What do you get when a first time design team (husband and wife, no less) start their own board game company, design a game, and handle the logistics of manufacturing and promotion? Just one of the very best board games in existence. Three Kingdoms Redux is a shining example of what's possible in the modern age of board gaming. The barrier to entry for creators and designers is at an all time-low. If you have an idea along with the drive and ambition to create your own board game, you can actually make it happen. Online collaboration and crowdfunding have reduced the need for publishers as gatekeepers. On the whole, I think it's a good development but it has also meant a lot of half-baked games being released. So how does Three Kingdoms Redux avoid the pitfalls that are so common with independent publishers and put together one of the best board games I've ever played?
This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.
I'd like to take some time and extol the brilliance of the box size. Take a standard, square, Ticket to Ride-sized box and reduce its depth by about half and you have a good idea of Three Kingdom Redux's box. It's svelte. It's dense. And most of all, it's respectful. The board is on the larger end of the board gaming spectrum with an ample supply of nice, thick tokens and counters alongside over 100 full sized cards. They all fit snugly in the box with little empty space. The creators chose to prioritize functionality over whatever benefit a larger box may serve on a store display. They respect the space needed to have these things in our homes. The box is exactly what is needed and nothing more. Ultimately, if the game came in a larger more ostentatious box I'd still be happy with it because the game is just that good but the fact that the creators were considerate enough to package the game in a way the favors the players is one of many ways that you can see how much thought and care was put into making this game a reality.
This respect of the player shows itself in the player count. Three Kingdoms Redux is a three player game only. Rather than provide a more flexible player count and risk the integrity of the game experience, the designers focused the efforts on creating the best three player game they could. Could they sell more copies if they offered a two-player variant? Quite possibly so, but it would likely be a lesser experience. TKR (it's what the cool kids are calling it) was designed from its inception as a three player game. Every design point, system and goal was crafted with this in mind. Much like the constraints of poetry, the three player only design is not a limitation, it is an inspiration. This inspiration takes form most appearantly in the alliance system.
Every round, whichever two players are not in the lead are put into an alliance. It is a concrete implementation of what happens informally in many other games: trailing players band together and focus their efforts against the leader. TKR doesn't shy away from making the leader a target, it revels in it. From the beginning, the game skews the odds in favor of one player. The Wei faction begins the game with the most generals, giving them a distinct advantage when bidding for actions. Right off the bat it's 2v1 and the Wei had better get used to it. Together, the other two factions discuss which action space to place the alliance marker. Normally, there can only be a single winner of an action space, but when the alliance marker is placed, it allows the two players in the alliance to take the action together. Furthermore, those players combine the strength of their generals in the space for determining the winner of the bid. Simply placing the alliance marker can be enough to scare the leader from even attempting to take that action. The odds are not in their favor.
It's a simple system really, but it flavors the entire game experience in the best ways. By making the alliance action space declaration its own phase in the game, it creates a moment where all players can take stock of the game state. The allied players discuss potential spots the leader might like to take. They analyze potential strategies and try and get in the head of the leader. If they can successfully anticipate a move, they can move one step closer to the lead. But taking away an action from the leader is only one thing to consider in an alliance. You still have to look out for yourself. Sometimes helping your own cause is better than hindering someone else's. But you're in an alliance, remember? You'll need your partner to buy into your plans as well. And so you not only consider your own needs, but that of your ally. You've surveyed the board and now a solid understanding of where everyone stands. And so you consider your move. You propose a spot for the alliance marker. Your ally suggests another. The leader watches closely, careful not to give anything away in their expressions. Things get a little heated. Your ally's suggestion isn't bad, per se, but yours is just a little better. For you anyways. Discussions would go on and on if it weren't for the fact that whoever is in last place gets the final say. A nice design touch to make sure things don't bog down. It's also bargaining tool. "You can put the alliance marker wherever you want, but I'm not helping you win that bid and I'll certainly remember it in the future." But alliances aren't set in stone.
Even though Wei begins the game with the most generals, they also start with the least amount of resources. Every few rounds every faction will add a predetermined number of generals to their ranks. The Wei begin with five generals, then adds one, then another, and finally another ending with eight total generals. The Shu faction, by contrast, begins the game with only three generals, then adds two, then another two, and finally one more ending with eight total generals. Things even out in the end, but it's road there that drives the narrative of the game experience. The Wei start out on top, the numbers in their favor, but the upstart Shu make surge forward while the Wu faction hangs around keeping a steady pace. The Wei must strike fast and decisively in order to capitalize on their initial position. Maybe that means going to battle in the first few rounds when you know your enemies can't spare even a single general. Maybe it means muscling out the competition and outbidding them wherever possible. Whatever your choice be swift, be bold.
