One of my favorite things about Spirit Island, my current favorite solitaire/co-op game, is how R. Eric Reuss’ design isn’t the usual solitaire/co-op paradigm. You know the paradigm from Pandemic, Arkham Horror, Flash Point, Zombicide, Dawn of the Zeds, Nemo’s War, and so on. Four bad things spawn, but you only have three actions to take bad things off the board. Now survive until the game clock runs out. It’s a rote exercise in plugging leaks that arbitrarily ends at some point and you either made it and won or didn’t and lost. The other alternative is punching something with a lot of hit points until you win. Sure, there are some exciting variations in the punching, such as the superhero decks in Sentinels of the Multiverse or the economic engines spooling up to cycle cards in a deck-builder called Aeon’s End. But it still comes down to punching a big bag of hit points.
Enter Unicornus Knights, a refreshingly unique solitaire/co-op game with its own paradigm. Want to play a cool game where secret destinies unite allies and enemies, interesting characters navigate a randomized map, and love conquers all? First, allow me to introduce Princess Cornelia, who is going to screw it all up.
Oh, I also need to introduce you to fourteen unique bad guys, only twelve of whom will be in play in any given game. Well, sometimes thirteen since one of the bad guys is actually twins. Each bad guy has a tile, and when you randomly build the map, you determine which bad guys will be in play. They sit at the assigned starting places on their tiles. Now your characters have to cross the map, picking and choosing their way among the enemy tiles and their corresponding enemies.
A few basic rules determine what the enemy units will do. Most enemies will simply attack you if you’re adjacent, so steer clear. Alternatively, lure them into attacks while you’re in defensive terrain. They’re dumb that way. But an enemy marked aggressive moves toward your closest character. An enemy marked defensive sits like a bump on a log so you have to do the attacking. It’s easy enough to manage, especially once you learn the enemies. There are only four of the possible fourteen that are aggressive, but I put a red dot on their plastic stands to remind me. (This just in: I’m an idiot. I just noticed that the backgrounds on the aggressive character standees are red and the backgrounds on the defensive character standees are blue.)
I don’t even really need the red dot any more. Is it the barbarian, the dragon, the vampire, or the sister from the Forts? No? Okay, then so long as I don’t move one of my guys next to them, they won’t do anything.
Mostly. Walking through the Pit of Suffering, where the King of the Abyss lives, is going to cause serious attrition. The Necromancer will continually stock the Fields of Woe with her cheap armies. Presumably skeletons and zombies. Easy to plow through, but annoyingly persistent. Better to steer clear, but not always an option depending on how the tiles are dealt. The random map in Unicornus Knights creates distinct strategic challenges. And not just a “mountains are here, fields are here, so it’s easier to go through the fields” challenge. Terrain is very important, to be sure, but what’s more important is the unique character of and the unique character on each tile. Every tile comes with one of the enemy characters. Will that tile and therefore that enemy be off to the side? Will it be in the middle of your path? Will it even come out this game?
On the other side of the equation are fifteen of the princess’ loyal followers. Each of them also has his or her own tile placed at the edge of the map. Now get to the other side. Each player picks one character if you’re playing Unicornus Knight as a co-op game (not a good idea for reasons I’ll explain below). If you’re playing as a solitaire game, you’re building a party of characters. What I really like about these characters is that each one feels overpowered. Each one feels like he or she is breaking the game in some significant way that you can’t do without.
For instance, you will always want to bring the mage who can safely nuke enemies from a distance. You will always want to bring the strategist who can send supplies and reinforcements for free. You will always want to bring the hardy dwarf who gets a virtually unbeatable advantage when he lures enemies into attacking him. You will always want to bring the dragon who moves for free and doesn’t even need armies or supplies. You will always want to bring the knight who can freely heal your units in a game where healing is exceedingly rare. Oops, there are five characters you will always want to bring, but you’re playing with four characters. The tough decision isn’t which characters will you bring. The tough decision is which characters will you leave behind.
While the enemies are mostly passive, and the heroes sufficiently powerful to knock them around handily, what really drives the gameplay is that darn princess. Princess Cornelia is backstory backstory backstory. She backstoried the backstory and backstory at backstory. A comic book in the first few pages of the rules explains it in more detail, and character bios in the rules explain it even further. But in gameplay terms, she’s keen to overthrow a corrupt emperor. Unfortunately, she’s not very smart. Sorry, Princess, but you’re not. Self-preservation is not one of her strong points.
The fundamental structure of Unicornus Knights is the princess in the lower right corner and the emperor in the upper left corner. All she cares about is moving into his tile to retake the castle. Every turn, based on the size of her army and the amount of supply she carries, she will Leroy Jenkins along the most direct route. Is there a dragon in the way who will kill her? She doesn’t care. She smacks right into the dragon and game over. Is she marching through the Pit of Suffering, bleeding armies along the way? She doesn’t care. Her army dies away and now it’s really cheap for her to move and she’s racing into a small stack of armies that kills her. Is she about to step out of range of the support character who’s sending her reinforcements and supplies from the nearest city? She doesn’t care. She will run out of steam wherever she runs out of steam while the game clock ticks away.
A couple of caveats. This is billed as a co-op game, which means solitaire to me. It’s an excellent solitaire game in which you control multiple characters with unique abilities. But with multiple players each taking one character, there will be pacing issues. Some turns are spent literally sitting in town gathering supplies. Grab some chits, turn is over. Not very dramatic. Now wait while all the other players fight battles, chuck dice, flip cards, and earn cool new ally powers. Furthermore, some of the characters are almost strictly support roles. The merchant Madam Josephine and the War Academy student Annelie are designed to bring up the rear, where they will sit in cities and give other players reinforcements and supplies. They will go entire games never fighting a battle. Hey, want to play a cool game where secret destinies unite allies and enemies, interesting characters navigate a randomized map, and love conquers all? Okay, you get to hang back and sit in a castle the whole time. I’ll let you know when I need supplies. I doubt this is going to endear anyone to Unicornus Knights. If you think it’s bad playing the cleric in a party, try playing the quartermaster. Of course, this isn’t an issue playing solitaire.
