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Review: Richard III – The Wars of the Roses

Posted by Denny Koch on May 5, 2010

Game: Richard III – The Wars of the Roses

Publisher: Columbia Games
Published in: 2009
Designers: Tom Dalgliesh & Jerry Taylor
Era: Medieval Britain, 15th century (Wars of the Roses)
Contents: 1 rulebook, 63 blocks, 63 stickers, 1 map (printed on cardstock, not mounted), 25 strategy cards, 4 six-sided dice, Columbia Games Flyer
Average Playing Time: 2-3 hours

HFC Game-O-Meter: E


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 8
Rules:
7
Playability:
10
Replay Value:
9

Overall Rating: 8,5

PRO Block game with elegant fog of war and step loss mechanics;  Fast gameplay and setup; maps and blocks are very appealing; strategically challenging…
CONTRA …but with some balancing issues which could frustrate casual gamers; some rules are fuzzy; the cards should have been laminated.

Introduction

“Richard III – The Wars of the Roses” is the latest block game by Columbia Games. Since we are the classic hex & counter wargamers, we never played a block game before – but we knew that many players enjoy the fog of war created by using wooden blocks, and the elegant step loss mechanics of block games. In addition, we knew next to nothing about medieval warfare during the Wars of the Roses period, besides the knowledge derived from Shakespeare’s plays Richard III or Henry VI, so military concepts from the 15th century were virgin soil for us.

So when Columbia Games sent us a reviewer’s copy of the game, we played it with a fresh perspective and without being tainted by experiences with other block games or games depicting wars in medieval Britain. We didn’t have the usual expectations we know from new hex & counter games, and we were eager to become acquainted with the specific mechanics of block games.

What is a block game?

The red Lancaster blocks

A block game doesn’t use counters to depict units, but wooden colored square blocks. One side of the block is left blank; this is the side which the opponent sees on the  map board. The block’s owner sees the printed side which contains all information about the unit and the block’s strength.

Since only the owner can see the block, the fog of war created by a block game is much higher than in a regular counter game. The block is only revealed in battle by tipping it forward. Step losses are taken by rotating the block counter-clockwise. After a battle is finished, players stand their remaining blocks upright again.

What is Richard III about?

...as seen from York's point of view

The game is area-based and depicts the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), a series of civil wars for the Throne of England. The House of Lancaster with their King Henry VI fought against the House of York.

In the game, one player plays the ruling House of Lancaster and their allies while his opponent plays the “Pretender”, the House of York, where Richard wants to become the new King of England.

The game is played in 3 rounds (‘Campaigns’), each consisting of 7 turns. After each round, the player who controls the most provinces with his Earls, Dukes, and Lords becomes the king of England while his opponent is sent into exile. Winner of the game is who is king at the end of round 3. During a game, it is possible for York to become the new king after round 1 and to be sent back into exile in round 2. Henry VI can be killed while his heirs are in the position to become the next king. Besides fighting battles, politics and treachery play a role as well.

Graphic Presentation

The game box and initial preparations

The white blocks before applying the stickers

The game is shipped in a slip case, containing a black box with blank wooden counters, stickers, one cardboard map, the rulebook and several dice. The box illustration shows a historical portrait of Richard III which adds nice authentic flavor to the game.

The 63 blocks are red, white, and black die-cut wooden blocks with rounded down edges. Since all of them are shipped in one plastic bag, in our copy of the game the color of the black and red blocks rubbed off to the white blocks here and there. In order to avoid these red markings and spots on the white wood, Columbia Games should consider packing the red and white blocks in separate plastic bags. It wasn’t much of a problem, though because we simply removed the marks with sandpaper.

Initially, the wooden blocks are blank; all required unit information is printed on a sticker sheet. Before starting our first game, we had to stick the stickers to the blocks. Since the stickers are slightly smaller than the blocks, visual judgement and a steady hand are required for this job. In the end, it worked out fine, but it takes some time (but the same is true for punching out counters which can be damaged when you are doing it too fast).

