Crown of Emara: A four-sided game review

Crown of Emara* is a mid-weight action selection euro game for one to four players, that plays out in around an hour (making the 45-75 minutes on the box shockingly accurate). The recommended age (12+) also seems fair, as there’s a lot going on here – and a lot to grok before you get going on your first play.

In the box you’ll find eight modular board pieces (making two boards), four player boards, a nobility board and a score track; plus around 75 cardboard chits, 70+ wooden pieces and almost 100 half-sized cards. Artist Dennis Lohausen does a great job, as always, of bringing the predictable medieval setting to life with a bit of colour and nice graphic design; and the components are all of solid if unremarkable quality. At around £35, I reckon this offers great value in the current climate.

As you’d expect from a German euro game, the theme is very much pasted on – but it does its job well enough. Players vie to be the successor to the king – which they do by, you know, using actions to collect resources before handing them in to get various types of points, as efficiently as possible. Yup, we’ve heard it all a thousand times before (and increasingly, a thousand times per year) – but fear not: this is a good one.

Teaching Crown of Emara

This is one of those euro games where you need to do a lot of explaining right at the beginning – but once you get going, it’s pretty straightforward.

Players will have a lot of options available to them right from the off, and your total number of actions is quite limited: to do well, you won’t want to waste a single one.

Thematically, you’re each aspiring to the throne – but this is far from Game of Thrones territory. It’s a time of peace where the king’s favour will be won by persuading the happy growing populace to like you, while housing all these new citizens at the same time. In old Knizia scoring style, you will have both a housing and popularity marker on the score track – and the weakest of your two at the end of the game will be your final score. So, the key is balancing the two.

A game is played over 18 quick-playing rounds, which will see each player go through their set of nine action cards twice. Each player has the same set of cards, but they’re shuffled and drawn in sets of three (reminiscent of Feld’s Notre Dame, but without the drafting). On their turn, a player will do both the action on the card they play plus a movement action – and any of three bonus actions (once each per turn) that are always available if you have the resources to carry them out.

Five of the card actions simply give you one of the game’s resources; one lets you do another movement action; while the other three let you do another standard game move slightly more efficiently, or from outside its usual area. Bonus actions allow you to variously rise through the ranks of royalty (for easy popularity points), gain a helper in town (for a big variety of immediate and/or ongoing benefits) or gain a helper in the countryside (to help you gain more basic resources).

But where the game’s real puzzle lies is in the movement actions. Each player has a game piece on each of two modular square boards (the town and countryside) which they move around clockwise, rondel style. When you play an action card, you place it into an empty slot on your character board which will then see you move one of those pieces one, two or three spaces.

Wherever you then land you do the associated action – while the position of your character also dictates where you’re allowed to hire help (with your bonus actions). As you have to put one card into each slot, and have to move the set amount of spaces from it, this makes each set of three action cards a tricky balancing act (once you’ve played three, you turn them over and draw your next three cards).

