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Preview: Keep the Crown

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The king, in his noble wisdom and generosity, has opened the royal treasury for all to partake in the abundance!  But like most things that sound too good to be true, there is a catch.  You may only take treasure in certain amounts and in a particular order.  Are you smart enough to sort through the jumbled cache before the other commoners beat you to the best riches?  Eh, if not, you can always resort to a little magic and even some old-fashioned sneakiness!

[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, non-production prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product may feature some slight variation in game play, art, and components.]

4-player game set-up.

How it Plays

Keep the Crown is an abstract, set collection game.  Players lay chips to a board hoping to create a linear sequence of three or more, thus capturing them and earning their specified number of points.

The unique, diamond-shaped game board consists of thirty-four hexes.  Four rows are labeled A through D while the opposite four crossing columns are labeled 1 through 4.  The four rows on each outside are colored yellow, blue, red, and green respectively.  A pair of custom dice has face values that correspond to these numbered rows, columns, and colors.  Then there are 150 chips – gold and silver in denominations of 1, 2, and 5, four different shapes of gems in four different colors, and wizards and thieves.
All of the chips are shuffled, turned face down, and randomly stacked in several groups (called the vault).  Seed the board with two random chips and deal five more apiece to each person.  Then you’re ready to begin.
Each turn, players will first draw a random chip from the vault and roll the dice.  The result of the toss gives you a set of coordinates – you place the chip in the hex that corresponds to the row/column/color designated on the dice.  If that spot is already occupied, there is an arrow indicator pointing to an adjacent hex where you’ll place the chip, instead.  If that one is already filled, as well, follow the next arrow, and so on, until you get to an empty spot.

No, it’s not Battleship(tm).

After resolving that first chip, you’ll then play one or more from your hand.  However, you can only place chips next to a similar type, and even then only in a straight line, if playing more than one.  So a gold piece can be placed next to another gold, regardless of denomination – same with silver.  Any kind of gem, no matter the shape or color, can be place next to other gems.  At the end of your turn, always refresh your hand back to five chips.

The goal is to create sets of three or more.  However, collecting sets works different than the placement rule – it is more exact.  A set of coins must be identical in both color and denomination.  A collected group of gems can be either all the same color or all the same shape.  After making a set, you take those chips and add the points specified on them.  Coins are worth their face value, while gems earn various points based on color.  One player will keep a running total, frequently calculating and updating scores.  The current leader is the holder of the Crown chip.  The individual in last place gets another special token, the Wand.

There are two cases in which you might not play chips to the board.  If you have no chips which can be legally placed, then you must discard one and draw a new one from the vault.  Or, if you don’t want to play, you can do the same thing.  However, you cannot discard any piece that can be legally played.  In either case, discarding and drawing ends your turn.

The wizards and thieves are special character tokens.  Wizards are standard “wild card” pieces worth twenty-five points each.  Using two in a set doubles its value.  Collecting a set of three or more triples and quadruples their worth.  Thieves are not worth any points and you don’t collect them.  However, you can use a thief to swap with, and steal, a treasure chip on the board.  Or you can just straight up block a spot by placing it on your turn.  Either way, the thief stays and cannot be moved later.  Furthermore, playing a thief does not count as your action for that turn, making it a nice way to pick up that third piece needed to make a set.  Pretty sneaky, huh?!
Finally, there are two abilities associated with the Crown and Wand.  As holder of the Crown, the current leader may take two turns – but may not score (collect a set) during either move.  Essentially, it is way to line-up pieces for later, block another run, or grab an extra piece from the vault.  If you’re in last place and hold the Wand, you get to choose where to place the chip drawn from the vault at the start of your turn, rather than roll the dice.  That can be a nice way to set yourself up to score with playing from your hand immediately after.

As the game progresses, various chips will start to clog up the board, no longer able to form sets.  When the entire board is filled, the game ends.  The current holder of the Crown keeps it for the win.  It’s good to be the king!

The Crown. You want to keep it!

Crown Jewel?  Or Royal Pain?