Initial preparations:

Applying the stickers to the blocks requires a steady hand...

The game components are of a very high quality; all wooden blocks are even and of the same size . The color is strong and evenly applied. The stickers depict the various Lords, Earls, and Dukes of the Houses of Lancaster and York. In addition, they represent rebels, local levy, mercenaries, and bombards. Besides the names, the pictures show the shields, loyalties as well as combat strength and additional information, for example regarding the succession to the throne. This adds some nice historical flavor to the game.

The colorful (non-mounted) map consists of strong cardboard and portraits medieval England and Wales, separated into areas. Areas are separated by rivers, clear borders or mountains – which impact movement. Within the areas are cities and churches which are important for gameplay, while references to historical battles with dates and outcome add some chrome to the game (but without any impact on gameplay). The map is strong and folded like a street map. It can be laid on a table without any need for cover (for example, a glass plate which is required for many folded paper consim maps) or lamination (we like to laminate our maps in order to reduce the folding lines).>

...and good visual judgement

The rulebook consists of 8 pages and is printed in black and white with some historical illustrations depicting the protagonists of the game (Henry VI, Richard III etc.).

Unfortunately, the 25 Action Cards are a bit on the cheap side and tend to tatter when you play the game often. CG should use laminated cards instead (a good counter-example for hard-wearing cards can be found in any Fantasy Flight Games game, for example Arkham Horror or Middle Earth Quest.)

Nevertheless, the overall production quality is high and the game looks very appealing.

Rules

The current rules version is 1.02 (with clarifications of the original rules). Our game box contained rules 1.01,  but the latest rules are available as pdf for free download on the official Columbia Games website. Rules changes and clarifications are printed in a red font which is very user-friendly because one can check out the differences to older rules versions very quickly.

Stickers have to be applied to all blocks

Despite the fact that the rules are quite short (compared to the average consim we use to play), the game does offer strategical and tactical depth. Although it takes some time and several playthroughs before a player perceives the finer strategic details, the possibilities of maneuver, of utilizing the terrain to his advantage and the importance of the various unit types.

Nevertheless, the rules are far from perfect. The good things are: they are short, they are structured following the turn sequence of play and there is an index and they are written in a comprehensive fashion with some designer’s notes and background information presented in a separate column. Unfortunately, there is some sloppy wording regarding basic concepts of the game, which led to unnecessary rules discussions and debates during play.

Especially the concept of “heirs” to the throne suffers from the inconsistent use of certain terms such as “heirs”, “royal heirs”, and “senior heirs” which often lead to confusion. Some of our questions couldn’t be resolved without searching internet forums, and some questions couldn’t be resolved at all yet, so that we had to decide and agree upon our own rules interpretation. We played the game with three different players (without sharing our first impressions with them in order to get an unbiased opinion), but the questions that came up were the same in all games we played and watched.

Sandpapering the blocks

For example the rules define the ‘senior heir’ of each side as the King or the Pretender respectively. Apart from the fact that it sounds weird to consider the King as his own heir to the throne, it leads to some confusion when the rules later explain the role of a senior heir in combat. Then it obviously means that the senior is always the highest ranking heir present (there’s a ranking from senior to junior as expressed in numbers from 1 to 5). A charge e.g. can be done by the senior heir present in each battle which would mean – according to the definition of ‘the senior heir’ as the King/Pretender – that only the King or Pretender could make a charge. But the rule later simply seems to make a difference between two heirs if more than one is present and then only one (the highest ranking or ‘senior’ present) can do the charge. Very confusing and it would have been easily avoided by simply deleting this strange first definition.

