Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Z-Man Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 180 minutes; $70)


warsofrosesSome periods of history captivate the imagination more than others and one such period undergoing a resurgence of interest is England’s War of the Roses. This was a time of bitter Civil War between the Houses of Lancaster and York lasting 40 years as these two powerful factions struggled for control of the throne. This age is once again revisited inWars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York.

Wars of the Roses is a Peter Hawes design. This large boxed -and heavy! – game holds a virtual ton of quality components to account for its weight: a large (approximately 26″ x 30″)mounted board, 4 player screens and planning charts, a deck of 54 cards, 225 tokens 153 wooden pieces, a play summary and a 24 page lavishly illustrated rulebook which includes historical insights into the era of the game.

While the game can be played by 2 or 3 players, it is at its best with four. With four, the four Royal House tokens are dealt to determine which players begin as allies as Lancaster and as York. Everyone receives a screen, planning chart, a set of troop counters, a French Aid token, ownership blocks, six black and six white Bribe cubes and a starting treasury of 6 Pounds. Five turns make a complete game with each turn consisting of 8 phases: Turn Order Determination, Drawing cards, Collecting Income, Planning, Deployment, Bribery, Combat and Parliament.

For the first turn, play order is determined randomly. After that, turn order is in reverse order of the scoring track. (The player in fourth place will go first; the player in first place will go last.) Now an array of cards is drawn, 12 cards on the first turn, 8 cards thereafter) and players take turns choosing which cards to take. When taking a Noble or Ship card, ownership cubes are placed in the matching space on the board and on that player’s Planning Card.

The board is a map of England and Wales divided into six areas. Within these areas are icons representing Royal Castles, Towns and Large Towns, Bishops, Ship Captains and Ports which award Control Points (CPs) to the player holding them. Icons of two Nobles can be found offshore which also contribute CPs for an area. Control of an area is vital in scoring Victory Points and commanding votes in Parliament during a turn’s final phase.

Now income is collected from the Towns, Bishops, Forts and Ships that a player controls. In addition. any player (except the player currently in first place on the score track) may use their French Aid token (once per game) for an infusion of money. French Aid allows a player to receive the difference between his position and that of the player in first place in cash. (For example, if player 4 is at 30 on the score track and the leader is at 50, player 4 will receive 20 Pounds!) The maximum for this maneuver is 25 Pounds. With income collected, players use their money to plan.

Planning is a key phase of the game and challenges players to outthink and outsmart their opposition. Behind their screen are their planning boards and onto these boards, all players simultaneously commit their forces to put their plans into action. Troop counters to attack or defend may be placed on Locations (Royal Castles, Towns and Ports). Bribe cubes may be assigned to Nobles, Bishops and/or Ship Captains. (Black cubes indicate efforts to sway a person to change sides; white cubes are used to “defend” against possible bribe attempts to maintain a person’s allegiance.) Ship and Noble counters are moved to indicate the areas into which they will be moving that turn. Players may also bid for control of the Captain of Calais.

warsofrosesbrdBidding for the Captain of Calais title is “bribing the king” to award you the title. (All bids are paid into the bank.) Having this title is worth 4 CPs during the Parliament phase and 4 VPs when the Special Awards are scored. However, this title is only held for 1 turn. Bidding opens up once again the following turn. With planning (and Captain of Calais bidding) done, forces are deployed.

Deployment is done in reverse turn order. All players remove their screens and reveal where their resources have been placed on their planning boards. The player who won the Captain of Calais title takes the Captain of Calais token and places it on the board with his ownership token on top. Any Noble or Ship counters scheduled to move, move to their new positions on the board. All Troop Counters must be paid for (at the rate of 3 Pounds each). Bribery cubes used must be paid for as well with the cost of white cubes equal to the CP values of Nobles and Bishops (or Ship’s income) and placed on the matching board positions; black cubes cost twice that. All Troop counters or Mercenaries on the planning chart are moved to their specified locations on the board.

Now, players check to see if attempted bribes have succeeded. Black cubes placed on personalities are checked to see if white cubes have been placed on them as well. If so, the bribe has failed. If not, that personality has switched sides and ownership of that character is shifted to the successful player. Next is combat.

Wherever both the active player and an opponent have Troop counters, combat ensues. Defenders benefit from garrison troops: 3 for a Castle, 2 for a Town and 1 for a Port. Combat is very streamlined. Each side removes 1 Troop Counter until one side has none left. If the attacker wins, the Location card of the battle site, changes hands. Should both sides be left with no troops simultaneously, the Location Card is returned, face up, to the top of the Location Deck. Finally, once the dust of battle has cleared, the important Parliament Phase occurs.

Each of the six areas of the map are scored. Every player checks to see how many Control Points he has in the area. (First and second place also score Victory Points.) The side (Lancaster or York) with the most CPs gets their Royal House counter placed in the area AND the number of votes associated with the area. Votes earned for all six areas are totalled. The side with the most votes has their heir crowned King – and gets 5 VPs each. Special Awards are given out as well. 4 VPs are given to the player with the most ships, most Bishops, most Royal Castles, most Ports, and for holding the title of Captain of Calais. Additional bonuses of 2 VPs are awarded to the player who controls both the Ship AND its matching Port AND 5 VPs for holding a Cathedral and its matching Bishop.

Play continues for 5 turns. At the end of the 5th turn and the final scoring, the player who has accumulated the most VPs, be his Lancaster or York, wins!

Despite the name, Wars of the Roses is not a wargame. Combat is handled in a very smooth but abstract manner. Rather, it is an area control game with other Euro-style elements including bluff, educated guessing, resource management and diplomacy rolled into one. And, speaking of Diplomacy, this game ranks high in walking the tightrope between trust and treachery. Although (in a four player game), you play with an ally, only one of you can actually be the winner so beware. When to come to the aid of your erstwhile ally and when to grab what he has to shore up your own position is a key timing challenge. Too soon and there is ample opportunity for your victim to become your predator. Too late and it may be too late for you to reap the benefits of your deceit.

The 24 page rulebook is thorough and loaded with illustrations (along with strategy tips and historical background) which is helpful in digesting all that is going on and there is plenty! The Planning Board display shows ALL possibilities available to a player. This can seem daunting as there is so much to do and resources limited and so dear. This is also true for Victory Points as there are so many ways to get them and, as in life itself, you simply can’t do everything. As the game unfolds, however, areas of contention tend to reveal themselves so you can see points of vulnerability (both yours and your rivals) so the risk vs. reward calculation can be surprisingly accurate. Finances play a pivotal role too so that use of French Aid at the right time can make the difference between winning and losing.

The graphic quality of the game is excellent from the beautiful, large and thick mapboard down to the large and sturdy screens, planning charts and counters. The omnipresent heraldry-laden components serve to capture the feel of the age as well. But be sure to have a BIG table on hand. The board, when surrounded by the screens (veritable fortresses in heft and size in and of themselves) and large planning displays, demands a large playing surface. A card table simply will not do.

Although there is nothing here that is, in and of itself, complicated, the sheer volume of choices and possibilities make Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York a challenging game geared to the more serious gamer. The game offers challenges galore in anticipating the moves of other players, in capturing and holding vital areas, in handling money and other resources, and in amassing the needed votes in Parliament to make certain that your side is made King. The game can run long (three hours is the suggested playing time) but the tribute to the game is that time spent is thoroughly engrossing and flies by. Add to that the graphic excellence and you have a game that is a royal treat.


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