We are a rare breed. Having been called to serve a higher power and rid Europe of the barbarians spread across our land. We crusade far and wide to influence these people living knee-deep in the dark ages, surviving off the scraps of the nobility. They need our churches to be saved from the devil who walks this Earth. They need our castles to bring order to their chaos. They need our wealth to create a monetary infrastructure. But most importantly, they need us: The Knights of the Round Table (I could not resist - cue musical number).
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done is a medium weight, yet incredibly deep, rondel and mancala style game based in Europe during the time of the Crusades. Players choose from ten asymmetrical militaristic Knight Orders sent by the Pope to spread their influence across Europe. Each order has a unique special power to help control your personal action wheel and develop a strategy for your game. Actions will become more powerful as you move pieces around “mancala style”, forcing you to think about both short-term and long-term goals. Knights quickly spread across Europe becoming more influential and gaining more power as they muster troops, Crusade against foreigners, and erect buildings to help their engine keep rolling. Who will gain the most influence in Europe before King Philip feels threatened by your newfound power? Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done is a fast-paced race to influence Europe before the Pope disbands these Holy Orders of Knights.
Keeping away from the divisive history of the Crusades and events in the Holy Land, Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done focuses upon the role of these Orders in influencing the people of Europe. To quote Seth Jaffe from the rulebook, “The Crusades were a dark time in human history. Many people died in holy wars, in the name of one religion or another. Although Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done is set upon the backdrop of the Crusades, it is not a history lesson.” I believe the nature of this theme amidst religious and non-religious circles should not keep one from enjoying this great game.
*Note: This review is based upon the Deluxified Kickstarter Edition of this game. There are zero deluxified components that impact gameplay. The upgraded version only changes the aesthetics of the game.
The driver of the Crusaders engine is the mancala triggered, rondel action point system. How this differs from other rondel games you may have played before is the clever use of the mancala mechanic to determine the strength of the action you take on your turn. As you choose between mustering troops to build up your forces, Crusading against the enemies, traveling across Europe to spread your reach, building churches, barns, banks, and castles to give you footholds throughout the land, or simply gaining influence (straight VP grab); the power of each action is dependent upon the action points present on that section of the rondel. Each wedge of the rondel can also be upgraded to allow the choice of splitting points between two different actions. As players begin to build their engine, every turn and the ensuing turns must be carefully plotted to ensure your strategy is a winning one. Influence points are gained on nearly every turn as the Holy Orders make their way across the map, strategically choosing where to spread their forces. The game ends when the Orders become too powerful and the last bit of influence is taken. Crusaders is a tight game throughout, forcing players to weigh their options on each turn to earn influence before the pile is gone. The winner is the Order of Knights who have gained the most influence at the end of the game.
At this point, Tasty Minstrel Games has established themselves as providing players an exceptional aesthetic experience; Crusaders is no different. I will take a moment here to briefly discuss some of the differences between the retail and deluxified versions of this game. The biggest differences between the two versions, outside of some Spot UV Finish on various pieces, are the metal influence tokens, the plastic miniatures, wooden enemy discs with stickers, and the dual layered player boards. The metal influence tokens are really nice. Ever since I received some metal coins for Viticulture in a BGG trade, I have become a sucker for the weight and sound of metal. The dual-layered player boards have recessed cut-outs for player pieces. This is probably the best upgrade in the deluxe version because nothing is worse than bumping the table and sending your pieces sprawling across your player board. Although the deluxe version comes with plastic miniatures, the original wooden pieces are screen-printed and the knight meeples are some of the coolest looking meeples I’ve seen in a board game. Dare I say you might even choose to play with the wooden pieces. TMG also chose really deep colors for each player. This was something the people I introduced to the game all commented on, so I felt it should be added. They are not your normal blue, orange, green, and purple, but vibrant and deep and look amazing spread across the map. My brother even pointed out the symbolism of the dull enemy tokens being replaced with the bright colors of the Knight Orders. All of the cardboard punch-outs are a nice thickness and all the pieces have a nice feel to them. The deluxified version does add a few things to the game that I like, but I do not think you are missing out if you pick up the retail version instead. You will be happy either way.