It’s also not that clear at first what happens when the King is eliminated. The rules say that when the King is dead, the senior royal heir (the one with the lowest number on the block i.e. the one ‘nearer’ to the throne) becomes King. The rules also state that when an heir is killed, the senior minor heir enters play (each side has 5 heirs, three major and two minors) which implies that every time an heir is killed, a minor enters play. The question was, what happens if the current King / Pretender is killed? Is he replaced by the highest ranking heir on the board AND does a minor enter play simultaneously? And what happens if the minor IS the highest ranking heir? This questions led to some unnecessary confusion about when which heir actually enters play. The rules alone leave you with different possible interpretations and depending on the chosen interpretation, the game plays very differently – we had to check out the usual sources (CSW and BGG) to understand how it is played correctly.

Despite these initial problems, the game is easy to grasp and there is not much need to refer to the rules once you got a hang of the game. A quick reference sheet would have been nice, though. A player aid sheet makes it easier to return to the game after a break and it summarizes the sequence of play, the combat sequence, and the various exceptions and special rules which have to be kept in mind. Fortunately, there are some good third-party player aids available on boardgamegeek.com which are highly recommended. We used the “Chrome rules summary” which lists the exceptions, and a player handout we found on Boardgamegeek. This was very helpful in learning the game and in remembering the various special rules.

German, Russian, Spanish, and Japanese rules translations are available for download on the official Columbia Games website. We checked the German translation and compared it to the English original. The translation is quite good (expect for some weird wordings, for example regarding the junior and senior heirs). All in all, the translation remains true to the original rules and is written quite carefully. The German rules can be recommended without reservation.>

Playability

Action and Event cards

The game is fast-going and can be played in one afternoon session. Even if you are a slow player who needs much time to think about the next move, one full game (consisting of three campaigns) can be played in about 3 or 4 hours. Because of the fast gameplay based on easy mechanics combined with strategic depth, Richard III is a perfect game for tournaments, conventions, short meetings, or as a filler between long consims which take several weeks to complete. We are always interested in small but deep wargames which can be played in one session; unfortunately, many of the shorter games are not very demanding (for example Memoir’44), thus lacking a long-time motivation. Richard III, on the other hand, is short but sweet because of the interesting mechanics, the fog of war, and the puzzle-like approach which is highly motivating. Conquering the throne of England (or defending it) reminded us of a chess-like puzzle which both sides want to solve.

As was already mentioned, getting into the game is somewhat complicated by the confusing rules concerning the heirs and the inconsistent use of certain terms, but besides that, the game has a very good playability. Richard III certainly belongs to the category “easy to learn, hard to master”, and we found the gameplay both challenging and motivating. After finishing a game, we were looking forward to playing the next round in order to refine our strategy (or to avoid mistakes we made).

Unfortunately, the cards are not laminated and look tattered after a while

The map and game components support a good playability, the depictions on the blocks and on the map are easy to identify. The step loss system and the fog of war (which is automatically provided by the use of wooden blocks and doesn’t need special counters or other ‘tools’ to make it work, such as the concealment markers in ASL) are very elegant in their simplicity and have a certain advantage over counter-based games. Concealment and fog of war are painful in games like ASL where the counter’s owner has to remember the position of his units because they are hidden to him as well as to the opponent. In a block game, where only one side can see the printed side of the block whereas the opponent looks at the blank back side, the owner always knows the position and combat strength status of all his units which makes for a smooth gameplay.

There is no downtime for the opposing player because Richard III, although utilizing a classic IGO/UGO system, feels more like playing an impulse system. Each player is dealt a card hand of 7 cards and each card represents either a specific action (event card) for the current turn or provides a certain amount of action points not linked to a specific event which can be used for different purposes.

First each player secretly chooses one of his 7 cards. Then the cards are revealed simultaneously and the player with the highest action number (or the one playing an event card) goes first and takes his action. Then the other player resolves his card. Since the highest card is a “4” (allowing the player to activate up to 4 areas, use sea movement for up to 4 units or recruit 4 new units), the turns are fast and the game moves on without any downtime at all. In combat, both players are involved, roll their dice, bring in reserves and take their losses. Since the step loss system is handled automatically by the rules set (highest block takes damage first) it doesn’t need much thinking either and allows for fast going combat action.

