Review: Three Kingdoms Redux
Designer: Christina Ng Zhen Wei, Yeo Keng Leong
Publisher: Starting Player
Category: Ancient, Civilization, Economic, Novel-Based, Territory Building
Price: $44.99 Capstone Games
In my early days of gaming on the Playstation 2, I found hours of solace, and ridiculous hack and slash, in the Dynasty Warriors series. Few games had such inane, but addicting gameplay back then… In my opinion at least. I’m sure I would be quite bored with pounding the square button now, but I was absolutely fascinated by the mission structure, and even more so, the atmosphere of ancient, feudal China.
From the early replications of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, only slightly different in each new rendition of the game, to the constant appearance of the fierce Lu Bu, I always found something enticing and worthwhile in those games. Imagine my excitement upon hearing about this tabletop edition of the semi-historical tale.
Another point of interest is the development of Three Kingdoms Redux, which was designed and published by powerhouse couple, Yeo Keng Leong and Christina Ng Zhen Wei. Both from Singapore, the two devised the game and also extensively documented the process via Board Game Geek threads.
I’ve discovered there is actually quite a bit of debate on what is the true historicity of the source text of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel. This story, along with a few historical documents, details many of the generals and political climate depicted in this feudal time of China. To get into it here would require many hours of research, and probably myself actually reading the novel. That said, I’d like to leave it on a note that the backstory behind this game is indelibly interesting, and very much worth taking some time to at least gloss over.
Three Kingdoms Redux stays away from pointless violent imagery and instead uses artwork to display the ferocity and stature of the various generals and intelligent academics. Violence is displayed just barely through card art, and I find it very minimal. Mostly warriors swinging swords and spears in combat. There are some slightly more violent descriptions of war-related imagery found through text in the included art book. Again, this is extremely minute.
Glancing around the giant board might feel disorienting, but more so the task of managing an ancient state. Three players (and only three players) will take up the mantle of feudal lord for one of three dynasties, some having distinct advantage over the others. Players take a seat next to their respective dynasty, gathering their undeveloped fields and cities, some rice and gold, general tokens and cards, and begin to plot. Three Kingdoms Redux is played over a maximum of 12 rounds, wherein players will bid for a variety of actions, using their generals and advisors. Each action space on the board can be won through either combat or administration, but not both. These action spaces can do a plethora of different things for you, including: developing farms and marketplaces, constructing state enhancements to allow for special passive/active abilities, produce weaponry, control the Han emperor, win popular support, train armies, etc.
Each general has a special ability, as depicted on a card, as well as individual talents in combat, administration, and leadership. The first two are rated between 1-5, and determine their bid value when placed on the corresponding action space. Leadership, however, determines how many troops can go into battle when the general is placed on a border. Players can also choose to place generals onto their tribe to increase their tribal relations.
To win action spaces, players are simply adding the corresponding numbers (combat or administration) on their generals. Whoever bid the highest number wins the space, or in case of a tie, the player who first bid there would win. Players can also influence this number using special abilities, popular support, or by using the Han emperor.
Once players have placed all of their generals, they determine who won the most and second most action spaces in bidding. Those players will get to bid first in the upcoming round.
From this point, starting with the winning player and descending, each player will complete all of his actions on his won spaces in any order of his choosing. These can do anything from bringing in more income and food, or placing troops and generals onto border locations for passive points. After this stage, there is some maintenance and upkeep, paying off soldiers, gaining victory points, and the game continues.
The next round begins, and the bottom two players on the turn track are now allied and can choose an action space where they can both combine their corresponding combat or administration to take an action together on the upcoming round. Players will also draft new generals on specified future rounds as well. This is weighted however, where Shu begin the game with few generals, and gain substantially more as the game continues, unlike their opponents.
The game continues until round 12, or a few separate criteria are met (Emperor, development level). At game end, players have probably already picked up passive points from controlling borders, as well as points from building enhancements. Of course, players must also have been paying attention to end game point distribution and empire balance, because there are four additional categories of points given out for players who succeeded in different areas, like your tribal relations, controlling the emperor, or developing your farms and marketplaces.
The player with the most victory points is the winner, and brings peace to feudal China.
I wonder if you are lost a bit on my gameplay explanation, because I definitely was as I read them through. I want to be a tad gracious on the rules layout, but there are strange wordings that left my comprehension lacking. The examples in the book, while definitely thorough, are not always worded in the most sensible manner. So despite the few hours I took to read through the rule book before game night, we actually spent another 45 minutes trying to make sense of some of the game rules, outside of my 45-minute-long rules explanation.
I mean it, this game is a doozy. It is a flurry of moving parts, all which have specific purpose that may not become clear until the end of the game. At the same time however, I find the mechanics entirely simple, but getting to the point of realizing how these parts all work together is the challenge. I believe there to be some strange rulebook minutia that made our understanding difficult (which thankfully if you message the designers on BGG, they will gladly provide insight to your questions and clarify whatever rules misunderstandings you might have).
One hugely beneficial addition to the game, and overlooked on our first play, are the player aids. Each dynasty receives their unique sheet, detailing the variances in their setup, difference in generals, as well as a comprehensive list of opposing dynasty generals. This aid is a great reminder of turn order and details every general’s special ability.
Moving on, there are games with measly artwork, and there are games with quite good artwork. In this case, however, I’ve created a third tier: beautiful artwork. Indeed, Three Kingdoms Redux is such. While the chosen typeface on the board itself doesn’t really stand out as interesting, the board is nice to look at. I think the choice of font was to maintain focus on gameplay rather than distract. Thematically, each player’s dynasty sits accurately on the geographic location of China they occupied historically.
