“All great powers reunify after long periods of division, wane and break up after long periods of unification.”
Two years ago, in this very column, I wrote this:
“My dream is to design a Romance of the Three Kingdoms board game. What’s YOUR dream design?”
Today I review a Three Kingdoms board game. It’s called “Three Kingdoms Redux”, it’s by two first-time game designers, and I am completely stunned.
THREE KINGDOMS REDUX
My interest in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms saga stems from the video games made by KOEI throughout my lifetime. I have a huge collection of these games – all of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms titles, on SNES, Saturn, Playstation, PC, you name it. The Dynasty Warriors games? Obsessed with them. Kessen? Remember Kessen?
These games immersed me in the lore of the Three Kingdoms era, taken from Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel about the tripartite between the states of Wei, Wu and Shu after the fall of the Han dynasty. Naturally, I read the novel – and a wonderful thing it is. It’s a sweeping, romantic, enchanting political saga about ambition and courage and cruelty and fear, with characters that have become legend.
But what of this game?
“Attack if you can attack, defend if you can’t attack, flee if you can’t defend, surrender if you can’t flee, die if you can’t surrender!”
Whenever I imagined a Three Kingdoms game, I always imagined a map. A map of China, with generals and troops upon it, ready for battle. But I’m no game designer, and I’m halfway a fool. Christina Ng Zhen Wei and Yeo Keng Leong have taken a different approach with Three Kingdoms Redux. Each player (and the game is for 3 players only) leads one of Wei, Wu and Shu. And then they must grow and improve their kingdom, training troops, feeding the people, courting the Emperor – and also, yes, attacking and defending. Growth and war. Development and defence.
It’s a game in the European style, with similarities to games like Agricola – you will indeed be placing your state’s generals in spaces on the board that allow you to take actions, and those actions will enable you to improve your state’s lot. But Three Kingdoms Redux is fiercely competitive, and the setting so richly woven into the game’s mechanics, that the game feels entirely unique. The 3-player dynamic introduces a tension that is often missing in other “worker placement-style” games. It’s a bit of a revelation. And the game is deep. It is a huge, deep thing that will keep you at the table for hours.
Let me briefly explain how the game works. Play is broken down into a conflict phase and a resolution phase. In the conflict phase, players take turns placing generals onto the board. In the middle of the board there is an area for “common actions”. These are actions that every player can bid for, and they let you do a lot of stuff. You can develop your farmland, or harvest it. You can develop your marketplace and collect tax. You can recruit troops, train troops, create weapons and ships and horses. You can demand tribute, or gain popular support. You can trade rice, gold and weapons. You can visit the Emperor and enhance your Imperial standing. You can import technology and build new and wonderful buildings for your home state.
But these aren’t all the actions you can take. You can keep a general at home, working to improve tribal relations and attain greater harmony. And you can battle.
Before I talk about battle, let me explain how bidding for action spaces actually works. Every Lord (Cao Cao for Wei, Liu Bei for Shu and Sun Jian for Wu) and general you recruit (you start the game with newly recruited generals, and recruit more in later rounds) has a set of statistics and a special power. The Wei general Xiahou Dun, for example, has a value of 2 in administration, 5 in combat, and a leadership of 2. Every action space has a certain criteria – developing farmland looks at administration, for example, and the battle spaces look at combat – and when a general is placed there, their strength in that area is what matters. Players take turns placing generals, upping their bid when they post more than one general in the same space. Whoever has the highest bid total when all generals are placed gets to take the action.
Now, back to battle. As you sit at the board, you have a border to your left and to your right. If you are Wei, your right hand is at the Wei-Shu border and your left hand at the Wei-Wu border. Both these borders have battle action spaces. When you place generals in these spaces, you are making clear your intent to move into territory in those border regions. Generals in battle can have their bid totals enhanced by being posted with armies, to a maximum of their leadership value. The winning bid in these battle spaces allows the player to move one of the battling generals into a border region, claiming that territory for the rest of the game.
Now, now, listen. Listen. This shouldn’t be enough. When I visualised a Three Kingdoms game I visualised a battle on a map. Units moving from region to region, dice being rolled. The system Three Kingdoms Redux uses shouldn’t be enough but my goodness it is. When you see an opponent moving into battle on one of your borders, it is hugely intimidating, as it should be. At the end of the game, you are scored on those borders. Did you control them? Did you share them? Did you lose them? And each border only has five territories. Control three of them, and the border is yours. But do you have the manpower? A general posted to a territory is no longer available for bidding for actions, leaving you at a disadvantage. Armies posted with generals need to be fed and paid for, every single round. Can you afford it? Will you starve your state?
It’s a zoomed-out approach to the battle, and it works spectacularly well. It treats war not just as a simple attack-defend dynamic, but as a disruptive thing – a thing that can spoil your plans not just for this turn, but for every turn. And it’s happening at either side of you, sometimes simultaneously. It’s absolutely wonderful.
Okay, okay, so those actions. It’s important to develop your home state, by developing farms and marketplaces. You are scored on this stuff at the end of the game, but it also helps throughout the game too. By harvesting and filling your granary with rice, you lessen the burden of feeding those armies you have out there on the field. Same deal with the marketplace – money pours through your fingers in this game, and taxation will keep your head above water.
Armies? Wow. Okay. So you’ve taken an action to recruit a couple of armies – bad news is they are untrained and useless. So you take an action to train a couple of them. Okay, good. Now you have trained armies. But they aren’t army units yet. They have no weapons, no specialisation. So you make spears, or crossbows, or breed horses, or build vessels. Now you can attach those to armies, and make cavalry and fleets. Do you understand that creating useful army units isn’t easy? There are certain border territories that can only be taken by particular army types too, so it matters which units you have equipped and ready. And then you just need to decide which general to post with them. Generals all have army specialisations too, and when these all match up, you get a victory point bonus. Do you understand that there is so much going on in this game?
By courting the Emperor, and flinging some gold his way, you can advance yourself along the Rank track. This elevates your Imperial standing and awards victory points. (You also claim the Emperor’s favour, which can be used as a +1 to any bids.) You can also go all the way to the end of the track and become the Emperor himself, ending the game. This doesn’t mean you win. It just means the game ends, and everyone gets scored. It’s a beautiful idea, really. When a player is one step away from Emperor, they have the power to shift the game into its finish if it suits them. And popular support is a great thing to have – the action gives you a simple +1 Popular Support token. It can be spent to increase a general’s bid (they are carrying out the will of the people) or saved to add to a state’s civil harmony score at the game’s end. But get this – you need to feed the people or that popular support comes back to bite you, losing you victory points whenever you can’t. You can’t just pretend to be the benevolent leader. You need to do the work.
The article continues on page two.