I enjoy complicated games, but not if they’re so complicated that they detract from the business of having fun. I enjoy games with theme, but not if the theme comes at the expense of solid mechanics. I enjoy games that will keep us entertained for an evening, but I can’t ever set aside four or five hours in one sitting.
For any metric that you want to judge a game against, there is a spectrum. At each end of that spectrum you’ll find games that fail: they are too simple or too complicated; too short or too long; too adversarial or too light on interaction. But every now and then, a game will come along that hits a sweet spot: it occupies the perfect position on a particular spectrum for you.
(Of course, for you is an important phrase here; everybody will have different opinions on this.)
A few examples of games that do this for me would include the following: Power Grid, for hitting a complexity sweet spot of being difficult to master without being hard for newcomers to pick up; War of the Ring, for mixing theme and mechanics so beautifully that I can’t ever imagine a game toppling it from that particular sweet spot; and Eclipse, for managing to find a delicious balance between outright conflict and solo engine-building.
But it’s rare to find a game that hits multiple sweet spots. War of the Ring (and I say this with clenched teeth) is probably a touch more complicated than it needs to be. Power Grid doesn’t exactly drip with theme (in fact, once you’ve played Power Grid you’ll discover that it’s actually a train game…). And to set up and play Eclipse (all those cubes…) requires a fair chunk of time. That’s not to say these aren’t great games: they each simply offer something different.
And then you have Lancaster, a game which has been around for several years by this point, but escaped my attention until just last year. But now that I have played and bought Lancaster, I can say this:
Lancaster might just be the most well-rounded game ever made.
That’s because it hits loads of sweet spots. It’s a straightforward worker placement game — think Village or Stone Age for baseline complexity level — with just a few tricks up its sleeve. Your workers (or knights) can evict lower-rank opponents from a juicy position, which totally mixes up the planning process as you need to keep an eye on which powerful enemies are yet to play.
The scoring, and other game mechanics, are affected by a voting round where players can influence which new laws come into effect. So the core gameplay is easy to grasp, even for those who haven’t played a worker placement game before, whilst there are enough interesting new elements to appeal to veterans. The decision-making in the game is agonising without being difficult or leading to (much) of that dreaded analysis paralysis. Sweet spot.
The theme is fairly light — which is no surprise for a Euro — but is in no way abstract or pasted on. The setting is the reign of Henry V (the ‘Lancaster’ of the title) who was a chap very occupied with conflict in France. Players are nobles trying to compete for favour at home whilst balancing this against the immediate (but risky) reward of joining the King for a bit of a scrap abroad. The game mechanics feel totally suited to this, but it’s not dry and there’s no in-game text, cardplay and so on trying to pad out the theme. Bang on the sweet spot.
Playing time is around 60 minutes for two of us, a figure which will extend — but not significantly — with a full complement of five. It’s a big board (very rich) with a ton of nice wooden pieces, that doesn’t take an ice age to play. Sweet spot.
Talking of the two-player game, it comes with a dedicated ruleset for duos whereby each player has an ally (a dummy player, basically) who can occupy positions on the board to freeze out your enemy without scoring or collecting resources themselves. It works like a charm and allows the game to function well for any number of people. Interaction — at all player counts — is antagonistic without being directly confrontational. If you kick out an opponent’s knight, there’s usually somewhere else he can go, falling back, if all else fails, to his own castle where he can continue to be productive (albeit at a reduced efficiency) no matter what. You can’t ruin someone else’s game by picking on them, but you can scupper their plans in delightful little ways here and there if you can spot what they’re planning. The sweetest of sweet spots.
Overall, Lancaster is a real gem. It’s not necessarily the best game ever made on any one front: if you like historical games, you’ll find ones with better theme. If you like complex Euros, you’ll find ones with deeper mechanics. If you always play with a certain number of people, you’ll find games explicitly designed to be best at that count. But as a jack-of-all-trades, a game which does so many things well and hits this many sweet spots, it’s a triumph.