I won’t waste any more of your time telling you how great the mancala and rondel mechanics are in this game. I will tell you, however, the efficiency of this mechanic makes for very quick turns and a fast pace of play. You can only choose one of six actions each turn, giving players ample amounts of time to game plan for their turn prior to it happening. You are able to pre-plan, meaning players are ready to roll when their turn arrives; there is little to no waiting. One player in our crew said it best, “I found myself thinking about my turn, and before I was even finished, it was my turn already.” There might be a few traps for players prone to Analysis Paralysis, but for the most part, turns move pretty quickly
Despite what is happening all over the board, it is not a complicated game to teach or play. The teaching is extremely quick and the actions all follow the theme, i.e you build a barn, you get a bonus muster action point to help build up your army. Between the building bonuses around the map and the strength of each enemy, there are many different choices for you to pursue on the map. What appears to be a lot going on is very manageable based on the rondel system and the power of the actions. Every turn players have to weigh the options between choosing actions with a large number of action points and taking the action they actually want to take on that turn. This creates a beautiful give and take between action choices and the ability to build up the power of those actions. There were so many times I had to think through what was going to be the best course of action to take. Should I build this Level II Castle for four action points because I can afford it now, or should I take this weaker travel action to move me across the map to then build a more expensive structure for a discount on my next turn? But if I wait, maybe they might try to sneak into that territory and build before it is my turn again...
There are two specific features in this game that open it up to tons of replayability. At the beginning of the game, players are dealt two (out of 10) random Holy Orders of Knights, choosing one for the duration of the game. Each of the 10 Orders is asymmetrical and offers players completely different strategies in how they manage their action points and rondel. These asymmetric powers range from manipulation of where and how action points are placed, to bonuses when taking certain actions. The second feature is the rondel wedges and the random order selected during set up. By changing the order of the wheel each game, players may find new combinations and will develop different sequences of actions. The combinations of rondel and knights create different strategies players must pursue to win each time they play. These features get me excited to keep playing to see how each game plays out.
I flip-flop on where to put this next bit, but for Crusaders, I’ll place it here. Player interaction is present, but it is not the driving force. We all felt the more you play this game, the more player interaction will grow. After a few plays, you will begin to see where players are headed and how you might be able to slide in and thwart their plan - a strategy that was used heavily in my second game. In one game, in particular, I found myself saying, “I hated that so, so much, but man, that was an awesome play.” Depending on your levels of player interaction, this might be a large drawback.
The last thing I love about this game is how tight the game feels throughout. At any given point, the difference in influence between first place and last place is roughly ten points. After a handful of plays, it appears the different strategies one might pursue are incredibly balanced. In the games I have played there has not been a runaway winner. There has been a gap between the two at the top and the two at the bottom, but there has not been someone so far ahead no one wanted to play anymore. Following our games, players started talking about different strategies they were hoping to play the next time the game made its way to our table.
Although the game felt incredibly balanced, you never know if there is a Rusviet-Industrial hidden in your midst. We would like to play many more times to see if there is a Holy Order and strategy combination that is overpowered. At this point, we are not sure it exists, however, my ability to upgrade my rondel wedges from the start did prove to be a huge benefit. I will add in my two victories I used almost an identical strategy, which worries me a little bit. I will also add however, I won both times on my last turn and only by one and four points respectively.
There is no combat between players, just enemy discs. Thematically this makes sense; the Crusaders were not fighting Crusades against each other. Many times we wanted to keep opponents from completing their actions, but could not run in there swords blazing. There are ways, as I mentioned before, of thwarting plans, but some of us were craving a more direct line to interacting with other players. Because of this, the game can appear to some as a solo game you are playing together, however, I did not get this feeling. I was constantly checking and looking at other players to see what they had brewing.
There were a couple of us who have played Trajan prior to playing Crusaders and we were all pretty excited to give this game a shot. Whereas I call Trajan a mental marathon and would only recommend it to the gamiest of gamers, Crusaders uses the same mechanic I love from Trajan (and very well I might add), without forcing me to use all of my brain power. This is an extremely accessible game by all levels of gamers, which gets me excited to show those from the lighter side of games a title I think they will really enjoy. I have played this game with both light and heavy gamers and all parties came away wanting to play again. I squeaked out victories against a game designer and my sister-in-law who does not play games with more than a 15-minute teach. Even my wife and brother who were far behind still enjoyed the experience of moving action points around the rondel and deciding what is going to score them the most influence points. The look of the game on the table, combined with the actual gameplay and unique engine building, creates a game I highly recommend. Trajan has not come off my shelf in a year at least, maybe two. I promise you Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done will be coming off the shelf with much more regularity.
*I was provided a free copy of Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done from Master of the Boards with the sole purpose of playing and to write an honest review. These were my thoughts after playing the game. Please let me know if you have any questions.
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