The Best Board Game: Three Kingdoms Redux

(this was initially written in 2016, but I wanted to save it.)

Three Kingdoms Redux is a board game sent in the most interesting time of history, that being the one I think is the most interesting, and any other selections are wrong. That is the Warring States period of China, a period exhaustively documented in the historically accurate Romance of the Three Kingdoms where Zhang Fei single-handedly holds off one thousand men at a single bridge while Zhao Yun rescues his lord Liu Bei’s infant son from Cao Cao’s advancing army, and eternally retold in Koei’s even more historically accurate Dynasty Warriors series where Zhao Yun’s horse moves at roughly 65 miles per hour and can jump over a city. Three Kingdoms Redux is far less fantastical than Koei’s Press X: The Game series, but it’s no less fun for it.

Just as there are three kingdoms, there are three players. One player will be the Wei Dynasty, helmed by Cao Cao and home to multiple legendary generals, such as the unstoppable Xiahou Dun, legendary defender Cao Ren, and the malicious strategist Jia Xu. One player will be the Wu Dynasty, led by the leader of the Sun family, Sun Jian, along with his sons Sun Quan (whose name is pronounced soon schwan) and Sun Ce (who got shot in the butt with an arrow). The third player plays as the Shu Dynasty, led by the people’s champion Liu Bei, plus the other two members of the Peach Blossom Oath Brothers, the aforementioned Zhang Fei as well as Guan Yu, who had a beard so luxurious he kept it in a bag in the winter so it didn’t get damaged.

Each dynasty has something like 25 general cards available to them, all of which have differing abilities. You only ever get eight throughout the game, so there’s a ton of replay value as the generals change what you can do dramatically. But that’s getting ahead of things, as first I have to explain why this three-player thing is so amazing. Let me take you through the first turn of the game, in quick and dirty fashion.

First of all, the board.

It’s beautiful. But we’ll come back to that.

Don’t worry! It’s not as intimidating as it looks.

You have a limited number of actions you can do each turn, and you have to bid for them. Bidding works by taking one of your generals, alternating one by one between players until everyone has placed all of their generals, and placing them on the tile that you want. Let’s say that I, as the heroic Shu Dynasty, want to Develop my Marketplace, which will get me money, which is good because you have to spend money on things. I use Liu Bei to do that. He has an Administration of 4. That means I have 4 points invested in that. If someone else puts down a 4 or less there, I get that spot and they don’t. If they put down a 5, I don’t get it, and they do. If I put down another general there with a 2 or higher, then I get it back.

It’s tremendous. Are you worried about someone attacking you? Just shut down their ability to train armies by constantly training armies yourself! It’s great! They can’t attack you with untrained armies, so as long as you never release your death grip on that spot, they can never attack you. It’s great! And if you’re the Wei Dynasty, it’s even better because you start with five generals for bidding versus Wu’s four and Shu’s three. You have almost unparalleled control of the board! You’ve won!

Well, you haven’t. Every turn, the bidding order changes based on who had the most successful bids in the previous turn. The person with the most successful bids goes first, then second-most goes second, and on. That makes sense, right? You know what else makes sense? Not letting the leader get too far ahead.

During the Warring States period, alliances and allegiances shifted dramatically. After the Yellow Turban Rebellion, Wei, Wu, and Shu all joined forces to put Dong Zhuo’s rise to power to bed. When Wei grew too strong, Wu and Shu joined together at the battle of Chi Bi to destroy his fleet. Shu then sent Guan Yu into Wei’s service to aid against Wu, right up until Guan Yu left, Wei sieged his city and killed him, and Wu helped bring Wei to an end in the ensuing battle. The dynasty in the lead just put a target on their own back, and the other two would band together to fight them. Three Kingdoms Redux does this too.

The second and third players are in an alliance for the bidding stage, and they can mark one spot on that common bidding track as the Alliance space. Any generals they send there work together instead of against each other. In the above scenario, Wu and Shu could mark Train Armies as the Alliance space, both bid on it, and both get to train armies if they win, not only blocking Wei from the spot but building up their own armies together to fight Wei.

…and then Wu ends up taking more actions than Wei that turn, meaning Wu goes first and Wei gets to be part of the alliance in turn 2, so it all shifts again.