The Shu may not have the military muscle to intimidate the other factions, but they do have resources and, most importantly, the support of the people. This support comes in the form of support tokens, which can be used to augment any of your generals' bids. So while you may not have the numbers, you can cash in on your popularity to make a targeted strike. You wait and bide your time. You know the tides will of power will slowly shift in your favor. You just have to make sure you're not too far behind when it happens. Your popularity also means you don't have to send your generals on political envoys to the local tribes as often. Or maybe it means you double down and curry their favor for victory point bonus? It means you have an ace up your sleeve ready to swipe a valuable action space when the need arises.
And then there's the Wu. Never excelling at anything, never the underdog. The middle child of the Three Kingdoms. You're not the strongest, but you're no pushover. You're not the people's champion, but you're liked well enough. How do you manage victory from the mediocre beginnings? Is it best to hide in the shadows and hope your opponents let their guard down? It's hard to to hide when there's only three at the table. Do you aim for a comfortable spot in second place, taking advantage of the alliance benefits, until the last possible moment? It's a risky play that depends on timing and shifting allies. Wu play a subtle game that balances power lust and irrelevance.
Managing relations with the local tribes can be just as important as training your troops.
And thus the narrative of TKR is forged. Three different kingdoms ebb and flow with power and control. As one kingdom amassess an army, another monopolizes the farmland, and yet another aims for the seat of the emperor. Without food an army is ineffective. Without an army you cannot win a battle. Without either, you may not last long enough to become emperor. China is a nation divided, at war with itself and you feel the burden of leadership at every step. You feel pride and relief as your factions gains power and control, desperation and panic sets in as it slips through your finger. But how is power measured? How do you gain control? As with most conflict, the most direct answer is military conflict.
Your generals, in addition to gathering resources, will lead your forces into battle. Surprising, no? Between each player is a battlefield with five distinct territories. During the bidding phase, placing your general on the battlefield is a declaration of war. Functionally, it works similarly to most action spaces on the board. The strength of your generals are compared to your opponents, if they choose to contest, to determine the winner of the battle. It's probably a good a idea to bring troops to the fight as they add to your strength and allow you to occupy a territory if you win. And that's when things get interesting.
Occupying a territory awards you victory points every round. Take one early and you'll get more points throughout the game, but it comes at a price. The troops and general are permanently stationed in the territory in order to maintain control leaving you with one less general to bid with and one less special ability at your disposal. This. Is. Huge. Your ability to run your kingdom is contingent on your generals. The fewer you have, the less a threat you become. You can't put as much pressure on the bidding spaces and the special ability lost means less flexibility. That free army you got from General Ziahou Yuan? No more. The extra rice from General Zun You? Forget about it. Generals aren't purely military muscle. They are vital to the workings of your kingdoms. Losing them, even for victory points, is painful. And losing them is essential for keeping the game manageable.
Every general has their own special ability that can grant extra resources or bend the rules. Keeping track of them all can be difficult. When more generals are added to game, it teeters on the edge of unmanageable. That's why losing generals to territories keeps the game manageable. The game space expands and contracts. It's the ups and downs, the variations in possibilities that make the overall narrative interesting throughout.
Losing a general is bad, but the cost of funding your occupying forces might be worse. When you win a battle, you can decide to how many of the troops in the battle you send to occupy the won territory. The more troops you send, the more points you earn. Soldiers don't work for free. Every occupying troop you have must be supported with food and gold. They are working towards the cause, but they are a strain on your kingdom's economy, strangling any chance you may have at keeping up with the others. Winning a battle can cost you the war. TKR recognizes that fighting a war is more than soldiers on the battlefield. It's holistic endeavor that encompasses every bit of your kingdom. You grow your army alongside your rice.
At the end of the game, you're judged not just one your military prowess, but how well you've managed your kingdom through crisis. You gain points for your farms, treasuries, tribal relations, and political rank. Interestingly, you aren't awarded points based on absolute numbers, it's all relative. If you have the most farms, you'll get the most points. Have the highest political rank, get the most points. You don't have to be good at running your kingdom, you just have to be better than alternatives.
I can't recommend Three Kingdoms Redux enough. It's finely crafted, well-paced, and tension filled. It's systems fall into the background, leaving the players at the table to engage in a battle of the mind. There's a war going on, but there's a kingdom to manage. These extra considerations elevate Three Kingdoms Redux above most games that depict war. It's not perfect. The technology cards are drawn randomly off the top of the deck and can be useless at certain points in the game and the players aids, while thorough, are unwieldy. But theses are incredibly minor complaints in the grand scheme things. It's been a long time since I've been so impressed and every play reminds of that.