Sadly, as Dennis the Peasant reminds us, you don’t become king by random aquatic ceremonies or yanking weapons out of masonry. Too bad. Those are rather peaceful way of ordaining monarchs. Alas, there are but three ways to inherit the throne. You can pray you’re born with the right blood and at the right time; and just have the crown handed down to you from daddy. Or if you’re not quite the next in line, you can “ensure you become so,” wink, wink. Otherwise, you’re going to have to fight for it.
How it Plays
In War of Kings, players lead squabbling houses contending for the big chair of Aroywth. Starting with a minor fiefdom, a couple of settlements, and an army, you set out to expand your realms and grow stronger. Establishing prosperous towns, carving out an empire, and amassing vast fortunes earns you renown, aka achievement points. The first noble to earn 13 achievement points through developing his lands will be crowned King. For a breakdown of game play, you may quickly run over to my previous Kickstarter preview (or send one of your servants to do so), in which I cover the essential rules. Go ahead. I’ll wait…just don’t take too long!
Alright! So now you know that War of Kings is a thematic area-control, conquest game with resource management, empire building, and some card-driven elements. Armies play an important role, but are singularly generic and abstract, even limited. This is not a “dudes-on-a-map” design with individual sculpts representing dozens of different and varied units. You can build and grow settlements, fortify them for greater defense, and connect them with roads to earn gold and move armies faster. Player elimination is possible, but the game will likely end before that scenario occurs. Instead, victory is points based. Battles are resolved with custom dice – and generally quick affairs, because of the game’s more limited nature of warfare. Cards resolve the Marauders, a non-player barbarian civilization that can both wreak havoc on your plans or aid your cause against opposing contenders. Other cards grant modifiers in different aspects of play and dice determine exploration into new territories.
There are a lot of pieces and tokens and dice in War of Kings. The rule book isn’t thin. The whole affair looks suspiciously like a war game. And as it promises conquest and kingdom building, it can be intimidating once all sprawled out across the table. However, once you venture forth, will you find the land of Aroywth more inviting than first meets the eye?
The King is Dead, or Long Live the King?
In my Kickstarter preview of the game, I said that War of Kings “distills the elements of a grand strategy conquest game into a compact and imminently playable experience without losing its epic flavor.” It accomplishes that feat by focusing on the forest over the trees. Its mechanics abstract much of the detail and the effort is better off for it.
War of Kings gives players a good deal of discretion as to how much interaction they’d prefer engaging in. You might have sessions with major battles and lots of them – especially with more players (in fact, I recommend a fuller compliment of claimants to the throne for that very reason). Or you can concentrate on building and developing your realms, using the military merely as one of the means to attain that end. Focusing on a strong military at the expense of your economy will prove perilous.
The fact that War of Kings is not strictly a war game should broaden its reach and appeal. It’s as much about resource management, building, and development, which are elements to numerous hobby games. The theme is solidly medieval grounded, which should help. While high fantasy and magic can be cool for a lot of gamers, those elements tend to push others away. Despite the fancy pronouns like Aroywth and Malador, this is simply an alternatively imagined world. There are no wizards, dragons, or the like to be found.
There is randomness involved in a couple of key aspects. One revolves around Event cards. First off, you must roll to see if you even get one each turn. The more territory you own and the more developed your settlements, the easier it is to acquire an Event card. I like how that rewards expansion, but it can also tend to favor the leader and pad his/her position. Then again, sometimes your result activates the Maladorian, sending you to the Marauder deck, which can bode either good or ill tidings!
Overall I am still very impressed with the Marauder mechanic. It really enhances the design’s theme with an ever-present “barbarians at the game” element. Your borders are never as secure as you may have thought, and they add a rather unpredictable factor with which to contend. At the same time, you can also use them to your advantage. Taking a Maladorian village sitting there ripe for the picking is a nice way to expand your own empire. And it allows you to mess with another player on the opposite side of the board with whom you might not otherwise interact. Most striking of all, their inclusion feels balanced almost perfectly. They won’t sweep through your lands like an unstoppable horde. Yet, they’re enough of a nuisance that you can’t simply ignore them without detriment, and they can still be an effective “ally” in thwarting opponents’ plans.
The second element of luck is in battle. Now, the custom dice and combat mechanics are designed together to give the attacker slightly better odds at even strength. However, marching into an engagement 1-on-1 is a risky affair. In one of our games, a player lost his starting army on its very first move. As a result of exploring, it discovered a Marauder army and was forced to give fight for at least one round. The Barbarians wiped them out in the first volley. Typically, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable going into battle with numerical superiority (granting bonus attack dice) and behind fortifications (granting bonus defense dice).
Thankfully, you can be pretty discerning in player vs. player battles. Most of the time, you will maneuver so as to achieve numerical superiority or make sure you have a favorable Event card to tip the outcome in your favor. And if the odds are stacked against you in an invasion, you may quietly retire from the field and slip away, rather than offer battle, living to fight another day. This gives the design yet another grand strategic scope. Warfare is often one of maneuver, rather than attrition.
One of the more significant mechanical revisions in the game’s final production copy is resolving exploration. The prototype design utilized a separate Discovery deck. Now, however, when players move an army into a previously uncontested territory, he/she will roll a purple bonus die and one colored resource die. There is a handy chart on the rule book’s back cover that lists 13 possible dice icon combinations. Simply consult the chart based on your dice results to find what is waiting for you. It could be resources, or nothing at all, or a Marauder army protecting a settlement and ready to pounce! I prefer this method because it means that any event is possible, whereas with a deck of cards you will know that certain scenarios are out of play once drawn. It is a very simple, yet extremely effective, design element.
Obviously, the final components are a major difference as concerns this review from my previous preview. How do they stack up with comparable designs? Well, they’re okay. The board is very good. The cards are of nice quality with decent artwork. The other tokens representing coins, damage, and roads work as purposed. The resources come in denominations of ‘1’ and ‘3’ in little laminated strips of about 1×4 inches – they may receive mixed reviews, but I like them and think they work well. The custom dice are serviceable, but unfortunately some of the icons can be difficult to discern at a distance – and I mean like normal playing distance.
The rule book is a bit lengthy, but very well done. It can be daunting at first because it reads a bit more like a manual and is a little wordy. However, I found it well organized, written clearly, and narratively smooth. While we had to hunt and peck for a few detailed rules, it was overall easy to reference.
The only component aspect I do not like are the armies. Despite their central role, they are simply represented by simple tokens which lay flat on the board. The prototype had standees, and that would have served much better. Because of color choices, they are often confused and even blend in with the resource icons printed on the board. The red player’s armies are nearly indistinguishable from the orange Marauder armies but for the symbol on the shield. The white and black players can similarly be confused. People naturally tend to see color at first glance to distinguish playing pieces, but here you really need to focus on the crest. That said, the custom molded settlement and fortification pieces are a nice touch and so go a long way in making up for other shortcomings.
To paraphrase what I’ve now said twice: War of Kings offers an epic gaming experience without the day-long commitment. Obviously, that requires a few tradeoffs. It’s not as detailed, crunchy, or militarily diversified as some other war and conquest games. And randomness has some influence. Instead, it focuses on the broader scope of expanding and developing. War of Kings takes the big picture, smoothly integrates it with well-blended mechanics, and presents it in an exceptionally playable package.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank RAINN Studios providing a review copy of War of Kings.