Im Zeichen des Kreuzes
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Pope Urban II calls for an attack on Jerusalem. Each player is a knight and must conquer 2 Muslim cities, then lead his army to Jerusalem and be the first to conquer the city. In his move, the active player has a card phase with movement and events, an "army in town" phase with recruiting, looting and prayers, and a discarding of 2 cards maximum with replenishing of cards from the pile. When opposing units meet, the battle is fought via the Battle Tower--all troops involved in the battle are thrown into the tower, and what falls out determines the outcome. But remember former battles: Leftover units might come out as well.
I bought Im Zeichen des Kreuzes (In the Sign of the Cross) for one reason the dice tower. The theme the crusades, was definitely a draw, but I was really interested in playing a German style war game, of which there are few. After seeing pictures of the game and reading a bit more about it, I decided to purchase the game.
So, was my purchase worth it? I believe that Im Zeichen des Kreuzes (Queen Games, 2001 Ronald Hofstatter) is a very fun light war game. Oddly enough, the fun does not come from the goal, but rather from the actual combat. On the flipside, some have found an endgame problem, and the game feels a bit too easy. Let me explain
First, Ill tell you how the game plays
A board is placed on the table, showing a map of the Mediterranean area, split into different territories and zones. Each territory is one of three types: water, mountains, or plains. Some territories also contain a city, with a symbol next to it in order to denote whether it is a Muslum or Christian city. Twenty-four city discs are shuffled and placed face down on each city. Each player is given a player mat. These mats show the noble that the player is playing, along with starting troops, treasure chests, and location. The player places a large wooden coat of arms piece on the board in their starting space. This coat of arms stands for the armies that are on the player mat. Each mat also has a motivation track on it, which ranges from 0 motivation to 10 motivation. Starting troops (cubes of that players colors), starting treasures (small wooden chests), and two purple cubes are placed on the mat. Four round tokens are placed on the board two representing Muslim armies, and the other two representing pirate ships. The remainder of the pieces are sorted and placed in a tray that is accessible by all. The large cube tower is set up, and a deck of 140 cards is shuffled, and five dealt to each player. Fifteen green cubes (Muslim armies) are placed in Jerusalem, and the game is ready to begin. The player who is knight Gottfried goes first, and each player takes their turn in clockwise order.
The first thing a player does on their turn is play one to five cards from their hand. If a player plays a mountain, water, or plains card, they may move their piece into that specific type of terrain. If the player plays a joker, they may move their piece into any type of terrain. If the terrain cards show the pirate symbol or the Muslim army symbol, the player may also move one of those pieces one space. If a player moves into a space with the pirates or Muslim army, or those pieces move into a space containing a players piece, a battle occurs. A player can also play event cards, which do a variety of things to help the player or hurt his opponents.
After playing cards, the player looks to see if he is in an unplundered city. If so, he may perform one of the following actions.
- Troop enlistment. The player may spend his chests to buy troops. One chest = 2 troops. This may only be done in a Christian city.
- Prayer. The player may raise his motivation by two points (maximum of 10). This may only be done in a Christian city.
- Plundering. The player may plunder (attack) the city he is in. If the attack succeeds, the player flips over the city token, revealing a number from 3 to 7. This is how many treasure chests the player receives. The city token is then removed from the board.
Attacks are all handled the same. Players never attack each other, but always fight the Muslim armies. When plundering a Christian city, two green troops defend. When plundering a Muslim city, or fighting pirates or a Muslim army, three green troops defend. Occasionally an event card will send a certain amount of troops to fight a player, also. The player decides how many troops he will commit to the battle off of his playing mat. These troops are taken, along with the defending troops, and are thrown into the top of the dice tower. The tower has different shelves within it that may catch some of the cubes, trapping them in the tower. A random number of cubes falls out of the bottom of the tower into the tray. Occasionally cubes from previous battles will be jarred loose and also fall into the tray. If more green cubes fall into the tray than cubes of the players color, the enemy wins. All of the players cubes are lost, while the green cubes stay in the tray, adding to future battles. The player must retreat to an adjacent space, losing 2 points of morale (3 if attacking a Christian city). If more of a players cubes fall into the tray, the player wins. The amount of green cubes that fall into the tray are taken from the players cubes as casualties, however. (For example, if 6 yellow cubes and 3 green cubes fall into the tray, yellow wins. However, they only retain three of their troops, as three of their cubes are lost to match the three green troops that fell out). Thus, it is possible to win a battle, and also lose all your forces. After a successful fight, a players motivation increases by one point, unless they won a Muslim city, in which case it increases by two points. Attacking a Christian city causes the player to LOSE three points of motivation, whether they win or lose. If defeating an army or pirates, the enemys piece is placed back on the space where it started.
