Crown of Roses – Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: Beautiful high-quality components, accurately portrays the historical period, excellent mix of military and political strategy
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve, lots of things to keep track of, lengthy playing time, especially for multi-player games
Henry VI was a very poor king. Not much of a warrior and prone to bouts of deep melancholia so severe as to appear insane, Henry was easily influenced by the nobles and office-holders around him. The fights between those nobles began the first English Civil War, colorfully named The Wars Of The Roses, a thorny affair that wracked England for three decades.
One of the best games ever designed was Avalon Hill’s Kingmaker, also set in this period. Now, GMT has come forth with one of their best wargame designs—Crown Of Roses. A blend of strategic wargame and political game, it is a fine simulation of this period.
This is a heavy box, loaded with full-color goodies. There are 54 large wooden blocks and 54 stickers representing the various nobles, the major offices, and King Henry VI and his irrepressible wife / co-ruler, Queen Margaret. Apply the stickers to the blocks when you first open the game, one sticker per block. There are also 27 barrel-shaped wooden markers (six for each of the four Houses and three black neutral markers) for keeping track of Influence, Popular Support, and so on.
Along with the wooden pieces you also get 234 full-color counters, a rules book and a scenarios book, map, fourteen different player aid cards, fifteen d6 in three colors (green, blue, and red), and 110 action cards which are the heart of the system. Everything is lavishly illustrated and in full color, even the rules book and scenarios book. You could put this on display as a conversation piece without actually playing it, but then you’d be missing out on what this great game has to offer.
The Wars Of The Roses were actually a series of conflicts fought in a stop-start manner as different families and factions gained ascendance or began to falter. The scenarios book has scenarios focusing on different points of the conflict, each taking about three hours to game. Or take a week’s vacation and spend that time playing the campaign game. Up to four players can participate, representing the houses Of York, Lancaster, Buckingham, and Warwick. More players means a better environment for the political actions—it’s hard to make deals or betray another player in a two-person game. However, more players will increase the game length.
Once you determine which scenario to play, set up the starting blocks on the beautiful 22 x 33.5 inch map of England. The map is oriented as England is which means it will appear sideways unless you sit on the shorter (north and south) ends. The map is broken up into shires; there are also the “shires” for Calais (English-controlled France) and The Pale Of Ireland. Scotland is represented by an In Exile box, and there are Exile boxes for France and Ireland as well. The map also contains a variety of tracks to keep count of all the things you need to keep count of: influence, votes, victory points, popular support, office holders, heirs, etc., etc., etc.
Each shire has one or more heraldry shields, showing which noble family calls the shire home; this is important for set-up and when forces go into winter quarters. Shires also contain a Shire Value, an all-important number which shows how much Influence the controlling player gains, how many steps of combat units can be raised (Mustered) in the shire, and how many steps of combat units can be safely stacked in the territory without causing attrition (so a value of 3 means 3 Influence and 3 Steps Mustered). The shire number is in a box that is either black (neutral) or colored to match one of the four warring Houses, showing the shire’s loyalty at the start of the game.
After setting up the starting nobles and tracks you can begin playing. The learning curve is steep as the game has a beastly number of phases and steps, but after a few turns it all starts to fall into place. Basically players alternate playing Operations Cards to raise and move troops, name heirs, and trigger events, after which players collect and spend Influence Points to recruit new nobles to their cause. A king is then elected, victory is checked for, and if no one has won yet, nobles vie for government offices before going into winter quarters.
The center of the game is play of Operations Cards. Each House begins with its own set of eight specific Operations Cards, about half of which allow for Heirs to be activated; only an Heir can eventually become King. These House cards are always part of a player’s hand until played and don’t count against the player’s hand size. Minimum hand size is five cards, maximum is nine. There are five flavors of Operations Cards; Event, Mandatory, Ally, Surprise, and Royal Heir (all Heir cards are House cards).
Operations Cards can be played to generate operations points, which are used to take actions such as muster troops and move nobles; the number of operations points provided by the card are printed in its upper left. Instead of producing ops points, a player can play a card for the event or ally that is printed on it. Surprise cards are played during combat, even during an opponent’s turn. Mandatory cards must be played during a turn and do not provide operations points; they are events-only cards—and usually bad events!