Two more cool aspects of that rule: One, the Alliance space cannot be the same space two turns in a row, and two? The player in third is the only one who sets the Alliance space. Player two can argue about the mutual benefit of training armies until her face turns red, but player three is the one that makes the final decision on the alliance space, and so it’ll definitely go somewhere that benefits player three first and foremost.

That’s just one thing about this. There are so many fascinating things in this box that change the way you play each time you approach it.

  • The asymmetrical start, with Wei having more generals than Wu having more generals than Shu, but starting rice, food, and popular support tokens (one-off bid increases that can be placed with a general) in reverse order.
  • The increase in power across the board, with new generals being drawn in 3, 5, and 9, Shu always getting more than the rest until everyone ends with 8 generals in round 9.
  • The game having FOUR WAYS to end: one dynasty deposing the emperor by winning the Control Han Emperor space five times (one of two spots that can’t be the alliance space), one dynasty raising both Farm and Marketplace levels to Level 5 each, one player controlling five border locations with generals and armies, or the end of turn 12.
  • Not one of those actions meaning the person that did it won.
  • Military. Okay, this gets its own section.

So there are many ways to get victory points — improvements can score victory points, having the best tribal relations, the best marketplace and farm development, and rising in rank in the courts. All of those only count for the end. Military VPs, though, from occupying border spaces with generals, get you VPs each turn. Take the Tribal Relations track; having that at the very top, rank 12, at the end of a game gets you 4 VPs. If no one else at the end of the game is also at a 12, you get 5 more VPs for being the best tribal relation dude. That’s 9 VPs total. But if you station a general at a border location with two armies of the right type, you get two VPs per turn. The earliest you could attack is turn 2, but if you do that, you could get twenty-two victory points if the game goes all the way to turn 12, and you only have to win that bid once.

…but stationing a general means he is no longer available for bidding. He’s permanently on that spot. AND you have to pay upkeep on that army, one rice and one gold per army unit stationed elsewhere. So those 22 VPs could cost you a ludicrous sum of rice and gold. But if you take care of your farms and maintenance, you can afford it. But only if you win those spots.

Do you see how huge this puzzle can get? Do you see how different this can be?

In that last game we played, we all hit drastically different approaches. As Shu, I pushed my Tribal Relations up as high as I could thanks to getting a general who got me an extra point on that track each time I used him on it… but he was my best administrator, meaning I had to neglect going in hard for Farm and Marketplace work. I won an early victory on a border so I could bank those VPs, limiting my choices further in the common bidding areas, and forcing me to use my strong military generals to build crossbows that then I could sell for money and rice to keep my treasury in the positives. Nathan used the Wu generals to control the Han emperor repeatedly, moving fast up that track as well as dominating the Farm and Marketplace developments, doing relatively little on military after but well financially. Our third had Wei control the construction of extra enhancements for alternate income early, then ran the table on late-game military victories, taking three border locations across two turns, flying up the military tracker when we were stretched too thin to combat him. Seeing our third flying up the track, Nathan deposed the Han emperor in turn 10, forcing the game to a stop and sending us into the victory point stretch. The only victory points you can see, expressly laid out in front of you, are the military VPs. You could back into the others during the game by peering at the board — all that information’s in the open — but with it being hidden behind that end-game comparison, it’s very hard to know if you’ve won or lost before you tally up with everyone else, keeping it exciting all the way to the end.

It’s also beautiful. Your generals all have these cards for you, each general with his own special ability, as well as his stats. Cao Cao wins all ties, even if he’s the second general placed there (normally first placement wins ties). If Guan Yu wins the Recruit Armies step, he gets three instead of two. Zhang Fei can Recruit Armies or Train Armies if he wins either slot — he just gets to pick. Liu Bei gets to keep one Popular Support token per turn instead of using it up. A Wei general lets Wei buy into the alliance three times per game, even if they’re first. A Wu general lets you move him to any open bidding spot on the board after bidding has stopped if he didn’t win his bid attempt, instead of just going back to your hand for next turn. Ma Chao lets you get bonus horses for your army every turn if you have two horses in your supply already, because they breed. It’s incredible, because each special ability reflects that general’s real life personality. Guan Yu was an incredible leader of men, Ma Chao an unparalleled horseman, Liu Bei was beloved by the peasantry, and Cao Cao was a dick.

This game came from two first-time designers in Singapore, which blows my mind even more. It’s one of the smartest, craftiest, most thematic, beautiful, and downright fun games I’ve ever played. Buy it. It’s good! It’s really, really good!