Review of Lancaster: It’s Not Just for Roses Anymore

Designer: Matthias Cramer
Publisher:
Queen
Players:
2-5
Ages:
10+
Time:
60-90 minutes
Times Played:
3

When an unknown designer bursts onto the scene with a popular game, one of two things usually happens. Sometimes, the newcomer had spent all their time creating and refining that one game, which becomes apparent when there’s a long gap before you see anything more from them. However, there are also cases in which the individual had a sizeable backlog of designs and was just waiting for that first breakthrough. In instances like this, there can be a flood of games coming from this neophyte.

Clearly, Matthias Cramer falls into the second category. After gaining both critical and popular acclaim with his maiden design (Glen More, published in the spring of 2010 by Alea), he’s been a busy boy. Each succeeding Essen has seen a new game of his from Kosmos (Mieses Karma from last year and Helvetia, which is slated to appear this fall). And this spring, Queen published another of his games, Lancaster. I haven’t sampled either of the Kosmos titles, but to me, Lancaster proves that Cramer is anything but a one-hit wonder: it’s just as good as Glen More and is probably better.
Lancaster is a quasi-Worker Placement game set in 15th Century England. Despite the title, it doesn’t deal with the War of the Roses, but at the beginning of the reign of Henry V, of the House of Lancaster, 40 years earlier. That places the action smack in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War and, in fact, the players can take an active role in Henry’s successful campaigns against the French. Since, after all, this is a Euro, most of this is mere window dressing, but at least the game does have a reasonably feudal feel about it.

The “workers” in this game are knights and each player has access to seven of them, in strengths 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each player begins with a strength 1 and a strength 2 knight in their court and places their other five knights in their reserve. During a player’s turn, he gets to place one of the knights from his court in one of several areas on or off the board. When each player has placed all of their knights, the round ends and the areas are resolved.

There are three main areas where knights can be placed: Counties, Castles, and Conflicts. Let’s look at each of these individually.

County Fare

There are nine different counties on the board, each showing a place for a knight, a minimum strength, a reward, and a spot for noble counters. A knight can only be placed in a county if its strength is at least as high as the minimum strength. Along with the knight, the player can add one or more squires. Each player begins the game with two squires and they will earn more over the course of the game. Each squire adds 1 to the strength of the knight, but only for the purposes of strength comparisons with opposing knights, not for meeting the county’s minimum strength. This is significant because players are allowed to place a knight in a county occupied by an opponent, as long as its total strength (knight and squires) is greater than the opponent’s total strength. In a case like that, the opponent loses her squires (it was so hard to keep good help back in 1413), but returns her knight to her board, where she can place it again later in the round.

At the end of the round, each county is resolved. If there is a knight there, it is returned to that player’s court (although, alas, the squires once again head for the hills). The player then gets to choose a benefit. One possibility is to earn that county’s reward. Some of these allow the player to obtain another strength 1 knight from their reserve, which will give them more dudes to place next round. Others allow the player to upgrade a knight to the next higher strength (exchanging that knight with the more powerful one from their reserve); this gives them access to counties with higher strength requirements and helps in conflicts with opposing knights. Among the other rewards are additional squires, gold pieces, becoming the starting player, voting cubes (which we’ll discuss a little later), and good old victory points.

Alternatively, the player can add one of that county’s nobles to his court. At the start of the game, a number of nobles equal to one less than the number of players is placed next to each county. All of a county’s nobles are identical. As we will see, nobles assist a player during the game and also provide bonus VPs at the end. The only restriction to adding nobles is that a player can’t have two nobles from the same county in his court. This obviously can affect which counties a player goes after.

The third alternative when a county is resolved is to spend three gold and take the county’s reward and one of its nobles. This is one of the principal uses for gold in the game.

A Man’s Castle is his Home

The second area where knights can be placed is in that player’s own castle. Castles are shown on the player boards. There are six different spaces in each castle, each of which shows a benefit. Some of these give the player additional squires, gold, and voting cubes. Two of them allow the player to trade in squires for, respectively, a new strength 1 knight and an upgrade. Any knight can be placed on any of the spaces in their own castle, which gives the player that benefit at the end of the round.