After this, a player may discard any cards they dont want, and draw up to three cards, filling their hand to a maximum of five cards. If a players motivation is four or less, they may only draw two cards, and if their motivation is two or less, they may only draw one card.
At any time in the game, a player may play one of their purple cubes to clear the cube tower of its contents.
The goal of the game is to conquer Jerusalem. The first player to do this is the winner. However, many event cards add troops to Jerusalem, so by the time a player gets to Jerusalem, there are quite a few troops there. A player may not attack Jerusalem if their motivation is lower than 6, or if they have not already plundered two other Muslim cities. The attack on Jerusalem takes place in many phases. When attacking Jerusalem, one player takes the part of the defenders, deciding how many defending troops will fight each round. If a player defeats all the forces in Jerusalem, they win the game! Otherwise, they must retreat and build up their forces and/or motivation. The first attacker of Jerusalem gets the popes bonus five wooden chests, while the next two attackers get three chests and one chest, consecutively. Each player who remains in the same space as Jerusalem, but does not attack, loses 2 points of motivation. Finally, one player defeats Jerusalem, and the game ends.
Some comments on the game:
1). Components: The components for this game, as with many Queen games, are top-notch. My only difficulty was the lack of English. Fortunately, there were English cards at www.boardgamegeek.com, which I was able to download, print, and glue on the cards. The cubes are nice, though one must be careful not to lose them, as there are few or no extra pieces. The coat of arm tokens are outstanding, as are the little wooden treasure chests. The player cards are nice, and although they are in German, they are quite easy to figure out. The cards are small, about half the size of a normal playing card, and are very easy to use and shuffle. If the paste-up cards become a problem when shuffling, there is a variant of using two decks of cards in the rules, one special, and one for the land terrain cards. The board is quite large, but is very nice looking, and the borders between territories (often a problem in war games such as this) are very easily defined. The box is very large and sturdy, and has a plastic insert that (barely) holds everything in. Everything, especially the cube tower, gets an A+ component-wise.
2). Rules: The rules are beautiful and are printed on 8 full-color pages with variants and examples. Not only that, but another small booklet is included that provides the background for each noble in the game. Unfortunately, neither of these are in English. The good news is that translations are available online (again at boardgamegeek). The bad news is that the translations are okay, but often have to be cross-referenced with the German rules to see pictures and such. I also had to read the rules a couple times to make sure I understood them, as the layout was a bit confusing. Also, some very important rules were mentioned at odd places in the rules (like how something should be setup was mentioned near the end) and could easily be overlooked or forgotten. The game isnt hard to teach or learn, but the rules werent the best.
3). Cube tower: The reason I bought the game. Of course, a system could have been devised that produced the same results with dice but the cube tower is so much more fun! There are several shelves in the tower, that the cubes can land on, causing them to stay in the tower where they might be dislodged in future battles. This always causes an uncertainty when attacking cities. [example] How many forces should I attack this city with? It only has three defending forces, but I know that there are around 4 green cubes in the tower. So I decide to attack with eight of my red cubes. The cubes are thrown in, and 4 green cubes come out in the tray, along with four red cubes and one blue cube. Since its a tie, I win! However, because four green cubes come out, I lose the four red cubes that came out, also. My only consolation is that the blue cube (another players) is like a freed prisoner, who joins my army (I switch it for a red cube). [example] So one never really knows how many forces to throw in the tower, and thats a lot of fun. The purple cubes must be used wisely, as you want to empty the tower of its cubes when its beneficial to you and not another player.
4). End game: There are many complaints about the end game of attacking Jerusalem namely, that the first person to attack Jerusalem invariably does not win the game. I have not found this to be true in our games. We found that the first person to attack Jerusalem could pull back after only a couple rounds, and gain the treasure chest bonus. This would allow them to attack even more strongly later on. Games often turn into a race for Jerusalem, and its great fun to try to impede your opponents progress with the pirates and Muslim armies.
