Brant Guillory, 31 March 2022
HAIL! AND WELL MET, TRAVELLER!
Crusader Rex is a wargame from Columbia Games that recreates the Third Crusade. Two players take the roles of the Franks and Saracens, as the game names them. Over the course of the game, players attempt to conquer the Holy Land in order to gain and retain control of seven key cities from Egypt to Syria.
Like most Columbia Games’ board games, Crusader Rex is a “block” game: playing pieces are wooden blocks that stand on their sides, hiding their unit identifications and strengths from the opponent.
Crusader Rex was designed by Jerry Taylor and Tom Dalgleish, the team behind Columbia’s Hammer of the Scots. Players familiar with the mechanics of that game will pick up Crusader Rex in less time than it takes to read this review.
A TALE OF BRAVERY AND HEROISM FROM FAR, FAR AWAY
The Third Crusade was waged in the waning years of the 12th century. It was the crusade of King Richard III and Frederick Barbarossa. When most people (who even know what the Crusades were) think of the “The Crusades,” it is likely the Third which comes to mind: knights on stallions clashing with Moslem cavalrymen outside of grand soaring castles dotting the Holy Land.
Although politics did play a significant role in the actual conduct of the crusades, Crusader Rex is a war game, and as such, political considerations are minimized, with only a few optional rules addressing limited political effects (which mostly serve to add/remove units from the battlefield). And even though the Templar Knights are present in force, there are no buried church secrets being unearthed from beneath the former Temple of Solomon.
The game itself plays on a grand scale. Units are identified by their leaders: nobles and military orders for the Franks and Emirs, and nationalities for the Saracens. Sweeping armies of knights on horseback ride from city to city, laying siege to castles and harrying opponents from the battlefield. When reinforcements arrive, Crusaders come en masse from Europe, and Saracens build a steadily-increasing force on the eastern edge of the map (more on this later).
Although units are individually-named, especially when following a noble or Emir, it is not hard to imagine large contingents of foot soldiers charging headlong into the fray, leaving behind a trail of body parts and blood-red rivers.
click images to enlarge
WHAT FINE REGALIA, BEFITTING OF A KING
The game comes in an attractive bookcase-game box. Like other Columbia games, the box is a standardized generic black clamshell box with the Columbia logo. The “cover” is a four-sided slipcover sleeve that fits over the box, with a dramatic painting of Crusaders on the front cover, and standard game information (playing time, complexity, sample graphics, etc.) on the back. The back also includes a picture of the game laid out and set up, as well as a painting of a Crusader foot soldier who bears a passing resemblance to at least one Columbia staffer.
Inside, players will find a four-panel folding map, a rulebook, a bag of wooden blocks in three colors and a sheet of stickers for the blocks, a small deck of cards, and four dice. Because of the geography of the Holy Land, the map is a long, narrow map. This is noteworthy only in that it may impact the size or shape of table needed to set up, if players have a dedicated nook in their houses for boardgames.
The rulebook is only 8 pages, and includes a variety of historical and design notes. It is a clear and easy read, with diagrams in the appropriate places for specific mechanics, such as step-losses during combat. Columbia uses a numbered rule system, with large, clear headings. Sidebars contain historical notes and optional rules. The historical notes will not inform scholars of the Crusades, but even well-read fans of history will likely learn something from them.
Although the art for the blocks is attractive, it is on a separate sheet of stickers that must be mounted to the blocks by the customer. This is a painless process, but does add 10-15 minutes to the initial set-up process the first time the game is played. The blocks come in three colors: orange for the Franks, green for the Saracens, and the one black block for the Assassins. There are two extra blocks each in green and orange, which serve nicely as markers for the turn, or half-hits inflicted during castle stormings.
The cards are numbered 1-3, with a few special cards. All of the numbered cards have the same artwork for each number, and the special cards are text-only. They are a sturdy cardstock, but the coating is not very slick, which can make shuffling a challenge. A few times, we just put all the cards on the table and mixed them up like kids shuffling a game of Go Fish, or a set of dominos. This seemed to work as well as anything else.
POINTY END GOES IN THE OTHER MAN
Movement is a point-to-point system between towns along roads. Roads are rated as major or minor, which impacts the number of units that may either move or attack along the road. The towns are color-coded based on their initial ownership by either the Franks or Saracens (there are no “neutral” towns in play, except Masyaf, explained below). Additionally, towns with castles are given numerical ratings which quantify both the capacity of the castle to shelter defenders and the capacity of the town to provide winter quarters for the combatants.
