Friday, 13 July 2018

Unicornus Knights

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

One of the designers of Unicornus Knights is Seiji Kanai of Love Letter fame. The other designer Kuro is also well known in Japan. Unicornus Knights is a very different animal from Love Letter. It is a mid-weight cooperative game, with some role-playing elements. It has a medieval fantasy setting. The Kingdom has been invaded by the evil Empire. The King is dead, and the capital captured. The Imperial army is terrorising the realm. The sole survivor of the dynasty is the Princess. She is determined to avenge her family and reclaim the throne. She will march to the capital and kick the smug Emperor out, and she will stop at nothing. You are generals of the Kingdom, and your job is to help the Princess reclaim the Kingdom. This must be done within 10 rounds, before the Empire solidifies its power.

All this sounds fine and dandy and patriotic. When we played, it turned out to be a hilarious exercise of playing nanny to our impetuous (to put it nicely) Princess. The Princess is a non-player character (NPC) and acts based on clearly defined rules. You have little control over her. She charges towards the capital, disregarding dangers and ignoring advice. When she runs out of supplies, she gathers more on the spot, and starts off again once she has enough. As generals loyal to the Kingdom, you have to make sure she doesn't get herself killed. If this happens you lose. It is okay to get yourself killed though. You'll just switch to play a different Kingdom general next round. Try not to die, because you'd lose your allies, armies and supplies. It is usually bad to die.

This is our dear Princess. We all call her Siao Za Bo behind her back, which in Hokkien means Crazy Woman.

This is the Princess's character card. The 5 inside the heart is life points. If she takes her 5th injury, she dies. The 6 inside the shield is her command ability. It determines the army size she can lead.

This is how a game is set up - capital at the far right, and Princess at the far left. Kingdom generals (i.e. the players) are along the left edge, near where the Princess is. Most tiles are guarded by Empire generals. Every Empire general has his own character card. We put these along the edges of the map, near the respective on-map characters, so that it's easy to refer. There are Empire armies all over the place, some led by Empire generals, some not.

In our game there were four of us playing. If we count the Princess as well, that was five of us against about twelve generals and dozens of armies. It looked daunting. At first I thought that since the Princess would make a bee-line for the capital, we could just focus on defeating the Empire generals and armies along her path. We could ignore those further away from the path, and save precious time and resources. However there was a catch. We would eventually need to defeat the Emperor who was stubbornly guarding the capital. His strength was determined by the number of Empire generals still on the board. If we only defeated a few of them, his strength would be still very high, and it would be very difficult to beat him.

The structure of a round is simple. The Kingdom generals (i.e the players) take actions, then the Princess acts, and then the Empire generals and armies act. As Kingdom generals, you only have 5 action types, and they are all simple. The number of actions you get depends on the number of players. The two most basic actions are raising troops and gathering resources. You can only raise troops in cities, towns and villages, and the number of soldiers you can raise per action depends on the population density. You can gather resources anywhere, but it is only efficient if you do it at resource-rich locations, i.e. cities, towns, villages. The relationship between soldiers and resources is a very core part of the game. When your army marches one space, every soldier consumes one resource. If you are leading a huge army, it will eat a lot. You need to have a lot of resources to get it to march long distances. This is a logistical problem you need to think about and plan for all the time. Don't keep a large army when you don't need it. You'll just have more mouths to feed. However when you need to fight a tough enemy, you need to make sure you have enough fighters and enough food for them too.

Marching and attacking are the same action. When you try to march into an enemy-occupied space, you will attack him. If you defeat him, you march in. If you fail to completely defeat him, you stay put.

In addition to the number of soldiers in your army, the cost of marching also depends on terrain. Some terrain types are easy to march into, and some are harder. In this photo, the road space with the green -1 icon means you pay one resource fewer, whereas the forest spaces with the red +1 icons means you pay one extra resource.

Let's talk about the combat mechanism. It is a little unusual. This here is an Empire general. The 5 in the heart icon is life points. You need to deal this much damage to defeat this general. The 6 in the shield icon is the combat strength of the general. The shield icon means a different thing when it appears on the Princess card and the Kingdom general cards. For Empire generals, total combat strength is general's combat strength (i.e. shield icon) plus army combat strength (number of soldiers in the army). When you fight an Empire general, you need to allocate a number of dice equal to his total combat strength. Let's say this general above is leading 3 soldiers. You will need 9 dice in total. If you are able to roll 11 dice, you must assign 9 of them. You apply the results of these 9 dice. Naturally, since you have 2 surplus, you would have discarded 2 dice with unfavourable results. Now let's say you are only able to roll 7 dice, you would be 2 dice short. The Empire general would deal 2 points of damage to you, because of this shortage. This is even before you apply the results of those 7 dice you have rolled. The Empire general does not roll dice. Only you do.