The Noble blocks represent not only individuals but also the “battles” / forces of troops they lead. If you’re familiar with Columbia Games’ block wargames, then you know how to read the blocks in Crown Of Roses. Strength of troops is measured in the number and color of six-sided dice rolled, and blocks have different strengths on at least two of their edges. As a nobleman’s force suffers casualties in combat, his block is turned so its lower value edge is on top. Thus, Fauconberg begins with a strength of one red and one blue d6. After suffering a casualty his block is turned to its side to indicate he now rolls two blue d6, and another casualty means the block is turned upside down and there is only one blue d6 shown on that side. Another hit in combat means Fauconberg is removed from play.
Noble stickers are only on one side of the block, so the game is one of limited knowledge of your opponent’s forces; like in Stratego, the blocks stand up and you won’t be sure which enemy you are attacking until the combat begins. The color of the d6 measures troop quality. In combat, a green d6 (untrained militia) hits only on a six, blue d6 hit on five and six, and red d6 (trained men-at-arms and knights) hit on a roll of four through six—a key rule, but nowhere to be found in the combat rules! It’s hidden somewhere in the discussion of noble blocks in the rulesbook.
Movement is shire to shire. A solid line between shires indicates rough terrain that costs two movement points, while a dotted line indicates open terrain or an area with good trails and roads that allows movement at a cost of only one movement point. It costs only one operations point to move one stack by land (blocks have four movement points, so one operations point = four MPs); movement across sea lanes costs three operations points and can trigger attrition / loss of combat strength. Nobles have a Command Rating, which is the number of blocks (in addition to their own) that they may control during movement and combat. This combined force is called a “stack,” and stacking limits are equal to the Shire Value plus one. Oddly, stacking limits apply to each side, so a shire with a value of three could have eight blocks in it in a two-player game (four blocks for each player). Overstacking triggers attrition rolls.
Movement also includes interception and evasion. Interception allows a stack to move into a neighboring shire when an enemy force enters that shire, while evasion allows a stack to move out of a shire when enemies come in. Both require a d6 roll against the Command Rating of the leading noble; a roll equal to or less than the command means the stack can intercept / evade. This is a free movement that costs no operations points, and it is made during the opposing player’s turn.
Combat also costs no operations points; it is a function of movement. After all of the players have played one card and spent operations points, combat occurs in shires with opposing stacks. It is vital to keep track of the order in which stacks entered shires, as combat is conducted in a “last in, first out” system. The stack that moved into the shire last is the attacker, the other force is the defender. This becomes a little confusing in multi-player games: if three opposing sides are in a shire, the last mover is the attacker, while either force that started in the shire or moved in before the attacker did is the defender; then, the second stack that moved in attacks either of the other two, and so on.
Combat occurs in rounds. The defender chooses one noble and the stack of blocks that are with him to enter the battle. The attacker begins only with the noble and any other blocks that last entered the shire. In each round after the first, both sides can add blocks (including stacks led by other nobles) to the battle. Both sides then reveal their blocks and roll their battle dice; remember, green hits on 6, blue on 5 or 6, and red (the best troops) hit on 4 through 6. Each hit reduces the strongest enemy unit by one (turn the block to its next strongest side). Casualties are always taken from the strongest block, so you can’t choose to sacrifice weaker units to preserve your most powerful. What will happen is your strongest units will suffer early and often. When two or more blocks are tied in strength, the owning player chooses which one takes the hit. Each side has the option to retreat after the second combat round and each round thereafter, so battles always last at least two exchanges.
The game’s sequence of play has each player choosing an Operations Card from his hand; cards are then revealed simultaneously. The card with the highest number of Op Points is used first; in case of ties, the player who controls the current King chooses which one goes first. Events, movement, mustering troops, and other game actions are conducted, followed by combat: This is one Impulse. Each turn has a number of Impulses equal to the lowest number of non-House cards held by any player (so if one player has a hand of five cards and another has a hand of seven, there will be five Impulses in the turn). When all of the Impulses are played, the Actions Phase is over and the political phases begin.