It can be difficult to design a family-style, strategy game that really works with a wide scope of ages.  Not only should the rules be simple and accessible, but the theme must appeal to a broad age range, as well.  Kids do best with a basic, core set of rules enhanced by repetitious action; and tend to eschew dryer themes that hint of economics or trading (farming perhaps an exception).  At the same time, adults playing games with kids quickly lose interest with overly-simplistic designs and immature themes that offer little to no variety or choices.

Keep the Crown works well to bridge that age-range gulf.  It is not Go or Chess, offering tons of calculated and strategic depth which will frustrate children.  Yet it is a giant step up from Sorry or Life, allowing for some nuance, subtle planning, and actual decision making which adults will appreciate.  Perhaps the greatest strength lies in its familiar mechanic – set collection.  Rummy is a common card game introduced to kids at an earlier age than are most other titles; plus it remains a popular choice for family and casual gatherings with older groups.  So many people will already understand the design’s main concept and goal.  Even if the mechanic is foreign to some one, it’s still easy to learn.

Them wild and wooly Wizards…here one completes a set of blue gems.

The “play and draw” mechanic is likewise straight-forward and intuitive.  At the same time, while that basic structure drives the game’s action, there are additional elements to add variety, yet are just as easily grasped.  Using the wizard as a wild card conforms to that well-known aspect of many family card games.  The thief is aptly named to take chips off the board.  The Crown and Wand give special abilities to those who hold them, but are not complex.  Yet all of these simple variations give players a degree of tactical jockeying to complete sets, block others, or set up moves so that you’re not completely at the whim of the draw.

The initial draw and placement of a piece from the vault each turn is another minor element that has a big impact.  It appears disjointed at first, and may seem a little frustrating, as it is governed by a die roll.  However, the vault chip helps to populate the game board and can fill things up quickly, if you let it.  This forces players to move, discouraging them from just sitting and drawing until they have a good hand, and keeps the game paced well.
The Wand is a clever catch-up mechanic and is resourcefully integrated into game play.  The ability to place the vault chip wherever you like to begin your turn is a strong one – but not as in “breaking the game” strong.  Essentially, it gives the current loser an extra chip in her hand, unencumbered by normal placement rules.  While it won’t always be of immediate benefit because it depends on the draw, it may allow that individual to score a set or set one up to do so from her hand.  In a game of this nature, the Wand is an appropriate inclusion and well implemented.

Thieves can clog up the board and cause general mischief.

The theme, as much as you might call it such, is completely pasted on.  Keep the Crown is an abstract design through and through.  However, the idea of a kingly treasure, wizards, magic, and thieves help give flavor and vibrant artwork to attract some attention that it otherwise probably would not garner – especially from children.  Otherwise, the theme operates much in the way that the “courtly” veneer works in Chess – pure window-dressing with no effect on mechanics.  But it’s more than Checkers.

Keep the Crown has a solitaire variant.  I have not tried it, as I’m not a fan of analog, one-player games.  Game play does noticeably change depending on the number of players, so there is some variety in that aspect.  However, no compliment is worse than another – it’s just different.  And the website offers several other variants to increase interaction and challenge for your kids are ready for that.  The designer hopes to include an online implementation in the future, as well.

There are a few things you should be aware of.  While the final product should be top quality (if the prototype is any indication), there are a lot of chips.  This is one fiddly game – primarily with set-up and putting away.  In terms of game play and strategy, it is also easy to “feed” another player, which may frustrate some children.  While some adults may appreciate the tension that injects into strategic thinking, others may opt to “sit and wait,” drawing chips until they can place an entire set.  This won’t be possible 100% of the time, but it really slows the game down when a player opts for such a tactic.  You may seek to implement a variant rule or mechanic to minimize it, so that it doesn’t dilute the design’s strategic elements.

Pulling off a double set is rare and earns big points!

Keep the Crown has all the elements necessary for a family game bridging the appeal between kids and adults.  The strategy it offers is light enough to teach children without frustrating them.  Yet, the design also includes special elements and unique abilities to provide variety and nuance that adults will appreciate.  And its familiar set collection mechanic and whimsical theme will prove welcoming to all ages.Keep the Crown will run on Kickstarter through October 30.  You can get the basic game for a $40.00 contribution, which includes lots of custom bits – and other perks are possible at higher funding levels, as well.  If you’re interested, whisk on over to the campaign page to pick up a copy before all the shinnies are gone.

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

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