10 June 2019
Knights of the Rondel Table
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done’s theme and gameplay might be rooted in tradition, but this is a game that feels thoroughly modern.
Crusaders powers itself along with a reversal of the mancala-like rondel found in Trajan – designer Seth Jaffee openly credits Stefan Feld’s innovative game as being a key inspiration in the rulebook. Whereas in Trajan the final space of the rondel landed upon was the action performed, in Crusaders it’s whichever segment from which the action tokens are plucked that is executed.
It’s a smart inversion that eliminates the risk of space-counting overthinking and lets the number of tokens redistributed one by one around the circular action wheel neatly dictate each action’s power, lending a now-or-later consideration to decisions. As troops are mustered, buildings erected on the central hex map and new knights sent forth from castles to conquer further territory, the bonuses they provide to the actions give a satisfying sense of growing power and ability, keeping things galloping forward at a very decent speed.
The game takes a similarly refreshing approach to its subject matter, focusing on the growing influence of orders – players each control one of ten, with unique abilities keeping the replayability high – in Europe during the medieval era, rather than just their military campaigning. (A designer’s note carefully acknowledges the efforts made to avoid trivialising the dark period, and the deliberate liberties taken with historical accuracy.) It’s a depiction of expansion and development, rather than slaughter and suffering, and the presentation and streamlined mechanics come together well to achieve a satisfying sense of momentum.
In fact, despite its blood-soaked setting, Crusaders is surprisingly combat-free – at least, you won’t be clashing swords with your fellow knights at all. The ‘crusade’ action allows you to clear out Prussian, Slav and Saracen foes from regions of the map using a simple comparison of strengths, awarding influence and other bonuses but increasing the remaining forces’ might; additional points are awarded for whoever defeats the most and second-most armies at the end of the game. When it comes to overthrowing other players, however, it’s more a case of passive-aggression. There’s no direct iteration between players beyond claiming a token or constructing a building in an area first, giving the game more of a feeling of an engine-building race to charge across Europe and spread your influence fastest than a head-to-head skirmish over space.
With almost every action in the game providing points in the form of influence, no turn feels wasted. The player-specific number of tokens acts as a timer for the game as they gradually trickle into players’ possession, but a short and easy list of end-game scoring bumps from fully upgraded buildings, sets of defeated enemies and so on means that the final outcome remains in flux until the last. The risk of feeling limited to using segments with only one or two action pieces on them is avoided through the option to upgrade a wedge instead of taking an action, allowing improved spaces to be used for more efficient combos and options to remain open. The flow of pieces around the wheel quickly becomes second nature, building up the delayed gratification of seeing tokens gradually clump together on spaces before performing powerful actions and being showered in influence. It might not be the same reward as wiping gangs of soldiers off the map, but it feels seriously good all the same.
Its reasonably brief length, tight set of familiar core actions and lack of bloodlust won’t necessarily satisfy those after an epic conquest on their table, but Crusaders’ deep-enough spin on the intuitive, approachable foundation of mancala makes it a wholly solid experience with plenty to appreciate.
PLAY IT? – YES
Crusaders’ inversion of rondel action-selection drives along a brilliantly strategic and utterly satisfying hour of expansion and development, with plenty to think about without becoming a drag. It’s a fresh, fun approach to a theme and gameplay that are as traditional as they come.
Designer: Seth Jaffee
Artist: Adam P. McIver
Time: 40-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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