Designer: Matthias Cramer
Artist: Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan
Publisher: Queen Games
Matthias Cramer has certainly made a name for himself with the publications of several solid Euros such as Kraftwagen, Glenmore, Rococo and Watergate. While he is not my favorite designer, his name on the box is always a prompt for me to check up the game and read the rules. Even though Lancaster is an earlier design, it still compares quite favorably with his other games. In fact, for me at least, it may be his best effort.
It’s all about them Knights (and squires) and where they go
Lancaster came out in 2011, back when worker placement was at the height of popularity. I have played many worker placement games, but not none as tight as Lancaster. As a bonus, this games scales well for 3-5 players. As far as worker placement games go, this is probably one of the easiest to teach but challenging to play well. As you may have guessed, Lancaster is thematically based in medieval Britain. Players are lords of a castle with a collection of knights with different ranks at their disposal. There are three areas of concern each Lord faces: First, how can I fortify my castle to ensure my own prosperity? Second, how do I serve my King? Finally, how do I subjugate other nobles to do my bidding? In essence, each player will assign knights to each of these realms to compete for the spoils.
The first assignment which happens to be the easiest, is to assign knights to your own castle. There are several slots in each castle with different rewards and placement of knights here are non-competitive and rank doesn’t matter. This serves as a fall back for knights that cannot be positioned elsewhere, but the rewards are not trivial. Players can gain coin, squires and train new knights or upgrade them. These are all essential functions and since resources are tight, getting a single coin or a squire can make a difference. During the course of the game, players also get the opportunity to make a castle reward permanent at the end of the round by upgrading the castle. Bonus points are also awarded at the end game for the most improved castle. In all, the lord’s castle is a safe haven for knight placement, but one that provides additional resources and victory points that should not be ignored.
Second, how to serve the King? Why to fight wars of course. France and England are at war and as a lord, you are expected to send knights to fight different battles in France. There are 2-4 ongoing battles in France during each round and knights can be sent to participate in the battles. The resolution of each battle is simple. Each battle has a difficulty rating and 3 slots for knight placement. If the combined total of the knights in the battle reach or exceed that rating, then the battle is won and all the lords who contributed to the battle will win victory points that are distributed according to the cumulative strength of the knights who fought the battle. So, here in Lancaster, we have a semi-coop mechanism for earning points. It is usually not sufficient for a single player to win a difficult battle and only with some degree of cooperation, can a battle be won. Now, you can win some points if you go at it alone, but you get more by convincing others to join your cause. You have two rounds to resolve a battle and losing one can be costly as captured knights are ransomed by France and must be paid up with coin to liberate them or lost forever (as in returned to your unused pool of knights).
Finally, to persuade other nobles to join your cause, knights can be sent to the British countryside, stationed in different regions. Whether they are there to hand out bread and coin to the local populace or to subjugate them, I guess that is up to your imagination. In this part of the game, you have a full-on, direct worker placement competition between players. Competition is ramped up because only one knight of the highest rank is allowed to occupy each region and one can eject an opponent’s knights simply by playing a higher ranking knight in the slot. Squires play an important role here as they can temporarily improve a knight’s standing when played together. However, squires are one time use only and gets discarded if the knight is outranked and gets expelled from the region. So, timing the usage of squires is important as is a show of overwhelming force. There is nothing worse than pulling your punches by playing only a handful of squires, only to be trumped by your opponent and being unable to respond because you have diluted your pool of squires. It’s all in or nothing! Thematically it kinda makes sense. I can see how a knight’s entourage with dozens of squires descending upon a town looking quite formidable and intimidating. Now, after a knight is expelled from the countryside, players on the losing end can reposition the knight elsewhere when their turn comes around. At the end of the round, the last knight standing gets to reap the rewards, which is pretty thin to begin with. Here, knights must choose to either gain the support of a noble by picking up the noble tile that is unique for each region, or gain a reward. One can do both by paying 3 coins, a resource that is incredibly tough to come by. Both options are equally tantalizing. Gaining noble support counts as points at the end and also gives you more support when passing laws (see below). On the other hand, the varied rewards for each region is important to build up your knights, improve your castle or just to gain resources. In all, the battle for the support of nobles in the regions is a pretty wild back-and-forth, especially in the final few rounds.