Even the cards are beautiful. Each card back is specific to its dynasty, or to the enhancements deck. When flipping a card over, your eyes are treated to vibrant colors and exciting composition. Each general stands proudly, in some situation, likely derived from the novel itself. Each person seems characterized well and features a special ability, alongside their stats. Even their corresponding chit is fun to look at and hold.
Three Kingdoms Redux ships with a nifty art book that has a page devoted to each of the 69 generals and lords. It is essentially blown up artwork for each general, which is quite nice to look through. In addition is a few paragraphs of story, telling the reader of some prominent story that character was involved in. While I can’t be too picky, the art book, while eye-candy, is just a bit too large for the square-shaped game box. I wish it was just a tad smaller to fit. Maybe when I get a coffee table one day, I can leave it out.
We haven’t even covered the other components in the game yet—only the board, card, and art book. There are so many different chits and purposes for each one, and all of them have a neat shape and are fun to look at. From the boats and spears, to the bright yellow Han emperor token and the lovely cardboard flag standees, everything flows together nicely. It’s wonderful to have artwork accentuate and tell the story of your game so seamlessly.
While the art on the components is enthralling, there are a lot of pieces. This game needs a decent amount of table real estate. Our first game left the table such a mess that I ended up using handy silicon baking cups to store pieces for our second game. Setup time is manageable once you know the game, but I recommend figuring out some kind of organization.
Now, in Three Kingdoms Redux, points are spread thin. It’s not going to be an easy task to balance your empire. You might want to build up your marketplace to begin raking in tax, but you have to fight for the space in order to take the action. If you spend three of your generals to win that space, you potentially missed out on three other actions on the board. That means you missed lots of opportunity to gain other resources.
You might pick up obscene points passively by winning in border combat and stationing generals, but it’s going to cost you. Every time you station troops and generals, you not only lose that general’s bidding ability for the rest of the game, but you also have to pay rice and gold upkeep at the end of each turn for each army unit stationed. If you can’t pay up, you get an evil little minus 3 chit to hold onto until the end of the game. You win a little, but you lose a lot.
Three Kingdoms Redux isn’t a game about fighting, but a game about holding up a wobbly empire on stilts. It’s a game about maintenance, balance, and establishing your control. This is crystal clear when in combat, because it doesn’t feel like combat. You win combat by methodically playing more troops and being choosy with the generals you decided to send into combat. It’s all plodding and political. It’s gamey. I love that.
I loved the video game series for its crazy combat, but this tabletop game very much puts forth the political clash of bidding and retaining more influence. After all, the ultimate goal is to unite China. Here, a brute force strategy doesn’t exist. Instead, it’s all about learning to be conniving and subtly ruthless. Saving powerful bidding generals until the last turn to outbid another player, essentially turning the dagger you’ve already placed between their ribs.
The delicate sway between forced alliances, and the power struggle of the weakest of the three kingdoms having to work together to bring balance to the leading kingdom is extremely interesting. It opens up plenty of options to you. For example: finding the most critical action space and ganging up generals on it to prevent the leader from gaining the rice he needed for his state. Maybe you decide on an alliance space, but refuse to assist your ally, backstabbing them in the process.
The game is quite long. Like… Really long. I’ll admit, for these brilliant strategy titles with lots of depth, they will naturally tend to be long, especially when you have three brand new players.
That said, I actually ended our first game in the 9th round from establishing enough border colonies. I was quite glad to end it, but not because I disliked the game, just because it felt longer than it needed to be. Again, I’d like to contribute our rules misunderstandings to this length. For our second game, we only needed a 15-minute rules recap, especially because I had some things cleared up by the designers through Board Game Geek. The second game was indeed faster, but ended in the 8th round.
Those final rounds were excruciatingly nail-biting. I knew exactly where I needed to invade, and I knew how much rice I needed, and I knew I needed to bump up my tribal relations to pick up extra points
From that perspective, I can absolutely see a skilled player formulating their strategy from the start, gaining their way to victory, and engineering their tactics to perfection, fooling their opponents, and blissfully walking to the finish line. This is what makes Three Kingdoms Redux grab you and refuse to let go. After both games, we spent nearly a half hour talking about our awful mistakes that cost us big. Maybe I should have focused more on leveling up my farms and markets, while the Wu should have spent less time combating the Wei generals for action spaces.
My lack of knowledge of the three kingdom historicity, but fascinations with Asian culture, has put this game up my alley. How can I not feel excitement and connection to this game? It steps over the usual combat of war and focuses instead of the upkeep of an empire. It forces players to think long-term and punishes them for foolish short-term mistakes, like miscounting your opponents bidding numbers, or forgetting about their general’s special ability to break ties.
While I’m sure setting apart the time for myself and my game group will be difficult, this is the kind of game I long to play again. I want to better balance my empire. I want to fake alliances, only to back stab in the next round. I want to make great tactical bidding decisions, and set my opponent into unease.
There is no mention of Lu Bu, maybe because he wasn’t really that important, but for those looking for the tabletop equivalent of the Dynasty Warriors franchise, I’m not entirely sure this is what you are looking for. That is indeed a caveat however, because if you want to see all of the characters in their glory, and sit around a table with two other friends and learn to balance a feudal Chinese empire, this is your best shot. I think it might be worth reading through the rules and figuring it out on your own. Starting Player has provided both an online rules PDF,and also a rules explanation video.
For the casual party gamer with no familiarity with big, lengthy strategy titles, I caution this likely isn’t the game for you. However, if you are looking to foray into a fantastic and smart game, this is an excellent title to choose.
For the euro gamer, or those of you who like great games with amazing artwork, and lots of depth and important decisions to make, look no further. You’ve found it. Go on. Buy it.
The Bottom Line
Three Kingdoms Redux is an ancient, Chinese, long haul, and despite some weird trudges through the rulebook, brings richly to life the experience of managing an empire in a time of politically-charged war.