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Richard III
The Richard III Board

I spent the last afternoon of 2009 playing some of the Columbia Blockgames that I've acquired over the last few years with Tom, Matt and Simon. I took the whole suite of the games with the 'Hammer of the Scots' engine down with me; being 'Hammer of the Scots', 'Richard III', 'Crusader Rex' and 'Athens and Sparta'. The games are called 'blockgames' because each side's forces are on coloured wooden blocks, which have a sticker on detailing the unit. The blocks are arranged so the other player cannot see the details, a bit like 'Stratego', and their orientation indicates the strength of the block. The actual forces in a battle are only revealed when they make contact.

After some discussion, we set upon 'Richard III' and 'Crusader Rex' to play, simulations of the Wars of the Roses and the Third Crusade respectively. Tom played Simon in the battle between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Tom had the Lancastrians and Simon the Yorkists. I faced off Matt as the Franks, led by King Guy of Jerusalem, and Matt lead the Saracens with Saladin front and centre.

Both games went very well; the fog of war effect is fantastic (you can't see the exact piece or strength of enemy pieces until you engage them) and often leaves both players feeling that they are losing. In the pictures here you can see the view from either side of the Crusader Rex board.

Crusader Rex: the Frank view
The view from my side of the board.

I had my head comprehensively handed to me on a plate by Matt, all respect due, after I forgot one of the key strategic objectives of the game for a turn. Crusader Rex hangs around the control of seven key cities/areas in the Holy Land; Damascus, Aleppo, Antioch, Acre, Jerusalem, Tripoli and Egypt. The Franks start with 4 areas and the Saracens with 3. Victory conditions are either to hold the majority of the cities at the end of the last turn or 'sudden death' victory by gaining control of all 7 cities. It was the latter which undid the Frank's campaign.

Crusader Rex: the Saracen View
The view from Matt’s side of the board

When Crusader Rex first came out, it was heavily criticised as being unbalanced in favour of the Saracens. However, the rules have since been amended, and the whole game feels finely balanced. Among the key things I learnt from playing were that storming fortified cities or castles was a very costly experience, even with large numbers of attackers. I guess that history reflects this. The Frank Knight's Charge is devastating when used, but can be self destructive with bad rolls or the addictive feel of throwing large numbers of dice takes control. The Crusader forces need to try and catch the Saracens on the field, or the losses in combat against fortified cities will completely undermine their long term survival.

As the Frankish forces, you feel really exposed for the first few game years (each of which have 6 turns), as you constantly lose forces against the huge numbers of Saracens deployed at the start. I ended up clustering around some of the cities and locating some forces on key communication routes to stop a Saracen advance. However, this left the forces effectively pinned, with the Saracen forces able to mass and overwhelm the less strong enclaves at will. Slowly, my long, thin, defensive line was broken, with little clusters of orange blocks surrounded by green.

The only bright spot on the horizon was the slow massing of Crusader forces from France, England and Germany, a growing threat which Matt was also very aware of. I thought the game was swinging back into my favour when Richard the Lionheart landed, with the Germans ready close behind, an event that coincided with the Saracens forgetting that the winter turn was next and failing to disperse forces to areas that could support them through the winter months, thus losing large numbers of units including Saladin himself.

Unfortunately, that's when I made my big stupid mistake. I moved my massed forces from Acre and the surrounding roads to try to retake Jerusalem. The initial storming attempt failed to break the Saracens, so I settled in for a siege. At that point Matt launched a counter attack at the now weakened port of Acre, taking the city. Foolishly, I had failed to notice this was the last city in my control (as I was just about to launch big attacks on three others), and I lost the game!

I really enjoyed the experience, and would love to play again. The feeling was the same from all the other players. We can wholeheartedly recommend the Columbia Blockgame Experience.