This above is a Kingdom general. The heart icon works the same way as Empire generals. Take this much damage and you die. The shield icon means something else. For Kingdom generals it means your army size limit. The number of dice you get to roll during battle depends on the number of soldiers in your army. So this guy here normally gets to roll at most 5 dice, because that's the highest number of soldiers he can lead. There are some cards and character abilities which allow Kingdom generals to roll more dice. That little table on the right defines how well a character fights. The left half is for when he attacks, and the right half for when he defends. When attacking, Urgan deals damage on 5's and 6's, and takes damage on 1's and 2's. That's just average. However on defense, he deals damage on 3's to 6's, and only takes damage on 1's. So he's a very good defender. It is better to lure enemies to attack him.

Another one of your action types is drawing a support card. These are special abilities cards, and many are quite handy.

The last action type is sending stuff. You send one or more of your soldiers to a nearby comrade or the Princess, and he (or they) may bring resources along, up to 10 resources per person. This is an important action type. You often need to help your teammates out. It is also a means to manage the Princess. Send her troops to slow her down, or send her resources to speed her up. Send her troops to protect her and help her fight. It is easy to get stuck in the countryside with insufficient resources to allow your army to march. Gathering resources yourself in such situations is inefficient. It is better to ask your friends in nearby cities to gather resources and then send them to you.

After the Kingdom generals (i.e. the players) complete their turns, the Princess takes hers. She only cares about advancing towards the capital, and she takes the shortest path. Only if two paths have the same distance, you get to decide for her. She only stops to gather resources when she is unable to march. Once she gathers enough (or one of you gives her enough), she resumes her journey.

Once the Princess is done, the Empire generals and armies act. Empire generals have different behaviours. Most of them stay where they are, and only attack when you or the Princess is standing right next to them. Empire armies behave like this too. They ignore you unless you approach them. Some Empire generals are defensive. These strictly stand their ground, and won't budge even when you walk right up to them. If you want to defeat them, you have to be the one starting the fight. Only a few Empire generals are aggressive. The moment you or the Princess comes within a certain distance, they are triggered and start moving towards the nearest Kingdom character.

One important aspect in the game is the Fate cards. The first time any Empire general is approached by a Kingdom general, a Fate card is drawn to possibly establish some story between them. Special rules may come into play, affecting their behaviours.

If the Princess manages to enter the capital within 10 rounds, you win. If she dies, or is late, you lose.

The Play

We did a 4-player game. Ivan had played this before. Allen, Tim and I were new. The game comes with quite a few Kingdom generals, so you have plenty of variety. There are even four versions of the Princess. You can pick a style you like. They give different benefits. There are many Empire generals too, but every game most of them will be on the board, so the variety is less. Right off the bat we could already analyse the board situation and plan what to do, based on the locations of all the characters on both sides. We discussed how to make the best of our character abilities, and who to play what role. Ivan's character enjoyed a benefit when near the Princess, so he was in charge of staying close to her and protecting her. Allen's character was a support character. Since he was near Ivan, his role was to support Ivan by sending him troops and resources. Tim's character was a fighter, so he was our strike force.

Tim's character was the girl on the left in the foreground. When the game started, she had no army (no round soldier tokens beneath her). She must either recruit or have another Kingdom general send her troops. That lady with a huge black hat to the right was an Empire general, a necromancer. She summoned zombies in empty spaces on her tile every round, so if we wanted to defeat her, we must strike at her directly and swiftly, else the zombies would keep coming and drown us.

This area was tough - so many Empire armies.

The blurred old guy at the centre is Ivan's character. He had now entered the desert to fight a monster. The monster was strong, but thankfully didn't have any army. Allen's character, a young lady, is at the far left. She was now recruiting and gathering resources.

Tim's character had now defeated the necromancer. The zombies here would be attacking him, but at least there wouldn't be new zombies being generated by the necromancer anymore.

On the right, that angry bald guy with a red background is an aggressive type Empire general. He had been triggered and was heading towards Tim's character. My character is the blurred bearded dwarf in the foreground. I planned to move nearer to the bald guy to lure him towards me. I was strong in defense.

