Somehow I’m gonna have to talk my way out of this one. Normally I’m involved in every decision the House of Dualak makes. This time, however, his plan doesn’t work for me at all. To enlist the farmers in a war that may never come would only lead to worse harvests. The people of Ankist now remember that my house was responsible for the last great starvation. I don’t want to take the blame for that. But maybe I can turn it around so that I agree with him, but he will be the villain here. The North sticks together, after all… At least as long as it fits in with my plans. Much more interesting things are happening down there in the south anyway.
Negotiation games are rarely or never on the table with us. When I discovered The King’s Dilemma by Lorenzo Silva, Hjalmar Hach and Carlo Burelli from Horrible Guild in the preview for the 2019 SPIEL in Essen, I was immediately excited about the idea. Unfortunately Jan was not so easily convinced. He couldn’t imagine that the simple gameplay could be fun for an entire campaign. In the meantime, the campaign has ended with the German edition from Heidelbär Games. We had a lot of fun with this great game and this is mainly because of the story it tells. Our aim now is to explain why we liked The King’s Dilemma so much without spoiling the story for you. Challenge accepted.
A visit to the Kingdom of Ankist
If you want to get into the right mood for the setting, here is the thematic integration of The King’s Dilemma: Every player at the table is one of the advisors of the King of Ankist and representative of one of the powerful families of the kingdom. In the course of the game we advise many kings over generations and with our decisions we guide the fate of the kingdom and ideally help our family to have more influence. If you want to dive deep into the game right from the start, you will find details about the neighboring kingdoms, a little history and information about religion in Ankist in the instructions.
Which house do you belong to?
The game starts with the choice of a house for each player. According to the instructions, this should be between 3 and 5, but you can definitely delete the three. For a great experience, we recommend that you play at least with four players, or even better with a full house. But back to the houses: Each of them has its own screen, on the outside of which you can find a matching banner, and that’s exactly how we chose our houses.
A rose, a tower on a turtle, a purple porcupine? We just followed our instincts when we made our selection. On the inside of the screen, however, there is also more detailed information. Of course, you could also use it when choosing your house, but that was too boring for us. You get a small historical outline, you get to know the attitude of the house towards the king of the kingdom and there are several boxes to check off.
On the right side you will find your house achievements, which will bring you bonuses when you reach them. At the bottom centre there are boxes that will earn you reputation or ambition if you choose a suitable agenda card. On the left is a whole bunch of boxes for that reputation or ambition. These will become more and more checked as you progress through the game, depending on how you perform in the games.
Yeah. So it’s all about victory points, one or the other will assume now. That’s only partly true, because apart from the fact that you’re busy checking here, you don’t really know anything about the final score you’re heading for at the end of the campaign. That leaves some players a little bit disoriented, which I found quite appealing, because nobody felt like they were far behind during the campaign.
What’s your deal?
But we don’t want to talk about the end when we are still at the beginning. Each player now gets money and influence markers, which he stashes nicely behind his screen. We don’t want anybody to know how much you have. Then everyone gets a secret agenda card. The player with the least reputation is allowed to choose a card first. The player with the most reputation has no choice anymore. This is especially annoying if the card neither fits the house nor is it easy to fulfill. These ominous agenda cards bring victory points at the end of the game.
Also you get points for the rank of the money you collected. How many that is and if it’s worth it depends on the agenda card. If you play greedy, you get more than if you play rebellious. The top of each agenda card refers to the resource bar, where you can move markers for influence, wealth, morale, well-being and knowledge during the game. If you play the agenda card moderate, you want the markers to be in the middle of the board. With the wealth card, you want to move the markers to the upper area, which indicates that the Ankist Kingdom is doing well in all respects.
A story is created
After you’ve shuffled the initial story deck, you’re ready to start your first game. The King’s Dilemma has no complex rules. In fact, the game works very simply: A story card is drawn randomly, read aloud, and then a vote is taken to decide whether to accept or reject the suggestion. The markers on the resource track are adjusted and a few more things may happen. After that, the next story card continues until the stability marker hits one of the two edges or the king dies. That doesn’t really sound like a gameplay that can be fun over more than ten games. But it does anyway.
The drawn story card always contains only one piece of story. As the campaign progresses, new cards are added from the numerous envelopes contained in the game box. This way, new storylines come into play, which then develop a little further and reveal a little more each time another card from that particular story is drawn from the stack of story cards. So as the game progresses, you’ll have your favorite stories that you’ll want to hear about as you play. For example, we were very attached to the stories about the areas where our houses came from. There was a real feud between the north and the houses that weren’t from the north of Ankist. For better orientation, we also had one player use the map to show where a particular event from the card just revealed took place.