Players are allowed to build what are whimsically referred to as castle extensions (what, you’re telling me that the last time you added an extension to your house, it didn’t provide you with 2 gold pieces a month?). When an extension is built, it covers up one of the six castle spaces, meaning that the player gets that benefit automatically, without having to place a knight there. Each player begins the game by building the extension of their choice. The only way to add additional extensions is to occupy one of the two counties which gives this as its reward.

Usually, players get their castle benefits through extensions and let their knights deal with other tasks. But sometimes, it’s necessary to devote a knight to a space that doesn’t have an extension yet. This is more likely to occur in a five-player game, where things are considerably more crowded and it’s good to have a spot where no one can kick you out.

Fighting the French for Fun and Profit

The sad fact is, the English and the French were not exactly good buddies back in the 1400s. And there’s no better way of impressing a new king then to volunteer your services to fight your nation’s arch-enemy. This can be a shrewd move, since it is well known that impressed monarchs usually show their appreciation by doling out the victory points.

At the beginning of every round, two new conflict cards are revealed. Each of these shows the strength of the French forces there, together with three sets of VP rewards. During your turn, you can assign a knight to fight in one of these conflicts. Unlike the other areas, your knights can team up, so if you allocate multiple knights to the same conflict, they stack up and their strengths are added together. There is room for only three players to contribute to each conflict.

Patriotism is all well and good, but enlightened self-interest usually does a better job of getting feudal lords to act and such is the case here. At the beginning of each round, six different benefit tiles (the same ones each round) are placed next to the conflicts. These give the players things like squires, gold, upgrades, and nobles. The first player to place a knight at a conflict that round chooses one of the tiles, receives its benefit, and then turns it over. The next five knights going to war that round get to choose from one of the remaining tiles. These benefits are received immediately (as opposed to the benefits from counties and castles, which are received after knights are placed), which can sometimes make them critically important.

Like the other areas, the conflicts are resolved at the end of the round. Each conflict is checked to see if the combined strength of all the knights assigned there (from all the players) is at least equal to the strength of the French forces. If so, it’s another glorious victory for Henry V and the participating knights will benefit from it. The player whose knights have the highest combined strength at that conflict gets the highest VP figure on the conflict card. The second and third highest strengths get the middle and lowest VP figures. If there is a tie in player strength, the player who entered the battle latest gets the higher award, which makes timing pretty important. All of the knights then go back to their owner’s courts.

However, if the combined strength at a conflict is less than the listed one, things are less rosy (hey, I had to work roses in this review somehow!). VPs are still rewarded, but only the two lesser values and only to the two highest combined strengths. More painfully, the knights are stuck in battle and won’t be available to be assigned during the next turn. If, during the second turn that a conflict is conducted the Brits still haven’t been able to match France’s strength, the participating knights are captured! This is less serious than it sounds, since they can be ransomed back for one gold piece for each strength level and be ready to serve on the next turn, just as good as new. If the ransom isn’t paid, however, the knight is returned to the reserve, a victim of the bloodthirsty French.

I’ve explained how the knights are assigned and how each of the areas is resolved. But between those two phases is another one in which the players get to vote on the laws of the land. And as everyone knows, the horrors of the battlefield are nothing when compared to the brutal infighting in the legislature!

Parliamentary Maneuvers

Lancaster comes with 18 “laws” which each change the game in a specified way. There is an area for three current laws and an adjoining area for the next three laws that will be voted on. This is handled so that the players can see what the proposed laws will be a full turn before they have to vote on them. There are different “levels” of law tiles and the tiles from each level are shuffled before play and then stacked in order. So you know which laws will come out during the game and about when they will come out, but no one is sure of the exact order.

During the Parliament phase, the players vote on each of the three proposed laws one at a time. Each player has a Yes and a No tile, along with a number of voting cubes. At the beginning of each turn, the players receive one voting cube, plus an additional cube for every noble in their court. Cubes can also be earned from counties, castle spaces, and conflict benefit tiles.

The voting procedure is simple. For each tile, every player secretly takes their Yes or No tile and adds as many voting cubes from their stash as they want to supplement their vote. Each tile and each cube count as a “yes” or a “no” vote, depending on which tile was chosen. All of the votes are tallied and if there are at least as many “yes” votes as there are “no” votes, the new law is approved. Otherwise, the new law is rejected.

