Last weekend, Somerset and I got a divorce. And we enjoyed ourselves so thoroughly that we later got three or four more.
Naturally, I’m referring to Kune v. Lakia: A Chronicle of a Royal Lapine Divorce Foretold, a game with such a run-on title that it might as well be a review in and of itself. Just yesterday I looked over another game by the same publisher, a little ditty called Pocket Imperium. While that game was technically competent, it was also mind-numbingly dull. Kune v Lakia sits on the other side of the spectrum: It may be a mess, but what a mess it is!
The idea behind Kune v Lakia is more complicated than it first sounds. Once upon a time, a bunny Duke and bunny Princess fell in love, and after a Disney-appropriate courtship (like two weeks maximum), they were happily wed. A few months later, the joyous couple realized they weren’t quite compatible. Now they’re fighting over who gets the royal tapestry collection, who brought the ducal hound to the marriage, and which of the two gets to stay in court while the other is banished to the social wilderness — it’s the little things that always hold up a divorce proceedings. At any rate, you probably gleaned all of that from the title. What you might not have figured out is just how to go about getting one over on your ex-lover.
That’s where things get sticky. See, this is a deck-building game, but only in the loosest sense of the phrase. Both Duke Kune and Princess Lakia start with a set of assets, whether assigned by default or drafted, stuff like the royal gardens, a family portrait, or exotic carrot perfume. From there, both spurned royals will attempt to use everything at their disposal to influence the court. By discarding sets of cards that match the icons on the various courtiers, you can sway them to your side, gaining control of their special ability and drawing one of their deck of plot cards. Over the course of your various plots and conversations, you’ll hopefully sway the majority of these courtiers to your side.
But that’s not all. I said this wasn’t your usual deck-building game, and I meant it. Rather than follow the traditional draw/use/shuffle cycle, each player picks up their entire discard pile at the end of every round. This plops a huge variety of options into your hand at once, and makes every round after the first somewhat bananas to resolve. It’s little surprise that most of our matches ended on either the third or fourth round. Which isn’t to say that the game ended prematurely; on the contrary, we were breaking the rules left and right, stealing courtiers out from under one another, conferring with those loyal to us, and generally being a pill to our onetime significant other. Kune would launch a plot with the Abbot that both swapped his allegiance and stored a card for extra points, I countered by influencing the Knight and forcing the duke to discard something valuable. He stole the Edge card, a powerful tool that further breaks pretty much any action, I chatted with the duke’s sister about what an ass he could be.
By the time Somerset achieved dominance at court, we were both emotionally drained. Because the game is about divorce, sure, I guess. But mostly because there’s no way to really plan anything. Oh, there are certainly short-term schemes to hatch, especially when you hit the third round and you’re holding enough plot cards that you can bounce them off each other in a way that bunny-kicks your opponent in the white’n’fluffies. But because all the cards you can purchase are hidden face-down until you actually make friendly with a courtier to nab them, your hand is assembled by luck rather than cunning.
The point I’m trying to drive home is that this is not what you’d call an elegant game. It’s deeply imbalanced, with the very real possibility you’ll pick up cards that have bonus effects only to realize they only trigger when held by your opponent. There are tons of ways to earn points — swaying courtiers, storing cards, holding the Edge at the end of the game, influencing ambivalent noblemen, and also pretty much every single card — so it isn’t always clear if you’re doing the right thing or just spinning in circles.
And yet, we’ve had a hell of a good time with it, if only because it actually does a pretty good job of capturing the aggravating tug-of-war that can occur between a couple whose relationship has descended into bitterness. Friends are commodities to be won, every little gesture and word is a slight, and all you can do is bounce along and hope you come out on top. In game terms, this means Kune v Lakia is fast and hard-hitting, more about the little victories won with every card than the grand scheme of things. Forcing your opponent to dump the card they needed to influence the King, then making nice with the old man even though he’s your opponent’s dad, makes for a spiteful and hilarious moment. The absence of any catch-up mechanic makes painful sense when you realize just how cruel a game this is. It isn’t about letting someone catch up; it’s about grinding someone you despise into the mud.
Which perhaps oversells the theme a bit. It’s not as though every single play makes me think about the politics of divorce, though I did promise my grandma on her deathbed that I wouldn’t spend a minute’s thought on leaving my then-future partner, so maybe I’m just not wired that way. Instead, I’m absolutely wired to love chaotic games where victory is as much a matter of chance as it is one of opportunistic cleverness. In that regard, Kune v Lakia provides a grand old time at the expense of elegance and balance.
I think this is the point where I’m supposed to say Just like a real divorce, but I wouldn’t actually know. Instead, I’ll say Just like bunny royalty.