Welcome to the Redux
Despite taking place a good handful of centuries earlier, the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history somehow managed to give violent conflicts like the Mongol invasions and the First World War a solid spanking when it came to human death toll. The decline of the 400-year-old Han Dynasty had paved the way for the rise of three belligerent kingdoms, Shu, Wu, and Wei, and the next half-century was marked by their struggle to unite the country.
It’s the perfect setting for a board game, packed with court intrigue and military adventures, leaps and bounds of technology and contests of economy. And Three Kingdoms Redux understands this multifaceted approach to warfare perfectly.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how the game is played, I want to talk about that point for a little bit, because one of the most impressive things about Three Kingdoms Redux is how its brand of warfare is dependent on so many simultaneous factors.
The first thing you need to understand is that this is one of those “points buffet” games, where a whole bunch of categories feed into your final score. Some categories even score in two different ways, like at the imperial court where you can cajole the diminished Han emperor into lending you his support, which awards points for the titles you’ve been granted and where you stand in relation to your opponents. To wit, points can be earned from all over the place. Control your local tribes with a steady hand, earn points. Invest in technologies, things like the abacus, repeating crossbow, irrigation and roadworks, or the wheelbarrow-like wooden ox, earn points. Improve your agricultural and economic infrastructure, earn points. Feed your supporting rabble and pay your armies, don’t lose points.
Some folks aren’t too keen on the points buffet style — myself included, as it all too often leads to maths-heavy gameplay where every single possible move must be calculated for maximum scoring potential. But Three Kingdoms Redux makes it work by having most of its systems eventually feed back into those battles.
It takes a lot to raise an army. First of all you’ve got to recruit inexperienced peasantry. Then you train them, assign them sound leadership, equip them with some sort of weaponry (crossbows, spears, horses, ships), and only then are they ready to be deployed along one of your borders.
Ah, the borders. These lie between each of the three kingdoms — always three; this isn’t Two Kingdoms Redux, after all — contested strips of land that act as a private field of battle between you and one other player, and they’re constantly the tensest spots on the board. The simple act of sending a handful of troops to attempt an occupation of a border’s province is one of the most aggressive moves you can make, because every victory there is permanent. In more ways than one, actually. Foremost, successfully occupying a border town means you’ll gain its points every single round. Which in turn means, of course, that taking border towns early on can represent an enormous pool of points by the end of the game.
Then again, since doing so means that the garrisoning army’s general will be stationed there for the rest of the game, it’s rarely an easy decision to deploy them into battle.
While battles are the game’s most bountiful source of points, generals are how you’ll fight them. And do everything else, in fact.
Every possible action on the board is neatly divided between two skills, administration and combat acumen. Recruiting armies, producing weapons, and waging war are all combat skills, while developing infrastructure, trading rice and gold for weapons, or importing technology require those who don’t mind some bookkeeping. Some actions, like winning the admiration of the people or impressing the puppet emperor, switch off between them.
Now, let’s talk about the generals, because these are the guys you’ll be sending to claim each action. The trick is that every general has some skill at both administration and combat, but some are decidedly better at one or the other. And what elevates this above regular worker placement is that it quickly descends into a jaw-grinding bidding war as your generals clash with opposing generals over which player gets to take each action. You’ll send Xiahou Dun to demand tribute, only for Wu to deploy Gan Ning with some peasant rabble to block you out. The question, then, is whether you should just cede the action or send another general, maybe one who isn’t well-versed in the requisite skill, to tug it back into your favor. Even the actions that aren’t war are a type of war in Three Kingdoms Redux, every single placed general a potential flashpoint, an opportunity or an omission elsewhere.
Fleshing this out is the way the game manages politics, a simple but brilliant system that pushes whichever two players aren’t in the lead into a temporary alliance of necessity. This permits them to share their bids on a single space each round. As lukewarm acquaintances at best, they can still skirmish along their shared border and clash over other bids, but that one space becomes their sole domain — at least unless they assume it’s secure and don’t send enough allied generals to prevent the lead player from snaking it from their control at the last minute.
Generals themselves have unique skills, bending the rules in every possible way. There are generals who win ties, generals who don’t have to pay as much upkeep for their armies or popular support, generals who train armies even while garrisoned at a border, and even a heroic general who can occupy a province all by his sexy self. It’s impressive in and of itself that there are so many of them to choose from and yet they somehow manage to feel like individuals, each with particular strengths and weaknesses.
Most of all, I cannot overstate how smooth all of this is. Generals are constantly your most limited resource, which makes every single move an agonizing exercise in evaluating just how many moves you aren’t taking. Neglect the tribes too long and they’ll revolt; become too popular and struggle to feed your admirers; send too many troops to the border and you won’t have enough generals to woo the emperor; focus on overwhelming military strength as a deterrent and watch your infrastructure rot. It takes an even and steady hand to steer a ship this tall, and by the time one of the three kingdoms wins, it’s a wonder they’ll be able to maintain control of a newly-minted dynasty.
There’s a considerable downside in there somewhere, especially when later rounds have provided you with a whole gaggle of generals and their respective abilities to track. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say something like, “Oh, I forgot that Li Yan lets me construct a free state enhancement at the end of the ninth round, so I’ll just go ahead and do that now.” For best results, tell the complainer to stuff it, because it’s not like the king of Wei would let an enemy invent the repeating crossbow in retrospect.
All in all, Three Kingdoms Redux is the firm hand on the tiller. It might not be as bloody as the actual Three Kingdoms period, but it’s filled with plenty of conflict and angrily narrowed eyes nevertheless.