Rejected laws are put out of the game. However, if a law is approved, it is placed in the rightmost slot where the three current laws are arranged and the other laws are all shifted one place to the left. The leftmost current law (the oldest one) is put out of the game, so that there are once again three active laws in play.

The same procedure is followed for all three new laws. Any leftover voting cubes are discarded, so the players might as well use them all each turn. After the voting is over, the three new current laws (some of which might have been active on an earlier turn) are carried out. Laws do all kinds of wonderful things. Some of them allow the players to buy specific things. Others give awards to players who meet certain requirements. None of them are game breakers, but a few are worth fighting for and figuring out how best to spend your voting cubes is an interesting process. It also gives the players another reason to gather nobles and acquire excess voting cubes through benefits.

The game lasts five turns. At the end, bonus points are awarded to the two players with the most total strength in knights and to the two players with the most castle extensions. Bonus points are also awarded for the number of nobles in your court, with each successive noble being worth more points (similar to the end game bonus for aristocrats in Saint Petersburg). The player with the most points wins the game.

The Once and Future King

It only takes a little exposure to Lancaster to realize that this is a very professional, polished design. There seems to be a lot of moving parts, but it all hangs together very nicely. The game plays smoothly, with plenty of interaction, but not so much as to make it overly nasty. Although not strongly themed, there are enough thematic elements to make it a refreshing change from some of the blander Euros we’ve been seeing lately.

I referred to it as a quasi-Worker Placement game. The knight placement rules are certainly WP in nature, but the different locations that knights can be assigned to, including the stackable conflicts and the completely non-contentious castles, along with the unusual addition of supporting pieces (the squires) give this a different feel from the run-of-the-mill WP game. Even though there are plenty of decisions to be made, the overall tone of the game is lighter than is typical for worker placement, which works well in this case.

There’s certainly no shortage of strategies to pursue. Do you try to get new knights in play as quickly as possible, to increase your number of actions? Or do you try to get your existing knights upgraded, for all the benefits higher strength gives you? When it comes to squires, how aggressively will you obtain them and how freely will you spend them? Will you go for a high noble strategy or mostly ignore them? Will you focus on counties or try for the VP awards and immediate benefits of the conflicts? How much effort will you expend in expanding your castle, to increase the items you receive for free every turn? And will you make a concerted effort to gather lots of voting cubes, so that you can pass the laws that favor you most (and vote down the ones that your opponents crave)?

That’s a lot of things to think about and your first game figures to be a bit of a learning experience. But within half a game, most players will be fully into the swing of things. Lancaster is a gamer’s game, but I think it could also work well for the more casual gamer who is looking for a greater challenge than gateway fare. I think the SdJ jury pegged it correctly when they nominated the game for the Kennerspiel award.

One of the nice things about the design is that the different areas you can pursue each have their own feel. The counties can be a contentious knife fight, where you need to either correctly predict where your opponents will want to go or just overpower them with strength. The conflicts, on the other hand, are much more about timing. If you want to maximize your VPs, you do better by showing up late, but not too late—the third player to each battle will win all ties, but the fourth player can’t participate at all. But the ones who commit early get the best pick of the benefit tiles, so it’s a delicate balancing act. Then there’s voting for the laws. Concentrating on the voting cubes will help you here, but even then, you’ll have more success if you can form temporary alliances with other players who will benefit from the same laws you do. So try to arrange things so that you’re not the only player who wants a law passed. As you can see, there’s many facets to this game, despite it not being particularly complex.

One of my favorite parts of Lancaster is the management of the castle extensions. It gives the game a true strategic aspect, as the decision of which extensions you build is something completely under your control. You even get to start the game with one, so right off the bat, you have to decide how you’re going to approach things.

Everything fits together quite nicely and the game plays very smoothly. As I mentioned, it feels like a refined design. Perhaps the best recommendation I can make is that I really haven’t grasped the overall strategy of the game, yet I’m still anxious to get it to the table. Just as there are two kinds of first-time designers, there are usually two reactions to a game you haven’t quite grokked: you can give up in frustration or keep on trying, because you relish the challenge. Lancaster is definitely a game I want to keep playing. It’s just an enjoyable design, even if you aren’t doing as well as you’d like.