1. Card Phase:

The 25 cards are shuffled and each player receives 7 cards, the rest is not used in that campaign round and set aside.

Perfect Fog of War

2. Action Phase:

Both players play one of their cards face down and then reveal them simultaneously. The player with the highest Action Point has the initiative and goes first. Any event card beats an AP card. If both players play an event card, then the higher AP value wins the initiative – all ties are always won by the Pretender. Players check for a ‘Mulligan’ (AP value 13 or less) and can then ask for a new card hand, but only once per round. In the Action Phase both players move their blocks according to their available action points (1 point can move any/all blocks in one area, moves one block by sea, moves two blocks by between two major ports if they move together, or deploys one block from the recruitment pool).

Terrain limits movement (which is normally up to two areas) according to the colour of the areas border (Yellow: 4 blocks may cross border; Blue: 3 blocks may cross border; Red: 2 blocks may cross border but must stop movement after crossing the border) and blocks may only move into friendly or vacant areas. If the area moved into contains one or more enemy blocks, the area is now contested and battle will occur in the next phase.

Enemy blocks are pinned by the same number of attacking blocks, those in excess of the attacking number can retreat before battle during their Action Phase given that they have a legal retreat path. Both players can bring in reserves to their main attack force as well.

Blocks are only revealed during combat

3. Battle Phase:

In contested areas combat occurs for 4 rounds. In the fourth round, the defender can still fight while the attacker must retreat if he didn’t manage to eliminate the defender in the first three rounds of combat. The player who has the initiative decides in which order battles will be resolved.

In combat, blocks are tipped over, so that both players can see them.

4. Supply Phase:

Map areas and France/Calais exile areas can supply 4 blocks. City areas can supply 5 blocks and Ireland/Scotland can supply 2 blocks. Any surplus blocks in these areas are reduced by one step each. Local Mercenaries in exile areas are ‘free’ i.e. they don’t need supply.

Replay Value

The setup is fixed and there are certainly some standard opening moves for both sides (for example, South First / North First strategies for the York player). But since each player is dealt a different card hand each round/campaign, the game offers enough variety to be played several times.

All our games played quite differently, at least when it comes to the maneuvers and tactics used by the two factions. York won most of the games, so we are inclined to say that York is easier to play and is having a slight advantage over Lancaster. It is interesting to play Lancaster though and we felt challenged by the task of defending the throne. It is certainly possible to win with both sides, but it definitely is somewhat trickier and more difficult for Lancaster due to the better mobility of Yorks troops and the fact that a good card hand is more important for Lancaster than for York. While the former is mostly in a very difficult situation when the card hand is mainly providing low AP cards, the latter can usually still hit hard with the better troops and try to ‘survive’ a round with weak cards. In addition to that as long as York is the Pretender ties are won and so more often than not the important initiative is giving York the first moves even when both factions have to play lower AP cards.

The setup is very fast

The more we played the game, the more details we discovered. The impact of terrain on area borders doesn’t show on first sight, but can certainly be utilized by an experienced player to his advantage in order to corner the opponent and to build traps. At first, we also thought that the game didn’t offer much maneuver, but after a while, we learned that this first impression wasn’t correct. Once we got to know our units and the importance of certain blocks, maneuver became quite crucial and we were surprised by the maneuverability the map and the game system has to offer.

Richard III is a game which must be played several times before it reveals its hidden depths and possibilities to the player. Each time you play it you discover more of the finer concepts and ideas of the system.

The game is motivating and we felt compelled to replay it several times in order to avoid the mistakes of the last game and to refine our tactics or to utilize concepts we just discovered. In addition, the fast gameplay and short playing time ensures that Richard III is a good choice for filling gaps between longer consims and to be played on tournaments or wargame conventions.

