top of my Christmas/Birthday list, though and I'll be buying it if I haven't received it as a gift by then.

But we still don't know for sure about the Princes.

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