Where countryside actions are very straightforward (basically gaining resources), town actions can be more complex. Most have several actions you can do once each, so it’s usually best to build up to them – but as other players do these actions, they become more expensive throughout the game – meaning holding back is going to cost you. It’s not really interaction, as such, but it does make you distinctly aware of the goals your fellow players are going for as the game progresses. At the end of the game you can trade in any remaining bits and bobs to help pick up your weaker scoring element.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Designer Benjamin Schwer is known for children’s games – but Crown of Emara shows he definitely has it in him to design for grown ups too. It’s one of those games where you want to be doing everything all the time, and where you constantly feel you’re one or two resources short of where you want to be – but that’s the kind of challenge I really enjoy. And while the two types of scoring could’ve felt frustrating, the fact most resources can get you either type helps a lot – you just have to be as efficient as possible, no matter what route you decide to go down.
  • The thinker: While the game has engine building elements and you can set out with a particular strategy in mind (even more so once you hire a helper or two), the three-card draw – and having to match them to the movement actions for maximum effect – adds a delicious tactical twist. Some will think the game too short, as it seems to end just as you’re getting going, but for me it gets the mix just right: it’s rare a really thinky euro game packs a bunch of tough decisions into an hour, but that’s exactly what has been achieved here – with the final three turns always being a real brain burner. And it really helps knowing that you’re going to see each of your cards twice – but when…?
  • The trasher: Crown of Emara is far from being a conflict game, but it does have some sneaky elements and I found myself enjoying it with four players (less otherwise). You have to move fast to get bargains in the town, or to claim the people you want to help your cause; and ramping up prices in town once you know what resources people are working on keeps you on your toes. Also going up the royalty track faster gives you more points than those that follow. But this really isn’t a game for people who need ‘proper’ player interaction in their life!
  • The dabbler: I was very worried about this one when we started as their were a lot of initial rules. But I found a simple route to follow (going up the royalty track) and stuck with it as I learned the game – and while I didn’t win, I was in the mix at the end! By then I had the game down, so my next play I could experiment. It can be frustrating if people take the characters you want, but there’s always another way to get what you need. It’s a very colourful game, without being too busy, so it looks nice on the table too. I wouldn’t ask for it, but I’d happily play again.

Key observations

Crown of Emara is a classic German euro game with a very specific audience: resource efficiency lovers who don’t require player interaction to have a good time.

Yes, the theme is paste on and no, not all of the actions make thematic sense but hey – it’s not as if you should be expecting that from the game and I don’t think it pretends to be anything it’s not.

The game also has a number of variants that can change things up, which feel just right for this kind of euro puzzle. You can mix and match the modular board to blend town and country, making for a really screwy and tricky layout; while another official variant is having all nine of your cards in hand to give you more control (you still play through all nine twice, but in the order of your choosing). This is the kind of variability that really adds to a game without adding components and it’s great see how well it has been thought out – essentially adding expert versions you can delve into if you feel the need for a different, even thinkier experience.

Finally, having admonished publisher Pegasus for its poor handing of gender politics in Showtime, it’s only fair to note the nice little touches here – male and female sides for player boards, and male and female meeples on the main boards that aren’t tied to one or the other (only the royalty promotions are single sex). It boggles the mind how they can get it right here, but completely miss the mark on their other Essen 2018 release. Let’s just hope that in future there will be more Emara moments than Showtime ones.

Playing Crown of Emara solo

It should come as no surprise that this ‘multiplayer solitaire’ game has a solo mode. You either try and beat your own previous score in a one-off game, changing difficulty by altering the starting position on the housing score track; or play a campaign.

In either instance you’ll be up against Victoria, the dummy player. All she really does is get move through the royalty tiers (which can cost you a few points) while earning points (and weakening for you) all the scoring opportunities at the main town spaces. Also, don’t get too excited about the ‘campaign’ mode: it’s really just a way to track your progress game-to-game, as you ramp up the difficulty for the next game if you manage to beat Victoria on the score track.

That said, while not exactly groundbreaking, the solo mode works well and the dummy player is very simple and quick to move along – you can get a game done very quickly and it’s a satisfying experience. I enjoyed my solo play and would happily try it again, so if you like this kind of game anyway I’d certainly recommend it.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is ‘event cards’. One is turned over in each game round (so it last for a full three-card action sequence) and they have various effects: it may simply give each player a resource, but it can make a certain board spaces better (or even worse) for those three actions. These can be fairly inconsequential, but they do add a little more variety which I think you especially appreciate in solo play.

Conclusion

When I was planning for Essen this game wasn’t even on my radar, but it has turned out to be one of my biggest hits from the show so far. I’m a sucker for a rondel and both the speed and thoughtfulness on display here really blew me away. While there’s a lot of options, nothing feels tacked on – it all slots together perfectly and while it takes a bit of teaching to get going, the elegance soon shines through. A definite keeper for me and a potential top 50 game for my all-time list.

* I would like to thank Pegasus Spiele for providing a copy of the game for review.

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