Richard III: The Wars of the Roses

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Columbia Games, 2 players, ages 12 and up, 1-3 hours; $59.99)


richardiiiWhen it comes to history, certain historical eras seem to generate more than their share of interest. In English history, one of those times involves the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster (symbolized by the red rose) and York (symbolized by the white rose) as these powerful rivals fought for control of the throne of England. This struggle, better known as the War of the Roses, has served to spark some interesting game designs over the years. The newest entry on the topic is also the latest release from Columbia Games: Richard III: The Wars of the Roses.

Richard III is another block wargame by the design team of Tom Dalgliesh and Jerry Taylor, borrowing attributes from another of their games: Hammer of the Scots (Winter 2003 Gamers Alliance Report). This bookshelf boxed game comes with 63 wooden blocks (and a sheet of stickers to apply to them), 25 cards (19 Action cards and 6 Event cards), four six-sided dice, a colored map of England and Wales and 8 pages of rules.

Richard III consists of three campaigns (hence the use of “wars” in the title), each of which is made up of 7 game turns, and a political turn after each campaign. The game begins with Lancaster controlling the throne and York as the “Pretender”. Both sides start with three “heirs” in play. The goal is to have the support of the majority of nobles when the dust clears (and the final campaign has ended) so that your side has the necessary support to turn an heir into King.

As is standard with “block” games, each block has a sticker. Among these blocks, each side has five “heirs to the throne” noted with a crown symbol and these are ranked from 1 (highest) to 5 (lowest). There are also nobles (marked by shields, some fiercely loyal, some potentially available to switch sides), two blocks representing the Church as well as blocks representing Levies, Bombards, Mercenaries and a black block simulating rebel forces who always align on the side of the Pretender to the throne. As the game begins, each side deploys specified blocks at full strength in their designated areas with the rest forming a pool of potential forces.

The deck is shuffled and each player dealt a starting hand of 7 cards. At the start of each turn, ONE card is played, face down by each player. The cards are revealed simultaneously with the higher numbered card indicating the player who will go first. (If an Event card is played, that player ALWAYS goes first.)

Action cards have number values of from 2 to 4. This equates to Action points. Actions points allow a player to either move any or all blocks in an area one or two areas. (Blocks moving into an area occupied by unfriendly forces cannot continue to move.) Movement is also affected by the color of the borders between areas. (Yellow allows 4 blocks to pass, blue only 3, red only 2.) Sea travel from coastal area to coastal area is possible too (for 1 AP). Action points also allow a player to “recruit” meaning that player may take a block from his pool of forces and move it onto the board at full strength. (Recruited blocks may NOT immediately move and must wait until the next turn to venture onward.) Events cards carry few Action Points (0 to 2) but trigger specific actions on a turn such as a Forced March (where a group of blocks can move three areas), Treason (forcing a “treachery roll”), Piracy (the only time battles can occur at sea) and even Plague (reducing the strength of all enemy blocks in a city area). Should an area contain forces of both players after all actions are done, the battle phase begins.

Battles follow the standard sequence of block games. When engaging in battle, blocks are revealed and, in turn, a block may fire, retreat or pass (although retreat is not an option in the first round of fighting).

richardmapThe strength of a block (which, in game terms, means how many combat dice may be thrown) is indicated by the number of diamonds displayed on its top edge so that, for example, a block with 4 diamonds is allowed 4 dice in combat. In addition, all blocks have a letter rating (A, B or C) along with a number rating (1, 2 or 3). Blocks rated A attack before those rated B, B before those rated C. (Bombards are an exception as they are rated A3 in the first round of fighting but fall to D3 in subsequent fighting rounds.) A roll equal to or lower than a block’s current strength results in a hit. Hits are applied immediately with blocks reduced in strength. Strength reduction is tracked by rotating blocks 90° counterclockwise to a lesser “step” with fewer diamonds. In contrast to other block games, hits are applied to the most powerful block in the area until that piece is eliminated. (Additional hits are then applied to the next most powerful block.) After all engaged blocks have taken actions, that round is over. (Battles last a maximum of four rounds.) Blocks may also act as “battle reserves”, crossing a border adjacent to the battle area and joining the fighting on the second round. If successful, the attacker may regroup, moving his forces to adjacent friendly areas. If unsuccessful, the attacker may retreat to adjacent, friendly areas across borders not used by the enemy.

As mentioned above, another facet of play is the “treachery roll”. Historically, some nobles were, to put it politely, “unreliable” and could/would shift allegiances from one side to another. In game terms, a treachery roll allows the King, the noble Warwick and the Pretender to attempt ONE treachery roll per battle (if present). This roll is made instead of a normal battle action. Dice are rolled, equal to the target’s loyalty rating (generally one or two dice). If ALL numbers rolled are EVEN (regardless of the total), the targeted noble defects to your side! His block is placed in your Reserve and fights normally in the next round.

With all battles resolved, a supply check is made. Each area can supply 4 blocks (a city can supply 5). Should more blocks than stipulated be in an area, each surplus block is reduced by 1 step.

The game continues with players again choosing an Action card to play. When all 7 Action cards by each player have been played, the campaign is over. At that point, a political turn occurs.

A political turn is an opportunity for the Pretender to the throne to wrest control of it from the King as armies prepare for the next round of fighting. First, Levies, Bombards and the Welsh return to the owner’s pool and Mercenaries return to their home area. The Rebel block disbands. If the Pretender controls a majority of nobles and heirs, the Pretender has usurped the throne and his senior heir becomes King. The former King is deposed, must go into exile and becomes the new Pretender. (Each side has different exile areas: Calais and Ireland for York, France and Scotland for Lancaster.) In any case, the campaign is reset with all face down blocks in the pool available again to be recruited, the Rebel block goes into the Pretender’s pool and all blocks, both in the pool or on the map, are restored to full strength. In preparation for the next campaign, all 25 cards are reshuffled, a new hand of 7 cards dealt to each player and we do it all over again.

Should a player manage to eliminate all five of the enemy heirs, he can claim an immediate victory. Otherwise, the game continues until the final campaign and the last political turn. Whoever has control of the majority of nobles at this point is declared King and has proven victorious!

Since nobles are the basis for a political turn victory and losing your heirs will lose you the throne (and the game), nobles must be used wisely. Some nobles are vulnerable to treachery rolls and can shift support. Nobles who are senior heirs can do “heir charges” at a targeted enemy block to inflict damage but that leaves the heir exposed to a counter attack. And heirs must be protected if possible. If your strategy ends up being “heir today gone tomorrow”, you will surely find your forces in disarray and in exile. This makes for exciting challenges throughout the campaigns. The only pitfall to overcome are applying combat modifiers as they come into play involving some blocks and defense of some areas, things easy to miss on the first go around. (And, for those interested in a shorter game, players can only use campaign 2 or campaign 3. Scenarios can be found at the Columbia Games website –

The graphic quality of the game is, as is typical with the Columbia line, first rate with all those wooden blocks and colorful heraldry. While a mounted map board is always nice, the cardstock quality used here is in keeping with that used in previous games and certainly does the job. The game is suitable for gamers intrigued by block wargaming but have yet to dip their feet into the pool as the rules are well presented and accessible, particularly for those interested in this historical period. (Great work done, as rules “sidebars”, to offer the reader historical insights as well.)

Richard III has taken a tried, true and popular game system (Hammer of the Scots) and tweaked it neatly to create a game with enough new nuances (such as treachery rolls, targeted attacks and defending heirs to the throne) to give it an individuality all its own, bringing to life an exciting era of English history that seasoned wargamers as well as new players to the genre can enjoy.


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