Barbarossa’s Last Swim
I have a thing for controversial games. If board games can be art in addition to mere product — which is a point I would heatedly defend — then they can also say something about the world around us. National identity, history, aesthetics, social justice, cultural assumptions; it’s all up for grabs. A lot of the time a game will even tell us something without particularly meaning to. Sometimes that thing is even more telling than its actual message.
When I heard that Seth Jaffee’s Crusaders: They Will Be Done had sparked some minor controversy, with complaints ranging from the tone-deafness of its setting to racial insensitivity, I had to get a look. After all, my background is in religious history, up to and including the actual crusades. I’m practically obligated to have an opinion on such things. It’s as reflexive as noshing on potato chips if they happen to be sitting in front of me. Which is why, going in, my assumption was that I’d find the game’s mechanisms compelling but its history uninsightful.
Imagine my surprise when Crusaders tipped my assumption on its head.
It’s weird that a game about the crusades doesn’t even go on crusade.
That’s the first thing I read about Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done. And indeed, that would be strange. It would be like naming a game World War Two: Hit the Beach, except it takes place in Omaha, Nebraska rather than on Omaha Beach, and it’s about assembling the Enola Gay to drop the first atom bomb. Approximate, but not quite there, if you take my meaning.
But although the map is limited to Europe, there’s plenty of crusading going on. It just doesn’t happen to be the numbered crusades, the First through Ninth that were flung from Catholic Europe into the Holy Land under pretenses of safeguarding pilgrims or securing Jerusalem, but generally also for reasons that weren’t so easy on the eyes, like stealing plunder or establishing bully fiefdoms or winning one over on the ailing Komnenos Dynasty of Byzantium.
Or, sure, blind hatred toward people not quite like you. In that regard, Crusaders is packed to the gills with racial overtones, although not the ones you might first assume. There are Saracens to defeat, scattered willy-nilly across central and eastern Europe. But the game’s other major targets are Slavs and Prussians, vast linguistic and ethnic identities that regularly found themselves on the sharp end of Medieval Christian piety. While the crusades have been both lionized and demonized as an unending struggle between Europe and Islam, the reality is more horrific and far-reaching. As the Finns, Livonians, Lithuanians, Jews, Prussians, Slavs, Baltic and Polish and Hungarian princedoms, Pskov and Novgorod Republics, Turks both nomadic and imperial, Orthodox and Hussite and Cathar and Waldensian schismatics, and pretty much every Mediterranean island can attest, there was nobody quite as equal opportunity as a Catholic military order between the 11th and 13th centuries.
While it’s laudable to see the impact of these orders expanded beyond their common boundaries, there are multiple details standing in the way of Crusaders using this historical reality to its fullest. For one thing, two of its three targets lack any sense of identity, instead tossed at random across Europe as variety for each play’s progression. That whole “Thy Will Be Done” subtitle feels out of place, presumably addressing the player and invoking the Lord’s Prayer in a single breath. And the game itself is a peculiar little optimization puzzle that almost — and we’ll return to that almost — feels like it could have been about anything.
Before we go on, we should probably talk about the actual gameplay.
At its core, Crusaders is a commingling of rondel and Mancala. You pick a wedge, take its action, and then distribute any cylinders that were sitting on that wedge, one at a time, into the following clockwise wedges. There are elements of timing and action-balancing to this process, because the more cylinders there are on a wedge, the more you’re allowed to do with its action, whether marching your knights around, raising armies, building banks, or slaughtering heathens. There’s also a “take points” wedge. We’ll talk about that in a moment.
It’s a functional and somewhat innovative system, especially if you’re a rondelmaniac, which is, I understand, an actual kink. The coolest part is that you can upgrade your wedges, giving them a second action that lets you, say, travel and slaughter. Twice the fun. Meanwhile, each military order has its own advantage. Some start with extra cylinders or upgraded wedges; others may distribute their cylinders differently by hopping spots, traveling counterclockwise, or placing two onto the same wedge. Best of all, it’s dead simple, requiring only a few minutes before everyone is off and a-conquering.
The problem is one of balance, although probably not in the way you’re thinking. Every action except for travel bestows points, from battle to seeding farms. These points increase as the game progresses: buildings and fresh recruits become more valuable, enemies bestow more points as they realize they might as well fight back against armies marching under a red cross, and the influence action increases its rewards alongside your shiny new churches, banks, and farms. It’s so balanced, in fact, that victory is often determined by the minutest decisions — or because somebody preempted you by a single turn at defeating a Slav.
In following the recent eurogame tradition of leveling the playing field until it boasts all the sights of the Great Plains, Crusaders has been squashed like a dehydrated pancake. These flattened scores give the impression of a tight contest, but in reality they’re a symptom of a game that rewards pretty much everything equivalently. As a result, its moments of excitement are few and far between, putting the innovation of its rondelcala to hardly any use at all.
In other words, its disappointing mechanically — yet it leverages its systems to make a perceptive point about the crusades.
Is it possible for a game to be accidentally insightful? In his designer notes, Jaffee doesn’t seem particularly interested in examining the northern crusades. But in spite of that, Crusaders still manages to make a trenchant remark on the nature of holy war in the 12th and 13th centuries. For all your waltzing across Europe, many miles away from the initial justification for war, the game isn’t really about piety, indulgences, schism, or putting down threats to Catholicism. It’s about building banks. Spreading influence. Getting rich. Stamping out any corner of the map with token resistance. Rather than presenting a hagiographic or even whitewashed argument, the statement it makes is as stark as it is gamey: this was the function of military orders and none other, regardless of the flowery words that were spoken to persuade people to join in on the massacres. That’s gold glittering in its eyes, not stars.
Usually in this hobby, a game’s setting is flimsy window-dressing for its underlying systems. In Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done, it’s almost the other way around, a functional but pulseless game overlaid atop a refreshingly unromantic take on medieval shenanigans. Its a message that would have felt right at home in a heavier wargame.
But a heavier wargame this is not, and neither its setting nor its systems are put to as much use as they could have been. The result feels like a half-measure in both directions. More’s the pity. Much like Frederick Barbarossa’s final swim in the Saleph River, it was this close to triumph only to find itself going blub blub blub.
A complimentary copy was provided.