When you put Rurik: Dawn of Kiev out on the table it certainly looks impressive and perhaps leaves you wondering what you have. Is it a glitzy Ameritrash area control game – big minis and a gorgeous board. is it a crunch Euro? Resource meeples on individual player boards; numbered wooden workers on an action selection board and a tiered VP conditions tracker?
Well, the answer is it’s both; it integrates some of the best of both genres and it does so really very well. It shares the most DNA with Scythe, but in my opinion – possible heresy, I know – it is far superior: there is much more player vs player interaction on the map which brings a whiff of Cyclades and Inis to the mix.
However, Rurik brings particular mechanical novelties to the table which means it stands on its own two feet. The action auction at the beginning of each turn is particularly strong. You place meeples on a tiered grid of 6 action types, and you can place them in any order.
The numbers on the meeples indicate their power but also initiative order in the ensuing turn. Low number meeples will trigger earlier but are more likely to be bumped down their action column to lesser effect levels of the chosen action.
There are 6 actions to choose from. Three affect troops on the map: muster, move, and attack. The tax action is for gathering resources. Buildings may improve taxation, change a meeple’s allegiance in a region or make a region more defensible. The final action, scheme, gives access to special cards. This might, initially, seem underwhelming as they often give additional actions which are the same as those on the strategy board. However, as they are hidden their impact can be pretty dramatic. Equally, some of the scheme cards offer different bonuses. These are far more varied in their powers, which is a bit of a quibble for me.
It’s Going to Hurt You Head
Deciding what value meeple to put where is a fantastic puzzle and I think at the core of the game. But it has an extra wrinkle which makes it even more satisfying. You can temporarily boost a meeple’s power through ‘bribes’ – so a 1 meeple with 3 coins on it will trigger first, with the other 1 meeples of your opponents, but has a power of 4 and can only be bumped down the track by a value of 5 or greater.
This is a real brain burner which is highly interactive and encouraging both strategic thinking and tactical adjustment. You are balancing the potential power of the action you need with when it will trigger and then trying to manage your money to get the most you can from these decisions. Yes, there is the danger of AP slowing the game down depending on your players. However, to my mind, this ‘auction programming’ is just as the publisher describes and it is absolutely fab!
Pushing For Points
Other strengths include the VP system with tiered scoring conditions. This is highly focused as you score points for the number of regions you rule; the number of adjacent regions you have build in; the number of resources you have accrued on your player board and your success in warfare. But what makes this particularly satisfying as once you hit a particular threshold it is locked in place. This means, for example, a quick burst of territory acquisition will get you end game points but then you don’t have to hold what you have taken. Or you can go heavy on resource acquisition, but then once you have tipped the threshold you are satisfied with, you can use some of them rather than holding on to them in perpetuity, trading them for extra muster or build actions.
There is plenty of additional spice (though not too much) through player asymmetry: your leader has a unique power that they can exercise depending on where their miniature is on the board. Worth noting that some seem better than other. There are also some individual routes to a few extra VP through agenda cards received at the outset, and deed cards received during the game.
Finally, some words on combat which I find satisfying and combines enough certainty with just the right amount of luck. When you attack, you always inflict a casualty on your opponent but a draw from the schemes deck determines whether you suffer one. The numbers of cards drawn and thus the likelihood is increased if another faction has majority presence in the region or if they have a fortress built there.
A Visual Treat
Rurik pulls all of this mechanical goodness together in a cracking setting - c11th Rus - which as a history teacher is totally my bag and is comparably ‘Vikingy’ for those less familiar with the early Middle Ages, but avoids use of that overused trope. The art, design and production values of all components are absolutely sumptuous, and it is a gorgeous thing to have out on the table, albeit the table is going to need to be pretty big.
It plays with 1 to 4 and would veer to three or four rather than a head to head, for the best experience. Solitaire is sophisticated and good, but I find it a little over complex relative to the joy of the experience; I’d rather break out Gloomhaven, though that’s a very different thing.
Overall, Rurik is a pretty crunchy beast. Target audience is likely to be more experienced gamers, though it plays well with Euro and Ameritrash fans which is a real boon. You are going to need to put aside a good couple of hours to play … but oh boy, those are a couple of very satisfying hours that will be well spent. It definitely deserves a space on your shelf.