Creativity

Richard III is roughly based on other block games published by Columbia Games, for example Hammer of the Scots or Crusader Rex. These games are quite popular and have been on the market for some time, so their basic rules and block game concepts are tried and tested by the community. Since we never played another block game before, we cannot judge how much R3 differs from his predecessors or how many basic rules are identical.

Compared to hex n’ counter consims, which are our ‘field of expertise’, Richard III certainly is a welcome change to known concepts. We immediately liked the fog of war created by the blocks without the need of clumsy tools such as concealment counters or anything like that. The step loss system of simply rotating the block is equally elegant and the game system convinced us in no time, so that we became a fan of block games almost immediately.

The map is area-based which is also known from various consims, and different terrain affecting your units isn’t new either, but in Richard III, terrain isn’t calculated into combat factors or used as a modifier. Instead, a certain terrain type is ‘translated’ into a border color which defines how many blocks may cross a border. This has indirect impact on the combat strength of the troops you send to battle and forces the player to calculate his troop strengths and movement paths with care.

For hex ‘n counter gamers, Richard III certainly offers an innovative new game concept.

Simulation Value

The map (click to enlarge)

Richard III depicts battles (and politics) in medieval England, but the level is quite abstract. A block doesn’t represent a certain troop strength (for example, battalion, army or squad sized) but generally an Earl, Lord, or Duke and their loyal troops. Blocks have a certain strength (how many hits they can take and how many dice they roll in their attack) and combat speed (“A” blocks attack earlier than “B” and “C” blocks), so that various combat aspects are integrated into one block. In addition, the blocks contain certain information about their loyalty status (blocks with roses imprinted on them cannot be targeted by treachery attempts because they are loyal to their side no matter what happens, others have a higher or lower loyalty rating and can switch sides during combat, some more shilly-shally than others). The fact that Edward was only a child during Henry VI’s reign is portrayed by the fact that he doesn’t start on the game board but has to wait until an heir is killed before he is allowed to enter the game.

The entire war took about 30 years, interrupted by several years of peace. This is depicted by political phases between the three campaign rounds where the current Pretender is sent to exile and all Dukes, Lords, and Earls as well as the different mercenaries that fought for both sides return home to their provinces or home countries.

Historical parties, the length of the war, the protagonists and political events of the Wars of the Roses are certainly portrayed in the game (for example, Warwick the notorious “Kingmaker” is an important unit to make treachery attempts), but all in all, the game is too abstract to be an accurate simulation. Nevertheless, the depicted war is convincing and the game contains enough flavor and chrome to present a good wargame about the Wars of the Roses. It even inspired us to watch the Richard III DVD with Laurence Olivier 😉

Solitaire Playability

Next to none. Block games are definitely 2-player games. Not knowing the opponent’s blocks (although the setup blocks are known after some playthroughs), and watching their blank backsides is what makes Richard III so interesting. Attacking a white block in the strong belief it is one of the weaker loyals, and then facing strong Burgundian mercenaries is priceless… and playing both factions simultaneously, knowing all blocks, is absolutely pointless. Not recommended for solitaire play.

Can be compared to:

Other block games by Columbia Games or GMT. Experienced block game players often compare it to Hammer of the Scots, but also to Crusader Rex.

Since we didn’t play any other block games yet, we don’t know how strongly Richard III resembles these two games, but the basic game concepts (step losses, area movement) are similar.

Richard III certainly cannot be compared to hex ‘n counter games since the general mechanisms are quite different (no ZOI, much better Fog of War, no hex-grid-movement, no combat odds calculations, weather, supply rules etc.).

Denny Koch’s résumé

Richard III came as a big surprise to me – a positive surprise. I never played a block game before and didn’t know much about the Wars of the Roses and now I’m really interested in both topics. We played Richard III countless times and even though it proved very hard to win with Lancaster, playing Lancaster never got old.

