Crusader Rex – Boardgame Review
Columbia Games’ Crusader Rex Lets You Fight for the "Holy Land"
Most people have heard the great line about the Holy Roman Empire ("The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire."), but few realize that the Crusades (despite their idyllic name) were also less of a holy enterprise than a "land grab" in the name of Christianity. This seems fairly appropriate since the so-called Third Crusade (A.D. 1189-1192) covered in Columbia Games’ new Crusader Rex was originally led by Frederick Barbarossa, the so-called Holy Roman Emperor. Of course, we can only say "originally led" because Barbarossa was drowned in a river crossing before he ever reached Palestine.
Designed by Jerry Taylor and Tom Dagliesh, Crusader Rex provides the color and excitement of the Third Crusade in the same way that their Hammer of the Scots provided a fresh perspective on the Anglo-Scottish struggle of the Middle Ages. It is a wooden block game with a card-driven mechanism that offers a fast, fluid and playable exercise that cannot help but underscore the lessons of history.
Naturally, a lot of the history surrounding the Crusades is misunderstood. As one of the lords said in A.D. 1366 (during an era roughly 100 years after the era simulated in Crusader Rex) when hundreds more knights volunteered for one of the latter crusades than could be recruited, "They were all set and ready to go abroad to Prussia, to Constantinople, or to Jerusalem as every knight and squire who wishes to advance himself does."  But don’t take Lord d’Albret’s word (as just quoted) for it. Just look at what happened in the Fourth Crusade when the Crusaders merely took over Constantinople rather than moving onward to the "holy land" itself.
"From quite early on some of them were tempted to seize Constantinople for themselves in the belief that such resources in their own hands would be more selflessly expended for the Holy Land."  As a result, we see that the Crusades were an amazing phenomenon. Ostensibly an effort to perform "God’s will" militarily (if this is not an oxymoron), they became opportunism in the guise of idealism. Although they are often numbered as distinct campaigns for the convenience of historians, they were really a continuing migration by force.
When Pope Urban II lined out his reasons for the First Crusade, it was quite clear that his goal was not the conversion of Islamic people, but the recovery of material holdings and stopping the progression of Islamic conquest. His rationale can be summarized as: the rescue of the "holy places" in Palestine from the Moslems; the defense of Christians in the Middle East from the "heathen" population of that area; and the reversal of the unchecked onslaught of Mohammedan conquest.  Crusader Rex demonstrates how unsuccessful the first two so-called crusades actually were and how difficult a task it was to even hold off that onslaught. It also disregards the alleged religious rationales for the campaign and focuses on gaining and maintaining control of the land itself.
Uneven Playing Field (Game Balance)
Having just typed that Crusader Rex demonstrates the difficult task faced by the "crusader" faction, it should not be surprising that the Moslem forces would have an advantage when two players of equal caliber are facing each other. As is appropriate to the historical period, Saladin’s forces have the numerical advantage (24 blocks in play at the outset compared to 18 blocks for the Crusaders). This immediate advantage is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Crusaders control four of the seven victory cities necessary for a win from the outset while the Saracens (Saladin’s forces) only control three of those seven cities. Since one has to both maintain those initial cities and conquer others, this doesn’t do much for balancing.
Further, Saladin has home field advantage in that the Saladin blocks can be placed in either Damascus (his default capital since his A.D. 1174 capture of the city), Aleppo (switching places with al-Zahir), or Egypt (switching places with al-Aziz). The advantage of switching Saladin is that the great leader gets an extra die over the other two leaders, fires at the same time as al-Zahir but hits on a 1, 2 or 3 compared to al-Zahir’s 1 and 2, and fires earlier than al-Aziz (still hitting on a 1, 2, or 3 compared to al-Aziz’s 1 and 2). So, one needs to place Saladin in the group that is most likely to take the offensive.
IT’S EASY BEING GREEN In the initial game turns, the Islamic forces of Saladin (green blocks) have numerical advantage over the Crusader forces (orange blocks).
As in Hammer of the Scots, one of the constricting factors for Crusader Rex is the draw pile. While only the English faced the major constraint in Hammer, both sides in Crusader use their draw piles to reinforce their troops after losses. To be sure, both players get to draw one block per draw phase (five draws per game turn) starting in the second game turn (each turn represents a year of the campaign), but the Crusader can only immediately deploy a drawn "pilgrim" block. The more famous Crusaders (Barbarossa (his troops, not really him, of course), Philip II (Augustus), and Richard the Lion-hearted) must wait until all three of the units associated with their expedition are drawn. Until then, the initial units are staged in the designated areas on the Mediterranean Sea portion of the game map. Meanwhile, the Saracen or Islamic faction can immediately deploy any blocks which are drawn in the draw phase.
WOODEN CHIPS AND IRON RULES Crusader blocks cannot enter port and begin combat until all three blocks of a color have been staged in the holding boxes on the Mediterranean side of the map. Here, the English (red arrow) are waiting for Richard, while the Teutonic forces (black arrow) await Leopold and the French (purple arrow) await James of Flanders.
When all three Teutonic forces (Barbarossa and Leopold), French forces (Philip II and James of Flanders), or English forces (Richard and his forces from Normandy and Aquitane) are placed on the map, it is possible to move the French or English forces so staged into any friendly port. The Teutonic forces must enter the map at Antioch. When Antioch is held by rival forces, the Teutonic blocks must besiege the fortress. The bad news is this situation is that, as opposed to Hammer where the castles merely provided a convenient number for replenishing troops and bivouacking units in the winter, Crusader has a siege mechanism where the defender has an advantage.
So, if the Crusader player is unfortunate enough to be delayed in deploying his Teutonic units, he/she will be forced to use those units in an (ahem) uphill battle where the odds are not in his/her favor. This is even more problematic when you realize that, should these Teutonic units (the ones associated with Barbarossa and Leopold, not the Teutonic Knights originally placed on the board) be forced to retreat off the map, they are permanently eliminated.
Strategy Tip: If you are a particularly ruthless player, you can automatically see the advantage of taking Damascus early in the game. You want to gain control before Leopold can bring Barbarossa’s troops to bear on the city. Of course, you are likely to lose plenty of units in taking the fortress, so make sure you have a plan for relatively quick reinforcement.
Should the Crusader have the worst possible luck in drawing his/her reinforcements, it could be more than a turn before he/she gets to deploy a block on the map itself. Though some will contend that such a scenario is unlikely, the author encountered this on his second playing of the game. However, such constraints make each game different and force players to change up their strategies from time to time.
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