Also, be warned that the rules included with the game are wretched. They’re a worst-case scenario for how to write rules. I suspect it’s mostly a translation issue, but even then, they’re not organized very well. You’d never know from trying to learn how on earth combat works that it’s actually elegant. But this isn’t a Euro game and it’s not easy to learn. The layout, the iconography, and the interaction of the various components have the clumsy feel of an amateur designer or an inexperienced Kickstarter campaign. You’ll get past these eventually, but they’re sitting in the way as you’re figuring out the game. Make sure you download the revised rules.
Once you’ve gotten past the unnecessarily steep learning curve, Unicornus Knights has unique character for these three reasons: 1) the randomized game board comprised of unique tiles with tons of character, 2) the overpowered hero characters, and 3) the single-minded princess AI plowing along whatever route lies in front of her. Similar games are all about controlling the rate at which you move and attack. You decide where you go. You decide what to fight. You’re in complete control against the AI system. But a Unicornus Knight doesn’t have that luxury. A Unicornus Knight has to clear the way for that darn princess. Not that you don’t have input over the princess. You do. A lot. You determine the size of her army and the amount of supply to funnel to her, which means you determine her hardiness and speed. You can also manipulate her with occasional cards you get to draw from a support deck. What’s more, there are four variants of the princess, one of which is relatively weak, but her weakness is offset by you moving her wherever you want. The hardier warrior princess takes less damage. A princess called the “lucky girl” variant starts you off with a whole mess of extra support cards for one-off special powers. These support cards are normally rare, as you can only take one a turn, and even then you have to spend one of your precious actions. But the lucky girl princess begins the game with a ton of support cards already in play.
And while you have control over the princess’ hardiness and speed, Unicornus Knights isn’t content to let you plan your way across the map. It’s going to throw twists at you. The most obvious way it does this is with an event deck as a game clock. Each turn something bad happens to screw up your plans. It’s harvest season so you can’t recruit armies. The princess is suddenly surrounded by armies. One of the enemies you killed is resurrected in the capital and is now waiting for you at the other side of the map. This is pretty standard game design, and the deck is arranged so the events go from mild to worse. There are only ever ten events, because there are only ever ten turns. If you haven’t won in ten turns, the deck runs out and you lose. Getting the princess to the emperor’s capital in ten turns is the only victory condition.
But then there’s the Fate deck. This is where Unicornus Knights really shows off developer Seiji “Love Letter” Kanai and Kuro’s playfulness. This is where you see their willingness to break everything. This is where the game is absolutely not for people who want to meticulously plan their Pandemic turns, weighing the odds of that Lagos card coming up before the researcher can get to New York to pass the New York card to the medic. It’s not even really a game for people who begrudgingly let dice wiggle the gameplay within the parameters of a handful of six-sided dice (although combat in Unicornus Knights is very dice-y). Every time your characters approach one of the enemies, you flip a Fate card from the deck to determine their relationship. Be prepared for that card to subvert everything you’ve prepared. Psychic sand maiden Donia has stocked up to attack Lord Demian, the vampire who resurrects himself every time you kill him. Very annoying. But as she moves onto the Nightless Castle of Decadence tile, she flips a Love at First Sight card. Now you’ve got one less enemy to worry about and suddenly Donia has the special ability to steal soldiers from adjacent armies because Lord Demian is her lovestruck follower. Alternatively, she could have just as easily flipped the Emperor’s Right Hand card and now Demain has a bigger army and you can’t win the game unless you take him off the board. Or even worse, the Bane of the Capital card and now the Princess veers off her path for the capital to suicide into an undead vampire unless you can kill him first and reset his Fate.
Half of the cards in the Fate deck give you some new advantage. Some way to turn an enemy into an ally, which will give one of your characters a unique power to represent his or her new friend. Such as the psychic chick with a vampire stealing adjacent enemy armies. Or a dwarf with a dragon breathing fire in battle. Or the emperor’s chancellor working with your merchant to finance the princess’ march to the capital. These mix and match powers are rare enough to be memorable, but frequent enough to look forward to. In my last game, the half-dragon character who can fly freely around the map was carrying a befriended Ice Lord on his back. Their fire and ice packed quite the punch.
Since only half of the Fate cards are favorable, and not all of those guarantee you’ll be able to take an enemy character as an ally, you have to get lucky with the card draws if you want to learn new ally powers. It’s the game’s equivalent of leveling up, I suppose. It’s all up to the Fate deck, which is probably why it’s called the Fate deck. But hold on. One of the characters is the emperor’s daughter. If you manage to take her as an ally, you automatically recruit anyone you defeat. Now she’s helping to win over her father’s loyal soldiers into your army. One of the enemies is so unique, it does an end run around the Fate deck. Take that, Fate.
These sorts of exceptional gameplay tweaks are baked into nearly every tile, every enemy character, every friendly character, and every Fate card that determines their relationships. Unicornus Knights is a game for people who want to let crazy stuff happen in their boardgames. You have to be comfortable with narrative behind the wheel. You will plan out the logistics of who has how much supply and how many reinforcements and on what type of terrain they’re sitting and how far it is to the nearest city. That’s the bulk of the gameplay. The framework is a relatively hardcore logistics wargame. But in the end, what really sealed the deal was that vampire falling in love with your sand maiden. If you’re looking for memorable moments in games, you’re looking for Unicornus Knights.