Published on May 5th, 2014 | by Across the Board Games Staff1
By Crown, Orb & Sceptre!
A Medieval Mastery Review
By Nick Hernandez
Despite a promising name and the images of armored knights bludgeoning each other with maces on the cover art, Medieval Mastery from Chaos Publishing LTD doesn’t quite measure up as far as war games go. That’s not to say it’s not a good game. Medieval Mastery has some clever mechanics and interesting ideas, but it doesn’t quite come together like I want it to on the table. What’s interesting is that its frailties come from a mismatch of theme. That’s a sentence that I can’t believe I actually typed out.
If you were to ask any of my gaming friends, they would tell you that among all the qualities that I consider when picking up new board games, theme is close to the bottom of the list. The satisfaction I get from playing board games comes mostly from the way these games tickle my brain. In most cases, whether I’m building a space station or running a medieval castle doesn’t matter to me. I want to have my mental faculties pushed to their limits.
There is at least one exception to this though: war games. Being into war games has some special challenges. It’s a lot easier to get someone to play a game where you’re planting crops on a fictional island than it is to get someone excited about simulating the the Battle of Agincourt. Some people aren’t into all that hostility.
Also, war games share a particular type of complexity and have a lot of common mechanics. War games have units and those units have some level of variety. War games have factions and those factions may or may not be unique. There are rules for terrain and movement. There are tactical objectives. These are the things that define a war-themed game. The theme is mechanical. I guess that explains why theme matters in this case.
The problem with Medieval Mastery isn’t that the game is bad but that the things I’ve come to expect from war games are either missing or poorly executed. If the game were themed differently, it would probably not bother me so much but the fact that I was advertised a skull bludgeoning medieval war game somehow sours the game itself.
To start with, the game has some clever ideas in set up. The map is created from hexes that represent different terrain. The terrain has good variety and the way the map is built encourages people to move towards the middle of the map. You can have up to six players which is fun. Each gets their own deck of cards for combat. The map is built Twilight Imperium style to even out the space between players.
Each player also gets a set of Artifacts (Crown, Scepter, Orb) that each give you a simple special ability with specific timing. Honestly, this is a really clever way to create random factions with unique abilities which is GREAT for replay value.
This is a good time to mention that the production quality of the game is top notch. The pieces are durable. The art is cool looking. The cards are well printed though a little hard to shuffle.
There are some issues with actual game play though. When we did our review run we had 5 players, which felt like too many. The turn process is complicated and not exactly intuitive. The artifacts all have very specific timing though things like Crowns can be used in two specific phases before and after combat/movement. It reminded me a lot of the Main Phase and Post-Combat Main Phase from Magic:The Gathering. The effects of terrain and the artifact cards are communicated via a bevy of symbols for different effects. There’ a handy-dandy reference for the symbols in the back of the manual but it’s still hard to track all the moving parts sometimes.
Now that much complexity would be okay with me if the whole game were like that. Once you get to troops and movement though, the game is irritatingly simple. There is only a single type of unit (a knight) and they simply represent a bonus to your combat score which is added to a card that you play. Ultimately, the units account for about half of your combat score and there are very few ways to alter that score when resolving combat. The cards themselves have little variety. Even Cosmic Encounter uses more different types of cards in the Encounter deck.
Add to that the fact that movement and attack are handled in a very strange fashion. You have an opportunity before combat to shuffle around your knights however you see fit as long as they’re all in connected hexes. So that’s how the idea of supply is handled according to the rule book. Then after you’ve redistributed your knights, you can make a single move into a space that you do not already own. The fact that these two movements happen right after each other made for a lot of confused nerds during our test run.
So the game is complicated in ways that don’t make sense. Also, because there are so few variables in gameplay, the combats and interactions can get boring and predictable. The game is so close to being good. Perhaps the game would be better if there were more variety of cards and more than one type of unit and maybe some more flexible rules for movement and supply. There are some innovative ideas at set up that just don’t follow through into the game itself. A war game with boring combat is just not fun.
I suspect that this was an attempt to make a war game more accessible and able to play in under an hour (the game did go quickly). The only problem with that idea is that there is no demand for accessible war games. War gamers, by their nature, seek complexity. War gamers aren’t interested in games you can play during your lunch break. If you’re a casual board game player you can just pretend it’s a game about hacking a computer or spreading an infection and you might actually have a great time. If you want to crush your enemies, try Combat Commander instead.
Medieval Mastery is Chaos Publishing’s first game that was successfully funded on indiegogo last year. Brave the Elements is their next highly anticipated card game coming to Kickstarter this week on May 7th! We were lucky enough to have received a prototype of the game and wrote up a preview! To learn more about Brave the Elements, visit our review here. To learn more about the company and their games, visit Chaos Publishing’s website.