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Cardboard Children - Three Kingdoms Redux

"One of the greatest board games I've ever played"

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The state enhancements, those imported technologies you can build, are drawn from decks called UNIFICATION and SEPARATION. The Unification deck offers alternative ways of gaining resources, while the Separation deck offers alternative ways of gaining victory points. These are cards that can be paid for, put into play on your side of the table, and they offer special bonuses and abilities. A Battering Ram will increase the strength of your generals in battle. Irrigation will award a bonus at the end of the game if your farm is fully developed. Horse Armour awards points for stationing cavalry units. The Mobile Siege Tower drains military victory points from your opponents. The cards add an extra dimension to this already deep game, suggesting strategies for your state to pursue.

And then there are those special powers on the generals themselves. Cao Cao’s power is that he breaks any ties in any bids he is involved with – his presence is always a threat. Whenever Sun Ce recruits armies, one of them arrives already trained – fitting for the Little Conqueror. Zhang Zhao, that brilliant administrator, pulls in extra money whenever he collects tax. Every single general, every character, has a unique ability – the player has to decide where to use them, and when, and how the ability will assist in the grand scheme of things. Now remember – remember – there are 23 unique generals per state. And when you recruit them, you draft them in. Every time you play you will have a different mix of generals, only about a third of them will be seen in any one game, and not all of them available from the start. Variety? Replayability? It’s all here.

It’s all here.

The game ends after the 12th round, or when one of the game ending conditions has been satisfied. Then all players are scored on military might, border control, state development and civil harmony. Bonus points from cards and tracks and territories are added, and the player with the most points wins. That player’s ambition could not be stopped.

THE GLORY OF THE THREE KINGDOMS

Three. Players. Only.

It’s the one thing that might limit the audience for this game. Three Kingdoms Redux is for three players, and only three players. But the asymmetric three player dynamic is what really sets this game apart. All three states are different. Wei starts strong, with more manpower, but no popular support. Shu is weak on generals, but the people are firmly behind them. Wu is in the middle ground. And the game starts with Wu and Shu in an Alliance.

The alliance is a clever thing. Before any bidding takes place, one of the allied players can choose an action space as an Allied Action space. That enables both allies to team up to outbid the third player, with both allies able to execute the action. If the alliance thinks the third state is desperate to train troops, then both of them can lock that third state out of that area. Alliances are always formed between the states positioned second and third in bid order (this is decided on bid results in the previous round – the state winning most bids goes first in bid order) and they feel right for a simulation of that Three Kingdoms period – alliances formed out of nothing more than fleeting mutual convenience.

As the game develops, Wei’s advantage starts to weaken. Wei can recruit less new generals than the other states, and the balance starts to shift. All three players need to worry about the player on their left and the player on their right. The borders are constantly under threat. When you take a succession of actions to choke out Wu, you’ve left Shu to continue on their merry way without a care in the world.

Example: As Wei, I made an early and aggressive move into border territories. It felt like the right thing to do, but it was a huge risk. Almost immediately I realised that I would struggle to feed and pay my armies if locked out of state development actions. Did my opponents realise just how close to starvation I would be for the next few rounds? Could I survive? Should I fail in bids deliberately to move myself into an alliance?

The game is full of choices and decisions. Difficult, meaningful decisions. It’s part of the reason why the game takes so long. Every single bid matters. Every position. The game never feels slow, because there’s so much going on, and you’re always looking so far down the line. It’s a clever game, where players can do clever things. But it’s also a game where players can do stupid things, tying a noose around their own necks.

There are a lot of little wrinkles I haven’t even gone into. Just understand this – here is a giant, epic, sweeping strategy board game with a setting so rich that it never feels mechanical. You never feel like you’re just chasing victory points and churning through actions and resources.

SUPERIOR STRATEGY

“They are many and we but few,” said Liu Bei to his brothers. “We can only beat them by superior strategy.”

It’s frankly incredible that this is a game from a first-time design team. When I saw that it was available, I considered – for a moment – getting in touch to ask for a review copy. But then I saw that this was a small company, with no great distrbution chain, and I bought an imported copy. I figured that, at the very least, it would be interesting to see what an attempt at a Three Kingdoms board game might be like. I didn’t expect to play a game that would easily shoot straight into my top ten games of all time list. It just makes no sense. The game is gorgeous, with quality components and beautiful artwork by Singapore’s Ray Toh. (I’ve since learned that the first few copies of this game came with an Artbook, and I’m now distraught. I need that thing!) And the game itself?

Listen. If this game gets enough exposure, people are going to go crazy for it. I don’t know how the whole board game publishing thing works, but distributors need to help this team out with getting this game onto more tables across the globe. I can see heavy Euro fans (fans of games like Terra Mystica and so on) going ga-ga for it. I can also see fans of the crunchy richly-themed Ameritrash stuff loving it too. It has enough of one and enough of the other to feel like a game that is entirely its own thing. And the setting is, as I’d expected, one that is just perfect for a board game. Three players, at a table, issuing orders and moving generals, with no hiding place – the superior strategy wins.

I’m so excited about this game. So excited. I can’t wait to play it again and again, over the years ahead, discovering the different synergies between the generals and the state enhancements. Mastering one state, and then trying it out all over again in charge of another.

Three Kingdoms Redux is an essential buy for anyone who is invested in board gaming these days. You will recognise some things you love in there, and you will experience so much that is new. Here’s some info on where to buy it.

We need to make some noise about this game. There are no plastic toys inside it. There is no huge marketing campaign. There’s just two designers, one of the greatest settings you could ever wish for, and one of the greatest board games I’ve ever played.

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Robert Florence

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