Saturday, October 29, 2005

Crusader Rex

Got to play my second game of Crusader Rex a couple of weeks ago, this time with John Haba of John had had more experience with CR than I, so we agreed that I would take the Saracens (who I had also played in my first game with Marty McMartin). I'll also mention here that I haven't read any online strategy discussion (except the designer's suggestion that defending players run away rather than hole up in fortresses) and so will use that as my excuse if I ramble on about stuff that has already been hashed out somewhere else.

A good chunk of my six initial draws from the pool were Kurds to be deployed in Damascus; this made me happy since I had done fairly well for myself pushing up the middle in my first game and I saw no reason to head in a different direction in this one. My first goal was to take Tyre in order to cut John's forces into two halves; this would make it easier to eventually move on Tripoli, as it would be tough for John to counterattack from the South since the roads that lead to Tyre and Banyas from that direction are narrow and will only accommodate two attacking units. Certainly he could utilize sea moves to get around me (which he later did), but this is a relatively slow process.

On the first turn, 1187, I feinted northward from Egypt, got John to contract his forces in the South, and then moved West from Damascus to take Beaufort. I believe I even made it to Sidon on the coast that turn, but that may have taken place in the following year. I also grabbed Krak des Chevaliers, which almost seems like a foregone conclusion.

My hand of cards was relatively weak in 1188, so rather than following through and pushing into Tyre I ended up just shuffling units around in the rear so as not to lose any newly drawn Aleppo units to winter attrition; at the time I was unhappy with my lack of progress, but in retrospect this was a good thing to do; I would soon need the Aleppo Turks to help cover the ground I had taken in the middle of the board. I did do one useful thing, however, which was to take Tartus, just north of Tripoli; certainly I couldn't defend the position against a concerted attack, but it did cut off free movement between the center and the North. The Frank units between Sidon and Tartus were being held gently in place, like an ugly orange beetle with its legs pinned between two delicate fingers....

One of the interesting things about CR is that the wintering rules force players to pack their offensive maneuvers into small bursts before everyone has to run for cover. I had stalled too long in the second year, so in 1189 I immediately pushed four of my best units into Tyre. John had two units hunkered down there, and called north two more from Acre. It was a massacre, however; if I remember correctly the original two Frankish blocks were eliminated, and the reinforcements beat a retreat soon after they arrived. My blocks only took two step losses. I took advantage of the confusion to also take Tiberias so as to slow down any attempts to get behind me in Tyre by moving East from Acre towards Banyas or (gulp!) Damascus.

My next move was to bring the rear guard in Damascus forward to occupy Tyre while Saladin and his pals moved north and camped outside of Tripoli, though I don't remember whether that happened at the end of 1189 or the beginning of 1190.

It should be mentioned at this point that I had really good cards that year and John had really crappy ones.

You didn't need to be a swami fortune-teller to know what was going to happen in Tripoli. The two gentle fingers had turned into a pair of pliers, and the hammer was hovering just overhead. I blasted in with eight or nine blocks via three different roads, and when the dust cleared there was nothing left of the Christians in Tripoli except the echo of a Hail Mary and a stain on the ground.

It was 1191 at that point, and the reader might be wondering when the Crusaders are going to come charging in to the rescue. John was wondering the same thing. He finally drew all three Germans at the very end of 1190, but still only had two out of three of the French and the English. In fact, here's how dismal things were for John: at one point he was down to two blocks in his draw pool, and they were the missing Frenchman and Brit. Ay caramba!

Anyway, Barbarossa and his comrades started drifting into Antioch, and so John started to show a little backbone in the North. To be fair, he had pushed back a little before this point as well, but the counteroffensive never gained any momentum. Anyway, a nasty force elbowed its way into Artah, and another slipped through the front lines southeast and then west into the region around Krak des Chevaliers and Montferrand, so I had to spend a little time and energy shooing the holy rollers back into place.

We were now poised at 1192. The Germans were in the North, more Crusaders were on the boat, and a frightened, ominous hush descended on Tripoli.

And I had to go home.

It was very disappointing, but we just couldn't finish. The game up to that point had ended up taking three and a half or four hours, and my family was waiting for me to get home so we could all have dinner. Why can't these stupid wargames ever end on time?

Regardless, I think the outcome was pretty clear. My ace strike force of Saladin and his cronies were hanging out in Damascus playing cards, so all they had to do was to spend one movement point to bolt to Tripoli and I'm sure I could have held it for the year. John had taken back Tartus by this point, but if I remember correctly I still held Krak des Chevaliers, so there wouldn't be any easy two-pronged attacks on his part; basically, I had enough Arabs loitering around the North to react to any sudden moves he made. An end run at Damascus from the area around Jerusalem might have been an option, but it would have taken a great hand of cards on his part and a really lousy one on my part to pull off, I think.

So ultimately I would say yes, this is a tough game for the Christians to win.

Does the Frankish player have any chance at all? Maybe, I guess. The only thing I could suggest from my perspective is that the Frank needs to prod and pester the Saracens constantly in order to slow down their advance; he doesn't need to do any real damage, he just needs to be a nuisance. Because the winters demand that offenses be fast and coordinated (they have to get wrapped up before football season, you understand), the Arabs cannot be allowed to have any zen moments of clarity, or they will gather up all their actions and use them in a concerted way to do Mean Things to the Christians. John did use this tactic to some extent in our game, but not as much as he could have. Anyway, after meeting Saladin in a few dark alleys, I would guess it's easy for the Frankish player to get spooked into thinking that all the Saracen forces are bad-asses, but that's not quite true. Had John pushed back against the crust more methodically, he might have found one or two mushy spots. Such an approach can make a difference I think; after all, even though I was kicking ass and taking names, note that it took me until late 1190 or early 1191 to actually get my fourth city; had he distracted me a little more, and had the crusaders made a more timely entrance, things might have been a lot different.

Overall I enjoyed myself and I think Crusader Rex is a fun and exciting game, or at least it is for the Saracens. The demands of wintering mean that things don't settle down into a static front line; offenses tend to wax and wane, and there is enough room on the map for jabs and darts and general mobility. Also, I like that the game manages everything with a relatively small rule set; while I enjoy a challenge, I don't have any passion for military history, and I prefer it when the complexity is in the game, not in the rules. Nothing is as aggravating as playing a wargame for four hours and suddenly realizing that some peripheral but influential exception or bit of upkeep was neglected three turns ago, thus leading to an erroneous chain of events that can't be untangled.


Coldfoot said...

I was kind of luke-warm on Crusader Rex. The second time I played I played the French. The first year I drew a hand that consisted of one "3" card and the rest "1" cards. I just couldn't recover from the first year beating I took.

I will play again, and I have pre-ordered the Athens-Sparta block game (the name of it escapes me at the moment), but I think I am going to lay off of block games for the foreseeable future. So far Hammer of the Scots is the only one that was fun to play, and the more I play it, the more I dislike all the dice rolling.

Anonymous said...

Be sure to give it another shot, with the 1.3 rules. Its freakin great now, and very balanced.