Sunday 10 March 2019

Three Kingdoms Redux

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Three Kingdoms Redux is designed by the husband-wife team from neighbouring Singapore - Yeo Keng Leong and Christina Ng. When it was first released, there was a decent amount of interest and discussion. Most boardgames I play are designed by Westerners. I imagine if a Westerner game designer creates a Three Kingdoms themed boardgame, it will probably be weird. Three Kingdoms is a very Chinese thing. I think you need to be Chinese, or at least Asian, to do it justice. That said, I didn't seek out the game when it first came out. Malaysians (and Singaporeans I think) have an inferiority complex. We tend to think things made in other countries are better than local products. I was never particularly confident in locally designed games. Sorry all Malaysian and Singaporean game designers. I am more or less familiar with the Three Kingdoms history and characters, but that's because it's such a big part of Chinese culture, not because I'm an enthusiast. Recently during the Chinese New Year period Jeff wanted to play some Chinese themed games. So Three Kingdoms Redux was suggested. I was interested to give it a go, so I joined him. It was then I realised that Allen owns a copy of the game. If I wanted to play, I could have played it a long time ago.

When I read the rules, my heart sank a little. This sounded like just another worker placement game. It's just that your workers are now famous characters from the Three Kingdoms period. I wasn't optimistic. Thankfully now that I have played the game, it changed my mind.

Three Kingdoms Redux must be played with exactly 3 players. The Wei player sits at the bottom edge of the game board, and the Wu and Shu players sit at the two sides of the board. Sitting positions are fixed. At the centre of the board you see this big yellow area. It is divided into 12 spaces, and these are where you place your workers to perform actions. Of the six mostly rectangular sections surrounding it, three (with the Wei, Wu and Shu characters) are player boards, and the other three positioned between the player boards are the border areas, i.e. war zones.

Each kingdom has many generals. These are the Wu kingdom generals. At most 8 generals per kingdom will appear in any particular game. One of them is the faction leader, Sun Jian in the case of Wu. So your variety comes from only the other seven. The boss is always in the game. There are two types of generals - military and civil - as can be told apart based on hat design. Every general has three basic attributes - administrative, combat and leadership. The admin and combat attributes determine how well they compete in the civil and military actions respectively. Leadership limits how many armies they can bring to war and to station at a border location.

These are the general cards of Sun Jian (boss of Wu) and Jiang Qin. In addition to the three basic attributes, every general also has a special ability written in text. Icons at the lower right indicate the troop types he specialises in. There is some advantage if a general leads his preferred troop types.

When the game starts, Wei has five generals, Wu four, and Shu only three. So Wei starts with an advantage. In the 3rd, 5th and 9th rounds every kingdom draws more generals. Shu will draw more than Wei, so that eventually everyone will have 8 generals in total. At the start of the game and each time you draw generals, you draw more cards than you need and select which ones you want. So you have some flexibility and you are not entirely at the mercy of luck.

These are state enhancement cards. You draw some at the start of the game, and during the game you may also draw more. You need to perform a build action to play these cards. They give you some advantage, and they give you points too. They cost resources to build, and some can only be built under specific conditions.

This is the Wu player board. The upper half is the farm and marketplace improvement areas. When you do improvement, you flip over the tiles. You may also move flipped tiles to the top row, after which they will provide food and wages to your armies stationed at border locations. Armies are very expensive to maintain, so farm and marketplace improvements are important.

The lower half is the tribal relations track. This is the only place you may send a general and there will be no interference from other kingdoms. When sending a general here, you may ask him to bring some BR1M gift money to please the tribes, or you may ask him to bring some muscle men to terrorise the tribes. In both cases, tribal relations will improve (as in they will be more obedient). It is important to maintain tribal relations because you score points for it at game end. A good relationship is not easy to maintain, because every round that you don't send a general, the relationship worsens by one notch. These local tribes are high-maintenance.

This is where most actions occur. There are 12 action spaces here, and at the bottom right of each space, there is an icon indicating whether it is a military or a civil action. The top row is all military, the bottom row all civil, and the middle row a mix. The nature of the central two action spaces alternate every round, and they are always the opposite. One is military, the other is civil, and next round they swap. The top row actions and the rightmost action in the middle row are all related to gathering resources - gold, rice, ships, crossbows, horses and untrained soldiers. You also get to train those untrained soldiers to become trained soldiers. The first actions in the second and third rows are for developing your farms and marketplaces, i.e. your economy. The two actions at the lower right are for drawing and playing state enhancement cards. 2nd row, 3rd action is called Control Han Emperor. When you control the emperor, you get to promote yourself to a higher rank. Each promotion gives you points, and if anyone gets promoted all the way to the Emperor rank, the game ends (but the new Emperor does not necessarily win - you need to compare scores). Controlling the Emperor also gets you a +1 token for the next round. You may boost the ability of one of your generals by 1.