If you have a choice…
In the actual voting process, you can either vote yes or no or pass. If you pass, you get a coin from the supply and either power from previous votes at the end of the round or you can take the moderator token. At the beginning of the game, this marker, which can decide ties, is given to the player with the least reputation. If you choose to pass, you cannot intervene in the voting.
At the end of the round, however, you get power from the balance area of the game board, where the power given by the winning side in the vote is put in. If you are the only one to pass, you get everything. If there is a lot of power from the previous round, there was a good chance that several players would pass, at least in our case. However, if there is a lot of power there, the power is divided equally and there is not so much left for the individual.
Whoever has the Leader token must first decide how to vote. The leader token also moves to the player who has just offered the most power to one side. Once you have decided, you may not change your mind. Once you have voted not to ban slavery, you cannot change sides in that vote, no matter how much your opponents argue against you. As the leader token moves, you may need several rounds of voting in which you can increase your power for the outcome you favor.
The bidding will continue until the vote returns to the leader token. The side that bid the most power wins, the story card is flipped over and the appropriate section is read. The consequences of yes and no are already indicated on the front of the story card, but can go much further. For example, markers on the resource track can be moved and stickers can be placed in the chronicle section of the game board.
Do it yourself a chronicle for gluing
These stickers can mark positive or negative events that you have caused for the Kingdom. A famine, for example, or the abolition of slavery. Each sticker is signed by the responsible council member with his or her house name. In this way you will always know in the chronicle of the kingdom who was responsible for those moments that are especially worth remembering.
At least in theory. Because the person responsible is always the one who was in possession of the leader token at the end of the vote. This is the one who offered the most power as an individual, but it doesn’t mean that he decided the vote for his side as well. We learned quite quickly that you do not necessarily want to put your house name on unwanted stickers. After all, it’s always better to have someone else take the blame for unpopular decisions that are good for you. In every further game already existing chronicle stickers get a cross. If all fields for a resource are already pasted, the oldest sticker is taped over.
The moral index finger?
There is a creepy dynamic in these simple votes. Arguments for or against a particular decision seldom convince anyone, because you already know which result will bring the most to your own house. If you want the markers to move far into the lower range, you are unlikely to vote for something that seems to have the opposite effect. Some votes, on the other hand, are very unimportant. Then you can be bribed, because that is also allowed. Provided of course that money means something to you. You can’t apply moral standards to votes. Righteous well as in the role play the shining knight is represented, is here often no option.
The decisions that are most beneficial to one’s own house are often not those that would be morally correct. Religion, war, slavery, murder, punishment for breaking the law and other questionable topics all come to you in the guise of the fantasy story. If you have a problem with this being the subject of a game, don’t bother with it. The topics and decisions should not burden you beyond the game. They are thought-provoking, but they shouldn’t be a burden on your soul. We have ruined our kingdom altogether. Personally, I wouldn’t have wanted to live there, even though a member of the council certainly enjoys some privileges.
Death, suffering or a prosperous kingdom
As already mentioned, voting continues until the stability marker, which is always moved parallel to the actual resource markers, reaches one of the two extreme levels. Then either things are too bad around Ankist or everything is just sunshine and couldn’t get any better. That this happens from time to time and such games can end quickly is due to the momentum marker that resource markers get when they move.
If a marker is moving in positive direction, its bright side is turned up. If it then moves up again, it also gets momentum and will be moved a few extra squares when it next moves in the positive direction. Since the stability marker always moves in that direction, too many decisions with a positive effect on the resource markers without negative compensation can end a game of The King’s Dilemma just as quickly as a tendency to make terrible decisions.
More often, however, we had the case that a game was triggered by the death of the king. This is determined by a maximum number of story cards per game, after which the first story card with a skull symbol indicates the king’s death. It is therefore not clear when a game ends before it begins. So you don’t know how to use your power markers. Whose side wins a vote has to give up its given power. Whoever is among the losers gets it back. Especially with regard to your own house successes, you don’t want to be left with too little power in important votes. Fortunately, during the campaign you hopefully learn what makes the other players tick, how to manipulate them so that they vote in your direction or when there is no point in trying to push something through.
The king is dead, long live the king
The winner will now be determined by how many points each person has achieved on the agenda card, the remaining power and the money. In later games, depending on the signed stickers, you will receive so-called agenda tokens for the resources. If you were responsible for the famine a few games ago, you should avoid that there is still too little food in the following games. A dark agenda token for well-being indicates that this marker should not be in the last or second last place at the end of the game, otherwise I will get minus points. If I have a white agenda token, I bask in the successes of my predecessors and receive bonus points if the corresponding resource is also in first or second place in the following games.