What sets Lancaster apart from other worker placement games
A few thoughts about what sets Lancaster apart from other worker placement game. As you can see above, the three areas of worker placement reflect three different modes of competition: indirect competition in the lord’s castle for end of game points, full-on direct competition of knight placement in the countryside, and finally a semi-coop knight placement in France. Each area represents a different mode of competition with a slightly different mind set for scoring points. While during game play, the action selection does blend together and the decisions won’t be that distinct in terms of the different modes of competition, I don’t think you can ignore any one of these realms and still remain competitive. You need to be involved in all three. Now, whether specialization is the best path to victory remains to be seen only after multiple plays.
The second point to make, and this is a big one for me, is that the game is structured so that rewards are only doled out at the end of each round. Basically, your hard fought gains are only realized only when all the knight placements are resolved. This is particularly impactful because most worker placement games I have played, grants you the perk as soon as the worker is placed. Here, you get nothing save for some immediate bonuses for fighting in France. That means, to carry out your plan this round, your pieces must have already been in place the previous round. You have to think one round ahead because there is no chance for improving your knights in the current round. For example, if you get displaced from a region, you cannot upgrade your knights or get more squires. That only happens at the end of the current round when rewards are distributed. As a result of this, the immediate bonuses that one gets for fighting in France, becomes extra valuable, sometimes even more valuable than participating in the battles themselves. The reward structure also indirectly makes the semi-coop contest more lively and engaging, because of the hotly contested bonuses. This constant desire to upgrade or add to my knights during the round is a distinct feature of Lancaster and is one that I felt constantly during play.
Passing new laws with the help of nobility
Finally, there is also a somewhat unique voting-of-laws to be passed segment of Lancaster. At the end of each round, after knight placement but before reward distribution, players collectively get to vote on three laws that are displayed at the start of the round. So, we all know which are the new laws that could potentially be enacted. These laws are essentially bonuses or point-scoring criteria applied to some or all players, depending on the requirements. For example, one law would allow all players to exchange coin for squires or victory points without prerequisites. Another law however, would benefit the player with the strongest legion of knights by giving them some perks. Of course, if you are the front runner for that category, you want to vote the law into legislation. Since there are always three active laws in play, if a new law is voted in, the left-most law on the slate is removed from the tableau. This way, as new laws are passed, older laws from previous rounds are phased out. The fight for laws is also interesting because each player will get a yea or nay vote that is supplemented by voting cubes gifted by nobles support your cause – which is incredibly thematic. Recall that in fighting for presence in the countryside, collecting each unique noble tile grants you an extra voting cube each round. So, collecting nobles is important not only for end-of-game scoring, it also grants you extra votes. Now, you can call this voting mechanism a gimmick, because it feels somewhat detached from the rest of the game, but it undoubtedly adds a unique flavor to Lancaster that makes the game more interactive, but also very thematic. It is incredibly satisfying to keep a law around across multiple rounds for your own benefit, or to convince others to say nay to a vote that helps your opponent.
Regrettably, time constraints coupled with a diverse game collection has prevented Lancaster from hitting the table often. There are many worker placement games out there, but Lancaster stands out as a pretty cut throat use of the mechanism without being too convoluted or fiddly. It has a decidedly different feel from other worker placement games such as Kramer and Kiesling’s Coal Baron, another favorite of ours. While Coal Baron has a more traditional and forgiving approach to worker placement, Lancaster leans closer to Caylus where the order of worker placement resolution matters. I suppose Caylus is equally brutal, if not more, in its execution. Yet, Lancaster feels characteristically more family-friendly in a way that learning the game and being competitive comes easier, and the game is less fiddly than Caylus. There are fewer moving parts and variables to account for in Lancaster. Despite the overall positive sentiment, Lancaster has failed to step out of the worker placement shadow cast by other prominent games of the genre. This is unfortunate. If you are looking for a mid-weight worker placement game that is not a solitaire exercise, you could do far worse than picking this up.