There I was bemoaning the lack of decent card games last issue and all of a sudden along come Avalon Hill's Attack Sub and the little gem that has managed to hide on my shelf for two years - The Great Khan Game. Heavily disguised under an AD&D Forgotten Realms cover and lots of Tom Wham artwork, this is easily the best game I've played this year and, despite a few faults, offers excellent material for other designs. It can be amazing where these good games turn up from, but for about £7-8 in a box from your local TSR emporium, this is the bargain of the moment.
The Great Khan Game is undoubtedly a game that most non-RPGamers wouldn't look twice at on the shelf. The theme is a typically woolly fantasy setting featuring countries with daft names, dragons, magic and low-level Wham humour. Despite all this, I suspect that this was at one time an historical game that was given a veneer of fantasy to fit into the AD&D module line. Or then again it could be a fantasy game with a veneer of history. The fact that Richard Hamblen is a joint designer may also give the game away but the distinct lack of orcs and some pseudo-historical references ('The Sforza Condottieri' are balanced by the 'Salvation Army' and 'Admiral Carl Doenuts') and artwork swing it for me. Either way, I guess it probably wasn't acceptable to TSR in any other format.
As an overview, the idea of the game is to make as much gold as possible by controlling countries within your own little empire from the dozen or so provinces available. To effect this not unfamiliar plot, the game uses a card system with a lot of clever design tricks added on to provide depth. The outcome is a card game that feels a lot like a board game, which may in fact be the acid test of a good or bad 'card' game. A straight card game, like Hearts or Bridge, drops you into the card game frame of mind and you expect a different type of challenge (if you are with me here), whereas a board game with action cards will feel like a boardgame more than anything else. Khan falls somewhere between the two and it contrives to work superbly. The components aren't much to speak of as this is a 'folio' game that just happened to be rewarded with a slimline box and some glossy artwork; having played it, you get the feeling that the whole thing deserved rather better but we know how that works. As a result, once you've popped the massive pile of cards, they don't fit back into the box without a squeeze. The 164 cards are made of durable matt card with a slightly fluffy feel; they stand up to most gaming abuse though I doubt they'd survive any liquid spills. Each of the hundred or so 'character' cards has a note of its country, a name (displaying wit on the 'ZiplocBagration' level), a number (important this) and a unique piece of Whamite artwork which you can either take or leave. I am not stirred personally, but many find it exceedingly cute. Other cards depict random events and others still have mercenaries, navies, pirates, dragons, magic items, fortifications and so on. The map supplied is a flimsy paper affair with colour graphics which is, again, perfectly adequate. That is more than the money counters are though, so I suggest you use poker chips or filch something suitable from another game. Some marker counters and the well written rules round the package off.
The game play within your turn is easy to pick up, but requires much thought to get right. You are dealt six cards initially, which will usually give you weak control of a couple of countries. These can be added to each turn by drawing two free cards or taking the top card from the discard pile. Additionally, you can buy extra cards every turn. The first costs 2, the next 4, then 8 and so on. Realistically, you should get three to five cards per turn unless you have lots of spare cash or very few countries. Having checked the cards for events and acted on those immediately, you can make 'melds', war and political manoeuvres before compulsorily discarding one card.
The heart of the game is the 'meld'. A meld is simply the act of laying one or more cards from your hand in front of you, thus activating their powers. By having the most powerful political meld on the table (determined by the total number of flags on the melded cards), you control that country until toppled by better politics or combat. The key to the meld though is the numbers on the cards. Each country normally has a couple of leaders, often with low numbers, and a varying number of higher-numbered followers who might be loyal to any leader card or just one. This is depicted by numbers on the follower cards - so, for instance, in the 'Welsh' kingdom of Inter Merionydd, the leader Bucket the Bishop (No 1) will be able to command most of his followers except Canot the Cardinal (No 5). Canot, in turn, can also sway the same plebs as Bucket thus giving rise to interesting intra-country power factions. This implies that, depending on which cards you pick up, you can withold good cards from your opponent (which would add to his power base) or lay cards that will oust him from power.
Power can be stolen in two ways; political coups where you lay more flag cards than are currently melded (you take over those cards as well - those willing rally to your cause), or by the time-honoured invasion force. A lot of the cards have sword icons that give that card military ability, some having two which are 'double' armies. Others have ship icons that let you mount seaborne invasions by carrying the swords to far away lands, but watch out for the Sea Monster. In addition you can buy mercenary troops and ships but these are expensive long term propositions. For countries with no inherent combat cards though, they are essential to prevent military walkovers. This said, combat is actually fairly infrequent. Troops (and fortifications) tend to perform more of a defensive role to dissuade the big predators, some of whom can be armed with lethal dragons or airships, while most changes of power are achieved politically.
Combat is simple enough, but can prove a little fiddly at times. Once battle is joined, a d6 is rolled to see how many rounds the battle will last. Rolling a one when there are two large armies will virtually guarantee a non-result whereas a six will give both sides a good chance of a win. Swords kill simply on a roll of five or six, castles get to 'fight' in defence and defending ships must be beaten first. What is fiddly is that any unit hit gets a saving roll which can bring it back to full strength. If you eliminate all navies, swords and castles in the defending country, you have conquered it and take the remaining flag cards into your power base.
The countries and their troops have a flavour which roughly corresponds to a real- life one. Graubunden is distinctly Balkan in feel, Bolgor is vaguely Russian, Zagrus is Moroccan, The Cold Desert is Eskimo (those well known combatants), Veldergauttland is Viking (with appropriate large fleets) and so on. The one that stands out from the crowd, and which alone shifts us into fantasy land, is the Isle Broddick. This is, rightly, difficult to gain control of because of the several warring factions thereon, but should you manage it under the leadership of The Wizard, The Sorceror or the Apprentice you get to use spells every turn. These are more than useful and include printing your own money, grabbing extra free cards, causing storms at sea, inflicting poison clouds on your enemies and so on.
