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Cardboard Children - Three Kingdoms Redux

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

“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.

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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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