Players count and record their Influence Points and Victory Points, both calculated based on what shires a player controls. Players bid with influence points to try and gain control of nobles that are not yet in play or have been removed from play. Players then vote for one of the Houses to have its senior heir named King; the number of votes a player has based on card play, which nobles they control, and so on. A tie means no one becomes king. After that comes the Parliament phase, where players again use influence points to bid on government offices for their nobles. Each office provides a variety of benefits: the Lord Captain Of Calais And The Pale gives a player +2 Influence, +1 Votes and +1 Popular Support, and has special abilities when reacting to a French Raid event card or when going into Exile in France. Also, each office (there are eight of them) has a block with combat strengths that are attached (stacked) with the office-holder. The Lord Warden Of The North gets a block that grants him an extra blue d6 and an extra green d6; office blocks can be used to take casualties in battle just like any other noble block.
After offices are won, players send their nobles into winter quarters, choosing a shire that is home to the noble (has a coat of arms that matches) and placing his block there. After the Wintering Phase the game turn ends and a new one begins. Play continues until someone accomplishes either a military victory (killing all of the other Heirs), a political victory (holding the office of King a number of turns specified in the scenario rules), or an economic victory (having the most victory points at the end of the last game turn).
In addition to being a beautiful looking game, Crown Of Roses is a beautifully designed game. The cards are well-balanced, and it is nearly always a tough choice whether to use a card for its operations points or to cause the event it portrays. Playing Surprise cards in combat really does affect the battle. The constantly shifting allegiance of nobles through bidding of influence points fits well with the historical reality this game is simulating. And I absolutely love the “reset button” that is the Wintering Phase! It puts pressure on players to be more aggressive when moving and fighting, while allowing players who suffer setbacks to lick their wounds and try again come the spring thaw. Once again, this fits in well with the history of the wars between Lancaster and York. Rules on sending nobles into exiles, heirs, and special abilities and restrictions for King Henry VI and Queen Margaret add to the accurate flavor of this game.
However, this is an unwieldly games at points. A three-player game in which the smallest hand size is 5 can have at least 30 different combat rounds in a single turn; one four-player game I played had over 150 different combat rounds in one Action Phase! Throw in a hotly contested influence phase for recruiting nobles and a negotiated vote for King that made the armistice of the Great War look like a friendly meeting at a coffee house, and we had one game turn that took close to two hours to complete.
There are so many things to keep track of—votes, popular support, influence, victory points, how much influence each player has on each noble, and on and on and on. It takes a game like this to realize why computer gaming was invented! Most problematic, you need to keep track of what stacks entered which shire in what order and from what direction (stacks can only retreat in the direction they came from). A few markers with numbers and arrows would have been helpful, and I recommend you make some of your own to mark the movement direction of stacks and order of entry into shires. The rules are quite comprehensive and have a large number of examples of play that walk you through and help slacken the learning curve, but this is still a steep game ruleswise, the kind you’ll need to play two or three times before you feel completely comfortable that you’re playing it right.
Despite the weight of the rules, one thing is missing: sieges. There were instances during this conflict of small forces refusing combat and holing up in a castle until reinforcements arrive, but the combat rules don’t allow for that. I think a few rules on this would be welcome, e.g., only the first player in a shire can choose to avoid a battle and be beseiged, he loses one point of Popular Support and Influence, both forces must roll for attrition beginning in the next Impulse, the besieger can choose to assault but the defender gets two extra blue d6 to roll and can take one “free” casualty per combat round. There, siege rules.
Crown Of Roses is a gorgeous game. It has a high “fat content” with lots of high-quality components, fantastic map, and brilliant colors even throughout the rules books. However, like the period of history it simulates so well, Crown Of Roses can become somewhat convoluted, and each extra player increases the difficulty of the game exponentially.
I highly recommend this game to everyone interested in the Middle Ages, English history, and strategic political games. Just be prepared to invest time and effort, both in learning the game and in playing it. As Richard III learned, it’s not easy to be king.
Armchair General Rating: 90%
Solitaire Suitability (1 low, 5 high) Zero: concealed unit strengths, secret cards, voting—only a split personality can play this solo. (That’s not true.) (I told you both to be quiet!)
About the Author
Sean Stevenson lives in Pittsburgh and has been gaming since the days of SPI. He is currently working on an online comic book series titled FANTASEA.