Now, depending on my ranking in the victory points, there is either prestige, ambition or both, which I can check off on my screen. The winner’s house then marries into the royal family and the winner is allowed to give the new king or queen a name and enter it in a fancy table at the end of the rules booklet where all scores are recorded.
What remained of the game
Afterwards the next game can be continued. From the second game on you have to live with your decisions. The decisions of your ancestors still have an effect in the kingdom. The events on the chronicle stickers will affect the starting position of the resource markers, and the agenda markers will hold your families responsible for the actions of your ancestors. In the story deck, you will find the immediate and ongoing consequences of your decisions in the form of the resulting storylines you have set in motion.
At the end or at important intermediate steps in a plot, special cards are laid out again, which have a longer lasting effect over several games. They also trigger the stickers in the rules booklet. If you have six stickers, the end of the campaign will be heralded and the final game will begin. Of course I don’t want to reveal what exactly this is. We finished after a total of 13 games, but you can need a lot more.
We create our own The King’s Dilemma
The atmosphere at the table was always special after a rough start. Not only were we looking forward to an evening with our normally nice players, but especially to the infamy and cunning of our council members and the history of our kingdom Ankist that unfolded before us. The first game is a bit of an exception to this, as it takes a little time to get used to the already quite extensive instructions before you are ready for the rules. It was also unusual not to know what you are actually playing on. The King’s Dilemma leaves one very much in the dark. Only after a few games you get a rough idea of it, but you can’t play specifically on something.
Mine, yours, our
The stories themselves are partly generic, but they could surprise us again and again with variations from the standard part, which we had taken for granted until then. It is served to us in bite-sized pieces and still gives a rounded overall picture. Even if by far not all plot lines are finished now at the end of the campaign, we had a great and harmonious journey through this crazy Ankist and his neighbouring kingdoms. We felt a bit like the little council from Game of Thrones and our decisions were sometimes at least as unpopular and morally questionable as those of the Mad King or Cersei Lannister. In the end, we all cared more about ourselves and our home than the welfare of the kingdom.
Which storylines are triggered by our vote differs significantly from what happens in other campaigns. It is our history, the Ankist Kingdom is ours, it is the result of our choices, good or bad. That is something you feel very strongly in the campaign. It has an impact over games or in other words decades and generations. In our game box, about half of all the envelopes are still open and are not part of our chronicle. They are witness to the many diversions that we have not taken, missed opportunities or catastrophes that have been bypassed. This feeling of moving something and of creating and experiencing something of our own has pleased us immensely.
And that’s what makes a good legacy game for us. We don’t just want a game that gets more complex with every game and keeps coming up with new rules. The important thing is the story we experience, which is ours and not that of another group. Of course there can be overlaps, but the many unopened envelopes alone show how complex the decision tree in The King’s Dilemma is.
The helplessness of the vote
However, one must abandon the claim of being able to plan everything. There is no way The King’s Dilemma can afford that. Even your own house successes are sometimes not manageable, because the decisive vote comes at a time when you have too little power and money to influence them in your own favor. You can certainly force the result of one or the other vote, but you have to spend a lot, sometimes more than is good for you. But you also cannot always remain passive and wait for the moment that is important to you. After all, the markers rarely move by themselves exactly where you want them to (although this can happen). Even if you don’t know what the end of the campaign will be like, you have an idea that it can be an advantage to win a game every now and then.
Anyone who frequently visits our blog here knows that we always give everything to create the right atmosphere at the table. Ideally, there is also a little role play. We like to get involved in the game and live out our roles. But that wasn’t as easy in The King’s Dilemma as it was in other games. Identifying with your own house was not as easy and it takes a few games to at least get a sense of what kind of game and tactics would suit your house best. You also learned to assess the other houses. However, the biggest motivation for a little more thematic atmosphere at the table came from the geographical distance to others. That may have been a little bit copied from Game of Thrones, but it was only good for the gaming experience.
Should you play The King’s Dilemma?
The big question is now: Can we recommend The King’s Dilemma? The Spiel des Jahres jury has at least already put the game on the nomination list for the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2020. This is already a great honour for such an unusual and unconventional board game. It is not very accessible from a rules point of view, although the actual gameplay is very simple and catchy. However, just like Detective in 2019, The King’s Dilemma suffers from one problem: you need the right group.
The right group is the bargain for legacy and campaign games. However, you don’t have to play all the games one after the other in rapid succession, as we did in Detective, to remember everything. You’ll still want to do it, though, because we think the board game rewards you with an experience unlike any other. This is not a guarantee that you will have the same experience, but we hope you will. We’re glad we played The King’s Dilemma and so far it’s one of the best games we’ve played in 2020.