Inside you’ll find a lovely main board and 18 cards, all beautifully laid out and drawn by Klemens Franz, plus 27 wooden cubes and three dice.
(NOTE: The game sold through its initial 2017 print run, but the second edition is being released at Essen this month. The new version is the same but bigger and better, so I’ll update here with new images once I’ve got an upgraded copy. Otherwise, everything on the game play etc below stands.)
The game is set during the War of the Roses and at its core is a card driven area control war game. But wait! While war gamers should take interest, those (like me) who aren’t shouldn’t be put off: this is a fast-playing game with a mix of euro and family game mechanisms that is far more welcoming than the tag ‘war game’ might suggest.
Teaching The Cousins’ War
Players choose a side (York or Lancaster) and take two cubes of their colour (white or red respectively), also placing one in each of the board’s three regions. The 17 game cards are then shuffled and six are dealt to each player. In each round you will play cards for actions, then resolve a battle.
Your goal is to control all three regions of the board at the end of a round, or a majority of areas at the end of five rounds (in either case, you win automatically). If you are tied for regions after five rounds, whoever won the majority of the game’s five battles wins – so there’s no way of having a tie.
Players swap one of their cards with their opponent at the start of the round, then pick one of their cards to be the potential battleground for the round. Only seven of the cards are battlegrounds, so you may not have one at all – in which case you simply ditch the action card (the other 10 cards) you least want. With the battle location set (each has a starting situation of either one cube each, or one for one or other player) the action card playing begins. You’ll take it in turns to play four cards each, either playing a card’s action (if it has one) or using its ‘command points’ (every card has 1-3 of these ‘CPs’).
CPs let you gain troops to your reserve, play them to the current battlefield card, or add/remove cubes from map regions. This last action is risky, needing a dice roll – which tends to be easier the worse you’re doing. Actions on action cards tend to be more powerful but can also be situational, so often need to be saved for the right moment. One you’ve played your actions, it’s time for battle – as long as you both have at least one cube on the battle card, that is (if not, you simply move to battle resolution).
The battle itself is an interesting beast. The active player rolls the three dice in secret and declares their best combo – either a triple, double or single with high numbers being better (so two sixes beats two fives, but two fives beats a single six etc). However, when they declare what they have they can lie through their teeth, much as you can in party dice game Perudo…
Now, the other player has a choice: accept their declaration or call them out. If they call them out, the active player reveals what they had – and if they were telling the truth the doubter loses a cube from the battle. If it was a lie, the active player instead loses a cube – unless they can mitigate the roll. Both players have one action card left from the previous phase and can use the CPs this has to change each dice (per CP) by a pip.
If losing a cube above means only one player is left standing, the battle is over. Otherwise, the non-active player rolls the dice openly and tries to beat the active player’s roll – and they can also use their remaining card to change the roll. The loser loses a cube from the battle – and you rinse-and-repeat this process until one player is left standing in the battle (so anyone who used their last action card in the first battle round is now at a big disadvantage). The victor moves any remaining cubes to the board region the battle was in, and then you check to see if the game is won.
The four sides
- The writer: While none of the elements in The Cousins’ War feel original, they do a great job of feeling unusually but cleverly and convincingly connected – exactly what you need to stand out in a very busy marketplace. The silliness of the dice and bluff battles doesn’t feel like it should work here, but it does because of the game’s short length. Similarly the lack of card choices looks too limiting in theory, but the tightness actually helps you quickly get to grips with your possibilities – which is invaluable in a fast-playing filler game. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
- The thinker: While the battles have a big random element, like all good war games the win is likely to come from elsewhere – and grognards are well used to that. And there is more going on than initially meets the eye: the round you use/discard action cards is important, for example, as they can give a retort action to your opponent – while knowing certain cards are available to your opponent, or not, can be invaluable as the game goes on. Even your choice of battleground can become more interesting as you start to see the depth in the decisions.
- The trasher: The Cousins’ War is a good, tight scrap which wears its heart on its wargamey sleeve – while throwing in a crazy poker-style battle sequence to throw the grogs out of their comfort zone! One thing of particular interest is the cube limit of 12. In a long, close game its easy to end up with all your cubes deployed – which suddenly makes you think differently and have to make more logistical decisions. This can act as a solid way to even the playing field, as if you get an early cube advantage you need to make it stick before your opponent catches up.
- The dabbler: This one came as a complete surprise to me: while the artwork is nice, the rulebook is a little dense (the battle resolution rules are incredibly hard to read for something so simple!) and the ‘war’ theme seemed dry and put me off. But once we got playing, and had got through one complete round, I was up to speed and actually enjoyed myself. I’m rubbish at bluffing and giggled my way through battles, but it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of difference. Would I play it again? Sure, but I wouldn’t choose it – and it certainly hasn’t won me over to the war game side! But who knows, with a lighter theme, it might work…
The combat mechanism is going to make or break The Cousins’ War for most players. It is variously loved and loathed by commentators, being described as anything from “thrown together” to “adding tension”, and if you haven’t read enough above to convince you you’ll need to try before you buy. Personally, I think it works well.
As for small box war game alternatives, it really needs to be compared to Iron Curtain and 13 Minutes: two similarly small boxed games with a similar playtime that borrow liberally from the Twilight Struggle school of war game card play.
I found 13 Minutes far the inferior of the three, being overly abstract and with a poorly conceived tacked-on end game: it didn’t make thematic sense and felt under developed. But Iron Curtain is a vast improvement, being full of interesting decisions and genuinely arching gameplay: impressive for such a small and fast-playing design. However, card draw can feel decisive in some games and for that reason – when compared to the dice battles of The Cousins’ War – I’d put the two pretty much on even footing.
Designer David J Mortimer has done a fine job of mashing up some unlikely design mechanic bedfellows to come up with a clever little game. The war game theme and basis will alienate some, while the Perudo-style bluffing element will have the same effect on others, but hey – no game works for everyone. The Cousin’s War knows it sits in its own little niche and is quite happy there, thanks very much – and I for one am glad I gave it a try. Definitely a keeper.
* Thanks to Surprised Stare Games for providing a copy of the game for review.