Cardboard Children – Three Kingdoms Redux

“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.

29 Comments

  1. Scurra says:

    I can also see fans of the crunchy richly-themed Ameritrash stuff loving it too.
    I can’t. Sadly. Because there’s no dice. Sorry, bit of prejudice showing there… It does sound bloody good though. It’s really hard to do a three-player game that doesn’t risk one player winning because the other two turn on each other, but the alliance idea does seem to address that quite subtly.

  2. Trodomir says:

    Bought this super fast. This might even make it to the table for Intl TableTop Day on the 11th as we’re doing an indie and obscure game day with other like Cave Evil, Psycho Raiders, DragonQuest Dungeon R and Tragedy Looper. This might hit the wallet a bit, but indie games of the quality of this HAVE to be supported.

    Thanks again Rab.

  3. vahnn says:

    I’m “Ameritrash.” Well, not really, I don’t think. But I do live in a trailer.

    I’ll be picking this game up asap.

  4. Dare_Wreck says:

    I really, really hate that term Ameritrash for board games. One of the comments here perfectly sums up my thoughts on that term:

    link to islaythedragon.com

    “i’d be interested in learning about the origins of the term “Ameritrash” (as opposed to “thematic,” which (to me) seems a better fit). i find it disturbing that hobby gamers, who tend (in my experience) to be rather cerebral people, acknowledged that moniker enough to let it catch on long-term (but here we are, and there it is).”

    • HopeHubris says:

      Problem with that being people have different definitions of Ameritrash, the games I refer to as Ameritrash are games primarily decided by luck, and with a theme that is basically tacked on, a theme which could, with ease, be completely swapped out for another theme without the mechanics of the game changing at all.

      • hugolefou says:

        “…a theme which could, with ease, be completely swapped out for another theme without the mechanics of the game changing at all.”

        Like in most euro / worker placement games? ;)

        • HopeHubris says:

          Sure, but with more luck involved
          I don’t really like either, to be honest

          • Guzzleguts says:

            The selection of themes is very different though. One is all textile merchants, the other all demons and ladies’ boobies.

    • Jekhar says:

      Look at the world of Shoot’em Ups, there it’s the other way around. “Euro Shmup” is a highly derogatory term. Nowadays it’s mostly used to describe unliked stylistic choices, rather than lacking quality. But it won’t go away either.

      • Dare_Wreck says:

        But you’re using the term “Euro Shmup” not “Eurotrash.” If “Euro Shmup” has a derogatory meaning, it’s not for either of the two words having a negative connotation.

        • vahnn says:

          “shmup” is short for “shoot ’em up,” a type of game. I don’t think it’s a word similar to schmuck.

    • Gothnak says:

      I like combat, theme and depth, my partner likes combat and theme. I hate dice & too much luck, she hates anything about running a town or trading, which she calls games about ‘shipping bags of poo’

      I have no idea what you call games dripping with theme but no dice in sight, but also not about running a city in medieval Europe.

  5. Soulstrider says:

    It just happens I am reading the Romance of the Three Kingdoms right now and have been lusting for any sort of ROTK based game, Dynasty Warriors is a fun take, and although I do like ROTK11 it’s way to micromanagent heavy for my taste. I will certainly take this into consideration, though I doubt I’ll find any partner

    Also Wei is the best kingdom, just putting it here.

    • Vin_Howard says:

      I played a RotTK for like the super NES. Was an incredibly fun and interesting game. Battling against the major kingdoms (I played in the earliest timeline where there are several minor nations) and integrating their super characters into my forces was insanely fun. Too bad after that, I had pretty much won the game and all that was left was the monotonous micromanagement required to defeat the remaining nations.

  6. jgf1123 says:

    Some aspects of this game remind me of Wallenstein, though RotTK has more things going on.

  7. JB says:

    Rab, looks like you might be able to get the art book separately: link to starting-player.myshopify.com

  8. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    Which translation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms did you read? I got the housebrick-sized first half of Brewitt-Taylor’s translation but found it pretty hard going (also I dropped it in the bath at one point, which didn’t help).

    • Soulstrider says:

      I keep hearing the Robert Moss one is the best, that was the one I got.

  9. shaun says:

    It’s impossible to conceive a board game I want to play more than this one. I HAVE to get this. I too am obsessed with ROTK to the point of writing a 2600-word essay about Dynasty Warriors for a literary website (I didn’t discuss the actual books because it was more amusing to me to rant about a video game there) that did not ask for it lol

  10. Kefren says:

    Sounds like Palaces of Carrara, with fighting. (I usually play PoC with three players).

  11. Damn You Socrates says:

    If anyone has tried to read the books and just can’t get past the million names it throws at you, head on down to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms Podcast at link to 3kingdomspodcast.com where the incredible John Zhu is retelling it.

    • mondoron says:

      I also highly recommend this podcast for those new to turbulent 2nd & 3rd c. China :)

  12. merbert says:

    Brilliant review Rab, thank you!

    You’ve got me all fired up to get this.

    Onto “Any Other Business”….

    Where’s the second part of the excellent XCOM board game review you promised us WEEKS ago??!!

    There is piss being taken here…..

  13. Shadowcat says:

    The article continues on page two.

    Seriously? I’m not going to mince words, RPS — that’s just bullshit. There is no need whatsoever for an article on the web to be split across multiple page loads. It’s a dick move, it’s irritating, and I hope you’ll revert it quickly.

  14. mondoron says:

    Robert, fantastic review – all I can say is… WELCOME to the club. This gem is also in my 10 all time favourite boardgames and I too, have made it a mission to get this game on other people’s tables.

    We have started a fansite at link to facebook.com and I will most certainly be sharing this review there. Great work, sir!

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  16. SgtStens says:

    Wow, I would play the heck out of this. Can’t justify the expense for my personal collection as it’s a bit too heavy for my main gaming group (wife and kids) but if I had a regular game group this’d go down smooth….

  17. mondoron says:

    Oops, the aforementioned fansite for Three Kingdoms Redux on Facebook is located at this link link to facebook.com

    Check it out!