Crusader Kings the Board Game Review
Crusader Kings II is one of my all time favourite video games. Frequent visitors to our site will not only know this, but will have heard me say it a few times by now! So when the Crusader Kings Board Game was announced and put onto Kickstarter last year, you can imagine that my interest was piqued.
We managed to catch up with Tomas from Fria Ligan (Free League), at the UK Games Expo last year. While we didn’t get hands on with a play through of Crusader Kings, he did show us what was in the box and gave us the brief overview of how the game plays. You can listen to more of our impressions from that day here. But suffice to say it certainly didn’t dampen my anticipation for Crusader Kings the Board Game.
Jump forward a year and a convention, Crusader Kings the Board Game released to the public at Gen Con 2019 in Indianapolis. As well as direct from the Free League webstore.
What is Crusader Kings the Board Game?
Free League were able to gain rights to use the license from Paradox Interactive to make a board game adaptation of Crusader Kings. In fact, some members of Free League had worked at Paradox, so were familiar with Crusader Kings anyway. The idea for the board game came from PDXCon, Paradox’s annual convention.
But if you are not familiar with Crusader Kings the video game, you’ll still be asking what this board game is. Well, it’s kind of in the title. You are a medieval Crusading King! Or, at least you hope to be…
Here’s the reason why Crusader Kings II is my favourite video game of all time: Unlike most other grand strategy games where you play as a Country or Faction, in Crusader Kings you play as a Dynasty. Or rather, as the head of a dynasty. Your dynasty. When the current ruler dies, you take over as the heir. As such, the focus swings away from Global Domination as in other games, and more on to the individual characters within your dynasty. Who should you marry? How many children will you have? How can you form alliances through wedlock? Can you position your children into power by a well timed plot? Shall I be Pious or Cruel? These are all parts of a Crusader Kings game.
And (most of) these things are what Crusader Kings the Board Game replicates in a table-top format.
What’s in the box?
We won’t delve into too much detail about the contents. But you can head over here to check out our unboxing video.
It’s hard to remember back to the original days of the base video game of Crusader Kings II, before all the expansions that added other parts of the world. But with the board game we are very much focused on Western Europe.
There are several dynasties to play as in Crusader Kings the Board Game, split into the different regions, or cultures, on the map.
You have the English, Iberian, Frankish, Italian and Germanic cultures to choose from. And hence the game plays up to five players.
Each of these cultures has its own set of Knights and Armies that go on the map during the game. And each culture has a number of dynasties associated with it, which each dynasty having it’s family board and dynasty shield tokens for using at various points on the map.
The cultures also have a set of character cards each. Some of these are specific to a dynasty. These are the starting Kings for the different scenarios that you use to set up the game. The rest act as a pool of independants, children, and potential spouses for you throughout the game.
How do you play?
As mentioned above, Crusader Kings is all about building up a family dynasty. Crusader Kings the Board Game doesn’t quite match that in terms of pure objective.
For starters, every player will play as a King (or Queen) in one of the cultures. There’s no option where you play as a lower Duke and try to vie for independence or to usurp your liege. You will, however, need to ensure your ruler marries and produces suitable heirs throughout the game, as you won’t keep your starting King throughout the game.
There are a variety of starting scenarios in the box that explain how the board should be set up, including the starting characters, for each of the five cultures. Your starting character will come with four base traits that go into your trait bag. The trait bag is the key mechanic for doing just about anything in Crusader Kings. Instead of rolling dice to determine outcomes, you will draw traits from your bag to see if you are successful in your endeavours.
The game is played over three eras, with each era having three rounds, and each round having two turns. It’s sounds a bit confusing the first time, but you quickly get used to the flow of the game. This is also aided by great player reference cards.
At the start of an era, each player will draw eight action cards, and on each turn you will be playing one of these cards (so a max of six will be played). The actions provide you with a range of options from warmongering and playing in the shadows, to looking after your realm and going off on a crusade!
