My friend David generously swapped me this gem for my spare copy of “Here I Stand”, so games tart that I am I immediately dropped all other games, played through a solo turn of this one and was so impressed I declared it would be our game for this coming weekend. I had pre-ordered the game when it first appeared on MMP’s P500 3 or 4 years ago, but after being stung by customs charges and seeing games in shops before my pre-orders arrived, I cancelled and decided I would get it from a shop. The long wait is finally over, and I didn’t even have to pay for it – thanks David!
We played the First Crusade, a learning scenario which is only 3 turns (other crusades are 5-6 turns) with Nick as the Crusaders and me as the Muslims. There is no supply in the game as such, but it has a neat attrition system where at the end of your move you sum up all the hostile spaces you have passed through, add in some other modifiers and roll a dice – the larger your force is, the more potential for attrition there is. Moving from Constantinople across Asia Minor is the first action the Crusaders have to take and they suffer an attrition roll with a big plus for this, but in our game they got off lightly. I played “Crusaders go Home” in retaliation, forcing the Crusaders to send 1D6 steps back to Europe, but of course I rolled a ‘1’. Not having any cards which would provide naval transport, the Crusaders had to take the long way around the coast to get to Jerusalem (one of their victory conditions) and I moved a Muslim force from Mosul to intercept them at Antioch. This Muslim force would not be large enough to fight them in a pitched battle, but there is a tactic for the Muslims in the game called “shadowing” where they can harass the Crusaders and force them to take attrition rolls at high modifiers while only taking normal attrition on themselves – this effectively simulates the low-level skirmishing which went on while the Crusaders were on the march. Wary of the Muslims placed just beyond Antioch, the Crusaders ignored the city (changing history) and marched instead on Aleppo, where they got bogged down in a long siege.
The siege mechanics are interesting – when you move on a stronghold it gets assigned a resistance factor (RF) based on garrison size and whether it is a port or not and at this stage the attacker can call on the stronghold to surrender. There is a number to roll depending on the RF of the stronghold, modified by the leader doing the asking amongst other things – if the defenders thumb their noses at the attacker and decline to surrender, then the next surrender roll against another fortress gets harder until the leader successfully assaults a fortress which resets this accumulator to zero. If the call to surrender fails then the attackers can settle down for a siege or move on, taking attrition losses for passing through an enemy stronghold space.
Sieges are conducted by the attacker spending a card which has attacker siege text on it (most cards have siege text on them, either attacker, defender or both may use them), then the defender can respond. The attacker can then assault or play another card – doing the latter allows the defender the opportunity to play another card, but an assault does not. As most attacker cards reduce the RF of a stronghold whilst defender cards increase it, timing when to assault is crucial to success. If the attacker does not have an attacking siege card then in desperation he can try “Fortunes of War”, where he turns over the top card of the deck and the siege text on it occurs immediately whether to his advantage or not. The Crusaders at Aleppo were this desperate by now and had to try “Fortunes of War” – they drew “Epidemic” and had to roll a dice for each unit in their force – on 5 or 6 they lost a step. We had to break out a fistful of extra dice at this point, but to cut a long story short 3 steps died but no leaders ( they needed a 6 to perish) – the epidemic petered out without reaching the defenders (phew!), but in the ensuing assault they were massacred to a man. Flushed with success the Crusader swarm marched on Edessa and when called to surrender it gave up without a fight – obviously intimidated by the gruesome fate of the defenders of Aleppo. As the Crusade turned south towards Jerusalem they were worn down enough for the Muslims army to intercept (my only 3 card of the hand, which was also the mandatory “Fatimid Diplomacy” card – the disadvantage of playing this card was that it replaced Seljuk rule in Jerusalem with Fatimid rule and Fatimid units are weaker – oh well). Just as the Muslim horde was getting under way the Crusaders slapped down the “Heavy rains” card which slowed the cavalry army down from a 6 space move to 2 space move. This gave the Crusaders breathing space they needed, so en route to Jerusalem they then marched past 2 Muslim castles, persuaded a third to surrender and rolled really low on the attrition roll to do all this with minimum losses. Paralysed and with no leaders in or near Jerusalem (and no 3 cards to activate any of the leaders I had), I was forced to shadow the Crusader force with a small force of cavalry, only inflicting the odd loss through attrition. Unfortunately right at the end of turn 2, the depleted Crusaders were able to succeed in inviting the small garrison of Jerusalem to surrender and if they held on to the locations they had they would win the game by a long way.
Turn 3 – the final turn – and the Muslims had to re-take Edessa and Aleppo just to draw the game, but again the card deal delivered a lack of 3 value cards (I had one) and this crippled me. The 3 card was a good one which allowed me to activate 2 leaders at once so with this card I was able to lay siege to both key cities. During the long sieges which followed some Crusaders sailed to Egypt from Acre and took Dameitta on the coast for another victory point which would put the game out of my reach unless I could capture another Crusader city in addition to the ones I was besieging. To add insult to injury, the Crusader Egyptian expedition then laid siege to Cairo with half the number of troops which were actually in the city – without a 3 card to activate the Fatimid leader I couldn’t even attack out of the city so had to sit tight and await events. I did retake Edessa and Aleppo by the end of the turn, but the Crusaders hung on and claimed victory by a single point.
We really enjoyed this introductory scenario, though it leaves out some things (like diplomacy for example) which didn’t figure in the real First Crusade. The siege system in the game is excellent, though I can’t comment on the combat system for traditional battles as we didn’t fight a single battle! What does look interesting is that there is a pursuit mechanic where the loser of a battle can suffer a lot more casualties during the pursuit than in the actual battle, which again seems very true to the period. There is an optional rule to allow players to combine operations values of cards over 2 or more plays, and boy could I have done with that, as all my leaders cost 3 ops to activate and I drew 2 cards in the last 2 turns which were worth 3 ops. I was still able to move small forces with lesser value cards, but couldn’t seriously challenge the Crusader juggernaut. The lack of a supply rule is also novel and in keeping with the period – this allows the Crusaders to keep on moving towards the Holy City regardless though they suffer attrition while doing so. From what I could see we only got one rule wrong (which says a lot for the quality of the rulebook) – when castles fall to assault and flip control they come on as a reduced garrison unless the victor takes an extra step loss.
I was a bit disillusioned with the Crusades as the subject for a game after Columbia’s “Crusader Rex” initial balance issues, and I was hoping that “Kingdom of Heaven” would come good. It definitely has – I even think the full Crusades might be playable in 3-4 hours once you know the game, which is always a bonus. Recommended.