Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (2018) is a new game by Seth Jaffee and Tasty Minstrel Games. Looking at the map, you might think this is a Risk-type strategy war game, but it’s actually something quite different. Playing this game is almost working a puzzle, but it makes things happen on the map in an area control, engine building sort of way. You control an order of Knights like the Templar, Hospitaller, or the Knights of St. Lazarus, each with a unique advantage in working the puzzle, which in turn drives your ability to spread the church’s influence from West to East, conquer heathen enemies, and establish buildings that build an engine and earn victory points, in what is ultimately a medium weight Euro game. Along with some very nice resin figures and buildings, it all comes together for a really satisfying strategy-puzzle game hybrid that is unique to any game I’ve ever played.
In Crusaders, you are an order of knights seeking glory in the name of the church through conquering new lands, spreading its influence and erecting structures. Now all of that, I’ve seen before, but the heart of Crusaders is the Rondel–Mancala action system, and I’ve never seen anything like it.
This action wheel is how you muster your forces, move them around the map, wage wars, build buildings, and spread influence. How well you manipulate and manage your action wheel is going to have a big impact on your final outcome. Each of those hexagon-shaped pieces represents an action, and the more you have on an action space, the more you can perform in relation to that action. This depicted wheel is currently loaded up on the “Muster” action, and having as many as 6 actions allows you to use your action to put down one of the higher-cost army boosts. Or, you could take the top Crusade/Build action, which would give your 3 total actions to distribute between those 2 moves. Now, 3 actions isn’t enough to wage a serious crusade or build a big building, but if you’ve already mustered enough forces, you have a bonus you can add to your crusade action. Alternatively, if you’ve already built some banks, you get build bonuses that you can add to the build action in order to build some of the larger buildings.
The feeling the game imparts is a struggle to balance — you’re trying to manage this Rondel-Mancala system, and it feels like you’re a noble trying to balance raising your army with building buildings that will help you, along with actions that show that you’re spreading and promoting the influence of the church. It’s not a game steeped in theme and knowledge of the time of the Crusades, and if you were looking for a war game set in the Crusades, look elsewhere. This is a game where an action management puzzle meets an area control and building game, wrapped up with a Knights of the Crusades theme.
What I Liked About Crusaders
Managing the action wheel keeps you constantly engaged in the game, and makes nearly every turn fun. Moving around the map and conquering enemies is fun. Building buildings is fun. It’s all the more fun when you’re playing with great art and nice resin figures, and you’re putting down nice resin buildings. There appear to be several different pathways you can pursue to win and that’s something I want to play again to try. I also want to play again with a different Knight group so I can try mastering the action wheel with a slightly different set of rules. The game gets really fun if you can get an engine going and sort of master your action wheel in a way that lets you accomplish big things.
What I Didn’t Like About Crusaders
It’s such a clever and unique game that through one play, there wasn’t a whole lot I would want to see done differently. I felt like certain strategy “pathways” were more appealing than others but they seemed fairly well balanced. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Knights better than others as I explore the game, but I generally think some imbalance there is ok.
This is a medium weight set up, light weight relative to the size of game it appears to be. Setting up your own player board isn’t a big deal, and neither is setting up the map. You don’t have a bunch of cards to shuffle or anything like that so you can get into it fairly quickly.
Theme and Components
The theme is solidly executed with great art and very nice resin figures and buildings. All of the different Knight factions look interesting and fun, with art bringing them to life. However, this isn’t a game exactly dripping in theme, like a Dinosaur Island, nor is it a game where the theme supports the mechanics, at least not to a large degree, not like a Tzolki’n. But, there is something to way you manage your actions that makes you feel like a group that’s trying to get some things done. Doing those things requires a balancing act between raising an army, moving that army, fighting with that army, erecting structures, and pleasing the church in more direct ways. The game has a great escalating feel to it, as you and your opponents spread East across the board in a race of sorts.
Interesting Mechanics and Game Play
At the risk of sounding redundant, the interesting mechanics revolve around the Mancala-Rondel action system. This system forces you to plan ahead in ways you’re not used to, and pool together larger and larger groups of actions in order to accomplish an escalating set of goals. Each Knight order has its own unique advantages in utilizing the action system, and you need to maximize your advantage to defeat your opponents.