5). Motivation: The motivation factor is a neat idea, and works okay in practice. I only found that it was too easy to raise ones motivation. Besides praying in a city, there are many, many cards that raise your armies motivation. Rarely was my motivation below six, and if it was, I would immediately raise it through praying and/or cards. I like the idea, but it should have felt harder to motivate armies closer to real life.
6). Variants: There are several variants suggested in the rules, mostly to make the game harder and/or more historically accurate. The variants seem to work well, and I will often use some, if not all of them. There are also several fixed rules or card sets available on the web. I havent personally used any of these yet, as I dont think the game is broken.
7). Fun Factor: The theme is really prevalent in this game in most of the details (except motivation). I especially liked the rule about sacking Christian cities, as that is a historical certainty. We all had a blast playing the game. I have to admit, most of our fun came from using the dice tower, but the game itself was a blast. Decisions were not too hard to make, and it was really fun to pray in a Christian city one turn, buy troops from it the next, then sack it the third turn! The event cards were also fun (especially when played on other players!). A bit of strategy, a bit of tactics, a lot of luck, and a lot of cube tower made for a very fun game!
8). Time: Our games lasted about 90 minutes, and there wasnt much downtime between turns, so time passed quickly for us.
I have to recommend this game to anyone who likes unique mechanisms in games, and to those who like light war games. Its not inexpensive, to be sure, but the components are worth the price in my opinion, and the game is a whole lot of fun. The game plays easily, and youll find yourself promising death to the infidels quite a bit. Its fun to loudly denounce other players when they sack a Christian city and laugh at them when they are defeated by pirates. The game is a jolly bit of fun, so give it a whirl!
This game is better than you've heard. That being said, it is also not without problems. But it has such potential!
With two players, it's little more than mental masturbation. With a couple of rules tweaks (defenders win ties (if I come to your house and kill you and you kill me at the same time, you still own the house, right?)(a free man defending his home is more powerful than any paid army of invaders), and having the escaped prisoners be too weak or dazed to fight against the infidels. I think just leaving them in the tray to muck up the next tower throw (like they do in Wallenstein) is a better solution.) improve it immensely.
I've always felt theme is window dressing....but I may be starting to understand the concept of 'tightly woven' theme. This one has it. It made sense with the game rules (sacking christian cities would demotivate your troops, but prayer and sacking infidel cities would raise motivation levels)(NOTE: you MUST sack christian cities to be competitive...even with only 2 players).
I think Mike Clifford really summed up this game best in his review opener: 'So just who will like this game? Include those who crave wooden bits, and a large colourful board. That is, everyone. Now exclude the anti-historical crowd (50%?), but open the door again for players who will try something less complex than, say, La Citt. The strong theme will entice some, but the emotive subject (the sacking of Muslim and Christian cities in the 11th Century) will find hordes looking for the exits. What else? A huge dollop of luck (cheerio!), but almost no downtime (hello again). Well, that leaves me and probably one other. No problem, it caters for two (pretty well).'
He's got a real point on the emotive subject. Since WTC, a lot of people I know are instantly anti-muslim (though they have no knowledge of islamic practices one way or another). Ignorance, yuck. They aren't realizing there are individuals in there, even if their belief system is different. As for me, one of my best friends is an extremely devout muslim. She's great fun, and the person who introduced me to gaming, actually (that darned Catan game!). However, she has a hypersensitivity to persecution. Just the thought of this game sends her over the edge, and to know someone actually played it....! Oh my. I love her, I do. But (a) it's history, and (b) it's a GAME.
Im Zeichen des Kreuzes is a game with many mechanisms which sum to limited impact. The rules have been explained on BoardGameGeek, so I will stick to strategy.
First, it is so easy to regain troop motivation, that you might as well sack a Christian city or two to bring income in to raise up troops. Sack twice (-6) and hope for 1 or 2 victories over the Saracens (+2 or +4 so you are above the level needed to attack Jerusalem, which you had to do anyway to go for Jerusalem.) Also, you are likely to get a +1 from a random event. In other words, motivation doesn't matter unless you drop to a point where you can't draw cards.
Make sure that you use all the money you have made to raise troops and avoid the 'steal money' random events. Money has little value other than converting to troops ASAP.
