Three Kingdoms Redux is a fascinating game. Set in the Three Kingdoms period of China, which should be immediately familiar to anyone who has played any of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms video games, it pits three players against each other as the heads of Cao Wei, Dong Wu, and Shu Han, respectively. Mechanically simple yet strategically deep, Three Kingdoms Redux is a joy to play and is a must-play for fans of grand-strategy games.
What is Three Kingdoms Redux?
Each of the game's three players will take control of one of the three factions included and will attempt to claim the most power, represented by victory points before the game ends. While competing for victory points is paradigmatic in the world of board games, the way Three Kingdoms Redux approaches the inter-player conflict over said victory points are interesting and tense, and while the game ends after 12 rounds of play, there are also three other conditions that can end the game. This means that players will not only have to plan out their particular strategy but must also be prepared to plan for contingencies that arise as each of the game-ending criteria approaches completion.
Three Kingdoms Redux is primarily an auction/area control game that sees players placing their Generals around the board to bid on action spaces. Players place a General on an action space that they wish to bid for. Each General placed on an action space adds his relevant statistic to that player's total bid for that space. The player with the highest bid for the round gains control of that space and gets to take the associated action after all bidding has finished. Through the clever and elegant implementation of these mechanics, Starting Player has managed to create a game with incredible depth that is still easy to understand, teach and play.
Asymmetry Lies at the Heart of Three Kingdoms Redux
One of the most immediately exciting aspects of Three Kingdoms Redux is the asymmetry of the factions themselves. Wei begins the game with a huge advantage in manpower and the ability to bid and take action first. Shu, on the other hand, begins the game with fewer Generals at their disposal but with an advantage in the form of more rice and gold in their coffers. Wu begins the game in a middle ground between the other two. Each of the factions is further separated by the Generals themselves. Each faction has a stack of Generals that they will be recruiting from as the game progresses. The Generals not only have different statistics, but also each has a unique special ability.
This asymmetry amplifies Three Kingdom Redux's re-playability, as not only does each faction feel unique from the others, but each game will see a player controlling at most 8 of their faction's 23 Generals. Depending on the general's control, even games played with the same faction can feel very different from game to game. Due to Generals and State Enhancement cards being drawn at random, the rift between players at the beginning of the game can be widened or narrowed based on the specific Generals drawn. The game does attempt to mitigate this, though, as players always draw more Generals than they can keep and get to choose which to keep.
Make and Break Alliances
To balance Wei's initial advantage, the game places Wu and Shu in an Alliance. This gives Shu the option of choosing one space on the board in which Wu and Shu can combine forces against Wei when assigning Generals. As the balance of power inevitably shifts throughout the game, the factions will slip into and out of Alliance, based on the turn order, with the last player in the turn order controlling where the Alliance token will be placed each round. The Alliance token is such a hefty deterrent to the player who bids first each round that it can effectively be used to bluff that player away from bidding on a spot or to bluff the second player into bidding towards that spot and away from a spot that may be more desirable. The Alliance mechanic is absolutely stellar and provides a perfect balance against the advantage of bidding and taking action first in a round.
The meat of the game comes from the sheer volume of things that need to be considered. The game will come to an end at the end of round 12, but also if one player manages to complete all of their nation's domestic development of farms and marketplaces. The game will also end if one player manages to station a fifth General on a border location or if one player manages to reach the rank of Emperor. This means that, as each of these end-games triggers approaches, the tension rises as the action spaces or border locations between the kingdoms become hotly contested. It's simply not enough to put your head down and stick to your game plan, as there are too many options for any player to cover, and if left unchecked, a player can end the game by taking advantage of the gaps left by the other players.
Balanced against the need to keep an eye on the game-ending triggers, players will need to ensure that they have the resources at their disposal to score points along the way. The conflict and tension between players start at a fairly low level but rapidly increase as players make moves and counter moves and start to gain power, wealth, and victory points. The thrill of outmaneuvering your opponents can be quickly tempered by the realization that you played exactly into their hands. Even the combat, which relies on the same simple bidding mechanic, feels tense and exciting as players race to station Generals and armies on the border locations between nations in order to begin accruing military victory points. Again, this needs to be balanced against the need to feed and pay for any armies stationed, which prevents players from simply making a mad dash to war without careful planning. Every move has a counter-move, and every action has a consideration.
Initially, the three-player requirement felt odd and limiting. Once the game gets going, it becomes apparent that the three-player-only requirement really makes the game shine. Each player shares one border with each of the other two players, which means that both of a player's opponents remain a constant consideration. The player limitation also meshes incredibly well with the theme of the game and means that the balance of the game is always maintained and can't be upset by adding or removing players.
A Few Notes on Three Kingdoms Redux
A Note on Game Length
Three Kingdoms Redux is a long game. Starting Player states that the game should take 135 - 165 minutes, and I've found that the game almost always clocks in at the 3-hour mark. Considering that there are different ways for the game to end, I can see how players determined to rush to bring the game to a close could shorten this play time but, at the same time, that defeats the whole point of the game. If you play without the intention of ending the game as quickly as possible, expect Three Kingdoms Redux to take up a good chunk of your day, although it will make that chunk of your day significantly more awesome.
A Note on “Chrome”
The art, components, and card quality of Three Kingdoms Redux is excellent and wonderfully thematic. The board is very large, and the iconography is all very well done. The only negative to the components is the player aids. Each of the player aids is printed on a sheet of paper that bends and wrinkles easily.
The rulebook is well laid out, although it presents the information in a way that makes the game seem more complicated than it is in practice. Once you understand the rules, though, Three Kingdoms Redux is very easy to teach, taking about 15 minutes to bring a new player up to a point where they are ready to play.
Should You Buy Three Kingdoms Redux?
Three Kingdoms Redux is a wonderful experience. The mechanics are deceptively simple and belie the absolutely incredible amount of strategic depth that the game offers. Balanced asymmetrical factions, exciting and tense gameplay, excellent component quality, and a wonderful theme set it apart from the crowd. Unless you are averse to the three-player-only restriction or to games that last 2+ hours, you are sure to find something to like in the game. Fans of strategy board games and fans of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms video games shouldn't hesitate to pick it up.
The copy of Three Kingdoms Redux used to produce this review was purchased by the author.