The Mystery of the Templars from Silvio Negri-Clementi, published by Stratelibri, Giochi Uniti, Heildeberger and Ystari Games is an huge project: a game that try to cover the history of the Knights Templars, over the almost 200 years, from 1119 to 1312.
Players are masters of secretive organization trying to help the Order of the Knight Templars using goods, money, knights to recover lost relics until the persecution of the French King started on Friday 13 October 1307.
What clearly appear from the reading of the rules is that we are in front a very particular game about the Templars: not mighty battles, not heavy armored Knights but trade and planning.
The Mystery of the Templars is a resource management game with a very peculiar implementation. A first part of the game where players try to get money and acquire buildings in the old Europe, using resources gained in the Holy Land. In the meantime they have to discover the holy relics and start to move knights in Europe. First with the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 and than with the fall of Acri in 1291 the game take a twist. Players are no more involved in missions in the Holy Land and have to start to prepare for the Persecution of the French King that, in the 1307, will push the Knights in the four secret recovers. This last part of the game is a real rush in the attempt to move as much resources as possible (relics, knights and money) in the secret recovers.
How all this really works need for me more than a single game sessions. Here I’ll try to write my impression after just one game, introducing you also some more details about the rules.
First I have to say that this game will draw the attention of people interested in the Templars: the huge map and the historical booklet included in the box will delight a lot of people. Concerning the materials no miniatures but really a lot of counters, cards, woods and very nice illustrations. The rules are not simple to understand and I had to go through 3 times to be sure to have an idea of the game: you have also to catch some of the needed informations from the examples. As told before is a game I’m sure you need to play more than once to start to be really confident with but just after 2-3 rounds you have a clear idea how the game flow. Before playing you have to make sure all the players really understand what is happening with the main events (Fall of Acri and the Persecution) because you have to program you strategy according to this.
The game start slow because in the beginning the Templars have no possessions in the Europe and so some of the possible actions become really available after 2-3 turns. This can be annoying for some players but this game, as just told before, try to tell you an history and sometimes the rules are been bent to best fit the theme. The turn sequence is simple and organized in 5 phases.
In the Mission Phase players use their power to try to get money, escorting important person, or fame (victory points) and relics digging. Every player must choose one of his Templar cards (all players have the same set of card) deciding how much investing in escorting and digging. Than the missions cards are revealed and resolved. Being part of a successful mission can give money and victory points. Be the one best contributing usually offer some reward and, in the digging missions, a relics.
Money and relics got in this phase are still to arrive in the hands of the players. Than there is a Markets phase where players can buy goods in holy land and sell goods in Europe. To sell you need first to move goods in Europe and than have places (Domus) where store the goods and the money. This, of course, can’t be done in the beginning. But how goods can be moved and places bought ? The second things will happens in the third phase, the Events phase.
Two events cards are randomly turned and resolved. The event deck is organized in three periods with 10 cards each. The first and second period will last each for 5 rounds but the last one will end as soon as the Persecution event will be revealed. This offer an idea to players when something will happen but introduce also the right amount of randomness.
In the first period you will most have cards that will offer you the possibility to acquire buildings in Europe, goods and knights. Some transports will appear on the map (see the next phase) and also some enemies. What you have to do in this first turns is to get goods and buildings, use the transports and start to build your business. Move goods and knights to Europe will happen in the Transports phase and need a lot of micromanagement. Places, both in Europe and in the Holy Land, can host a limited amount of resources: money can be freely transferred but can also be part of fleets and caravans. Knights can be used to defend holy land and transports but also send in Europe to explore cities. Until you become really confident with all this mechanics the impression is to use most of your playing time in micromanagement’s actions. Once again the designer decided to prefer simulation to immediacy.
The final phase of the turn is the Resource Phase where player can reveal Relics in chapel to get point and have to do some routine duties like paying maintenance and change the turn order.
How to best organize the movement of goods from Holy Land to Europe to make good selling and acquire buildings is the central part of the game that continue also in the second period. With the possibility of the Fall of Jerusalem players have to start to move most of their resources (goods, knights and relics) in Europe and also start to think which recover they will use in the final stages of the Order. The 4 recovers will be assigned in the start of Persecution according to some easy rules: Cupros will go to the player with most relics than Mariemburg to the most Knights than Edinbourgh to the one with most money and finally Tomar to the last one. Starting from the persecution (an event in the 3rd period) the world will become less accessible to the Templars and the use of transports more difficult. Players will have to move all their resources from the insecure buildings in Europe to the safe of the recovers.
There is no doubt this game is a real good simulation of what was the Order of Templars behind the achievements gushed over in the ballads. From my first impression, just after one game, there is a lot of micromanagement to accomplish in the get-goods-sell-goods sequence and in the Transport phase. Of course what can look complex in the first stage can become easy to manage game after game. There are many good idea/mechanics in the game that show how the designer is a person not new to board games market: how the initiative change from turn to turn, the way the event deck is built, the system of the Missions. It is also clear that the intent of the designer/publisher was to create a game that can really simulate the 200 years of history of the Templars, most for American’s tastes, that an oiled and streamlined Euro game with a pasted theme.