Before we begin – I will assure you that this article does not contain any content spoilers for The King’s Dilemma.
Welcome to the wonderful world of legacy games, where the decisions you make in today’s game will have ramifications that ripple through the rest of your campaign! The King’s Dilemma seems to be an almost perfect theme for this particular format of games. Players are working as the King’s council, making decisions regarding the Kingdom of Ankist’s future. Each decision you make will change the course of history in the game, with each episode comprising one era of the fictional kingdom’s history. So, let’s do this lazy King’s job for him!
2-5 Player | 1-2 Hours | Designed by Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva
The King’s Dilemma was released in 2019 and in a very surprising (to me) turn of events has been nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2020. Because of this I was expecting a family weight game. I think this is both true and false of The Kings Dilemma.
The first thing that counters this point for me is the rulebook. I was very surprised to open the game and find an almost 50 page long rulebook. It is reasonably laid out and playing the first game you can ignore a few chunks of it, but that is still pretty unwieldy. Despite this, core game play is very straight forward. If someone takes the time to read through the rules, a run through of a round can be used to explain the game to your group within maybe 10-15 minutes.
The second thing to counter this point is the ‘heavy’ nature of the themes of the game. While our group generally approaches most games with a light hearted attitude, (and the game does disclaim on the front of the rule book that despite the heavy themes, it is still just a game), I can see the potential for certain gamers or groups to get caught up in heated ethical discussions as a result of some of the things you may be confronted with in this game.
Because of these things, and including the price point (it’s not cheap), my surprise that The Kings Dilemma was even considered for a Spiel award seems warranted. It is refreshing to see the committee branch out a bit more after some recent years of lighter, and more ‘mainstream’ games. I said that I think The King’s Dilemma is both family weight and not. It’s core mechanic is very simple, yes, but the combination of this, the theme, and the legacy rule set makes it a lot deeper and heavier.
How does it work?
The King’s Dilemma is a campaign ‘legacy’ style game. The story of the game unfolds over a number of episodes, and like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, the decisions of the players will influence the course of the story and the outcome of the game. In each episode, players navigate through an era of a single King’s rule, with the end of the era arriving when the King abdicates or dies.
The game is broken into rounds of which there maybe as few as 3-4 or as many as 10 in a game. In each round, a ‘Dilemma’ is presented to the council (comprised of the players). Dilemmas present the players with a short story and summary of the issue the kingdom is currently facing. It also includes hints of what may happen depending on the decision of the council (e.g. positive wealth or negative influence for the kingdom).
Each council member is a representative of a larger House from the Kingdom that has its own desires and a ‘Secret Agenda’. End game points are awarded based on how closely the end-game kingdom state reflects the Secret Agenda of each player. The primary mechanism for this is the 5 resource tracks on the game board. One player may want all resources to end up in high stocks. Another may prefer to drain the kingdom of resources, while a third may want everything to sit in a neutral state.
With the above Secret Agendas in mind, each council member votes in turn using their Power (a resource represented by tokens). The vote plays out a bit like a betting round of poker, with players being able to ‘raise’ their aye or nay votes until a consensus is reached. Once voting is done, the result of the winning vote is revealed – players won’t know the exact outcome of their actions until after they have enacted their policies. Vote outcomes will include revealing new ‘history’ (story), adding stickers containing ongoing effects to the board, and adding new Dilemmas to the Dilemma deck.
The episode will end when the King abdicates or dies. This can happen in two ways – either the stability of the kingdom moves out of bounds (and the King abdicates), or enough time passes (6-10 rounds) causing the game to end. At this stage players reveal their Secret Agenda cards, and score them based on the final game state.
So – How did our first game go?
For our play through of The King’s Dilemma we actually have 10 players, 5 couples. We have agreed to have each couple act as a House. I was interested in the prospect of coming together as a big group to play a game such as this and was hopeful that playing in this way would work well and not leave anyone feeling too left out. Barring the potential for some inter-relationship arguments concerning certain ethical decisions, it has turned out to work quite well, at least for our first game.