We discovered early in the game that York appears to be at an advantage and has several opening options (South first, North first). Sometimes, Lancaster held the crown to the very last moment in the final campaign. Sometimes, it was horribly crushed in the early stages. Nevertheless, to me “solving the Lancaster puzzle” was a challenge I felt compelled to master (I didn’t, so far, but I will keep to that).

Balance certainly is an issue here, but in contrast to other games, I didn’t feel annoyed or frustrated by that. On the contrary: since winning with Lancaster requires a combination of good strategy, a good card hand and (ideally) bad York play, winning with Lancaster is much more satisfying than winning with York. It’s not too hard to play York and the York gameplay is much more forgiving regarding wrong tactical decisions or a bad card hand.

I recommend that the more experienced / older player plays Lancaster (in order to avoid frustration in the younger / unexperienced player), but if you are a seasoned wargamer, I’m sure that you will enjoy playing the “underdog”. In fact, when we chose sides, sometimes both of us wanted to play Lancaster (“I want to try out a new strategy” – “I want to give it another try, there must be a way to defeat York”). We didn’t find this way yet (except when the cards were very much in Lancaster’s favor), but we were not turned off by that fact. There is still hope that one day, we (or other players) WILL find a great innovative Lancaster strategy.

The game is short and sweet; the short playing time combined with a strategical challenge is a plus factor. We even hooked a friend to the game; initially, we used him as a guinea pig for getting a neutral opinion on gameplay and balance, and now he wants to play the game all the time…

The stickers are of a very high production quality

The production quality is great, I like the map and block art and the entire block game concept (fog of war, taking step losses by turning the block counter-clockwise). One minor critic, though: The card artwork is fine, but they should have been laminated. After our gaming marathon, they are tattered already and they will become even more tattered because the gameplay is fast and players are dealt many cards over one gaming session.

All in all, I like the game very much and I enjoyed every minute I spent playing the game (and pondering over a Lancaster strategy when I wasn’t at the gaming table). Despite the fact that the rules are somewhat fuzzy when dealing with heirs, the game is easy to learn. Setup takes only a few minutes and players can jump into the game almost immediately, so it’s a perfect filler and tournament game.>

I recommend the game to wargamers in general, even those who aren’t interested in the area portrayed. For me, it was the game which inspired me to occupy myself with the Wars of the Roses and with Richard III. Watching the four-hour Channel 4-documentation of “The Trial of Richard III” from 1984 should be proof enough…

Consim players who are interested in a small quick game which can be easily used as a filler between large, month-taking consims or played on conventions should give it a try as well. Maneuver and other possibilities seem to be limited at first, but the longer you play the game, the more nice little details you discover.

Last but not least, if you are a fan of block games and have played the other Columbia Games block games, you won’t have any difficulties getting into the game.

We really enjoyed Richard III during our excessive game sessions for this review and we will certainly continue playing the game and working on our Lancaster strategy…

Andreas Ludwig’s résumé

Well, first let me say that I’m very impressed with Richard III and it made me a fan of the block game concept almost immediately.

The fog of war is certainly the most important aspect of the game and that is something new to me and always has been a weak point of the traditional hex ‘n counter wargames. So it’s a thrilling new experience which forced me to adapt to this different style and to alter some of the strategies and tactics I’m used to in wargaming.

This and the rather easy-to-learn mechanics combined with a short playing time makes this game a true winner in my opinion. I like the map and sticker artwork and I very much appreciate that the map is not just a flimsy peace of thin paper so it can be played right out of the box without much problems (You know I’m rather old school in this respect and a fan of the old Avalon Hill games that almost always had strong cardboard maps. As an ASL player I also prefer the old style cardboard maps over the new Starter Kit paper maps. It was a joy to see the R3 map when I opened the box. It’s a good compromise, not as strong cardboard as the old maps I’m used to, but not as thin as the paper maps we all know today either).