The Paradox Random Event Engine
Anyone who has played a Paradox Interactive game, even if it isn’t Crusader Kings, will be familiar with their Random Events. From Possessed Children to Plagued Crops, it’s all possible in Crusader Kings the board game.
The action cards have a random event that is triggered when played. First you resolve the action you wanted to take with the card. Then you read the event text and resolve that. This was definitely a sticking point when introducing the game to new players, as the cards look like they focus more on the event than the action they can be used for.
The events either affect yourself, or “other”, meaning the next player. There will be requirements though, so if an “other” effect can’t trigger on the next player, it’s passed to the player after them, and so on. Hence, you may have a card with the action you want to play. But the consequential random event may actually be harmful to you, or too generous to your opponent, forcing you to way up the pros and cons of playing it.
Victory is thine for the taking!
Crusader Kings the Board Game is a Victory point game. At the end of the game you will score points for the number of duchies under your control, along with some achievements that are available throughout. While the end scoring concept is a fairly straightforward affair, it’s how you get there that really matters:
Can I war my way to victory?
Absolutely. At the end of the game, area control is what counts. However, in order to go to war you need to have raised armies, which you need to pay maintenance on. And you also need to have a valid casus belli (gained through plotting). These things take time to prepare, so forward planning is needed and all other players will be able to see your intent.
Can I backstab my way to victory?
Another viable route. You can use deceitful tactics to create unreset in, and overthrow, territories of your opponents. It won’t make your region stronger immediately, but it will make theirs weaker. Murdering other characters is also a valid tactic. Can you successfully murder a King who has no heir? If you pull it off, their dynasty will have a succession crises resulting in half their lands becoming independent. A great tactic to use against powerful dynasties, or when you don’t have the money to spend on armies.
Can I marry my way to victory?
In a roundabout way, yes! If you marry into an independent territory you form a pact with them. These territories can then later be annexed, which is much easier than taking foreign regions by force. And if another player tries to attack an independent that you have a pact with, it automatically gives you casus belli against them, saving you the time and resources of trying to gain one. Also, the trait of your rulers spouse gets added to your trait bag, and bag building is hugely important.
Can I marry a horse?
Yes. Yes you can.
Fans of the Crusader Kings II video game will be familiar with Glitterhoof. In the video game you need to have a character that’s gone slightly mental before being introduced to Glitterhoof. In Crusader Kings the Board Game though you can simply replace any independent character on the map with Glitterhoof. Therefore, you can marry Glitterhoof (as either a male or female character) but you won’t be able to have any children with the horse. Because that would be unnatural…
The good, the bad, and the inherited ugly trait
Traits are a big part of Crusader Kings II, and as I’ve already mentioned they are a big part of the board game too. Your success on many actions is determined by drawing traits out of your dynasties bag. As your dynasty moves through the generations and encounters various events, more and more traits will go into your bag. Whenever your ruler gets married, the spouses trait also gets added to the bag. Bag building becomes a very important factor when playing Crusader Kings.
All of the traits are either good or bad. But a number of them, such as Cruel and Kind, are also critical traits. This means that while they are a bad (or good) trait generally, for certain actions they become the opposite! For example, Cruel is a negative trait. But if you are trying to wage war or go on a Crusade, it counts as a good trait. These critical traits are marked as such on their tokens, and the action cards also show you if any traits count as critical.
Once a trait goes in the bag it generally stays there for the rest of the game, with two exceptions. After each round your King will age, by adding a token to their card. Once you reach the fourth age token (provided they live long enough) you get to remove a token of your choice from your bag. It’s meant to symbolise getting older and wiser, and it works. There are also some tactics you can use to prevent another player from being able to use this ability, based on some events.