One potential issue with the game is its replayability. After all, the only differences from game to game are the order in which the laws appear and how the conflicts come out. (Incidentally, those are also the only ways that luck affects the game, making this a very low-luck design.) These can affect the play of the game, but not necessarily in a very significant fashion. Despite that, all of my games have played out quite differently, mostly due to differing player approaches, so at this point, replayability isn’t a big concern for me. It is something, though, that I’ll have to keep a close eye on.

The game is for 2-5 players, but there seems to be a reasonably strong consensus that 4 is the sweet spot. The 2-player game has some special rules; opinions on how successfully these work are mixed, but they’re generally positive. I haven’t played with 3, but there may be a bit too much room with this number; after all, the only adjustment to the number of players is to change how many nobles are available at each county. I’ve played with 5 once and it definitely makes for a more crowded game, with a good deal of head bumping. It works fine, but you have to be aware that things will be tight; either you need to adopt the maxim “Go big or go home” (the latter will literally happen in the counties if you don’t do the former!) or be prepared to put more knights in your always available castle spaces. However, my favorite games are with 4, which give you a healthy amount of contention without feeling too claustrophobic. With so many new designs maxing out at 4 players, though, it’s nice that this game plays reasonably well with 5.

Components Fit for a Queen

I have no idea what steps Cramer took to get this game published, but it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point he submitted it to Alea, which had released his first game. If so, as much as I love the Alea brand, I’m glad it wound up at Queen, who gave this game the components it deserves. The board is nicely illustrated, with the nine counties superimposed on a map of England; space is provided as well for the conflicts and the player reserves. The knights are wooden and chunky and, in a very nice touch, the stronger the knight, the greater the height of its piece! The player boards lay out all of their information clearly. In fact, all of the iconography in the game is clear and easily understood. In another bit of appreciated overproduction, the player shields, which hide the squires and gold, are 3D castles. All of the pieces are either wood or sturdy cardboard. To show the lengths that Queen went to make this production top notch, they not only provided a board to store the supply of gold, squires, and voting cubes, but gave us two of them, so that each side of the table can have their own supply! That, my friends, is going above and beyond. Artists Martin Hoffman and Claus Stephan did a terrific job in making this game look great and be easy to play.

The rules are laid out well and do a good job of making a somewhat detailed game easy to learn. There is one area that made me shake my head, though, as it shows how tone-deaf the German publishers can sometimes be when it comes to theme. In the set-up rules for nobles, the players are instructed to sort them by letter, turn them over (to reveal an illustration of the noble), and then “randomly” place each pile next to one of the counties. We dutifully did that for our first game. It only took a couple of turns to realize that this whole procedure was pointless, since each group of nobles was equivalent to all the other ones. Moreover, the illustrations weren’t always easy to distinguish and, most significantly, the really important piece of information was which counties you hadn’t collected nobles from yet. This whole process is made much easier if you just keep the nobles letter side up and place them at the county which matches the letter. Then, tracking nobles is a breeze. The thing that kills me is that this seems to be the way some publishers try to insert “theme” into a game, as if a thumbnail sketch will make us theme-hungry Americans happy, as opposed to something truly significant, like basing a game on actual history as opposed to something generic. It’s a very small point in Lancaster (which actually is reasonably thematic), but it’s a bit symptomatic of similar things I’ve seen in other recent German games. Okay, end of rant.

Minor quibbling aside, this is a quality game that should have wide appeal. The play is varied and moves quickly and even with the maximum number of players, it shouldn’t last longer than an hour and a half. Luck plays a very small role; conversely, there’s plenty of choices and multiple strategies available. Replayability may be an issue over the long haul but hasn’t been a problem for me so far. There’s lots of player interaction, without things getting too cutthroat, at least with four or fewer. And the whole package looks great. The Lancaster in the title may not refer to a rose, but, as the Bard noted, in this case it still smells pretty sweet.

