Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Boardgames in the backyard: Robber Knights

Now that the weather is nice, the annual challenge for Kathy and me is to find two-player games for our cocktail hour that work on the tiny glass outdoor coffee table that we have in the backyard.  We have a number of favorites that I'll discuss in the coming weeks, but today's game, Robber Knights (designer RĂ¼diger Dorn [website in German], artist Michael Menzel [website in German], publisher Queen Games) is a recent discovery that is quick, compact, and a tight game-playing challenge.

I came by Robber Knights as an afterthought during the FunAgain Games 2012 spring cleaning sale (which at this writing is still going on).  RK was one of those checkout-window, "hey, by the way, before you go, we're selling RK at 67% off - why don't you throw that one in your shopping cart, too?" kind of links (which at this writing is apparently still available at that price).  For ten bucks, based on a cursory review of the boardgamegeek.com entry, I decided to take a chance on it.

We've played twice now, and I have to say that RK is a clever little game-playing challenge.  Players lay up to three tiles in a turn.  Tiles depict various terrain, some of which (cities, villages, castles) are worth points if controlled by a player's knight at the end of the game.  At the time a castle tile is laid, a player may deploy knights from that castle along a row or column of previously laid tiles to claim them.  Previously claimed tiles can be subsequently claimed by an opponent's knight, but only if certain movement and stacking constraints are satisfied.  Once deployed, knights do not move for the rest of the game; they simply hold claim to the tile until it is taken by another player.  So the strategy comes in laying tiles in a way that allows one's own knights to lay claim to points while leaving tiles minimally vulnerable to knights of other players in subsequent turns.

I think of this game as a cross between Carcassone (tactical tile-laying) and Othello (row/column driven shifting control of spaces on the board).  The "robber knight" theme is minimally engaging; the game is abstract to all intents and purposes, and as it happens, that suits me just fine in this case.

Kathy and I have played twice.  In the first game a week or so ago, our scores were tied by pure luck of fumbling around trying to figure out the tactics and techniques of taking and protecting points and preserving resources.  The rate at which you use up tiles and knights is discretionary - one to three tiles laid per turn, and zero to five knights deployed every time you lay a castle tile.  Once you've deployed your last knight, you can gain no more points.  Once you've laid your last tile, you're done with the game while the other player(s) continue until all tiles have been laid.  We haven't quite established whether there is an advantage in harboring tiles for the end of the game, but it certainly seems important to keep track of how many castles you've laid relative to how many knights you've deployed.

In today's game, we played much more quickly than in our first round, albeit more thoughtfully and more conservatively.  We were not eager to spend knights or lay three tiles in a turn unless sure that the point return was worth it or the points acquired would be safe from re-claiming.  I won this afternoon's game by five points, owing in part to one turn of perfect tile luck in which I drew a city, a village, and a castle and was able to deploy five knights to score eight points (including a village that was already on the board) in a protected location that Kathy could not come back and claim later.

I should point out that although tile luck is a bit of a factor, it is tightly mitigated by a semi-ordered tile stack. I'm reminded of the cards in The Speicherstadt, which are divided into four "seasons" that are each shuffled independently and then stacked to form a semi-ordered draw pile.  Here in RK, a player's tiles come in five ordered groups of five shuffled tiles each (plus four specific tiles on the first turn), so there is a semi-predictable distribution of castles, villages, and cities that become available over the course of the game.

Given the relatively quick play of this game, the compact table-space it occupies, and the tight tactical challenges that it offers, I expect we'll play RK a fair amount this summer.

No comments:

Post a Comment