There’s a disclaimer on the front page of the rulebook for Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva’s The King’s Dilemma, the latest hot thing in legacy games. Written with an assortment of bolded words that would do a comic inker proud, it promises morally challenging situations, tough choices, and sensitive topics. “Remember that this is a just game,” it proclaims, flipping its grammar and its intended meaning. “You’re playing a fictional character. Even if the game world follows elements of the real world, nothing should be taken as real.”
What follows is everything I dislike about board game narratives, wrapped together in an exceptionally compelling package. At least the game is telling the truth about presenting me with “tough choices.”
One of the inherent difficulties about critiquing legacy games is the need to talk about the game without spoiling any of the things that happen in it — a near impossibility when the game is functionally a sequence of paragraphs. To fix this problem, I will pretend to be a guest author for The King’s Dilemma. Here’s how a single round might play out as we draw a single card:
A poor farmer supplicates the council on behalf of a negligible village a short distance outside of Brambleditch. [Pause a moment while Geoff finds Brambleditch on the included map. We have assigned him this duty because it’s funny to see him struggle to read all the fantasy names.] According to the farmer, swarms of locusts have invaded his fields, and the village is on the brink of total starvation. Unfortunately, the locusts seem to have made their way into our kingdom via the baskets of millet we imported from the Severine Kleptocracy. Should we halt all trade with the Severines to stem the tide of millet larvae across our borders? Yea or Nay?
At this point, we’re given a few glimpses of information. If we vote Yea, our kingdom’s prosperity will be harmed (because we don’t have any fresh millet), but morale will increase (because we’ve taken steps to safeguard our peasantry). Nay, on the other hand, will apparently award a sticker, a semi-permanent piece of legislation representing the memory of our people. This will be placed on the board, and may affect our house’s standing in future plays. Doing right by our people will increase our house’s strength and scoring opportunities; passing bad laws will, naturally, do the opposite.
The difficult part is that these outcomes may be the complete picture or only part of it. Sometimes there are unintended consequences. Moreover, we don’t know the scale of the outcomes. Perhaps our prosperity would decline by one pip on the game’s central track. Maybe it would decline by a whole lot, spurred onward by the card outcome and whether our prosperity token has “momentum” that will make it move faster. As in real-life dilemmas, we can only guess at how badly the millet-locusts will impact our kingdom’s agriculture. To an extent, this is our fault — we voted to import this millet two games ago.
Either way, it’s time to vote.
That’s one type of story told by The King’s Dilemma. It’s told through the usual tools of legacy games: paragraphs of flavor text, an entire column of sealed envelopes, and names penned onto player shields and legislation stickers. But there’s a very different story being told at the same time, enacted mostly on the game’s resource tracks. There are five main resources, the morale and prosperity and everything else that informs the state of our kingdom. Whenever one of these trackers bumps up or down, so too will our kingdom’s stability, until it reaches the top or bottom and brings the current play to its conclusion. Or maybe we’ll draw so many cards that the current king dies. In both cases, the game wraps up with everyone checking the secret agenda card they drafted at the outset.
These secret agendas represent the lion’s share of your points. And, at a certain level, they’re incredibly clever, tied to the resource track in such a way that it invests you, the player, the councilor, the head of a noble house, as directly preoccupied with where all those resource tokens sit at the end of the game. If you’re “opulent,” you want as many resource tokens at the halfway mark or above, with increasing points awarded for more tokens. The “opportunist” wants the direct opposite, with resources down at the bottom. The game goes a step further with agendas like the “extremist,” who wants a huge gap between the lowest and highest resources, and the “moderate,” who wants them all clustered near the middle. Everyone has an agenda, and furthermore has an agenda that might intersect or clash with the other players at the table, sometimes aligning or bristling depending on the resource in question.
However, this is where The King’s Dilemma’s two stories begin to go their separate ways. There’s the textual story and the ludic story, one written in words and the other tallied in points. It’s a happy coincidence when they align. When they don’t, which is often enough to notice, the effect is jarring. In the above scenario with the millet-locusts, every player comes to the table their own goals, some of which are tied to the story and may require many plays before they emerge into the light. But those same players are also holding agenda cards, which foist goals upon them based on what was available during the draft. Worse, these two goals are often at odds. When considering the fate of the village near Brambleditch, it’s likely that your concern has less to do with millet-locusts and more to do with an agenda card that might or might not coincide with your long-term goals. To give an example, we were once asked whether to repress a heretical text. When we voted Nay, a decision based on keeping the game going a little longer, earning a sticker, or pursuing our scoring opportunities — meta-decisions, in other words — the card’s outcome claimed that we, the uncaring heads of household, “don’t want to suppress ideas.” Except we had suppressed ideas, gleefully and selfishly, on a half-dozen occasions previously. The story being told via play and the story being told by the text weren’t simpatico.
