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Crusader Rex - Shortened Playtest

Having watched Kingdom of Heaven earlier this week I was itching to get a game of Crusader Rex, so Friday night finally gave the opportunity that I was after. Jill was preparing some shoe-boxes for work's entry into Operation Christmas Child, so I dug out the game and set it up on the lounge floor.

Before I started, I also had a quick skim through the various forums on the Columbia Games site to get an idea of tactics and strategy. From this, it became apparent that there were a number of challenges. The Franks (Crusaders) were perilously exposed, and an aggressive strategy could rapidly result in them being wiped out. In addition, their generally lower quality forces left them attacking second in a battle until the Crusading forces arrived. The final controversy – for which there were repeated heated discussions on the forums – was that the 'Knights Charge' rules were somewhat deadly to both sides. It gets the Franks doubled attacks, but exposes them to the risk that any roll of a '6' on the D6 causes damage to their own sides. The rules have recently been changed, and the designer, Jerry Taylor, makes a spirited defense of their accuracy on the games' forums.

Anyway, I played both sides, so the fog of war was limited, and the game ran from 1187 to 1189 (when I had to abandon because it was too late).

The first year's play (6 turns worth) started in a very edgy way. I wasn't sure how deadly combat would be, so decided to muster the Saracen forces at a four locations to try and get some reasonable sized armies. As a tactic, it works very well, provided you've allowed for the winter turn at the end of the year. By the third month these were moving into Outremer, with forces from Damascus and Egypt threatening Jerusalem, forces from Aleppo threatening Antioch and a final group threatening Krak des Chevaliers to the north. There's a game map here if you want to have a look at the geography. Movement is limited to roads - major routes (think lines) can have 8 units pass, and minor routes can have 4 units.

The initial fighting was at Tiberias (ironically, near Hattin, the major defeat that triggered the Third Crusade), south of the Sea of Galilee. The Franks repelled the initial forces threatening Jerusalem, but at the cost of about two thirds of the military orders after a bodged Knights Charge. These were lost forever as the military orders can't be replaced. The attack was effective though, and one of Saladin's relatives was killed. The rest of the Saracen casualties went in the draw pool to re-emerge later in the game.

A minor push at Krak des Chevaliers was repelled, but again casualties were taken by the military orders. By the end of the first game year the Franks only had two military order units left, both at reduced strengths.

The end of the year saw a mistake on my part as Saracen commander. I'd overcommitted high value movement cards so didn't have enough to regroup around logistical bases for the winter. The limits were set at 1 block per number at the location; for example, Jerusalem can support 3 units, but Krak des Chevaliers only 1 block. Any excess blocks are disposed of, which resulted in the effective destruction of the Egyptian army. From this point on, both sides were careful with move cards and also used retreats and regrouping moves effectively at the end of the year.

The second year sees the draw-pools in action, so each side draws a reinforcement block every game turn (of which there are 6 in a year). The Franks ended up with two of the three English Crusaders, and a German and French unit too. This was somewhat pleasing but also worrying to the Saracen side. Pleasing, because there were no effective additional defenders in play, but worrying because there were heavy reinforcements very close to arriving with the right draw.

The fighting went badly for the Franks, with the complete loss of the south at the second battle of Tiberias, followed by a retreat from Acre with a late year follow up attack. King Guy and most of the remaining Outremer nobility from the south died. Antioch fell, proving that protective walls weren't enough to save against a strong attacking force, and a desperate retreat followed south down the coast. The only upside to the Franks turn was the attack by the assassins on Saladin. Sadly, this didn't quite succeed in taking him out of the game. End of turn saw the Saracen forces dispersing to blockade the ports to the south against the crusaders' arrival.

1189 opened brightly for the Franks, as Richard the Lionheart deployed to Tripoli along with the Aquitaine Crossbowmen. The Franks didn't have enough movement points to bring Robert of Normandy in as well. King Guy re-appeared as well. The Saracen forces launched a savage attack at Tripoli and Krak des Chevaliers, which finally fell. Faced with an overwhelming force, and nowhere to retreat, Richard Kinght's Charged, causing massive damage (6 points) but the newly arrived Crusaders were wiped out to a man. The final remaining military orders were also finished off. Next turn, Robert deployed to Tartus, and launched a heavy counter attack with the forces that had retreated from the north and Krak. This blunted the Saracen attack, and left the crusaders in possession of the ports from Beirut to Latakia, helped by drawing the right forces from the draw-pool. King Guy mustered a small force to Jerusalem. And that's when I ended the game.

The position looked better, but far from rosy for the Franks. They had a good stronghold around Tripoli, and the French Crusaders were ready to arrive. The south had a good enough force to be making the Saracens consider re-mustering to engage it. However, doing so would open the way for the Crusaders to arrive in one of those ports, threatening the south of Outremer. I guess that a higher risk, all out attack from the Saracens could settle the game by 1191, but it would potentially leave them exposed.

I really enjoyed the game - I do think that possibly some tweaks are needed, but don't feel that there are any major flaws. It took two and half hours to get to the point I was at!