Basically, you have 6 wedges of your wheel, and you select a wedge for your turn, and can execute based upon how many action chits are in that wedge. For example, Movement is fairly straightforward: You can travel 1 space for each action chit on the wedge. Influence works the same way. Building, Mustering and Crusading, however, require you to have enough actions to clear an escalating “hurdle”. Like, you want to crusade and conquer, but defeating a group of enemies might cost you 6 action chits, or you can’t do it at all. If you can’t, it gives your opponent a chance to swoop in and do it before you can. This happened to me during the game, but in this game, once you do something big — a big crusade, for example — you won’t be able to do that action again for a while. So while my opponents had to re-gather their forces after conquering the land I wanted, they weren’t able to interfere with my conquering new lands.
On that note, one of the keys to the action wheel is that you can “upgrade” your 6 wedges from letting you do only one thing to letting you do 2, and splitting the chits between the actions the way you want to. I understand that this was a later addition to the game, but it’s a good one, because it adds a layer of strategy in that you have to use a turn upgrading so you have to prioritize. Out of 3 players, 2 of us upgraded a Crusade action (or was it a Travel action?) to a Travel+Crusade action. With all 3 players pushing for conquest, being able to move and conquer on the same turn ended up being a big deal. Instead of having to wait to move, and then waiting again to crusade, you could use 1 or 2 action chits to move to an empty space, then the rest of the action chits to win the crusade and conquer the territory, all in the same turn. I mentioned earlier that an opponent swooped in and conquered a land that I had my eye on, but this dual ability allowed me to just move and conquer something else.
I love how all of what you do on the wheel plays out on the board. I love the way the enemy escalates in power, forcing you to muster larger and larger armies as well as get more chits into the Crusade action wedge. Mustering adds strength to your Crusade action, as do certain buildings, so you can take on the increasingly strong Prussians and Slavs and gain rewards. Meanwhile, the third group of enemies, the Saracen, are always a sturdy 6 if you want to take them on. There’s no drama to the fight — you can either do it or you can’t. The best part of the game is the way you have to balance your actions to pull all of this off, while carefully selecting the right times to upgrade your action wedges to allow you to do multiple things with your turns.
I’ve never played Mancala but I don’t know that I’d like it, because you don’t really do anything. That’s not the case in Crusaders TWBD, you get to do plenty, and doing it is fun. I mention a lot of this up front, but it’s fun to move around the map, vanquish enemies, and build castles and other buildings. At the end of the game, you can look at the map and see your influence on it, even if you did get frustrated by your action wheel. You’re almost guaranteed to have some epic turns where you do big things, either defeating a tough enemy, building a big building, or spreading a lot of influence, or all of the above.
This appears to be a game that I’d want to replay many times up to a point and then at some point, I’ll have gotten a fill of it, but that point is pretty far away. There’s so much more to the Rondel-Mancala action system that I’d like to experience, maybe even once with each group of knights with its variable power. I went for conquest the first game and it’s so fun that it’s hard to believe that the other strategies are fun, plus it proved an effective way to spread influence towards wining the game but I’d like to try strategies that rely more upon building or using the influence action.
Game Design Notes
It’s not usually about coming up with a totally new idea, but rather combining existing ideas into something bigger. For Crusaders TWBD, it’s combining the Rondel wheel with the Mancala, stone-distribution system, with an area-conquer-and-control game. It’s a fascinating combination of two old game mechanisms into something completely new, and I wish more games would innovate action systems and army building beyond gather resources, then combine resources into stuff. This was more a game based around mechanisms, in my opinion, rather than selecting a theme and trying to execute it through mechanisms. I do feel like the Crusaders theme was sort of fit on top of the mechanisms, but there’s nothing really wrong with that, and in the end, that theme works really well, not just because the art and components are nice, but because the balancing act of mustering, traveling, building and waging war feels right for these knights of old. I can only imagine the headaches involved in developing and balancing all of the variable abilities among the knights, since they all affect the action system.
I have really nothing but good things to say about Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done, to the point where I’d love to pick this up and would be up for playing it any time. That stated, this game probably isn’t for everyone. The abstract way you govern your actions will absolutely scare away some players and may frustrate some others. I think that the people who like this game will love it, and maybe not even want to play anything else until they’ve totally mastered this game and spread their church’s influence throughout Europe.