As Alone as a Unicorn Horn
In recent news, scientists have determined that the worst thing in the world of video games is the escort mission. You know what I’m talking about. For whatever reason, mission command has given you the task of guiding a brain-dead moron from one spot to another, without the necessary equipment or manpower, along a route known to be infested with enemies who have a fanatical hatred of the person or vehicle in your charge.
Unicornus Knights is a two-hour-long escort mission. With her kingdom recently annexed by the neighboring empire, Princess Cornelia has decided to inspire an uprising, march straight across the countryside, and win back her tenuous ancestral claim to other people’s labor. Unlike some of her lesser peers, she’s unperturbed by questions of practicality. How will she keep the troops fed? Trounce the petty tyrants standing between her and the capital? Marshal her troops in battle? It’s safe to say that she really has no idea. Birthright, maybe.
That’s where you come in. As one of the Princess’s trusty knights, it’s your job to — well, to do everything the Princess is too important to do. Like prevent her from suicide-marching straight into an unwinnable fight.
That’s strike one against Unicornus Knights. Strike two is the game’s anime aesthetic, which is so far beyond my taste range that I’m tempted to retake the classical art course that put me to sleep throughout that one semester of college. Strike two and a half is the word “unicornus.”
Strike two and seven-eighths arrives after getting the thing set up. It isn’t the game’s size. It’s the quantity. On one side of the map sits Princess Cornelia atop her uni-horned steed. Nearby are your knights, each in their own starting region. Standing between the Princess and her destination are a full-blooded horde of enemies to defeat, dodge, or sometimes fall in love with. And every single one of them comes with their own abilities, combat behaviors, and terrain.
It’s an intimidating sight, and not just for the Princess’s knights. Do I really need to know all these abilities? Will the necromancer in the Fields of Woe raise her zombies in between turns? Is that dragon really going to come down from the mountains to chase my armies? And what’s with that robo-girl in the ancient ruins?
But the thing about Unicornus Knights is that you’re already playing it. Staring at that wall of generals, sorcerers, and monsters, assessing the threats they pose, sizing up the chinks in their armor or gaps in their defense — that’s the game.
And what a game it is.
Much like Darkest Night, Unicornus Knights revolves around its personalities. Your heroes are pleasantly distinct, an assemblage of warriors, generals, strategists, mercenaries, and spell-tossers. Every one of them brings something special to the table, and each one left behind makes their absence felt.
For example, a lot of your turn-by-turn activities have to do with moving armies from one place to another. Maybe a castle would benefit from a good besieging, or perhaps Princess Dumdum needs a row of friendly armies to squat in advance of her forces to divert her away from the Pit of Suffering. In either case, you’ll need generals to marshal those troops. That’s where heroes like Havok the Knight, Urgan the Fortress King, or Mirza the Royal Guard come in. They’re experienced enough to lead healthy stacks of troops straight into the thick of battle and hopefully not come out totally wrecked.
But wrecked they shall become, which is where your supporting cast comes in. While your generals are holding the front lines and luring enemy troops into defensible mountainous terrain, Donia the Sand Maiden can pass around support cards, Magnus the Hermit has a great long-range blast spell he’d like to show you, and Annelie the Strategist doesn’t even need to spend an action to ship troops and supplies to the front. It isn’t quite as glamorous as throwing dice and claiming fortresses — and also one of the big reasons why Unicornus Knights works better solo than as a cooperative game, because nobody wants to get stuck with only Madam Josephine and her free supplies for two whole hours — but keeping everybody staffed and fed is a noble if underappreciated role.
Did you think we were done? We aren’t. Want to heal in a game where wounds are plentiful and healing is rare? Check out Godfried the Temple Knight. Avoid wounds and dead soldiers altogether? That’s what the Mountain Cat Band is for. Ignore all this army management altogether and just blitz around kicking ass? Meet Gato the Half-dragon.
The point is, each knight is desperately valuable, yet only four will be accompanying Princess Cornelia on her trench run. Again, all very similar to Darkest Night, only that game’s new second edition comes with twenty-nine heroes rather than twelve. So what makes Unicornus Knights stand out?
Well, very much unlike Darkest Night, whose baddie is a necromancer with a set of skills identical to every other necromancer who ever popped a corpse out of a shallow grave, in Unicornus Knights your opponents are similarly colorful.
Picture this. Princess Cornelia is heading straight for Exhar the Ice Lord’s castle. The problem is that Exhar’s stronghold is preposterously staffed, nestled between two lakes, and you might not be able to slide your best general into position before the Princess hits the gates. To the west lies Ravinith’s territory, choked with flimsy undead but guaranteed to become choked with more if you don’t wipe her out pronto. And to the east are the lands of the twins Irvin and Marianne, who will pop back from a defeat unless both have been vanquished when a new round begins.
In Unicornus Knights, the question isn’t only how you surmount a challenge. It’s which challenge to surmount, weighed against the challenges stacked behind it. After Exhar’s chokepoint lies Gregorio the Priest, who’ll drain your life as you dally in his domain. Beyond the lands of the necromancer, the Princess’s sister broods about cruel necessity. Past the twins lies the citadel of the Black Knight, who may deign to join your cause if defeated in battle. And after all of them, the Emperor’s armies, more numerous than you can handle.
In this endeavor, however, you aren’t necessarily alone, because certain enemies can be swung onto your side. Whenever you move into the vicinity of an opponent, a fate card is flipped to reveal their status. That barbarian warrior you were worried about? Turns out he’s Magnus’s long-lost brother. Just like that, you tuck his card beneath Magnus’s, and now you get to roll two extra dice in battle. In one recent game, I was getting smashed every time I approached a baddie. Diabolical traps that dealt instant wounds, the emperor’s favor bestowing additional armies on my enemy, benign defenders turning aggressive and chasing me across the map. It was only when Dahaka the Black Drake fell in love with Madam Josephine that the balance began to shift in our favor.
Unicornus Knights is like that, providing more unexpected twists, sudden reversals, and wondrous ah-ha! moments in a single match than most publishers pack into an entire year of new releases. At times this reliance on wacky outcomes can work against the game, like when you’re presented with a map that puts all the easier baddies in a neat row, then allies them with your team for good measure. Or when you’re handed an empire with all the cuddliness of a porcupine, then proceed to roll self-inflicted injuries every time you try to gain ground.
But when it walks that middle path between difficult and impossible, the design of Unicornus Knights is as assured as it is wild. Its map is a gigantic interlocking puzzle of dangers and opportunities, some certain and others unknown, and brimming with colorful personalities to defeat or make friendly — and with Princess Dunderhead content to blaze straight through every last one of them without your guidance. She’d be inspiring if you didn’t have to spend so much time stepping out in front of her.
Perhaps its greatest accomplishment, however, is that Unicornus Knights has made me enjoy one of the worst things in the world: the escort mission.