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LANCASTER

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Queen Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 45-60 minutes; $64.95)

 

King Henry V, the new ruler of England in 1413, was determined to unite England and defeat France. Players, as leaders of their own noble family, compete to gain the most favor with the King. While the growth of power is not a unique goal in gaming, the various methods available to players in Lancaster is. Players will not only jockey for position in various counties of England but they will fight in France, develop their castles and knights and shrewdly plot to enact laws to benefit their positions to become the most influential and powerful ally of the King (as evidenced by gaining the most Power Points) in this Matthias Cramer design: Lancaster.

All players begin with identical holdings. All have a set of color-coded wooden pieces representing knights under the command of that particular player. Knights come in strengths of 1 to 4; players begin with two knights (strengths of 1 and 2) with the rest placed in reserve. In addition, players receive a voting marker, 2 gold, 2 squires (which remain hidden behind each player’s screen), and 2 voting tiles (yes and no). Each player also has a castle (represented by a castle board) depicting the castle with six “extensions”. These extensions represent improvements in the castle and improvements earn rewards. Castles come with six extension tiles (which, when played, show that a particular improvement has been done). One of these extension tiles of each player’s choice is placed in his castle to reap that improvement as an initial reward. The large mapboard of England depicts various counties of the realm seeded with stacks of nobleman tiles (the exact number depending on how many players). As the game progresses, these nobleman tiles will be “recruited”. Recruited tiles are placed on the castle board as well.lancasterbox

Politics, in the form of Parliament, plays a significant role in the game. The Parliament board is seeded with three laws. (Laws are denoted by numbers on the back: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4. Each round, new laws, in ascending order, will be available and may – or may not – go into effect.) Finally, England and France are at war and the conflict is represented by two drawn conflict cards

Lancaster is played in a series of five rounds. Each round consists of three distinct phases: Place knights, Parliament and Rewards.

Knights may be placed in three different areas – Counties, Castles and in Conflict – and these options provide some difficult choices. First, a knight may be placed in any English county. These counties display a strength value. Only Knights of that strength or higher may be placed there. Squires may be placed along with the knight (each squire adds 1 strength to the knight) but the knight himself MUST have the necessary strength to be placed there. Opposing players, however, may oust a knight by playing their Knight (with or without squires) of greater strength value. In that case, the displaced knight goes back to that player’s reserve for placement elsewhere on a subsequent turn. (Squires, however, are lost and go back into general supply.) Or you can place your knight into your castle to earn the reward of the particular extension the knight occupies. Or, you may engage your knight into conflict with France.

There are always at least two “conflicts” with France each turn (and could be as many as four). There are three available spaces per conflict and a player may place his knight on the top available space of a particular conflict. A player already in battle may add to his Knight’s strength by stacking another knight on top of it. The first six knights to enter the battle receive their choice of a King’s Favor tile as a reward for taking up arms against the French enemy. Once all players have placed their knights, we vote in Parliament.

Three laws are always in effect when Parliament convenes but there are always three new laws poised to take their place. In order, from left to right, the new laws are voted upon. Voting is done simultaneously and secretly. The yes or no voting tiles are revealed along with the number of voting markers committed to the vote. Each tile and each marker counts as 1 vote. If the law is passed (and a tie means the new law goes into effect), an old law is removed. If the new law is voted down, it is removed from play. All voting counters (used or not) are then returned to the supply. The same procedure is followed for the second and third laws. Once done, players reap any rewards that the current laws bestow. Laws can be a great boon awarding Power Points for various holdings, allowing for upgrades of knights or castle extension placement and more. Finally, all remaining rewards are claimed as counties, castles and conflicts are evaluated.

The players with the most strength in each county have a choice of reward: either one nobleman tile from that county OR the other, specific, reward the county offers. County rewards are considerable. This is one of the ways you can recruit more knights or upgrade the ones you have to strengthen your army, or get more squires or money or voting markers, or add an extension tile to your castle – and more! Can’t decide? For 3 gold, you can take them both! In their castles, players receive the reward from any built extensions, the reward for any knight placed on a “un-built” extension and voting cubes depending on how many nobleman tiles accumulated. (All players are eligible to get 1 voting cube. Each additional different nobleman tile supplies 1 more.) Resolving conflicts with France is a little more involved.lancasterpcsEach conflict with France is depicted with a conflict card that displays a strength for France and Power Points available to be won. The strengths of all the Knights involved in the conflict are totaled. If the combined strength is equal to or greater than that of France, England wins. The player who contributed the most strength to the victory receives the first (and highest) Power Point value, second most strength receives the second PP value, third the third value. (Tie? Then the knight who entered the conflict LAST wins the tie-breaker!) The conflict card is removed and players get their knights back. But what if France has the higher strength?