The structure of a game round is simple. You spend the first half placing generals, and the second half executing actions based on where you have placed them. Generals may be placed in this central area, in the tribal area on your player board, or in a border area between yourself and an opponent. One key difference between Three Kingdoms Redux and other worker placement games is you may place workers in occupied spaces (like Carson City). Who wins the spot is deterministic. There is no fight sequence or die roll. Whoever has the stronger general or generals wins the spot and gets to perform the action. Others get nothing. In the photo above you can see Wei (blue) and Wu (red) fighting for the 3rd spot in the bottom row. The central action spaces and the border locations all work this way. Only the tribal area is a safe area with no interference possible.

This is the player order table. The player order of the round determines the alliance for the round. The 2nd and 3rd players are automatically allied. However this is a limited alliance. They only get to work together in one action space. The 3rd player gets to decide which one. In the alliance space, the strengths of the generals of the alliance are added up. So if both allied players commit generals, it is costly for the lone player to compete. If the alliance wins that space, both partners get to perform the action. This is quite powerful, but since it is limited to one space, it is not overwhelming. In fact sometimes the alliance partners have difficulties agreeing on where to place the alliance marker. Although the 3rd player has the right to choose, if he chooses a space which the 2nd player does not like, he won't get support from the 2nd player, and the alliance marker is as good as wasted.

The turn order of the following round depends on the number of actions you perform in the current round. This is not as simple as counting your generals. Your number of actions equal your number of generals only in the most optimistic case. Often you lose at some spaces, or you need to commit two or more generals to perform one action. Whoever has taken the most actions becomes start player next round, and is automatically non-allied. Being first usually means being disadvantaged. Others get to see how you commit your generals before deciding how they will compete with you. You place a strength-4 general, and your opponent may just place a strength-5 general to beat you, forcing you to either commit another general for the action you want, or give up.

This is the military VP track. During the game, once you have stationed armies at border locations, they score victory points for you every round, and such points are tracked here. The track at the top is the round track. You play at most 12 rounds, and in rounds 3, 5 and 9 you get new generals. The track at the bottom is the rank track. You get promoted each time you control the Han Emperor. If you get promoted all the way to Emperor rank, you trigger the game end.

The core process flow in the game is building your armies to capture border locations, and building your economy to support these armies stationed at the border locations. You gather untrained soldiers and train them to become proper soldiers. You then have to pair them with a weapon type (horses, spears, ships or crossbows) to make them a proper army. When you assign a general to lead troops and capture a border location, that general retires to that location, and you will no longer have him to help you perform actions for the rest of the game. So committing generals to capture border locations is not to be taken lightly. Furthermore, each army stationed consumes 1 rice and 1 gold every round. This upkeep cost is no joke, and if you can't afford to pay, there is a stiff penalty (a la Agricola). Yet the constant victory points every round is lucrative, so you don't want to fall behind. The whole game is about managing this process, trying to be efficient and controlling the timing so that you don't get stuck in a bad place.

When the game ends, scoring is done in a number of ways. There are a few areas in which you compare against your two opponents. If you do better than both, you score 5VP. If you are in second place, you score 2VP. If you are last, you get nothing. These areas include tribal relations, your rank, the number of border locations you control, and your farm and marketplace development level. During the game you need to plan ahead for each of these areas and make sure you stay competitive.

The Play

When I played Three Kingdoms Redux, I did not pick green (my favourite player colour) to play. Jeff, Allen and I just sat down, and played the kingdom nearest to us. I was Wu (red), Allen Wei (blue) and Jeff Shu (green). Allen (Wei, blue) started with five generals. Jeff and I had fewer, but we were allied. This was a fitting start, reflecting history. Shu did not start with the famous three sworn brothers though - Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Liu Bei was the lord of Shu, so Jeff did start with him. However the other generals were randomly drawn. There is a scenario that comes with the game in which all generals are predetermined. This scenario reflects history and picks the more famous generals of the era. Shu starts with the three sworn brothers, and then Zhuge Liang and Zhao Yun join them in Round 3. Wei starts with Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan, the loyal supporters of Cao Cao. Wu starts with Huang Gai, Zhou Yu and Sun Ce, and Sun Quan only joins the fray in Round 3. If you are familiar with Three Kingdoms, you will know all these characters.

