Unicornus Knights somehow finds a way to turn the much maligned escort mission into a charming adventure you’ll want to revisit again and again.
Japan’s board game scene is largely known for doing a lot with a little. Distilled mechanisms, shorter play times, sharp aesthetics, simple rules, et cetera. So when two of the most lauded designers from the east, Seiji Kanai and Kuro, get together for a collab you would think you’d know what to expect. After all, these are the folks that made Love Letter and Ars Alchimia; they make great games that demonstrate restraint as much as ambition. With that said I’ll give you a second to guess – what kind of game would they produce together?
Pencils down – is it a big box cooperative wargame? Is that what you expected? If so, you’ve already heard of Unicornus Knights and this whole bit was for nothing, because otherwise there ain’t no way anyone saw this thing coming.
Unicornus Knights is an odd duck. It’s the only large-box entry in AEG’s Big in Japan line, a tragically under-advertised series of localized games that seems to have been forgotten by many, including AEG themselves. And it deserves that box – the thing is loaded with cards, dice, standees, and weird flower-shaped tiles that could as well have just been hexes but I won’t dwell on that.
The game itself is best explained in pieces. Imagine Fire Emblem, with all the varied characters and permadeath that the comparison entails. Mix in an event deck, a lot of die rolling for combat, and highly variable setup so the mission will play out differently every time. Oh, and the mission itself? It’s the best kind, everyone’s favorite:
E S C O R T M I S S I O N
And not just any escort mission, no no. Unless you play with the version of the princess that allows you to control her directly, UK is an escort mission with an AUTOMATED escort. The princess wants to oust the tyrant that stole her throne and by golly she is going to go there, risk be damned. She’ll take the path of least environmental resistance towards her goal with very little care given to the waves of enemies between her and it. Can she fight? Oh absolutely, and she’s even good at it. But will she walk into a battle she’ll objectively lose? Friends, the answer is an emphatic yes. Princess Cornelia may not know the meaning of the word fear, but by the end of this you sure will.
In order to keep her from dashing herself on the rocks of a dozen anime villains, players are given a large group of potential heroes to play as. These run the gamut of character archetypes as you might expect. You’ve got your straightforward smashy commanders, bandits who loot the bodies, support types that boost their comrades through buffs or raw economy, hell there’s even a dragonborn guy who runs solo with no troops whatsoever. Though the roles are largely predictable for the genre they do provide some solid variety. There’s 12 of them and their strengths are noticeably different, which is all the more relevant once they start dying in combat.
To keep the Fire Emblem comparisons going, death is not a joke. Dead characters are replaced with new ones, the old ones chucked back into the box never to be seen again. Thank you for your service. This does mean that some turns of UK lead to thematically uncomfortable decisions. Got a character who’s ended up too far from the action? It’s not unreasonable to send them on a suicide mission, weaken or kill a boss or two, then when they inevitably die, replace them with a character that spawns in closer to the princess. Grim, but that’s war I guess.
I’ve misled you a bit. The actual play of UK is less about tactical combat, though that very much plays a role, and more about logistics. In order to move any unit anywhere, including the princess, you’ll need resources. And if that unit is beefed up with soldiers? Well naturally you’ll need even more. You can have the best fighting force in the world but an army marches on its stomach. A significant amount of time in a game of UK is spent acquiring resources from towns and cities, as well as sending them to your nearby allies and the princess so they can get things done. When played with other people this can sometimes mean that a character’s best option is to dredge up a bunch of goodies and then ship it off to another, more strategically relevant character so they can have a powerful turn. If that sounds unappealing I would recommend playing the game solo; it supports this, and arguably may be the game’s best player count unless you rely on bouncing ideas off of others to make headway. That isn’t to say that UK is the most complex game to suss out, far from it. Not that you’d know that from the rulebook. Rare is a rulebook so ineffective that the publisher puts out a digital-only 2.0 of it, but that’s the situation here. You can download the better rules for free and I highly recommend you do. It doesn’t fix everything, but it’s a serious improvement over the book in the box, which is poorly structured to the point that simple things like combat are harder to understand than they need to be. It’s a roadblock to what is otherwise a smooth playing experience.
I want to skip the segue and talk about one of my favorite parts of this game – the fate deck. Whenever one of your characters gets close to an opposing boss, a card from the fate deck is drawn for that enemy. These are absolutely wild. Sometimes it just makes them a bit stronger or springs a trap that wounds your hero, but often it reveals “plot” details that throw a wrench into the proceedings. You may discover that the villain is actually a long lost family member who will gladly join your cause, or that they’re sympathetic to the princess and will ally with her if they meet but will otherwise fight you, or that they respect strength more than leadership and will swear loyalty to you on defeat. Alternatively they could end up being the emperor’s right hand and become an absolute monster – who knows? My point is that this gives the game a sense of being lived in. Instead of just proceeding through a tactical exercise, you’re experiencing one of many struggles in a kingdom that existed before and will continue to afterwards. The story changes with each play and that gives it some legs as far as replayability goes. Maybe this time you can recruit the gigantic dragon and wreak havoc? You sure hope so.
Unicornus Knights is a game that should not be – a logistical nightmare combined with an escort mission that somehow manages to be compelling and, dare I say it, fun. In a way this does continue the trend of Kanai and Kuro distilling games to their essence – this time with a wargame, a genre that’s known for being many things but approachable is rarely one. The way it blends optimization puzzling, its dice system, and non-scripted story beats together is unlike anything else I’ve seen. If you were looking for a game to crunch on in the midst of social isolation, this one is a gem.