The Princess was moving slowly, and was still wandering in the desert on the left. All four of us had plunged in and were pushing the front line.

Having a pint with Her Highness.

That's Allen's character Annelie at the top right. When she approached the Empire general Chancellor Kostov, the Fate card drawn was Love At First Sight. If Annelie could reach Kostov, he would be immediately defeated by love, and become an ally. No need to fight at all, which would save soldiers and resources. So this was nice. From this point till the end of the game, all of us couldn't stop making fun of Kostov for being a perverted lolicon. Must be because of his ridiculous hair.

Ivan and Allen pushed towards the top left. Tim and I pushed the middle path, staying ahead of the Princess. I was now standing between angry bald guy and the Princess, waiting for him to throw his army at my well-prepared defenses.

There are cards and events which change how the Princess behaves. Some may cause her to head in a different direction, towards a specific character. This can be good and bad. Good if it helps to keep her from trouble. Bad if it delays her too much from reclaiming the throne. Some support cards let players move the Princess. These are precious and are very powerful when used at the right time.

When Allen's character (top right) approached the Empire general at the bottom left, the Fate card he drew happened to be "Love at First Sight" again! Now these three were in an "it's complicated" relationship. A love triangle! What drama! Maybe it was because Allen's character was badly injured. She had taken 3 damage and would die upon the next damage. So, old or young, men fell for her because who could bear to hurt this delicate flower?

We entered the last phase of the game. Tim's character was already in the capital tile slapping around those armies protecting the Emperor. The Princess was on the right, only a few steps away from the capital tile. That guy in dark armour on the right was an unusual one. He was not an Empire general, and did not contribute to the Emperor's strength. We did not need to defeat him to weaken the Emperor. However, if we defeated him, we could use him as a powerful weapon to defeat the Emperor. In our particular game, since we had been successful in defeating (and seducing) the Empire generals, there was no need to fight this dark knight. We ignored him. Those two Empire generals on the far left were twins. If we defeated one of them but not the other, at the end of the round, the defeated twin would resurrect. These twins were a pain in the neck. These are examples of unique stories and characteristics of the generals in the game.

Tim's character continued to terrorise the capital, preparing for the final attack.

The Princess was previously on the right side and preparing to enter the capital tile. However something unexpected happened. The Princess' fate was linked to one of the remaining Empire generals. If she met up with him, he would renounce the Empire and follow her instead. So now she was heading in a completely different direction. Other than playing nanny, protector and supplier, we also had to play secretary to Her Highness, scheduling appointments for her.

Eventually it was Tim's character who defeated the Emperor, and allowed the Princess to march into the capital amidst ecstatic cheering from the crowd. Peace returned to the Kingdom. Earlier in the game Tim's character defeated the robot girl Empire general, who then became an ally. The robot girl had a single-use ability, which converted all die rolls to kills, but only for one battle. Tim saved this till the final battle against the Emperor, and won a decisive victory. He didn't even need to roll the dice.

The Princess reclaimed the throne, and to our pleasant surprise, none of us got killed in the process. Yay us!

The Thoughts

I had a great time with Unicornus Knights. We had a fun bunch of players, and also a number of funny incidents, made possible by how the game works. I see the game as a puzzle which the players need to collaborate to solve. From the beginning, you already need to analyse the game setup and decide how you want to play. Depending on how your strategy pans out, you may need to adjust your plans. It feels like a puzzle because the Empire generals and armies set up on the board don't move about much. Their actions are all calculable. Seen as a mathematical exercise, the game doesn't seem all that sexy. However the Fate cards and Support cards will throw in some surprises and opportunities. There is much character in the game. Both Empire generals and Kingdom generals make you feel you can imagine their backstories easily. They feel alive. Empire generals are not just generic pawns to defeat. Kingdom generals are not just abstract powers you can use as a player. The Fate cards inject stories and twists to the game. They certainly injected a twisted love story in our game.

There are two aspects of the design I admire. Firstly, the army and resources dilemma. It is a simple but clever mechanism that succinctly represents a very real logistical problem. The second aspect is the battle mechanism. It took a while to understand, but once I grasped it, I found it very nifty.

Variability comes from the random game setup, the Kingdom generals, and the Princess version (there are four to choose from). Most of the Empire generals are in play every game, so by your second game you should have seen all of them. You will also have seen most of the Fate cards after the first two games. If replayability is defined as how long it takes for you to see all content, then this is a 4 - 5 play game. The true replayability is more than that, because difference in setup and the Fate cards drawn will create difference experiences and different stories.

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