Finally, attack Jerusalem ASAP with only 5 troops and then pull out. You will lose these 5 troops, but gain 10 via conversion of money to troops. Of course, if you have a major advantage, go for the gusto, but most likely you will need to plan to attack twice to take out Jerusalem. More than one fight in your first strike just helps your opponents by weakening the Saracens. Race to Crete, return with your max army, and end the game. Easy if the cards go halfway decently.
Finally, my interpretation of the rules is that if the 'Green' team (Saracens) win, they take no casualties! Check it out. That means you really need to attack Jerusalem all out. So, clear out the tower if you think there are more green than other colors in there. (Keep track if you want to try to add some semblance of strategy to this game.) Otherwise, leave it and pick up the reinforcements from the released prisoners. Unlike the rule translation on GameGeek, it's my read that using the lavendar blocks to clear out the tower does NOT give you these troops, but rather dumps them back to the bank.
As for the Saracen army and navies, kill them if you get a chance (attack their home base) and be careful not to get stuck adjacent to their starting spot. If you do, they could attack you up to 4 times in a row if the other players are out to get you. That is about the only thing--other than an early failed sacking of a Christian town--that is really going to hurt you. In other words, most of the time these army and navies are not of much impact. Especially once you get away from Spain.
So... 3 major game components (motivation, money, Moors)... 3 minor game influences. I think this would have been a much better game if more 'German game' mechanisms of resource balancing had been added. For example:
Double movement card... consume 1 motivation on land.
Spend 1 money... double movement card at sea (shades of Crusaders renting boats in Crusade #4).
In other words, more resource management such as Age of Exploration: 1492-1543 by TimJim Games for exploring the new world.
I gave the game a 3 because of the topic, but even this is somewhat inflated because the flavor events might be mostly useless as you RACE out of Europe in the first turn or two. Unless you have one of the 'recruit bonus troops' cards (Lisbon and Calgeri) at the start, you won't ever return to use those cards, which means that many of the flavor events won't occur.
Last nit, the Pirate Nest card in the English rules translation says any coast, but both the Western Pirate Nest and the card are labelled with the same name--Baeleric (or something like that). I read that as one of the 'only play in named location' cards, not any coast.
So, if you love the Crusades, play this as an experience. Sometimes your troops won't move, sometimes they will. Eventually you head East and beat up on Green. I would have really enjoyed rules for interplayer competition to recreate the other Crusades.
Oops, another nit. It's wierd when you sack a Christian town and then get released prisoners. What were these prisoners up to? Drunk in a tavern? Silly, but a source of many jokes for our gaming session. In fact, it sets the tone for the game, which is to take it with a grain of salt (or a few green blocks in the tower). ;)
Queen's ingenious Combat Tower, featured in Wallenstein (see above), gets far more use here and adds a significant luck factor. Start with gold, troops (cubes) in your color oft board, a hand of cards, and a Piety rating of 10. Victories increase Piety, and defeats diminish it, affecting your attacking abilities and number of cards held. Randomly allocate a numbered token facedown to each city. Move by discarding terrain cards to traverse forests, mountains, and seas. Action Cards offer a range of unholy tactics. Attack Muslim cities on reaching them. At a Christian city, you can increase your Piety, or buy more troops. After defeating enough Muslim cities, you may attack the heavily defended Jerusalem. Even unsuccessful attackers get gold from a partisan Pope. The player who kills Jerusalem's last defender wins. Exhaust the deck twice, and everyone loses!
So just who will like this game? Include those who crave wooden bits, and a large colourful board. That is, everyone. Now exclude the anti-historical crowd (50%?), but open the door again for players who will try something less complex than, say, La Citt. The strong theme will entice some, but the emotive subject (the sacking of Muslim and Christian cities in the 11th Century) will find hordes looking for the exits. What else? A huge dollop of luck (cheerio!), but almost no downtime (hello again). Well, that leaves me and probably one other. No problem, it caters for two (pretty well).
As this game has been ignored by almost everyone, I think my rationale is justified. But hang on. This Hofstatter/Huggelman concoction is terrific fun, plays quickly and can only be marked down by the unavoidably frenzied ending as the Crusaders head toward Jerusalem
As with many of this ilk, the package looks eerily familiar: extensive board, copious amounts of army markers and a substantial play deck. This drives the whole game. Movement is via three geographical elements -- water, forest, mountain -- as depicted on a majority of the cards. Play one and move to the requisite adjacent land. Five cards are in hand, so vast tracts can be covered. The balance of the deck comprises event cards, which, though wordy, are easily assimilated. Those awaiting their turn can plot a course of action with reasonable confidence.