Learning The Game
After sitting down and ceremoniously un-boxing the game (as we do with all our legacy games), we got into the rules explanation. For previous legacy games, we have simply read through the rulebook at first play (for games like Pandemic Legacy, which we’re familiar with and had only 4 players). In this case I thought it would be handy to have a read through the rules in advance, and sought out another players to do so as well. This certainly paid off as holding the attention of a large group while teaching a game would be challenging when also learning it yourself from the rulebook. All in all I think the rules teach went pretty smoothly with the use of an example of how the voting round works. It wasn’t a catch-all, and there were plenty of questions and clarifications to be made, but I’m proud we didn’t have any major rules blunders in our first game. Certainly having two people with some initial familiarity with the rules was a good move. After running through the rules, we moved onto the first round of the game.
The First Round
The first round was pretty slow as there were a lot of questions, and hypothetical examples of what the outcomes might be and how they would relate to the house goals and achievements. In essence this was an extension of the game teach but with a more concrete and practical example, the group was able to get a better idea of what was going to happen. We actually ended up quite fortunately having a tie that required the moderator to break it, so we got some more experience with these edge case rules right away. The rulebook is quite good for looking things up, and even includes a very useful index that I used a couple of times to find what I was looking for quickly.
The Next Few Rounds
As the game wore on it looked like our promise of being able to play two games a night was wearing very thin. Debates were lengthy and negotiations lengthier, with the teams spending a lot of time in discussions over voting strategy and how to achieve the outcomes they favoured based on the ‘opposing’ houses’ desires. I do not mind this sort of thing at all, especially when it comes with a healthy dose of role-play and trash talk. It was a very entertaining session, and I felt like everyone got involved and had a lot of fun with the debates. A couple of times it got to the point where people were negotiating so much for other players to vote ‘their way’ that we stopped and thought ‘wait, what are we voting for again?’ I think if that can happen, it is the sign of a very well designed core game mechanic.
A ‘Quick’ Ending
About an hour and a half after finishing up the rules explanation we voted on our 5th and final Dilemma which caused the king to abdicate due to stability issues, ending our game. Scoring was mostly very close with a somewhat surprise victory from a fairly quiet house during the game – it seemed like things were just going their way for most of the votes and they didn’t feel the need to nudge them much more than they did. After cataloguing the game in the book and marking our house sheets we packed up the game with everyone looking forward to the next session.
What do I think?
I am certainly very impressed after my first game of The King’s Dilemma. I think that playing it with more people enhanced my experience of the game as there was more role-play based discussions, scheming, wheeling and dealing. Two brains are better than one! I hadn’t really done that much research into the game before getting this copy so I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect. I think my ‘elevator pitch’ description of the game would be: “What if someone took The Resistance, and successfully turned it into a legacy game?” While reading the rules and playing the game I did feel a lot of similarities between this and The Resistance designer Don Eskridges’ recent game Black Hole Council. Both games share secret agendas for each player, and voting on agendas with an incentive to further their secret agenda. I already really like Black Hole Council and I think adding a rich narrative world on to a similar sort of system in creating The King’s Dilemma, Horrible Guild have created something that feels really special and was very fun to play.
Concerns for future games
At this stage I cannot really see myself growing tired of the format of the game provided in The King’s Dilemma. Out of other legacy games I’ve played, Charterstone was the only one we actually abandoned due to nobody ‘feeling it’ anymore, and this was mostly because the gameplay wasn’t exciting. I think the exciting gameplay, strong narrative and interesting variable outcomes of this game should keep it fresh for the 15 or so games but we will see. While the narrative is exciting, the game mechanics themselves are certainly very simple and without a strong story to support them, they could wear thin quickly.
I look forward to posting a few update posts regarding this game as we go through. If you are interested be sure to subscribe and keep an eye out for future posts!
The copy of The King’s Dilemma used for this article was provided to The Boardgame Detective by Let’s Play Games on behalf of Horrible Guild.