If France has the higher strength total, then France wins the conflict but not all is lost. Players will still score Power Points but the first (and higher) PP total is not awarded. Instead, the highest strength English knight receives the second value of PPs and the second highest knight, the third. But that’s not all. The conflict continues. The conflict card slides down to the lower row (knights involved keep their respective positions) and the battle continues for the next round. When it is time to resolve conflicts again, this continuing battle is resolved as before: if England wins, PPs are awarded as expected. But if France manages to survive for a second time, PPs are still awarded as before but this time the knights are considered captured! A player may “ransom” his knights (for 1 gold per strength level each). Otherwise, these knights are returned to the reserve and must be “recruited” again in order to come into play.

Once the round is over, three new laws and two new conflicts are revealed. Play continues until the end of the firth and final round.

At the conclusion of the fifth round, players add to their cumulative total of Power Points. An additional 8 PP goes to the player with the highest total knight strength with 4 going to the player in second place. (Tie? Squires serve as tie-breaker.) The player with the most castle extensions also gets another 8 PP; again, the runner-up picks up 4. (Tie? Gold is the tie-breaker.) Finally, the more nobleman tiles you have collected, the more PP you will earn up to a whopping 36 PP if you have managed to recruit all 9 different nobles. The player with the highest total of Power Points has won the favor of the King and the game!

The competition for the upper hand in the English counties accelerates as the game goes on as players increase the number and strength of their knights and more urgently need rewards particular counties offer. This tug-of-war forces players to consider when and where to play squires to augment the knight’s strength as well as deciding if fighting over a particular county is worth the effort when other, and possibly more lucrative avenues to victory, may appear. This includes adding or increasing a presence in France, a significant source of PP and King’s Favor rewards. The inclusion of Parliament voting for new laws adds a political layer to play, not often found in games of this type. These laws, appearing in a semi-random order, can have a significant impact on tactics and overall strategy. It’s easy to vote for a law that has immediate benefits for you. But a law beneficial to your position could conceivable remove a law even more favorable or worse, more favorable to your opponents! Gathering voting markers and, more importantly, knowing when to use them at critical times, can make a huge difference in your prospects. (New Laws expansions are also available to “freshen up” the original laws to keep the game from getting stale.) Not to be forgotten is the immense amount of PP available for those players managing to complete a set of 9 nobles. This can catapult a player in last place into first and clinch victory for a player already in the lead but set completion, a worthy goal, is not easy to achieve.

Graphics are generally quite good from the striking box cover art to the nicely laid out mapboard. The wooden knight pieces deserve special mention. The strength of each knight is not only represented by a number but also by the HEIGHT of the piece. This makes it easy to determine, at a glance, which player has the most strength in a conflict. Speaking of conflict, be careful with the icons used to indicate presence in England and for conflict in France. Both of these icons are predominately red/blue/white which are, of course, those countries’ colors but are much too similar in look. This can cause unnecessary confusion. On top of that, both icons are enclosed in circles! If you were committed (for some reason) to the specific icons used, you could have still avoided this graphic gaffe by putting one of those icons in a square!

One peculiarity about those noble tiles however. In game set-up, these tiles are randomly placed in the counties. But why? All tiles are the same (as far as game effect is concerned) only differing by letter (on one side) and portrait/color of the noble (on the other). It would be a lot easier (and vastly more user friendly) to place the nobles with their letter designations in the matching counties. Then, when claimed, players should keep the letter side face up rather than the different colored but all too similar icons found on their flip side. Makes it much easier to determine which nobles you need to add to your set and where to flex your strength on subsequent turns.

English history is lavish in its royals, knights and battles. It is against this backdrop that Matthias Cramer has managed to incorporate power, politics and pageantry into one pleasing package making Lancaster a gaming experience fit for a king! – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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