The game set-up requires tokens to be placed on the marked Muslim and Christian cities. Two each of Pirate and Muslim armies markers are also placed. Each player then grabs the number of army cubes and treasure chests indicated on their play mat. These are left "off-board" -- combat is via a "Cube (holding) Tower", used for all conflict, and a super piece of kit it is.
Im Zeichen des Kreuzes pitches gathering armies toward Jerusalem, and the game is won by conquering this historical landmark. But the city's defensive power is considerable and your own holding needs to expand before a challenge can be mounted. By razing the Muslim and Christian strongholds, additional troops can be accrued by bartering treasure obtained as remuneration for victory. And just how do we obtain this mastery? Read on:
Movement will quickly take you to a defended city (token still in situ), and here the options arise.
Christian cities can be attacked (they defend with two cubes), used to replenish troops (by exchanging treasure Chests) or provide Motivation, a rise of two points on the relevant scale. This bonus is also applied after a successful siege.
Muslim cities must be attacked, and they defend with three armies.
In either case, a reward (if victorious) is provided by the value of the reverse side of the Token. The number indicates the total of Treasure Chests earned.
The battle mechanic is a delight. The attacking player takes both his own and defending army markers, which may be modified by Events, and chucks them into the Cube Tower. This has a set of shelves which may retain some of the cubes -- no peeking though!. Whatever pops out at the bottom (screams of delight) is used to determine the result. A majority of oppressors' cubes signals victory, although a number of markers is lost equivalent to the Green cubes that have emerged. If the Muslims or Christians hold sway, then all of your own armies are returned to the stockpile. As the game progresses, the Tower will, of course, withhold old stock. The rules describe these as "released prisoners" and they can significantly alter the course of a battle.
Combat may also occur if your marker is in the same area as Pirates or the Muslim armies. In both cases, the combat resolution is identical. Chuck 'em in (three cubes each for your adversaries), and keep your fingers crossed.
As you roam though most of the known world (circa 1045) causing devastation and destruction, your army's strength should increase to the point where a challenge on Jerusalem would be prudent. This hallowed land is protected by fifteen cubes (plus stragglers from previous conflicts). The attacker and defender (the player to the aggressor's right) secretly choose the number of troops they wish to commit. Although the attacker could lose immediately, Jerusalem is not cowed until the last green cube is eliminated.
There is one prerequisite required before the final onslaught, in that one Muslim city must have been conquered (with 2-4 players), or two cities (5 players).
If the assault on Jerusalem is unsuccessful, the Pope is still generous, providing treasure for the first three predators. You will most certainly need this, as Jerusalem is a tough foe whose defensive capabilities can be increased by Event cards. And here is the one element of the game which might be considered clumsy. With one specific objective in mind, it is usual that all players are finally camped around Jerusalem hoping that one decides to weaken that city's armies. And if you do steam in, then your Motivation is reduced by two each turn you do not fight.
If Jerusalem survives after running through the deck (140 cards) twice, the Saracen rather than the Crusader faction is considered victorious, and you are collectively scuppered.
The gimmicky nature of the Cube Tower notwithstanding, a sensible campaign plan should be rewarded, so even the more cerebral among you will find some virtue in the game. Whether you blitz or peruse, look to be done in about 90 minutes -- oddly, no time limit is mentioned in the package. Personally, and as with Karl-Heinz Schmiel's Attila, I find any contest that provides such a grandiose sweep with minimal rule reference quite irresistible.
SWD: As Mike says, this game has been largely ignored. Indeed, I have ignored it myself. The reason was that the early opinions were almost all unfavourable and that deterred folk from even trying it. The problem seems to be the ending, which, as Mike makes clear, is one of those "it is better to let someone else do the softening up" affairs. Competitive types find this unsatisfactory, since, if you're all trying to win, why should anyone volunteer to take the fall? The question therefore comes down to whether the entertaining game play offsets the dodgy ending or whether the latter wrecks what has gone before. The answer will depend on whether you are a person who plays primarily for fun or whether you are one for whom the result matters.