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Review: Kings of Israel

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Really, they had it all.  Divine favor and protection had delivered the Jews from bondage, brought them into a country of their own, and laid out a set of rules to live by – literally carved in stone.  They had one job!  Obey the Lord.  Alas, they went astray and then whined for kings to rule over them.  Well, they got what they wanted.  Except that didn’t work out so well, suffering through one bad monarch after another.  Blessedly a few of stout heart and worthy soul stayed true to arrest the decay, gather the flock, and deliver the message of both salvation and judgment.  The Prophets.  Will you be a major one?  Or minor?

How it Plays

Kings of Israel is a cooperative game – players are not actually kings, but rather a team of prophets delivering the Lord’s message throughout the Kingdom of Israel preaching to the people, destroying idols, making sacrifices, and building altars to fight the spread of sin and eradicate it where possible.  If you and your fellow men (and women) of God can build enough altars to the Lord in a certain amount of time, you will return your people to the one true path.  Otherwise, evil overruns the land.

At the start of this holy crusade, each prophet gets a random ability and two resources, both represented by cards.  You also place an altar in the capital, Samaria.  The country is then seeded with sin and idols by drawing location cards and placing the appropriate tokens at the resulting cities and mounts on the game board.  The specific number depends on the player count.  Finally, another marker is placed on the timeline track, which is a list of the, well, Kings of Israel.

It’s good to have a skill, that no one can take from you.

Game turns represent the reign of one king.  To begin his rule, you will draw a Blessing card if he is a good king (not very many) or a Sin & Punishment card if he’s a bad one (which happens to be the vast majority).  These are very much how they sound.  With one, good things happen.  With the other, bad things.  You don’t have to be a CSI detective, or even actor, to figure it out.

At the start of each new regime, except for the first turn (thanks Saul!), sin spreads throughout Israel.  Like initial placement at the game’s set-up, this happens randomly through drawing Location cards.  However, if sin spreads where there are already two or more cubes, then the inhabitants make an idol.  And if sin pops up again where one of these graven images are present, evil spreads to all other places connected to that spot!  Additionally, some cards in the Locations deck are “Shall Be Again” cards.  Upon drawing one of these, you pick up the discarded Location cards, shuffle them, and place them back on top of the Location deck, thus increasing the likelihood that sin will influence the same recent locations, spreading even wider and possibly creating more idols.

The timeline of, mostly bad, Kings of Israel.

With all of these holy transgressions, you can imagine there’s a lot of work for you and your fellow prophets.  So players now alternate taking four actions each via a standard action point allowance mechanic.  On your turn, you can move to an adjacent location by road or sea route for one action point.  You can preach, which removes one sin cube.  You can spend two actions to destroy an idol.  You can take a new Resource card.  You can give up to two resources to another player at the same location as you (discuss amongst yourselves).  You can build an altar by spending a Gold, Stone, and Wood resource card – only one altar per location.  Or you can sacrifice a Grain and Cattle resource card at an altar in order to remove all sin cubes at that location, plus one in each neighboring place.

To win, players must collectively build enough altars to atone for the nation’s sin.  That number is seven for a 2-player game, on up to nine with 4 players.  If you fail to erect these before the end of the timeline, the land succumbs to evil.  Likewise, if at any time you run out of sin cubes or idols to place on the board, the nation also falls.  In either case, sin is so prevalent, influential, and rampant, you’d be better off moving somewhere less unruly, like Las Vegas.

Gloom, despair, and agony on me. Sin has overrun the land!

Absolved? Or in Need of Confession?

Biblical and Judeo-Christian themed games are a rather mixed bag.  Most have been labeled as “preachy” and/or are quickly relegated to the Sunday School teaching bin, though unfortunately the greater sin is that they are completely devoid of any solid game play.  Is Kings of Israel any different?  Can a game which can also be used in a Bible study appeal to a broader audience?

Indeed it can.  However, it may not be original enough for many gamers.  If you’ve ever played Pandemic, you’ll recognize a lot of familiar pieces in this one, with a few additional elements along with some tweaked ones, and of course different chrome to fit the ancient Israeli theme.  The mechanics that are here – action point allowance, set collection, and cooperative problem-solving – are solid, if derivative.  Yet they do honestly create a tightly packed game with a good dose of tension that crescendos well.

An altar unto the Lord.
An altar unto the Lord.

Kings of Israel has a clean structure with simple, straight-forward rules.  It is very teachable to new gamers, and lies firmly in the gateway camp.  I do like the action point mechanic, in general, and this design balances it well for accessibility and playability.  There are seven actions to choose from and you may do four things – albeit three if you choose to destroy an idol as one item.  That gives you a nice array of options, plus you can always duplicate an action, if you’d like.  Each individual action is simple and all resolve quickly.  At the same time, four actions never seem enough to do everything you’d like, which is an indication that a design is using this mechanic right.  This creates some tense moments and eliminates down time.

The game comes with a great range of character abilities – more so than with the average cooperative game of this type, weight, and style.  Typically you deal them randomly to players at the beginning of the game.  These, of course, increase variety and replayability.  But they also boost straight up playability, giving each player a distinctive role to perform during the game.  A sense that everyone has something special to contribute.  It really gives the design some nice character.

Use your abilities wisely…

Randomness also enhances the design’s replayability.  As you might have concluded, Kings of Israel is full of uncertainty as hotspots flare all around the nation in arbitrary locations.  The result can be a bit chaotic.  However, in a design of this weight and nature, that works in its favor.  It means there will never be a universal “solution” to the game and each session will play out differently.  Rather addressing and solving the growing puzzle becomes one of teamwork.  Success depends on efficiently utilizing each prophet’s unique trait and resources on hand together, in order to slow the spread of sin and build enough altars to overcome the spreading evil.