Since area movement games always have a possible weak point in not allowing enough maneuver and thus limiting your strategic options, I was impressed with what R3 has to offer in this respect. An innovative border system realistically limiting troop maneuver according to different terrain without much complicated modifiers and calculation is key here – and it simply works. Especially the highly tactical combat system with the in-built battle schedule (according to their A, B, C or D position, certain blocks are faster in combat than others and some – bombards – can even switch between these positions) and the manifold possibilities regarding retreat, reserve and regroup is something I like.

I’m not an expert of the topic or era portrayed in the game, so I can not judge how much simulation we actually have here, but for me the overall feeling simply fits and it may well be a starter to look deeper into that part of history or even to try out games more on the sim side of the hobby (although I’m not sure how many consims there are for this era besides Avalon Hill’s Kingmaker).

The action point system is an easy way to see who has the initiative in a certain turn. Taken the combat system used in the game into account, it was obvious that it’s not always a good idea to play the highest cards first – as the second player, you are able to react to attacks by bringing in unexpected reserves while the attacker is bound to what he brought into the battle as his main attack formation and possible reserve troops in the first place.

So there’s always the back and forth between the players bluffing and guessing what’s up next. This provides an interesting and tense game experience till the play of the last card. So far I have not encountered any level of boredom even after playing several games in a row since the gameplay usually turned out to be very different, based on the players’ decisions, cards in your hand and the outcome of the battles.

After playing about 20 games I think it’s much more difficult for the Lancaster player to keep his crown than for the York player to take it away from him. Interestingly, during the first games, when you start learning it, it may actually seem more difficult for the York player and that was also what all the balance polls said when the game was fresh on the market and on the gaming tables. To not know where the important units are located on the Lancaster side is a disadvantage for York at first and if you don’t study the setup and all the Lancaster blocks closely before your first games in order to learn to know all the red blocks already on the map (with their shields and crown areas giving defense Boni to them), makes it look like a really daunting task to get a foothold on the island. But after some games the initial start setup becomes much more obvious and it’s easier to take advantage of Lancaster’s problems – and problems they have! In my opinion, York has the stronger military units, has more powerful mercenaries to throw into key battles, thus enabling him to push forward attacks with cheap units that will come back again and again while Lancaster is always struggling with the key decision to either preserve their units for the vote in the political phase or to use (and probably lose) them in combat to throw back York’s troops.

Treachery attempts are very important for both sides and to see one of your nobles defecting in a crucial battle and joining your enemy in the next round can be a very demoralising experience. But to sacrifice important combat strength in order to try a treachery attempt… and then failing in convincing the noble to join the other side, can very easily turn the whole situation into a mess for you, so what to do and when to do it is what makes the battles interesting and the game as a whole very challenging. To my limited knowledge it also portrays the fact that the nobles of that time were usually open to ‘invitations’ from the enemy to switch sides and so this feels right without much rules complexity to make it work.

Rulebook layout: Rules (left column), commentary and historical notes (right column)

As was already mentioned in the review, so far our games have mostly been victories for York and we have seen some really brutal crashes for the Lancaster player indeed. Still –  currently I’m not willing to say the ‘balance issues’ here are a game breaker, simply because I think it is possible to win with Lancaster and to try it is more challenging than frustrating which is always a sign of good game design overall.

Nevertheless, my initial impression is that Lancaster is in dire need of some good cards in the first campaign hand in order to achieve a position from which a good defense is actually possible. To have one or even better two 4 AP cards (while York has none or is not willing to use them as an opener because they can come in very handy as your last card in a campaign for bringing in votes) is really important for Lancaster: for 1.)  occupying the Northern coast (and forcing York to a South first strategy) and/or 2.) to recruit some levy troops and/or move the French and Scots to positions where they can be useful.