——————————————–

Greg Schloesser: This is a solid design from Cramer. I’m used to saying that about games designed by Wolfgang Kramer. Perhaps I can get used to saying that about Cramer, too! As Larry mentions, it falls squarely in the worker placement field, a genre I tend to enjoy. The game is filled with decisions and various strategies to pursue. Even with all of the options, though, it doesn’t feel heavy or overly contemplative. In spite of the player-on-player conflicts and the frustration of being ousted from areas you covet, there are always other viable and useful options. So, the frustration factor is minimal. I’ve only played twice — and those games were back-to-back — and there still seems to be more worth investigating.

Joe Huber: Lancaster is, at its heart, a churning game. The merry-go-round continues until everybody is happy with their placements – or out of ways to contest something they’re less pleased with – and then it stops. Personally, I found that aspect of the game extremely off-putting, turning an otherwise solid if unspectacular game into one I’d just as soon not play again. The churning itself is an issue, but just as much a problem for me is that too much time is spent carrying out the churning, relative to the more interesting aspects of the game.

Tom Rosen: I was all set to explain why Lancaster was my favorite design of 2011 so far (notwithstanding Summoner Wars: Master Set, which is not quite a 2011 game in my book), but then Larry went and detailed the virtues of Lancaster so completely that he’s left nothing for me to add. So I’ll just say: Lancaster is very good. It doesn’t feel at all like just another worker-placement to me. It reuses mechanics from a variety of earlier titles and doesn’t offer any one particularly new thing, but still manages to feel rather fresh. The game expertly blends minimalistic rules with depth of strategic options. The production job by Queen is truly top notch. I’ve only played a couple times and share Larry’s concern with potential replayability issues, so it’s possible that after ten or fifteen plays it would begin to get stale. Your fellow players can definitely mix up the experience since there is a good deal of player interaction, but the game doesn’t do a whole lot to change things around from game to game (which at least has the virtue of drastically minimizing the role of luck). For instance, the game could have provided more laws than would be used so each game would employ a different, random mix of laws, but that would reward players who happen to pursue a strategy aligned with the laws that come up. In the end, Lancaster is not a design that needs to be fiddled with or second guessed. It’s an extremely polished and solid game that has been a pleasure to play.

Dale Yu: I have only played Lancaster once, but I very much enjoyed the game, and I am looking forward to my next opportunity to play it. Unlike Joe H (above), I really liked the interplay of knight placement. Being able to use the squires gives a little extra strategic twist — there is definitely an art to knowing when to pre-emptively place squires to keep people away from the regions that you want on the board. I also like the different strategic paths offered by the castle improvements. Each player can choose how they want to attack the game, and even have the opportunity to change mid-stream after they see what the other players are doing.

Like another recent Queen game, Colonia, the laws (and the order that they appear) will cause every game to be different. However, the fixed number of laws may also limit the overall variety as you replay the game. For me, this isn’t an issue, because I don’t see it limiting the first dozen or so plays — and I honestly can’t tell you the last game that I played a dozen times in a short span! I agree with Tom that this is a well-polished game and, in that regard, a breath of fresh air to see a game which has been fully developed. Having only played it once, I can’t say that I love it yet… but it would not be surprising to see it gain that status after a few more plays.

Jennifer Geske: After a few plays, I think Lancaster is a solid worker placement game for 4 or 5 players. Perhaps it was just the luck of the draw, but the 2 sessions with 3 players I tried did not have the intensity of the games played with 4 or 5 players. There was not as much player interaction on placing knights in the counties until later rounds. The conflict strategy may also not be as viable in the early rounds of a 3-player game if only one of the players chooses that route. With 4 or 5 players, the game is very enjoyable, offering different strategic paths for placing knights and tight races in the parliamentary process. Another plus for me is that even with plenty of opportunities for AP (most information about other players are public knowledge), the game can still be finished in 45-60 minutes. As others have commented, long-term replayability can be a concern but so far it hasn’t been an issue after about half a dozen plays.


Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers

I Love It!: Larry Levy, Tom Rosen
I Like It: Greg Schloesser, Dale Yu, Jennifer Geske
I’m Neutral: Jonathan Franklin
Not for Me: Joe Huber

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