A game about sin should include some sort of temptation!  In Kings of Israel, that lure is to go after the sin cubes, which sounds logical enough.  However, the victory condition rests upon altar building, not just getting rid of sin.  Spending action points to eradicate sin one cube at a time is necessary, but soon seems like putting out a campfire while the forest burns down around you.  You have to find a balance between proactively working towards victory and reactively stalling the inevitable.  Thankfully, building altars is not just the end goal, but also creates a more efficient way of exterminating sin through sacrificing.  All in all, it’s a really nice tug-of-war that builds increasing tension as the last king’s reign, Hoshea’s, looms larger and larger on the horizon.

blessings

Blessings are good. Sin & Punishment not so much.
Blessings are good. Sin & Punishment not so much.

So the game is challenging.  If you’re playing with someone new, especially a new gamer, or kids, you might want to dial down the difficulty with the “Easy” version.  This has two changes.  One, Resource cards are played revealed so that it’s easier to coordinate trades, altar construction, and sacrifices.  However, as a cooperative game, we freely discussed our resources, anyway – it just seems natural as a team game.  However, the second revision is more beneficial in that when one prophet makes a sacrifice, he/she may draw a Blessing card.  These are really nice, but you usually only see a few of them in a normal game.

If you would like an even greater challenge, you can play with the false prophet.  This is not a “traitor” mechanic controlled by one player.  Rather it is another token that will move about the map, spreading more evil with his lies and making it difficult to remove sin.  He may even take down altars!  You can destroy a false prophet by catching him at a location with an altar before he can destroy it.  But he respawns again later.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

The theme may likely be a hang-up for some, but it shouldn’t be.  Not that it won’t attract attention because one should worry about it offending any sensibilities – Kings of Israel is not overly religious.  It just happens to be based on Biblical history.  There’s nothing preachy or judgmental here, by any means.  Really the concept of sin is just a stand-in for any other creeping enemy from any other cooperative game that inevitably festers, and grows, and surrounds, and chokes you out until it seems like the world will fade to blackness and insanity!  You know, like with zombies, or aliens, or diseases and such.

Where it may detract some, instead, is with the bad rap that religious themed games sometimes get – that they’re just not all that good, being worried more about delivering a message, rather than good game play.  Though Kings of Israel is a solid game, it still may not prove popular.  However, there is an audience in the faith community that is looking for well-done religious games, too.  I think it’s larger than most people realize, though I admit I’m part of that audience, so my perception may be tinted.  In any event, the publisher includes a supplemental Bible study tool that one can access online.  And they have plans to implement the cardboard version to some sort of digital/video game format.  So while it can, and certainly will, serve the “Sunday School” niche, it’s not limited to it thanks to actual, good, working mechanics.

The components are fine.  They range from average quality, like the sin cubes and cards, to the pleasantly customized prophet, idol, and altar tokens.  It’s no more or less than what I expected.  The artwork is interesting.  The illustrations immediately remind me of that found in Sunday School curriculum Children’s ministry material.  I’m not saying that’s bad.  I think it’s appropriate to the theme, though I don’t know if that was their aim.  It’s certainly well-drawn and colorful, not far off the quality of the usual comic book artwork.

The sweet aroma of a sacrifice to atone for sins.
The sweet aroma of a sacrifice to atone for sins.

Kings of Israel defies the stereotype of “lame religious game.”  It is a legitimate design with mechanics comparable to any in the hobby – indeed perhaps too comparable.  While it may seem very apropos to the Sunday School classroom, most gamers won’t be particularly concerned with that.  After all, it is a good, honest cooperative design, delivering tense choices in an effort to stem a spreading problem that threatens to overcome you at every turn.  The main issue for most will be its derivative nature.  Again, this is a solid design, but not a new one.  If you have several coops, already – especially those of Matt Leacock’s Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and/or Forbidden Desert line – Kings of Israel won’t add anything extra to your collection.  Then again, if you play a lot of cooperative titles and want more – or if you don’t have many and would like an accessible representative title – then I can recommend Kings of Israel.  And not feel guilty about it!

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Funhill Games for providing a review copy of Kings of Israel.

Summary

  • Rating 6.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Simple and accessible
  • Different modes to adjust difficulty
  • Good puzzle-solving aspect with
6.5 Average

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Another Kings of Israel Review Posted | Funhill Games

  2. Backed this on Kickstarter and appreciated the refinement of the game’s design as the project went along. It started off pretty well and just had some minor tweaks along the way. Seeing the recent reviews, even from some atheists, it seems like this is a solid game. I look forward to seeing how they handle the computer version, but more look forward to getting the actual game. The only problem then is trying to work around the “alpha gamer” issue that’s so prevalent in these types of co-ops.

  3. Jason Meyers

    Peter, if you play strictly by the rule in which resource cards are hidden information, it will help alleviate the “alpha gamer” issue, because then other players never know exactly what you can do. Alpha players may still be able to “forcefully suggest,” but that rule does give each player a better sense of control over their own status which you don’t find in many teamwork designs.

    • Good point, but I find it’s more that it can be really easy to have one person making lots of suggestions and seeing how everything can fit together. Even with the hidden resource information, I’m not sure how much that will be alleviated. I guess I just see the discussion phase of “what should we do” easily turn into one person seeing the best way to proceed. With what I’ve heard of the difficulty of the game, I don’t think we’d switch to hidden resource information too quickly. 🙂

      Still looking forward to it – the theme should work well with most of our friends and family with whom we play games.

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