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[Review] Ivanhoe

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I’m still waiting for a good board game with a jousting theme or even a good chivalry theme. Therefore, any game that boasts such a theme draws my interest, and Ivanhoe (GMT Games, 2000 - Reiner Knizia) did just such so. Of course, I knew before I opened up the game that since it was Knizia game, the chances were high that the theme mattered little or nothing to the game. The artwork reassured me, however, as I opened it up; it sure looked chivalrous.

Playing the game was a very enjoyable experience. The game flowed well, and was a light card game, reminding me slightly of the “Chicken” mechanic found in Taj Mahal. Some of the colors on the cards had special abilities, and I would have liked a reference card; but overall, game play was fast and fun. While the game box states that the game is for two players, it really only shines with 3+, where it becomes a fun game of deciding just when to play your cards. No, it didn’t feel like we were battling knights, but the overlying theme helped make the mechanics feel non-abstract, and we all had a blast. My next playing, however, was even better; because it was with kids. Then, it DID feel like we were battling knights, and the game was even more fun!

A rather large deck of one hundred and ten cards is shuffled, and eight cards are dealt to each player. There are five suits of cards: green, yellow, blue, red, and purple - each with fourteen cards. The values on the cards range from one to seven, but the distribution varies between suits. For example, every green card is a “1”, the blue cards range from “2” to “5” and the purple cards range from “3 to “7”. There are also twenty “wild” cards, known as supporter cards, with values “2”, “3”, and “6” (the value “6” supporters are called “maidens”). Finally, the last twenty cards in the deck are action cards with a variety of results.

A pile of chips is placed near the board, matching the colors of the five card suits. One player is chosen to go first, and the first “tournament” begins with play proceeding clockwise around the table. On a player’s turn, they first draw a card, and then decide whether or not they will withdraw from the tournament or participate. The first player must play at least one card in front of them, starting the tournament in that color. (They can also begin the tournament with a wild card, picking the color of the tournament.) Each successive player must either withdraw or play a card/cards that exceed the previous player’s sum. When a player cannot do so, or will not do so, they must withdraw. Players must always play cards that match the color of the tournament or supporter cards.

When all but one player has withdrawn, that player wins the tournament, taking a chip matching the color of that tournament. The winner of the tournament is the first player in the subsequent tournament. The first player to get a predetermined number of chips is the winner of the game. Some of the colors have unique rules:
- In a green tournament, all cards played have a value of “1” - even supporters.
- The winner of a purple tournament can choose any color chip they want.
- A new purple tournament cannot be started immediately after another purple tournament.
- If a player uses a maiden and is forced to withdraw, they must forfeit one of their chips, if they have any.

A player can play as many action cards as they like on their turn, after which the action card is usually discarded. The action cards can do a variety of things:
- Change the current color the tournament (all current cards stay on the table.)
- Force a player to discard cards (but never their last card.)
- Draw a random card from another player’s hand.
- Force all players to discard their last played card.
- Cancel another action card.
- Etc., etc.,

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The tokens included with the game are the exact same ones in Knizia’s Galaxy: the Dark Ages, small, poker-style chips, with colors that are quite similar to those on the cards. The cards show knights fighting in different styles, with the blue cards being axes, the red cards showing swords, etc. The cards are of decent quality, with white borders (keeps the cards from looking too scuffed up.) The artwork on the cards and boxes looks like that of your typical chivalry-styled artwork from the early twentieth century and helps keep the theme of the game. Everything from the game fits nicely in a plastic insert that fits well in a nicely decorated, small sized box (the standard size for GMT and Steve Jackson small boxes.)

2.) Rules: The game is quite simple, but the rulebook is fairly lengthy - totaling eight pages. But the game is explained quite clearly, and the last two pages play out two sample tournaments. This was extremely helpful to understanding the rules, as well as detailed explanations of the action cards (which I thought didn’t really need much explaining.) The game was easy to teach and learn, but the special abilities of green and purple aren’t mentioned on the cards, and I thought a small reference card pointing out some of these things would be nice.

3.) Withdrawing: Knowing when to withdraw is an important strategic decision. Since there is no upper hand limit in the game, it’s a good idea to withdraw from tournaments in which one has no chance, in order to give one the edge in future tournaments. However, if one waits too long, another player might sneak in the victory before they unleash their full power. The maidens could really hurt you, but most players didn’t play them unless they were positive they would win the tournament.

4.) Action Cards: Knowing when to use the action cards is crucial, also. You’d think that they would add a great deal of chaos to the game; but I found that it was kept in check, because the cards were easily controlled and planned for. They had about the same effect as the action cards did in Battleline. One could play the game without them, I guess, for a more strategic game, but probably less fun. The action cards also helped the thematic elements of the game, making it come to life just a little more, and many of them matched the theme well.

5.) Fun Factor: We shouted out dire threats and listened to soundtracks as we played our second game, and it made it a lot more fun. At heart, it’s just a simple card game; but the theme, even though it’s pasted on, can be taken and run with; and everyone can have a blast!

The game is simple, the theme has obviously been added, but there is enough strategy to make it worthwhile. I normally don’t buy too many of GMT games, as their main focus is war games, something I merely dabble with occasionally. Ivanhoe, however, has become a decent filler, and has the very invocative knight theme surrounding it. Whether it affects game play or not is totally up to the group; but with a role-playing group, the game is an extreme blast. With a “gaming” group, it may not be so rip-roaring fun, but the decisions are decent, and strategy plays a good enough part to make it more than simple mindless fun.

Tom Vasel
“Real knights play board games.”

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