Elegant is a word that gets thrown around a lot in hobby board gaming circles, so much so that it has almost reached meme status in some cases. It's a word that I generally avoid using because I don't want to help contribute to devaluing its meaning, but sometimes it's the best way to describe a game. Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done, a strategic Euro game designed by Seth Jaffee and published by Tasty Minstrel Games, is absolutely elegant in its design. The central mechanic, the action wheel, is easy to learn and teach, yet the game itself is deep, interesting, strategic, crunchy, and satisfying and, most importantly of all, it's very fun.
The central mechanic of Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done that drives all of the actions that players can take is the action wheel. The action wheel is a mancala/rondel mashup that has players taking a single action on their turn whose power is determined by how many tokens are on that action, and then moving those tokens around the wheel, dropping them one at a time on the other actions on their wheel. It's incredibly straightforward: pick and action, then move the tokens to other actions, but the simplicity of the primary mechanic actually enables a huge slate of strategic options, both in how you choose to take actions in order to allocate power to other actions and what you choose to do with the actions that you take.
The other action you can take on your turn is to upgrade one wedge of your action wheel. Doing so let's you take one of two different actions when you activate that wedge. It may seem like a no-brainer to simply start upgrading actions from the very start, but once you start to dig in to the game you realize that there are more and less ideal times to upgrade your actions, just as there are times when actions are going to be more and less effective for you. The ideal strategy here isn't simply to take the most powerful action available to you every time, although it can be tempting to do so, but rather to try an take your actions, and upgrade them, at the exact right moment to maximize your efficiency.
On top of trying to be as efficient as possible, action-points are wasted if you have too many action tokens on them when you take that action, each player has a randomly chosen Knight faction dealt to them at the beginning of the game that let's them break the rules of how the action wheel works. Add in the fact that there are quite a few different ways to score bonus points at the end of the game, of which you will probably only be able to trigger one or two, and you will need to try to focus your strategy game to game. A third factor when trying to formulate your strategy is the random board layout that changes from game to game. Enemy tokens are spread around the board that get more difficult to defeat, and are worth proportionally more points as they are defeated, and spaces further to the right of the board offer bigger bonuses if players can get there and construct buildings.
It may seem like you have a lot of balls to juggle in Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done, and you do, but it's not a complexity of mechanics issue, rather it's a spoiled-for-choice issue. The difficulty in formulating your strategy isn't because of complex rules or intricacies, rather it's because the simplicity of the core mechanics lays the groundwork for a plethora of player choices. The beautiful thing about the choices that you make while playing is that they all feel rewarding. You are always making progress in this game, whether it's covering ground while you move your knights around the board, constructing buildings that boost the power of your actions, mustering troops that help you better deal with the enemy tokens, or upgrading your action spaces to expand your options on future turns, you are always gaining something, and it feels really good to do so.
Playing Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done is simple and straightforward, but the plethora of options that are available to you make this an incredibly crunchy, strategic game. Playing this game really reminds me of playing Scythe, because every action you take benefits you in some way, and it's a blast when you try to take actions to set up future, more powerful actions and your plan actually comes together. This game doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of Scythe for me, but it's really good, and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes Euro style strategy games. On top of being fun and satisfying to play, the randomness of the board layout from game to game means that Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done stays interesting across multiple plays, even when you play it back to back in the same sitting.
A note on play time: The first few games of Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done will probably take you about 30 minutes per player, unless you are playing with someone who is especially prone to analysis paralysis, but as your players become more familiar with the game the downtime starts to shrink. Eventually, for my group anyway, you wont have to wait long at all between turns as players try to map out their next few moves in advance in order to set up just the right amount of power for any given action at just the right time. Even if your players tend to be on the slow side, other player's turns are still engaging because the actions that other players take effect the board-state, which could potentially effect your future turns especially if you and your opponents are racing to be the first to claim a prime piece of real estate.
A note on theme: Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done takes place in Europe circa 1096 - 1307, and somewhat approximates the story of the Knights Templar. In spite of the theme, there is no violence per se, although the Crusade action does represent defeating Prussian, Slav and Saracen forces, so even though the topic of the Crusades can be contentious there isn't really anything politically or religiously charged in the game. Regardless of how seriously you take the theme, the setting really works with the mechanics.
A note on “chrome”: Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done has awesome components. The wooden pieces are well made, the cardboard is thick, and the rulebook is very well written and easy to learn from and reference. There are only two things about the components that I'm not a fan of, one being the reference tokens for each player, and the other being the color of the board itself. The reference tokens use iconography that, in order to really understand, you already need to know the game well enough that you don't need them. The orange color of the board is my only other complaint, and it's more of a personal preference than any kind of actual problem, but I do not understand why the board uses such an obnoxious orange color for water on the map. It's entirely possible that the coloration of the board and the components were chosen in order to be color-blind friendly, but I do think the board color is a bit garish.
The bottom line:
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done is a must-have if you are a fan of Euro-style strategy games. The mancala/rondel-mashup that is the game's Action Wheel is crunchy and interesting, and every action you take always results in gain. Everything that you do while you play feels productive, and it always feels like you are making progress which is fun, and just plain satisfying. The various Knight Orders, and random board and action-wheel layouts mean that things remain interesting from one game to the next. The sheer number of different game-states that can be experienced based on the random nature of the setup means that it's highly unlikely that there will ever be one single dominant strategy, and the game plays quickly enough that you aren't going to lose a huge amount of time trying out a crazy new strategy if it doesn't work out. For the first few games, trying to figure out how to optimally use your Action Wheel can lead to a bit of analysis paralysis, but once players get the hang of how things work it becomes second nature to anticipate which actions will build up in power quickly, and when it's a good time to upgrade an action wedge, or take a less powerful action in order to set yourself up for a much more powerful turn in the future. Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done is fun, crunchy, satisfying and interesting, and has earned a permanent place on my game shelf, orange board and all.
Get this game if:
You enjoy Euro style strategy games.
You like games that feature interesting, fun and satisfying mechanics.
You like games that make you feel like your actions are always productive.
You like games that give you many strategic options.
You like games with randomized setup, so each play is different than the last.
Avoid this game if:
You prefer head to head competition.
You are looking for a game that is centered on combat.
The copy of Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done used for this review was provided by Tasty Minstrel Games.
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