I found that the slightly different worker placement mechanism makes Three Kingdoms Redux very different from other worker placement games. You need to think much harder because placing a general does not guarantee you will win the spot. You need to think whether others will compete with you. You need to decide which general to send, and whether to boost his ability using the Han Emperor token or Popular Support tokens. You need to watch what kind of generals your opponents have, and assess how likely they will compete with you. Some generals are good at admin, some are good at combat. Some are middling at both, but they may turn out to be more flexible. Each time you get to pick generals, you need to consider these factors. The worker placement is certainly more complex. Whether that's good or bad depends on personal tastes. I am fine with it and I find it challenging. Just be warned it might induce AP (Analysis-Paralysis).

The alliance mechanism is interesting. It forces some cooperation between the 2nd and 3rd player. If you are part of the alliance, you really don't want to waste it. So you need to negotiate with your partner and you try your best to agree on an action space which you are both willing to commit generals to. If negotiations go nowhere, it's a win for the non-allied player.

I (Wu) amassed many soldiers and weapons in the early game, but I did not rush to capture border locations. My economy was not well developed yet and I could not afford a high upkeep cost.

One of our earliest battles was Chi Bi - the famous Red Cliff. We rewrote history. Allen (Wei, blue) won the battle with no resistance. We joked that Cao Cao was desperate for the beautiful Xiao Qiao. Every border location captured was a big deal. It was a big commitment. From that point onwards, the controller of the location had to pay upkeep costs of the armies stationed there. Also the general who captured the location would be stationed there till game-end, unable to perform any more actions. The stationed armies would score points every round, which was a big plus.

Xiao Qiao portrayed by Lin Chi-ling.

If you look closely at the centre, you will see that one of the action spaces has two of my generals (Wu, red). This particular action space was important to me, and I was adamant on winning it, thus committing two generals to make sure I won it, and to deter others from challenging me. The others might not really want it, but they were happy to psycho me into committing a second general, so that they would have less competition elsewhere.

The yellow token in the middle is the Emperor. If you win the Control Han Emperor action space, you get this token for the next round. You can use it to boost the strength of one of your generals by +1.

At the Wu-Wei border in the lower left, Allen (Wei, blue) had captured Chi Bi. At the Wu-Shu border at the top, I (Wu, red) had captured Bai Di Cheng, but now Jeff (Shu, green) had sent an army, and I hadn't sent any to compete with his, so he would be next to capture a location at this border. At the Shu-Wei border at the bottom right, Jeff (Shu, green) had captured Wu Zhang Yuan. Now Allen (Wei, blue) had sent an army, and was uncontested. So Allen would be next to capture a location here.

At the lower left you can see a white token showing two flags. This is the alliance token. In this particular round, Allen (Wei, blue) and Jeff (Shu, green) were allied, and they had agreed to place the alliance token in this Develop Farm / Harvest action space. Both of them had placed generals in this space, and both of them would get to perform the action. I (Wu, red) didn't even try to compete with them there. In fact I was so paranoid that at both the action spaces that I wanted, I committed two generals.

In our game, Allen (Wei, blue) was enthusiastic about constructing state enhancements. He had a general who gave him benefits whenever he chose that action. Unfortunately (for him) Jeff and I did compete with him, so he didn't always get to construct his enhancements. Jeff (Shu, green) liked Controlling the Han Emperor. This Liu Bei (lord of Shu) was such a suck-up to the boy emperor! Being buddies with the Emperor does get you promoted, but your general will be out of action next round (due to the hangover), so it is a costly action. Allen and I were not particularly keen to do it and we didn't compete with Jeff much. Our game eventually ended with Jeff getting promoted to Emperor level (that's one of the game-end conditions). He saw that he was falling behind in military points, and knew that he had to speed up the game lest he fell even further behind.

This was Allen's (Wei, blue) domestic affairs board (player board). His relationship with the local tribes was good, already enough to earn him points. However he had to continue to maintain the relationship until the game ended if he wanted those points. Without ongoing maintenance, relationships deteriorate every round.

I had this very powerful combo. If I sent Ding Feng to perform the Demand Tribute action, he would get me extra rice and gold. I had constructed two state enhancements which gave me extra stuff when I performed the Demand Tribute action. That was why I fought for this action space almost every round. It wasn't particularly attractive in itself, so others were not exactly keen to commit a general or two just for the sake of denying me.