Having grabbed your countries, you earn gold every turn from each one. This is not your only source of income (see trading below), but it is the main one. Each country produces two gold per turn, plus a bonus for any active mine cards, and is worth thirty gold if you own it at game end. However, given the need to spend, the terminal thirty is usually far more valuable than you might imagine. This is because the gold earned throughout the game has no real use apart from buying cards and occasionally paying for mercenaries. Although the gold could be stashed towards your game end total, you get no real opportunity to save as you have to buy as many cards as possible to have any chance in normal play. Without politically stable territories and strong defensive (and eventually offensive) troops it is tough to hold onto countries and without them you won't have a bean at the end - plus the game gets a little frustrating for you if you aren't mixing it.
The trading system is a quite clever way of inflating the ever-drooping liquidity in the game. From time to time, event cards trigger a trade round which might for instance be a camel caravan crossing the mighty desert of Zagrus or a merchant ship arriving in Swil. Possession of the appropriate countries on the trade route when these cards appear gives you a cut of the profits. By far the richest countries in this respect are Zagrus, the pirate kingdoms and the Walled City which see a lot of commerce and are thus much desired as income generators. Additionally, anyone anywhere with a melded merchant card (denoted by a bag of gold) gets a payout each time the traders call. Simple, quite atmospheric and plenty of scope for other game systems.
Game length is handled in an original fashion. In the first pack, you shuffle in a card which is termed the 're-shuffle' card. When this appears, you shuffle the discards back in and add in a card called the 'Historian'. When this card appears after further play, the game freezes so that the historian can record it all for posterity. No one else gets a turn after this point. While clever, it can mean (if the two special cards are near the bottom of their respective packs) the game could theoretically last two whole packs - a long time.
The game is far from perfect, but it is good enough to make you want to go and tweak it rather than keep playing it with the faults. Problem One is the imbalance caused by control of the Isle Broddick. The use of spells that this ownership confers, even the simpler ones available to the Apprentice, is a powerful asset and is likely to swing the game your way. It also has the effect of making all the players on the receiving end feel rather cheesed off until a coup can be staged (usually difficult) or the spellcaster kicks the bucket to the sound of big cheers. There is nothing wrong with having a touch of magic in such a game, in fact it is probably required, but this has been poorly handled even for a fantasy game. For a well balanced multi-player game, it is totally out of place.
Another problem is the length of play. There is an optional rule (which is a bit of an afterthought) to reduce the length but the standard game runs to 90-120 minutes which is a shade too long for what it is, and it doesn't really speed up with familiarity - the constant need for thought and re-melding represent heavy time overheads. Although the early and middle game are good fun and tend to be close and exciting, the end game can sometimes include a strong leader and it becomes a procession unless one of the nasty event cards comes up at the right time.
Another time angle is that the game slows up significantly with four or more players. There are two aspects to this. With more players, you get a vicious circle developing. With fewer turns and fewer cards, you take fewer countries, earn less gold and therefore fewer cards get introduced to the game slowing up progress through the pack. The other problem is that you simply have to wait too long for your next turn and apart from the occasionally requirement to defend, this is wasted downtime. I think three players is close to ideal, but two is fine with the slight problem of not being able to discard without giving your opponent the chance to pick the card up. This could be solved by a simple rule amendment.
Thirdly, the combat system is overlong and a little fuzzy. There are some nice touches such as the variable number of rounds which can save you from an overpowering invader, the modifiers for mercenary characters and the saving throws occasionally add some excitement, but in general the resolution of large battles lingers on far too long. Basically, it has too many dice rolls. A six round battle between two large countries has you rapidly reaching for pen and paper to work out who is dead, who is dead but has been saved, which round is it? and so on. What I think the game needs is a quick but appropriate system to resolve any size of battle (including fleets if required) in one go but, in keeping with the game's ambience, the underdog should probably always have a chance of the win.
The last problem is not a major one, it is simply that there are certain event cards that can decimate your evening's skilful play in one go. The worst is probably the Peasant Revolt card that can badly affect every country you control, another one takes a quarter of your gold and, with poor dice rolls, the Black Plague can go through your power base like, er, the plague. I am all for events and random disasters, but these are just too strong. On the plus side, the subtle power-shift cards such as the Assassin, Change of Loyalty and the Mystery Illness (which knocks off just one enemy leader) are pitched at exactly the right level. The effect of these cards, stiff or reasonable, can shift the balance of the game in one turn thereby making the game pleasantly unpredictable. Combined with a timely invasion or two, a leader with half-a-dozen countries can find himself with just one at the finish and looking downcast.
The Great Khan Game is rich in design ideas and, for the tinkerer and potential designer, prompts many more spinoffs during play. The thought of a similar system with an apposite historical or perhaps science-fiction theme really sets the mind racing. As you will have gathered, it is also great fun to play. You know you're playing a winner when the worst problem is actually waiting eagerly for your next turn, hoping that a key card you've been waiting for will come into your hand. The card play, though basically straightforward, needs a good degree of thought which is borne out by how difficult it is to decide which card to throw away - they all seem to be useful to you or another player, or potentially useful in some way.
The problems mentioned above do grate eventually, but there is nothing stopping you going away and improving on them at no cost to the underlying card play. For instance, Ted Kelly suggested grafting on a Dune-style combat system which could work well, and the play length could easily be shortened by randomly removing cards or having two Historians in the deck. There is plenty of scope for new variant cards as well. Whatever, as multi-player games go this is now one of my favourites and we have not enjoyed a game as much in recent memory. Excellent stuff, if I were you I'd buy it now in case it disappears.
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