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Subject: Review from "Slingshot" magazine rss

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John Graham-Leigh
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I wrote this review for Slingshot and it was published there in 2006. The readership includes historians, both amateur and professional, and miniatures wargamers, with boardgame players very much a minority. I hope the review may still be useful.

Crusader Rex is a simulation of the Third Crusade, starting with Saladin’s offensive in 1187 and concluding at the end of 1192. The game is played in years, with each year divided into six turns, and is for two players.

The Basics
Physical quality is clean and attractive. The map, on stiff card, measures 34” x 11” and covers Syria and Palestine from Antioch to the borders of Egypt, and inland only as far as Aleppo and Damascus. The illustration [in the magazine article, not reproduced here] shows the southernmost quarter of the map. Two towns are included, Jerusalem and the notional “Egypt” town; the hexagonal symbols indicate victory towns. The other fortifications such as Jaffa, Ascalon and Hebron are castles; Ramla, Lachish etc count for movement but are unfortified, and Bethlehem and Arsur don’t count at all. The numbers indicate the number of units which may winter at each location and its replacement value; the coats of arms indicate which units may begin the game there or appear there as replacements.

The playing pieces are Columbia’s customary wooden blocks, each with a label showing the unit’s type and strength. There are 63 blocks, 31 for each side plus one Assassins block. Each block is placed upright on the map with the label facing the owning player, so there is a considerable “fog of war” element; a player will know where an enemy force is but not its strength or composition.

Play is driven by cards from a pack of 25, of which four are Event cards – Assassins (the player may use the Assassins block to make an attack), Jihad (the Saracen player may reinforce some of his blocks), Mud (the current turn is cancelled due to bad weather) and Winter Campaign (the player may make a surprise attack during the winter). The other 21 cards carry numbers from 1 to 3 and each represents the number of moves the player may make. A “move” may be to move a block or group from location to location along the connecting roads (the capacity of the roads is limited), or to conduct a “muster” to assemble all blocks within reach of the muster point. Battle occurs whenever a block or group moves to a location occupied by an enemy block.

Units (blocks) are of several qualities ranging from A (best) to C (worst) and 4 (best) to 1 (worst). The letter indicates the unit’s precedence during a battle; A units attack before B units, etc. The number shows the score a unit needs to get a hit – in each battle round a die is rolled per strength point and a hit is scored if the result is equal to or lower than the unit’s value. The best units in the game are Saladin’s retinue (A3) and Richard the Lionheart’s household (B4); the weakest include Saracen levies (B1) and Crusading pilgrims (C2). A units are elite Saracen cavalry, Turcopoles and crossbowmen; B units are knights and other Saracen cavalry; C units are most foot. Military Orders knights (and Barbarossa’s retinue) are value 3; other knights are value 2. Finally, each unit has a maximum strength of 1 to 4 which can be reduced by battle casualties and recovered in winter quarters.

Each side has a special ability: Saracen units can “harry”, attacking at reduced effect and then immediately retreating with no return fire, while knights can “charge”, throwing double the usual number of dice but taking a hit for each 6 thrown. So a 3-strength Templar unit charging would throw 6 dice needing 3 or less to hit, for an average of 3 hits on the enemy plus 1 self-inflicted hit.


A Battle
Campaigning can be quite complicated and nerve-racking. Here’s an example. On the previous turn the Franks moved first and mustered an army of 6 blocks at Nablus, leaving 3 blocks in Jerusalem. The wily Saracens moved an army of 6 blocks from Egypt to Gaza, plus 2 blocks from Damascus to Amman. This turn the Saracens move first and play a “2” movement card. They move 4 blocks from Gaza via Lachish and Hebron to Jerusalem, then another 2 via Ascalon and Ramla also to Jerusalem. That counts as 1 move and uses the full capacity of the Hebron-Jerusalem road. Their second move takes 2 blocks from Amman to Jerusalem. The Franks can play only a “1” movement card, and activate their army in Nablus. Four blocks move to Jerusalem – no more can move along that road this turn, so the other two blocks move via Damiya to Jericho. These blocks can’t reach Jerusalem (Frankish blocks move only 2 spaces per turn compared to the Saracens’ 3 spaces) but their presence prevents any Saracens retreating to Jericho.