If York can be restrained to certain parts of the map for their initial assaults, Lancaster can use defense Boni of their units on the map to their advantage – which is especially important in the beginning of the struggle. If it is not possible to shut off the coastal areas quickly enough, then York will be able to hit Lancaster hard with their heavy hitters, i.e. the Burgundian and Calais Mercenaries, the Rebels and the Irish. Dependent on the outcome of the battles, this can bring Lancaster in deep trouble right from the start. Especially an early assault in the far north (Northumbria) can be very devastating for Lancaster because it can split the Lancaster forces, thus limiting their usefulness in battle even more. And it allows York to bring troops with defense Boni in East York right in front of the door of the most important area for Lancaster – South York. So with the North first strategy York is in a very strong position and it will cost Lancaster many APs to get them out there, if it is possible at all. On the other hand, it takes less Action points to bring the Scots into play if York decides upon a “North First” strategy – which is really helpful for the Lancaster player.

Lancaster depends more on good cards and some luck in battle than York since Lancaster is much more vulnerable to a bad card hand or devastating combat results than York. The ‘cheaper’ units that York can bring to the island, the fact that these units are more mobile than the Lancaster units due to their starting position in a major port in exile and the problem that if Lancaster decides to counterattack York, some bad rolls can weaken their troops to the point of almost no defense left for the next attacks by York, is making successful play with Lancaster a high wire act throughout the entire game.

The Lancaster player always has to be on his guard and can’t just try an attack here and there as York can, but has to spare his units for key battles. Be that either for gaining back important shield areas (losing too many of them or too important ones, like South York, will deny Lancaster the ability to recruit important troops) or to kill nobles in the end phase of a campaign to make sure the voting will still be in favor of the Lancastrian King. If these battles go wrong, though (which can either mean the Yorkist nobles escape/retreat, or the area necessary to recruit is not taken back and the votings are lost then and/or the Lancaster nobles suffer too heavy losses which is also leading to the loss of votings), it’s usually very difficult to return from exile as a real threat to York and to get the crown back. The card hand will then be even more important than it is generally the case for Lancaster. So the usual advice given to players here is that the more experienced player should by all means play Lancaster, because this side is much harder to play successfully and if it goes down, Lancaster often is absolutely crushed – which could be somewhat frustrating for players without much experience in this game or in wargames generally.

The rules need some polish since they are a bit sloppy worded and as an ASL player I’m used to (and very much expect) precise terms and definitions in wargame rules. I mean, there are only 8 pages of rules and it should be manageable to get these as precise and to the point as possible. There are wordings of certain parts of the rules that allow different interpretations and that may well lead to a totally different gameplay than intended by the designer. The forum at BGG has many questions about the rules and the cards, which is proof enough that many players have some problems with the game in this respect. Luckily in these days of the internet, it is usually easy to get the necessary answers, but again with such short rules it shouldn’t be necessary to switch on the PC before you move your blocks 😉

Unfortunately the rules don’t have an extensive designer’s note section or a reading list and that’s something I really miss. I like to know on what books the designer made his design decisions and what this or that mechanic does actually portray and why certain aspects were designed the way they were. There are designer’s notes posted on the Columbia games website, but as far as I can see they are more a designer’s diary and many aspects discussed there didn’t make it into the final design so it’s not what I expected and what i can find in so many other games. Apart from that, designer’s notes should be available in printed form, since many people don’t like reading longer texts on the screen.

Overall, it’s a great game and I’m looking forward to playing more games by Columbia Games in the future, that’s for sure. 🙂

Our rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 8
Rules: 7
Playability:
10
Replay Value:
9

Overall Rating: 8,5

2 Responses to “Review: Richard III – The Wars of the Roses”

  1. John Belli said

    Thanks for your excellent and thorough review. I have definitely put this game on my wish list for Christmas this year. As a ‘born and bred’ Lancastrian I will be interested to see if I can ensure those perfidious Yorkists do not overturn history and seize the Crown..!

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