Review: Knights of Charlemagne card game is simply simple, and we like it like that
The clever 2006 card game Knights of Charlemagne has made it to the iPhone and iPod touch as a simple little number placing app [$1.99, iTunes link]. We don't mean simple in that it's easy to beat or uninteresting. We mean that the game is clearly designed and plays quickly. While the beginner level (the Squire) is really only worth playing through once or twice with the tutorial minstrel on to learn the rules, getting to and beating the AI at Knight, and then the King level (which is supposed to be Charlemagne himself) is a good challenge and provides plenty of game for two bucks.
There's a whole lot of math and bluffing in the game. That is something which is better experienced in person and using real cards, but board games on the iPhone are their own experience. So, when you want some light brain-burning with a medieval theme, look no further than this simple app. Read on to find out more.
Like Poison, Knights of Charlemagne could just as easily use pictures of animals or be a themeless collection of colors and numbers. The game starts with a deck of knight cards and ten spaces, called estates, to fight over. Five are numbered 1-5 and the others are colored one of five colors (which might cause problems with colorblind players). Each card portrays a knight who can be sent to fight at one of two locations, either the colored space that matches his color or the numbered space that matches his number. Even though there are only ten estates total, the app helpfully highlights the two spaces where a selected knight can go before you place him on the battlefield.
The deck is made up of 50 cards, two of every number/color combination, and each player is dealt half the deck. Of course, since designer Reiner Knizia doesn't want you to be able to completely predict what's coming, two random cards are removed before cards are dealt, adding an element of uncertainty to the end game. Does my opponent really still have a "1" to take the first estate away from me? You won't know until the last card is played. Speaking of which, each player will play 24 cards in a complete game, something that takes only a matter of minutes once you've learned the rules. Your opening hand is eight cards, and the little tent icon on the left side of your hand shows how many cards remain in your draw pile.
Why send the knights to a particular location? Whoever has the most knights at an estate at the end of the game (when all cards have been played) will score the points for that estate. The numbered estates are worth points equal to whatever their number is, while the colored estates are each worth five points. If both players tie for an estate, each wins a point. Why wouldn't you put all of your knights on the colored estates? Because whoever wins the two lowest-value estates first (estates are scored from left to right) gets the crown, a five-point bonus, and this usually determines the winner, in our experience.
Like we said, the defining word for the iPhone app version of the game is "simple." Bare-bones would also work, but that's sort of two words. Everything on the screen is easy to see and read. Gameplay is easy to "get" and the graphics by Schrumpfkopf are basic. There is no music, and only minimal sound effects. You load up the app, play for a few minutes and see who won and then maybe play again. If you get interrupted, the app easily saves games in progress, but there's no win/loss record screen or any way to track how well you've done over time. Simplicity is the name of the game here, and it informs all areas of the design.
Want to see who's winning a particular estate? Look for the little sword icon. Want to make the knight cards even easier to identify? Turn on high visibility mode, which transforms the cards in your hand from little knight icons into simple colored squares that are easier to read. You can't change between modes mid-game, but that's not a huge deal.
Another quirk is that the app feels upside down. When you play, it's with the home button on the left, and there's no way to change the orientation. Another interface issue that might cause you to misplay a knight is when you select a blue number five knight, since the two places he can be sent are next to each other. We've never clicked the wrong space, but we can see that it's possible. Oh, and here's a tricky thing. The few sound effects that there are in the game (and, thankfully, you can still listen to iTunes music while playing, unlike in version 1.0) are counterintuitive to turn them on or off. On the menu screen, if it says "sound on," that means touch there to turn the sound on. Same thing with "sound off." So, while it looks like these items are telling you the status of the sound effects in they game, they're not.
The app can also only play the two-player version of the game. The physical game from Playroom Entertainment can handle up to three, and the earliest version, which came out in 1995 and was called Tabula Rasa, could play anywhere from two to four players. IRL, three players is a bit more fun, but the designer has said he has no plans to introduce that option to the app and it seems doubtful that a even baksheesh would change his mind. Instead, we have the three-level AI and the human vs. human options. Two-player pass-n-play works well – with the screen dimming and hiding your cards in hand from your opponent between turns – but we're always interested in networked play. Obviously, this takes more time to program into the app, but we think the potential for doubling your sales should be incentive enough for developers (our math on that correct, right? Of course it is).
Overall, the Knights of Charlemagne isn't quite as elegant as other Knizia games like Lost Cities (which we're still waiting to see in the App Store) or Money, but it is a game with a lot of replay value. We know we'll keep fighting for those estates for a while to come. This isn't an every day kind of game, but it simply fun to pull out every now and then.
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