The second option is with the critical traits. There is a rule that allows you to discard a critical trait when you draw it. Take the above example where we used Cruel. If you were going to war and drew Cruel from your bag, counting as a success, you could choose to discard the trait. But you would then automatically fail the trait check. And if you drew Kind, which for war would have been a fail, you can discard that (otherwise good) trait in order to pass the check. It’s an interesting mechanic. But in all honesty, not one that we ever used during all our play tests.
The trait bag system does work well as a decision mechanic, especially as a replacement to rolling dice. In a lot of situations you can buff draws using councilors or rewards from the Crusade path. Failing that you can usually just pay gold for extra draws to help increase your chances of success. It also adds a lot of flavour. Oh, you failed your crusade because you drew Imbecile, Drunkard and Bastard from the bag? Well what did you expect to happen?
Dudes on a map
As we’ve stated above, these bag building, trait drawing, dynasty building, action and event playing mechanics all lead up to one thing. Area control.
The final scoring in Crusader Kings the board game comes down to who has the most Knights on the map at the end of the third era, or when someone completes the final Crusade (whichever happens first). In all honesty, it’s a bit of a flat ending. The build up play of growing your dynasty, scheming, going to war and going on crusades is great! But when you get to the end of the game and you simply count up the number of Knights you have on the map to declare the winner, it feels like an abrupt and disappointing end to the game.
And then there is the whole concept of “dudes on a map” that Crusader Kings the board game really didn’t need! This game would have worked perfectly fine without the miniatures. Tokens, of which the game already makes use of for everything else, would have been perfectly fine. It’s likely that Fria Ligan fell into the Kickstarter pit trap of having to have miniatures to make your game appeal to the masses.
Further to this, they decided to make all the minis not only different colours, but different designs. The quality of these miniatures takes a hit as a result. They have chosen a slightly more durable material for printing, which means some of the detail is lost. Yet they perhaps didn’t go far enough into the durability of the material, and some elements, such as the spears and swords of the Knights, are a bit flimsy and look like they have the potential to break in the future.
All that said, it is another point where Crusader Kings the board game matches Crusader Kings the video game. The video game is played over an orthographic map view, and when you raise levies etc. these do appear as 3D models that move around the map.
No Crusader Kings experience is complete without DLC
In true Crusader Kings fashion (the PC game has 15 expansions), Fria Ligan have already released an expansion. This expansion, which also released with the Kickstarter campaign, adds yet more miniatures to place on the map. The Councilors and Inventions expansion adds a miniature for each of the councilor and invention cards already in the game. By placing the miniature on the map you get to use a slightly more powerful, but more focused, version of that cards power.
For example the Navy; The Navy card allows you to invade across a body of water that your territory borders with. By using the standard invade action, you can cross the water with a single raised levy. However, by using the Navy miniature and placing it on a specific target territory, you are able to invade there using two raised levies (giving you an extra trait draw in the invade action). This gives you a better chance of successfully invading, but it also shows your hand to your opponent when you place down the Navy miniature.
The expansion does add another layer to the tactics of the councillors and inventions, but not a necessary one. I can’t say that you must get the expansion, but it might help to add some extra depth to the game once you are familiar with all the main mechanics.
So should you invite Crusader Kings the board game to your court?
Let’s just get it out there. Crusader King the board game is not the perfect board game. It has some niggles around the quality of the production, some anomalies in the rules (though Free League are working on updating these), and the slightly flat end scoring.
But it is a great game. It’s a game that I will happily play time and time again. It’s meaty. It stays true to the source material. There are multiple strategies to use and no two games are the same.
Go back to the beginning of the tutorial where I told you my reasons that Crusader Kings II is one of my favourite video games. It’s the story telling aspect, and the personal investment that you have for the dynasty. Those are the key themes that come through Crusader Kings the board game also. It helps that Free League have a background in RPGs.
Again, look up to the family board image where we were talking about the traits. I purposefully murdered my own king at that point, just to ensure that heir came into power. And that’s a story from Crusader Kings the board game that I will tell time and time again.