To a certain extent this division between different types of stories is to be expected. It’s possible that Hach and Silva didn’t even consider it a problem. Leaving aside the narrative’s toothlessness — as a historian I was thrilled at the rulebook’s warning, only to be disappointed at our medieval lords’ anachronistic enlightenment — it makes sense that the players’ goals and their characters’ goals wouldn’t always align. Alignment between what the game says you’re doing and what you’re actually doing is, of course, the brass ring of good game design, but it’s an exception rather than the standard. In The King’s Dilemma, this is even more understandable given its emphasis on competing agendas. Confronted with a heretical text, it makes sense that somebody might have avoided suppressing the book based on their house’s preference, in which case the text on the back of the card would prove accurate. A professional writer could have lampshaded the problem: “The official edict announces that we don’t suppress ideas, despite rumors that certain lords cared less for the principle than their own gain” would have been sufficient to cover all possible bases. But The King’s Dilemma wasn’t made by a professional writer. It was made by professional designers. And as such, its best element isn’t the story at all; it’s the mechanical act of casting votes.
And really, the voting is quite good, cycling between player interests rather fluidly. There’s the boilerplate Yea and Nay votes, which determine the outcome of the current card. Smartly, only the winning side spends their wagered strength tokens, a measure of how forcefully they pushed through their desired measure. Whoever bids the most gets to hold the leader token, and voting ends as soon as the player to the right of the leader finishes their bid. This means voting could take anywhere from one to a dozen goes around the table, depending on how often the leader token is claimed. It even leaves room for manipulation — say, by trumping the opposing side’s overall bid but not the leader’s specific amount, thus ending the vote just short of letting the other side respond. And if taking a stance is beyond your interest — or your strength — you can pass to claim the last vote’s spent bidding tokens or the moderator’s hammer for breaking ties. In practice, you’ll often find yourself bouncing between votes and passes based on what you hope to achieve.
The only real downside is that your sole currency for making deals is disappointingly worthless. You’re free to bribe rivals with coins, but aside from some bonus points (in denominations that vary depending on your agenda card), coins aren’t worth anything. This is a surprising oversight, wealth for wealth’s sake rather than for the doors and possibilities it unlocks. It isn’t difficult to imagine ways that coins might have been spent to keep the game from concluding prematurely, shore up a failing resource, or otherwise needle your rival houses.
Still, the process of voting over your desired paragraph of exposition, stickering the board, and periodically shuffling new cards into the stack is both compelling and mercifully fleet-footed. A single play rarely consumes more than an hour, and sometimes only twenty minutes when the stability track tanks after two or three cards. And although certain narrative threads sometimes disappear only to reappear a half-dozen plays later, the storylines are colorful enough that it usually only takes a moment to remember what’s happening over in this other portion of the kingdom. This isn’t to say the writing ever becomes compelling in its own right, but there’s a lot to be said for the effectiveness of the cliffhanger; The King’s Dilemma knows to dangle its players over a ledge roughly every eight minutes. On most occasions, we played three times in a row to resolve a few of those dangling story threads.
I’m less enamored with the game’s broader handling of its story. In addition to the problems I’ve already mentioned, every play sees you accumulating two types of points. Sadly, it’s a very long time before it explains what they’re for. As a result, its individual threads come across as more intriguing than the tapestry they weave into. This is an appreciated flip-flop from the legacy standard wherein the overall experience is more enthralling than the individual plays, but it still leaves the meta-game feeling somewhat directionless. The big exception is the game’s garbage chute, a little slot in the plastic insert for dumping all the narrative beats you hit over the course of your play. I love the garbage chute more than anything. Which maybe tells you something about my fractured feelings on the game itself.
As an ardent lover of stories and storytelling, I often feel a camaraderie with those who enjoy the narratives found in legacy games even as I groan about the stuttery pacing, disjointed telling, awkward point of view, and shaky prose that are almost necessary for breaking a story into discrete play segments. In those regards, The King’s Dilemma is as bad an offender as any. Yet it manages to wrap those offenses together in a way that’s very nearly coherent, with crises and opportunities arising and diminishing, sometimes across generations. For once, this is a legacy system I could see myself grumbling through a second volume of.
A complimentary copy was provided.