The seven victory cities are Damascus, Antioch, Jerusalem, Acre, Tyre, Aleppo, and “Egypt” – not a city, but treated as such for game purposes. These cities have hexagonal icons and (normally) a higher city rating. One small point of confusion was the graphic representation of the victory cities. They do not have a castle icon, and nowhere in the rulebook was it noted that victory cities have castles. We made the command decision that the victory cities were likely to have castles, and played the game as such.
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
At the beginning of each turn, players are dealt 6 cards. Those cards are used to determine the number of actions each round. Most of the cards are rated 1-3. Each player chooses a card for that round, then reveals them simultaneously. The higher value goes first; in the event of a tie, the Frankish player chooses who goes first. The numerical value of the card also determines the number of actions a player may take.
There are two basic types of moves. The first is simply moving units from point A to point B. The second is a “muster.” When declaring a muster, the player chooses a friendly city, then moves any or all units within range of that city to it. This is a vital ability for the Franks, who start the game spread across the map.
The special cards allow the player to exploit different abilities. One of them allows the player to declare a Jihad, and add steps to previously damaged units. Another allows the player to bring the Assassins into play for the turn. The Winter Campaign card is discussed below.
Columbia’s block games are different in that they introduce a heavy dose of the “fog of war” into the game. Although players can count the number of blocks an opponent is massing near a city, there is no way to inspect them and determine that this cavalry unit is the elite one accompanying Saladin, and not a weaker one riding with one of his cousins. Additionally, because the blocks have four sides, the current strength of the unit is noted by which side is pointed up at any moment.
In fact, virtually all of the numbers needed to resolve any game mechanic are printed on the blocks. Each piece has a movement rating, a combat value, and a number of steps. The movement rating is a simple 1-3 number that quantifies the number of points that a unit may move in a turn. The combat value is a number and letter. The letters identify the order in which the units attack, and the number is the roll needed to score a hit. The number of steps track both the number of dice rolled in combat, and the capacity to absorb damage.
The combat mechanics are simple without being simplistic. Once in combat, units are revealed, and the battle is joined. All units with an “A” rating for combat inflict their hits first, then units with “B” ratings, and then “C” units last. Damage takes place immediately, so “A” units inflict their damage before “C” units even unsheath their swords.
Defenders attack first, so all defenders with an “A” rating roll their dice. A unit with an A2 rating fights before anyone else, and inflicts a hit on the opponent by rolling a 2 or less on any one die. The number of dice rolled is equal to the number of steps the unit has left. The Saracens have a variety of units with 4 steps and “A” ratings for combat, but they’re all A1s, so they don’t inflict much damage. Saladin is an A3; Richard the Lionheart is a B4, the highest ‘hit’ number in the game.
Additional rules cover sieges, and distinguish between siege attrition and storming the castle; sallying forth from the castle is also allowed. Other rules allow the Christian knights to mount their steeds, lower their lances and charge, but at the risk of taking extra hits. The Saracens are not without their own abilities: they have the ability to mount a fighting retreat, firing a final volley from their archers as they exit the battlefield. Once combat is over, the blocks are stood back up, again hiding their identities and strengths from the opponent.
If a player pulls the Assassins card, that is only action that turn. The Assassins move from Masyaf to the designated target, and make an immediate attack with an A3 rating, and leave. The Assassins are never “controlled” by any one player from turn to turn, but are instead at the mercy of the cards that are dealt. One bit of confusion with the Assassins regards their ability to attack defenders who may be barricaded in a castle that is under siege. There is nothing in the rules explicitly enabling or denying this action; we decided to allow it, even if it might’ve been a bit unrealistic.
Each year consists of 6 rounds, in which players go through their cards and execute their actions. The final round in the turn is Winter, in which units must pick a town and laager up for the cold season. Units who fail to find adequate Winter quarters may be eliminated. Winter forces players to break sieges and relocate their forces. However, the Winter Campaign card allows a player to conduct a normal turn during the Winter.
Reinforcements are drawn every round. The Saracen player places those units on the map at the location named on the piece. The Frankish plays may do this for some units, but others are held along the edge of the map until all the units in the “set” are drawn, at which time they may be moved onto the map. Thus, the Frankish player may not bring Richard III onto the battlefield without also drawing the other English units. This limits the frequency of reinforcements for the Franks. However, when the reinforcements do arrive, they are there in force.
