Going Full Medieval
There are about a hundred reasons why Ortus Regni is such a fascinating artifact of board gaming. There’s the historical appeal, for one. Rather than merely establishing itself as a medieval card game, complete with all the modern idiosyncrasies and anachronisms anyone with a knowledge of the Middle Ages has come to expect, it’s a layered thing, descending through multiple eras like peeling back the layers of a dream. It’s today’s imagining of a Late Middle Ages game romanticizing the Anglo-Saxon Period. Twenty-first-century design sensibilities, fourteenth-century culture, ninth-century romance and nostalgia.
“Woah,” says Smart Neo.
It’s a thing of breathtaking creativity for a medievalist, in part because the details spill beyond the confines of the designer notes. They’re manifested in the way Ortus Regni places chivalric jousts alongside the barely-understood Latin legalese of land-stealing, or churchly bullying hand-in-hand with ideas of vassalage and noble ransom.
More obviously, it’s a distinctly illiterate game, played via swaths of art draped across the table, without a single written character to be found. How could such a game better capture an unlettered era than by forcing you to engage in the same culture-by-visuals as its subjects? At first this process of unlearning your reliance on script is as jarring as being transported to a land where everyone speaks a foreign language. Then something happens, an hour passes, and everyone at the table groans when a particular card is revealed, all without needing to read a single word. Like that, you’re closer to understanding the workings of a medieval mind than you were before.
The headiness doesn’t stop there, because Ortus Regni is as smart a game as it is a concept, and about ten times meaner.
In essence, Ortus Regni is a big bloody match of King of the Hill. Everyone at the table is an earl with ambitions to become the biggest boar in the forest, and all pairs of eyes save one will exceed their stomach.
The first step on the path to realizing your ambitions is constructing a deck. This is as simple as choosing twenty-four cards and shuffling them together; there’s no drafting, no build-as-you-go, no midstream card acquisition — or at least not in the game’s most basic form. Other than your starting palace, you have the total freedom to take what you want. Of course, certain options stand out as largely mandatory. In order to field an army, you’ll need farms and markets, or at least the ability to steal them, and castles to anchor your fiefs. To survive any courtly intrigues deployed by your opponents, you’ll need allies and vassals, and maybe some offensive tricks of your own.
Here’s a more involved example. In Ortus Regni, there are basically three ways to fail in your bid for the throne. The first is by simply conceding, a touch of expediency that alleviates the pain of going up against a larger neighbor and recognizing that you aren’t going to be able to pull out of your current downward spiral. The second is by having all your fiefs eliminated. Without land, an earl is nothing.
It’s the third possibility that’s the most interesting, because it adds a dash of mortality to every action and card draw. The basic turn structure couldn’t be simpler: take a single action, draw a single card from your deck. The caveat is that each of these represents the passage of your earl’s life, and approaching the bottom of your deck means your teeth have worn down to nubs, your stomach is crawling with worms, and there’s a whiff of rot in the air whenever you enter a room. If you’re ever forced to draw but cannot, you’re done for.
However! If you want your earldom to last longer than a single riffle through your deck, you can absolutely take advantage of the period’s Salic Law to make that happen. You’ll need a prince — and probably a spare, because assassination is oh so popular these days — and at least one banner to declare the bequeathment, plus maybe a church if you’re afraid someone else will announce themselves archbishop and declare agnatic succession illegal for everyone but themselves. It’s a long and winding road to travel, but corralling all those ducks into a tidy row means you can slap a banner onto your prince, and there you have it, a one-time shuffle of your discard pile. The earl is dead, long live the earl.
Like everything else in this game, there are piles of potential barriers to a smooth succession, and that’s where Ortus Regni marks itself as one of the shrewdest card games out there. The privilege of a shuffle is bought with many small actions at the very least, and possibly wars to eliminate upstart archbishops, an extra prince for when your eldest is captured and beheaded by Vikings, or a desperate battle of influence to prevent a crucial card from being tossed out of your hand.
And those are the complications surrounding just one option. Nearly every strategy is similarly mired in actions and counter-actions. Consider the Vikings, a force of ne’er-do-wells who pop out of their own deck to raise hell. Rather than attacking at random, temporary command of the Viking army is assigned by drawing colored cubes out of a leather pouch, with the winning earl assigning which of their opponents the scruffy ruffians will go after. So far this is entirely random, even to the point of capriciousness. However, some of your cards can be sent as emissaries to the Vikings, which will add extra cubes of your color to the pouch. The downside is that you’ve just spent a turn to burn a card, and also that your vassal or monk won’t be coming back from Viking territory anytime soon, but might pay off big by giving you command of a free force of human wrecking balls somewhere down the line.
Other strategies can pay off big or just waste time. Soldier cards come out of their own deck during gameplay, but can only be fielded if you own enough farms and markets — both of which are subject to being razed, claimed in battle, or stolen by intrigue. Mercenaries alleviate this somewhat by letting you field a soldier without owning land, but their allegiance is fragile and can be bought out from under you. And courtly treachery can unpick even the most carefully-woven earldom, but hinge on an opponent not holding the right counter-cards.
Even the “stock” strategy of seeding farms, fielding armies, and marching to glorious battle might be undone by the flipping of a card. Most conflicts come down to the usual outcome where both sides swap hits and limp back home, but every so often one side might receive a battle card that wins them the whole fight outright, capturing their opponent’s nobles and routing their entire army. These moments are painful, but also terrifically dramatic reversals of fortune.
The occasional joust occupies a similar space. When forced to compete, everybody antes a property and sends somebody to act as their champion, at which point a miniature game of match-three poker is played, with the winner taking the pot while everybody else dies in the mud. It’s subject to chance, true, but it’s also a viable way for a diminished earl to come roaring back to prominence.
The sum of all these elements is a game that’s as defiant of tradition as it is enamored with its setting. Players can be eliminated and forced to wait in the wings until the final earl is named, the deck construction is rudimentary rather than folded into the gameplay, and the specter of chance looms large over even your most cat-footed approaches.
If we’re being critical, Ortus Regni is also lavishly overproduced, and I’m not only talking about its gorgeously illustrated cards. Every set comes with blocks for keeping everyone’s pool of cards straight, and the player references are printed onto cloth “tapestries.” A single box will only allow two players to play, with each “expansion” adding more players rather than new options. Each of these elements, from the leather Viking pouch to the ostentatious scented wooden blocks, certainly heighten the game’s flair and earthy sense of place, but its pricey buy-in also makes Ortus Regni come across as putting on airs. Without all these extra doodads, the whole thing could easily fit into its current box many times over.
Then again, Ortus Regni works great with just two earls and probably shouldn’t be played with more than four anyway. And for all it provides in terms of sweeping drama and smart card interactions, it’s worth a few extra dollars.
More than that, it weaves an incredible narrative, one enamored with clashing notions of chivalry and hubris, personalities both dashing and dastardly, and romantic triumphs and ignominious defeats. It’s a game where a champion might successfully defend his castle against an encroaching horde of barbarians, only to be captured and beheaded during a raid on a rival earl’s hill-forts. You might defend against all comers, only to be crushed by Vikings and have your last fertile farmland lost on a joust bet. You might maneuver a king’s crown onto your head and establish a tidy personal army on everyone else’s dime, only to watch as your opponents form an alliance to bring you to heel.
But that’s the thing about Ortus Regni. Even when it’s sending the stones of your palace raining down around your ears, it’s enchanting.