Publisher: Renegade Games
Player Count: 2-4 Players
Game Length: 40-60 Minutes
Set in the Middle Ages, King Philip sought to secure sacred holy sites across Europe by waging a series of wars against their enemies. Ultimately, the costly, violent and expensive war secured England’s status as players in the fight for land in the Middle East. As grandmaster of a militaristic order, your goal is to defeat enemies and establish your influence as you progress east through Europe.
Players race against one another in this mancala and rondel powered euro game loosely inspired by Stefan Feld’s euro classic, Trajan. Upgrade your abilities by establishing buildings and mustering troops for battle. Characterized by tight, efficient turns, Crusaders seeks to bring a full-on, euro-style game packed with interesting turns that can be played in under an hour. Impossible you say? Check out our review below to see how Crusaders pans out and if it’s a good fit for your board game collection.
ON YOUR TURN
The game begins by having you select a unique order of knights giving you a special set up bonus or ongoing benefit throughout the game.
The majority of the game’s actions takes place in your personal player board featuring a wheel made up of various wedges, each providing different actions. Players will move tokens in a mancala fashion to build value and execute stronger actions. Once an action is taken, the value of the action depends on the number of tokens available on that wedge. Players then move the tokens out of that wedge dispersing one at time across the adjacent wedges in clockwise order.
Crusaders is made up of a series of actions taken over an unspecified number of rounds. Players will take actions allowing them to travel across the central map board, engage with enemies, muster additional troops, erect buildings to showcase your domain and perform the influence action which… gives you influence. And influence is the key to victory. Each game starts with a set amount available and when the influence bank is exhausted the game ends.
Building buildings and mustering troops upgrade your ability to do everything in grand tableau fashion. Each of the 4 unique building types available provide a unique action enhancement. As you erect additional buildings your basic strengths become stronger while simultaneously increasing the cost of the next upgrade.
Battling enemies is another great way to earn influence. Two of the game’s 3 enemy factions sit on strength tracks. These tracks determine the crusade value necessary to defeat them and the influence earned. Once defeated, that specific enemy increases their strength by 1 for the next battle. The final faction takes a flat 6 crusade strength to defeat. Victory earns you 3 influence or allows you to establish a specific building at no charge. Who doesn’t like free?
Despite the game’s forward thinking nature where players must plan ahead to disperse their tokens in a way to maximize a particular action strength at just the right time, turns are relatively quick. While it’s easy to get caught up in upgrading your actions through excessive building, everything is just a tool in the overall race to snag as much influence from the ever depleting pile of influence tokens. You may have grandiose plans, but the nature of the game will force you to adjust and refine your process asap.
Once the end game triggers, players count up their influence earned and receive additional points from community awards. The player with the most influence is declared the winner.
DIVINE INFLUENCE EXPANSION
With the Divine Influence expansion, players have the opportunity to energize their actions with an additional set of buildable tokens and an alternative way to spend influence actions to upgrade abilities. Crusaders is a tight game and I’m always nervous that an expansion is going to try to fix something that isn’t broken. The Divine Influence expansion sits nicely on top of the existing game allowing you to play as you see fit. For an expansion… for me… that is a huge relief. That being said, the expansion certainly isn’t necessary to enjoy Crusaders.
There are some cool end game bonuses you can activate, but those seem to really require a focus and intentionality to achieve them. The additional hex actions could allow you to camp out longer at a specific location on the board. I can see this working well in small doses. Doing everything you can now do on a hex can up your abilities, but doing it too often will limit your access to bigger and better influence tiles.
I also found that the expansion did ruin some of the tight finishes Crusaders typically has. An additional community scoring goal and achievement multipliers sent some scores into the stratosphere.
Overall, for me, it doesn’t ruin the game (which is a big plus), but doesn’t do anything to make it substantially better.
ARTWORK & COMPONENTS
Crusaders has a bit of an old school euro meets new school euro look to it. The artwork is going to provide most euro gamers a familiar ease and comfort level they’re used to. It’s not amazing, but it leans toward a more timeless feel that sits well with the theme. While I’m ok with my beige euro boards, I’m happy with the art direction behind Crusaders to bring a more vibrant color palette full of oranges, greens, purples and blues.
As for the components, I am aware of a deluxe version with plastic tokens and buildings, but I am 100% satisfied with the wooden components on full display here. Each building is unique and the player movement tokens representing horses are solid, well designed and everything I could ask for. The cardboard boards and tokens give the entire game a quality feel. I don’t feel cheated here for a moment.
The rulebook is also well done. This is usually determined if I have to supplement questionable aspects of the game with online groups or videos and that isn’t the case here. The rulebook provides a clear source to get you up and running quickly.
PROS & CONS
➕ I love the combined rondel and mancala mechanics
➕ Nice, think-y turn choices
➕ The game has a tight feel challenging you to not waste a turn or an action
➕ The overall presentation brings a lot of value
➕ Quick pace to the game keeps everyone engaged
➕ Multiple asymmetrical knight order player characters bring a fun wrinkle to each game
➕ Games can legitimately be played in under an hour
➕ Game offers a 2 and 3/4 player board option
➖ Setup can be a little bit of a struggle
➖ While the knights order cards seem fairly balanced, there were a few that felt a bit more beneficial.
➖ Short game length could leave some feeling cheated they weren’t able to accomplish everything they wanted to.
WHY WOULD YOU LIKE THIS GAME?
Gamers looking for a euro experience full of smart choices in under an hour are going to love this. The quick, think-y turns tied into the mancala mechanics are super satisfying.
What is the best thing about the game?
The best thing about the game is the mancala/rondel. There are so many ways to make this work for your personal game plan. Most games there are multiple instances where I feel like I’ve pulled off some amazing move irregardless of how well I’m actually doing. This is a true sign of something special for me.
Crusaders just might be THE BEST mid-weight euro you can play in under an hour (even at 4 players). The limited choices, think-y turns and fast pace come together creating a truly engaging board gaming experience that really hits the right notes for me. The rondell/mancala wheel sets the perfect tone. It’s satisfying without being overwhelming while providing a deceptively extensive amount of strategic flexibility.
Thematically, Crusaders does what it needs to, but I could see it being a little dry for some players. The turns don’t present a lot of highs and lows. You’ll need to get your kicks from your planning and efficiency. It is a true efficiency race and I love seeing how much fat I can trim with my choices on each subsequent play.
Crusaders is going to find the perfect home with a seasoned euro gamer. It plays well at any of the player counts and the game length further extenuates the appeal of a game full of tight choices and challenging pursuits. Crusaders is a real winner and one I’d highly recommend.