WHAT MANNER OF FOOL DARES STAND BEFORE THE GLEAMING BLADE OF RICHARD THE LIONHEART?
We played several games over the course of a few weeks. Crusader Rex plays quickly is very easy to learn. The designers were challenged to walk a fine line between the recreating the reality of what happened on the ground, and leaving the players with sufficient options to explore other possible outcomes. In Crusader Rex, they succeeded very well.
Early in the game, when the Franks are spread across Palestine and the Saracens control four of the victory cities, the Crusaders are challenged to hold their ground, and mount what campaigns they can, while waiting for their reinforcements. Realistically, the Crusaders did “turtle” into their castles and ride out the initial Saracen assaults until their reinforcements arrived.
In Crusader Rex, however, they have the option to go forth and conquer. This is not always the wisest choice, of course, since their initial three victory cities are not mutually supporting and can be attacked from multiple directions. But if they use their muster abilities correctly, Frankish players can mass enough force to severely dent the Saracen defense, and perhaps steal a city early in the game.
The Saracens, of course, have enough strength to conquer a Frankish city by brute force and bleed for it. The Saracen player starts the game with four victory cities, and could, theoretically, sit on his hands and play defense until the end. But capturing one city early in the game creates a 5-2 imbalance that can be very difficult for the Frankish player to overcome.
Sacrificing units can also be a bit tricky. Certain units are “recycled” back into their players’ draw pools; others are removed from the game. Unfortunately for the Saracens, it seems at though fewer of their units get recycled when they are eliminated. So bleeding for that city early in the game may not be the best idea. The hallmark of the quality game design is that all of these options are available to the players.
In one game, the Saracen player drew multiple “3” cards early, and was able to mass enough force to conquer Antioch relatively easily. This created multiple headaches for the Frankish player. Not only was he down another victory city, but his German reinforcements, required to enter the map through Antioch, were now locked off the map.
In another game, the Crusaders were able to “turtle” effectively until the English and French reinforcements arrived within 2-3 rounds of each other, enabling them to go on a serious charge toward Damascus. Crusader Rex allows players to re-examine the operational decisions made by the actual parties involved, and change them within realistic constraints, leading to potentially very different outcomes in history.
No matter how the campaigns are planned, players cannot change the cycle of the seasons. The Winter phase of each turn forces players to abandon sieges and seek shelter, which requires the foresight to save a card with enough moves to get all of his units into safe quarters. Because of the slow nature of siege attrition, castles must be attacked very early in the turn, or the defenders will easily ride out the siege until Winter.
A TALE TOLD OVER AND AGAIN THROUGH THE AGES
Crusader Rex is not well-suited to solitaire play. Although the ‘block’ method allows some stabs at solitaire play, in reality it is very tough to do, since the game requires operational planning and continual reassessment of resources.
Replay value, however, is great. We played two full games and both were dramatically different. We started several others (not every game gets finished with a three-year-old in the house) and they were all shaping up to be very different as well. The semi-random nature of the card allocation system forces players to leave options open if they don’t get the cards they need, and to prioritize their missions based on the cards available. These are different in every game.
IT IS GOD’S LAND AND WE WILL TAKE IT
Crusader Rex has a short learning curve and a long shelf life. It is a fine game for recreating the grand level of the Crusades in which massed forces clashed across ancient battlefields. It does not focus much on the politics of either side throughout the Crusades, which were an influence on the campaigns of both sides, but trying to lay political rules on top of such an elegant combat system would likely have over-complicated the game.
This is a fun game for hard-core grognards who want to ponder options and play a new game every time they open the box. The rules are relatively easy and offer a fine balance of complexity and realism. Crusader Rex would also make a nice “gateway” game for a wargamer to introduce someone to the hobby. Leaving out a few rules, such as knights’ charges and harrying fire, would not significantly degrade the play of the game, while increasing the accessibility for someone who may have graduated from Risk or Axis & Allies. The components are also attractive, and the point-to-point movement system feels more natural than a hex system would have for this game. Crusader Rex might be a little bit much for a new wargamer to pick up on his own, but with a guiding hand, swords will be clashing in no time at all.
Thank you for visiting The Armchair Dragoons as we delve into our personal archives and bring back some previous articles about games you might still want to check out.
You can find our regiment’s social media on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. (We have an Instagram page and we never use it.) We also have our Patreon, where you can support The Armchair Dragoons activities.
Feel free to talk back to us either in our discussion forum, or in the comments below.
WE’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT THE SITE; WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THE STAFF