Lancaster is a worker-placement, victory-point-scoring, Euro-style game. There are so many such games nowadays that this description is enough to turn me off, and I fully expected to dislike to game. To my surprise, I didn't. I didn't fall in love with it, but the experience was better that I expected. Having played the game and analysed it, I still think I should feel cold towards it. But I don't. I haven't quite figured out why I have such mixed feelings.
Let's talk about the game. It is 1413. The new king of England wants to unite the nobles in England and conquer France. You play one of the great noble families and support the king in his endeavour. You earn glory (victory points) for various deeds. At the end of 6 rounds, the game ends and whoever has the most VP's wins.
Your workers in this worker-placement game are knights. They can be placed at three types of locations. You can place them at cities in England to gain various benefits, e.g. gaining new knights, upgrading knights, gaining the support of the earl, and gaining castle upgrades. You can send your knights to fight in one of the four battles with France. Committing a knight to a battle gives you an immediate bonus (e.g. knight upgrade, coins, earl), and if the battle is won, you earn VP's. You can keep your knights at your own castle. When they man one of the sections of your castle, they generate resources or enable special abilities, e.g. gaining political influence, gaining squires, and turing squires into new knights.
The game board. Each city in England gives one of two possible benefits. One of them is to claim one of the two earl tokens that represent support of the earl. The other one varies from city to city. If you pay $3, you gain both benefits. It's always good to have some spare change. At the bottom left are the four battles with France - the large thick tiles. The six octagonal tiles in the English Channel are the bonuses for committing knights to battle. Two have been flipped over (i.e. claimed) because two knights have gone to battle.
One unusual aspect of the game is when a knight is placed at an English city, his position is not absolutely safe. He can be displaced by another more senior knight, or another knight of equal rank but supported by a squire. New knights start out at Level 1, and the highest possible rank is Level 4. This knight rank mechanism adds a twist to the worker placement in this game. Another interesting aspect is each city has a minimum requirement - only knights of a certain rank or above are admitted. So you need to worry about your lowly Level 1 knights and how limited their choices are.
My green Level 1 knight in Suffolk is being kicked away by the red Level 4 knight - Allen's ally.
There is a new law phase in every round. Three new laws are proposed, and players secretly vote for whether to introduce them. In the case of ties, the law will pass and come into effect. It will also obsolete the oldest law currently in effect. There are always exactly three laws in play. When you vote, you have to think of not only whether the new law is good or bad for you and your opponents, but also whether the old law that may become obsolete is good or bad for you and your opponents. Most laws are along the lines of if you meet a certain criteria, you gain some benefits or score some points. Political influence is a currency that comes into play when passing laws. You can use it to help vote in or discard a law. Political influence is mainly gained by controlling earls. They give you political influence every round.
The law board. The three tiles on the right are the current laws in effect, and the three on the left are those being proposed. Some examples: the law at the top right means for every Level 2 knight you own, you gain a squire. The law at the top left means for every three castle upgrades you own, you earn 5VP.
At game end, players compare castle upgrades and total knight strength, and score points according to their positions. They also score points based on number of earls under their control. Highest total score wins.
Allen and I did a two-player game. In two-player games, each player also controls an ally family, so we each controlled two colours. The ally families are required to keep the game balanced and to ensure the board doesn't become too empty. Ally families are limited in what they can do. They can gain new knights and upgrade knights, but they never earn VP's, money, earls or squires.
I focused on development. I sent most of my knights to English cities, and also aggressively upgraded my castle. It's good to upgrade your castle because upgraded sections automatically produce resources (or activate special abilities) without needing a knight's supervision. Allen, on the other hand, focused on the military campaign against France. Committing knights to battles meant he could gain benefits early. He also emphasised on upgrading his knights. By game end, he maxed out all his knights. There is a predetermined number of knights available at each rank and you can't have more than what the game components allow.
The player board. The long table at the top is where earls supporting you sit. You always gain one free political influence cube every round, and every earl supporting you gives an additional cube. Four of the six sections of my castle have been upgraded, giving me a total of $3, 3 squires and 2 political influence cubes every round. The small square boards on the left represent my ally's castle.
It was our first game and we played a little slowly, needing to digest how things fitted together. Also needing to manage both our knights and those belonging to our allies added a little complexity. I suspect the game is better with more players. There would be more competition, and also there would be no need for this ally mechanism. Turn order would also be more important, because coming last may mean all good spots would have been claimed by others by the time your turn comes.
The risk of knights getting displaced and also the minimum entrance requirement at the cities presented an interesting challenge when we did our worker placement (or knight placement). We also needed to take into account how the laws might change.
In the end I won the game, but only barely.
A battle allows up to three players to participate. If the total strength contributed by the players exceed the number on the tile, the English will beat the French. In this example (the tile on the right), red gains 5VP, green 3VP, yellow 1VP. However red and yellow in our game were allies, so only I (green) gained 3VP.
The inside of the player screen reminds you about the three end-game scoring criteria - total knight strength, castle upgrades, and earls. Squires, political influence cubes and money are hidden behind your screen. These coins here are from another game and don't come with the standard Lancaster game.
Most aspects of Lancaster feel very typical of Eurogames. However I find that the various mechanisms generally mesh together well, and are also consistent with the background story. At least that's my best guess at why I don't dislike it as I thought (and still think) I should. Suddenly I feel much more open-minded about trying out other Matthias Cramer designs, when in the past I was only mildly interested. Lancaster is undoubtedly a VP-grabbing, multiple-paths-to-victory (a.k.a. balanced-to-the-point-of-feeling-staid), worker-placement, Euro-style game, but it's the little details that provide some uniqueness and freshness in this title.