The Franks elect to place their 3 blocks which started in Jerusalem inside the town. The Saracens can either try an immediate assault, using just the 4 blocks which moved from Hebron, or declare a siege. They opt for an assault, inflicting some loss on the defenders but receiving greater loss themselves. That was Round 1 of the battle. In Round 2 all the “reserves” can join in, so the Franks have the 4 blocks arriving from Nablus plus the three in Jerusalem which can “sally”, and the Saracens have all 8 of their blocks. The Franks count as the “defenders” throughout the battle, giving them a significant advantage. Let’s say that in Round 2 the Franks declare a charge with all their knights and inflict heavy casualties on the Saracens but also lose a lot themselves. Then Round 3 is indecisive but at its conclusion the Saracens have the slightly stronger force. As neither side has been eliminated at the end of Round 3 the attackers must retreat. Jerusalem is saved for Christendom and its battered defenders rejoice.


Strategy
At the start of the game, 1187, the Saracens have significant advantages, with 23 blocks on the map, concentrated at a few points, against 18 blocks spread out to protect widely-scattered territory – a tremendous advantage, especially combined with the Saracens’ greater concentration and faster movement. A Hattin-style campaign, with the Franks crushingly defeated and losing much territory, is highly likely.

In subsequent years, the odds lessen. The Saracens now have to garrison captured towns and castles – if they don’t, any eliminated Frankish lords may return and seize their castles. So the usable Saracen forces are significantly smaller than in 1187 and their progress will be much slower.

Each turn after the first year, each player draws one block from his “draw pool” as a reinforcement. The Frankish draw pool initially contains 4 Pilgrims (numerous but poor quality) and 9 Crusaders – 3 English, 3 French and 3 German. Pilgrims can be placed immediately in any friendly port, but Crusaders assemble off-map until all 3 of that nationality have been drawn. Then the Crusading force can enter – the Germans overland at Antioch, the English or French at a port. Three top-quality blocks arriving at once will add considerable punch to any Frankish offensive. The middle part of the game, 1190-91, will probably see the Franks regaining a good deal of their lost territory. Then the last phase, 1192, tends to have both sides pretty much exhausted and the war more or less fizzling out. Of course, many games will swing dramatically one way or the other through a decisive battle, but with careful play and no outrageous luck a balanced game is likely.

Winter is an important concept. All blocks must end the year in winter quarters or be eliminated, and the capacity of towns and castles for this purpose is limited. A player must plan carefully to ensure that his forces will be able to withdraw in good time (an unexpected use of the “Mud” card by one’s opponent can lead to disaster here). The likeliest way for an early end to the game is by the Saracens hemming the Franks into a small area and denying them adequate winter quarters.

Victory is determined at the end of 1192, the winner being the side which controls the majority of the seven victory towns (Antioch, Aleppo, Tripoli, Damascus, Acre, Jerusalem and Egypt). The only “sudden death” during the game occurs if one side controls all seven towns simultaneously; if that’s at all likely to occur, I suspect that the losing side will have conceded well before it actually happens.


Overall
The game is great fun to play and, allowing for the necessity of simple game mechanics, seems to give a pretty good simulation of the campaign. The historical commentary is generally good, though I haven’t traced the “Robert of Normandy” who is one of the English leaders! The rules have been revised several times so make sure you get the latest version from Columbia Games’ web site at www.columbiagames.com - downloads are free. The game is available directly from the makers, price $59.99; I got my copy from Leisure Games of London, www.leisuregames.com, price £41.99.
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Kelsey Rinella
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John GL wrote:
The historical commentary is generally good, though I haven’t traced the “Robert of Normandy” who is one of the English leaders!
Zombie Robert Curthose?

Have you asked Columbia? I get the impression their relations with customers are often impressive.
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John Graham-Leigh
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I might have mentioned it on Consimworld but I don't remember...

Richard's second-in-command would probably be either Hubert Walter, Bishop of Salisbury, or Hubert's ecclesiastical superior Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury. I'm pretty sure that there was no magnate named Robert of Normandy at this time - Richard himself was Duke of Normandy. I don't want to impugn Jerry Taylor's research and I could be wrong, but I suspect that this Robert is anachronistic.
 
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Stephen Meyers
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Re: Review from "Slingshot" magazine

Why is it a "significant advantage" to be a defender as noted above in the review?

 
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John Graham-Leigh
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Because defending units attack (I don't like saying "fire" for pre-gunpowder troops) before attacking units do, that's all.
 
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