Lu Fan was a general who joined me in a later round, but he was a tremendous help. With him, gold and rice became interchangeable. This solved a major headache. Building the infrastructure to produce these resources is hard work, and you have to take care of both at the same time. Being strong in one but weak in the other will still keep you hamstrung. Lu Fan gave me much flexibility. Ding Feng and Lu Fan helped me make a lot of money and produce a lot of rice. I was the richest boy on the block. I could afford to send many armies out to station the border locations.

On the military VP track, I (Wu, red) was the leader. I was the richest and could best afford to have armies stationed at border locations. On the rank track, Jeff (Shu, green) was the clear leader. He was only one step away from being able to declare himself Emperor of Middle Kingdom.

Although I was economically strongest, I did not utilise my economic strength well to gain an advantage over Jeff and Allen. I should have been more aggressive and focused. After our game, Jeff and Allen agreed that I had been too greedy, wanting everything and in the end not doing well in anything (except in being filthy rich). In the game end scoring, I fared poorly in many areas while both Jeff and Allen had decent results in some areas. I had not planned well for the game end scoring. I should have focused on one or two areas and made sure I came first. 5VP for coming first is a big deal. Eventually both Jeff and Allen overtook me, and I came last. Lesson learnt - money doesn't buy happiness, or victory points, if you don't know how to spend it well.

Final scores: Allen (Wei, blue) 44VP, Jeff (Shu, green) 42VP, me (Wu, red) 37VP.

The Thoughts

Three Kingdoms Redux is a development game and not a war game. It is a worker placement game, but not a typical one at all. The competition in the general placement gives this game a very different feeling. It is more complex and requires more thought. There is more confrontation, and this is fitting. Three Kingdoms is an age of war after all.

The core process in the game is gathering soldiers and weapons to claim border locations, while building your economy up to make sure you can afford the upkeep cost. You need to manage this process carefully because if you rush and your economy goes off balance, the penalty is stiff. Also every border location captured means one fewer general to work with, which is a heavy price. Getting this engine running smoothly and efficiently is the challenge throughout the game. While you are busy tuning the engine, you need to prepare for the end game scoring and manoeuvre yourself into favourable relative positions. Keyword is "relative". You just need to be better than the others, you don't need to be good, not exactly.

I had much fun with the generals and their abilities. I guess I was lucky with my combo. The game comes with many many generals, and I'm sure there are other fun combos to be made. The state enhancement cards were a little difficult to utilise well though. Most of ours did not come into play. In some cases by the time we wanted to play the card, we no longer met the requirement (e.g. controlling at most one border location). Maybe this is meant to be, like in Agricola. You draw many Occupation cards and Minor Improvement cards, but you don't expect to play a majority of them. You draw more so that you have more options. In Three Kingdoms Redux, it seems harder than Agricola to make good use of the state enhancements. Some players suggest drawing 2 and keeping 1 when drawing state enhancement cards.

As a Chinese with some knowledge of the Three Kingdoms era, one great joy is to see all these famous characters come into play. It is also educational. I actually don't know who this Ding Feng guy is. I should Google him. One awkward thing in the game is how you send your generals to station at the border locations. This sounds more like a demotion to me. Usually it was incompetent emperors who sent outspoken and annoyingly righteous generals to guard border outposts so that they wouldn't be a bother at court. In our game I sent my star general Taishi Ci to guard Bai Di Cheng quite early in the game. This guy was a young and talented hot shot. I told him he was doing an important job for me, earning 2VP every round, but I couldn't help pitying him. He must have been bored to death. Either that or he had taken up gardening. Or weiqi (Go).


Yeoster said...

This is one of the two co-designers, Keng Leong. My co-designer, Christina, and I have read your detailed review and came away impressed. You have explained much of the details of our game design really well.

We then discovered the Chinese version of your board games blog and was even more impressed, as the amount of effort to write both versions must have been substantial.

We maintain a list of all game reviews of Three Kingdoms Redux on our homepage and BGG. Here are the links, with your reviews included:

We are very grateful for your time and effort in spreading word about our Three Kingdoms Redux. Many thanks!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thank you Keng Leong! And thanks for creating a fun game. I had a great time playing it with my friends. Even though I lost Xiao Qiao to Cao Cao…

BomberMouse said...

I love your blog, this was a good entry! This game has always interested me a lot.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks! I hope you get to try it soon!