Lancaster: The Brains and the Brawn

By Tim Hange


This review is a summary of an audio review by Get on Board. Feel free to click here for the full audio review (from episode #17) ›
Lancaster.   The name just inspires… just emotes… well, not much really.  Neither does the bland box by current publisher Queen games, the royal purveyor of many misses and a few hits.  If you’ve ever made a purchase with the Queen logo on it, and afterward felt like the game wasn’t quite up to snuff, you’d be forgiven for overlooking Lancaster.  You would, however, be making a mistake.

What lurks inside the yellow cardboard shell is a game experience that has all the dignity and panache of a sophisticated euro with all of the barbarism of a “dudes on a map” contest.   You’re gonna have to think, and you’re gonna have to be mean baby!  And if you don’t like that, then get your wimpy tail out of feudal England!

Brutally Over-Simplified Overview:

You are lord in feudal England sending your knights to battles, or to influence townships.  You’ll grow your army, upgrade your castle, earn gold and hire squires.  You’ll also get to earn nobles who will help you pass laws in your favor.   Your ultimate goal is to earn authentic 13th century victory points (included in the game).

Lancaster is played in five rounds, with three phases:

The knight assignment phase:

In round robin style, players assign knights until they are all on the board.   You have two basic choices:

You can assign your knight to a county to receive benefits, and a chance to buy off a noble.

Or you can assign your knight to a battle in France, competing to be the lord with the most “knight power” at each battle.

Unlike most euro games, you can kick a worker (knight) out of his county location by playing a stronger knight, or by reinforcing your knight with squires.  Your opponent then takes his knight back and either attempts to hit back, or moves elsewhere.

The Voting Phase:

Players have a voting chip that may be reinforced by more votes provided by the nobles they have bribed—er.. allied with.

Players vote to pass or fail a set of laws that can pay out based upon what they’ve done in stage one.   Players blind bid votes, receive rewards (or not), and move on to….

The “Receiving rewards and resolving battles” phase!

Finally, players receive the rewards for winning counties, winning battles, and upgrading their castles.

The Magic:

Worker DISplacement:  Let’s say that in the “assigning knights” phase you place a knight in Suffolk so that in the rewards phase, you will add a new knight to your army.  Your opponent places his two-strength knight in Suffolk as well, returning your measly one-knight.   On your turn, you place your one-knight there again, but boost it with two squires from behind your player board.  “Haha!” you boast, “Just try and take that again!  There are more squires where those came from!”  The problem is that you’re lying.  You have no more squires behind your player screen.  You are really hoping that you’ve made the cost too dear for your opponent to compete and knock you off again.   YES!  He decides to allocate that knight to… What?!  A war in France that you were winning on your own?   Grrr…now he’s going to get the VP when that war resolves.

If you’ve ever wanted a worker placement game that lets you fight the player who took your desired spot, this is it!

Playing the Player:

Imagine this scenario:  A law is going to soon be voted upon that gives players a victory point for each knight assigned to battles.  Right now, though, you are in the assignment phase, and so far, two of your opponents have committed to counties, not battles.  You look the fourth opponent in the eye and say “Let’s both commit to battles, and both vote for that law to pass.  Cool?” He smiles confidently, pleased to co-benefit in this nefarious plan.   “Cool.”

The voting phase hits, and naturally, the other players vote against the military law that benefits you and your friend, except—WHAT?!   He opens his hand during the vote to reveal that he is rejecting the law!  Backstabber!! Seems he decided to forego the victory points to keep you out of the lead!  GRRR.. you wasted good voting cubes on that law!!

If what you just read sounds annoying to you, Lancaster may not be your game.   It can be played without negotiation, I suppose, but I’m convinced you wouldn’t be playing it right, and I’m even more convinced that the experience would be average.  Lancaster, in my opinion, shines as a play-the-player game.

Mechanics that interlock in phases:

Yes, interlocking systems are not unique to Lancaster, but it does them in an interesting way.   You make choices during a first phase that affect how laws pass in the second phase.  You then get rewards in the third phase that affect your plans for the next round.  Some of this is just mastered with experience.   What you can’t predict, however, is how the deals you made in the assignment phase are going to play out in the laws phase.

The Tragic.

No, not much tragic to report, though a couple of niggling things are worth noting.   I wish the laws were more variable in the way they came out.  For experienced players, knowing the upcoming laws is a little boring, and provides an unfair advantage.  Also, in my opinion, this game really is meant for at least three players.  Four is better.  With two players, the negotiation dynamic is obviously hampered.

Conclusion:

Lancaster is a wonderfully competitive euro game with smart mechanics, competitive play and furtive ground for negotiation and treachery.  The game is both thinky, and aggressive, and if that sounds like your pint of ale, you need to give this game a try.

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