Long Live The King Is Dead

Publishers! Add high-resolution box images, please. Please please please. Your games will look so much cooler in header images. I promise.

Peer Sylvester’s The King Is Dead has some history to it. First appearing as König von Siam, then as an Arthurian version in The King Is Dead, and now as a second edition with a more historical flair, it’s been reprinted often enough to be considered a modern classic. Perhaps more importantly, traces of its DNA can be found in other games’ genealogy.

And it’s easy to see why.

This is actually one action in, I think. Oh well.

From the beginning, there’s much to consider.

“Intrigue” is one of those buzzwords that caught on sometime after Game of Thrones premiered, sort of like “sexposition” but more gamifiable. Just look at all the things that were suddenly advertised as “Game of Thrones but in space/high school/Burning Man.” Of course, plenty of designers had already tried to bottle the impression of a spymaster nudging unwitting armies into ambushes and triumphs, not least of which was the Game of Thrones board game that predated HBO’s rendition by seven years. Yet few of these efforts succeeded in producing more than Risk with bluffing. Intrigue was something you used to modify actions, not these games’ raison d’être.

And then there was König von Siam. Sylvester wasn’t the first to fill a map with assets independent of any player’s direct control. Sid Sackson’s Acquire was already decades old and had spawned imitators of its own, including titles by experimental designers such as Martin Wallace and Reiner Knizia. At the same time Sylvester was working on König, Mac Gerdts pulled the same trick the year before with Imperial. But this was something different. From a distance, it looked like you’d seen it before. Three colorful armies vying for control of a map, simply expressed as cubes. Except there weren’t always three people at the table.

Mind. Exploded. As the kids these days like to say.

To execute without getting blood on the board? Also easy. Why do your cards spatter blood everywhere anyway.

Actions couldn’t be simpler to execute. To execute well, that’s another story.

For the uninitiated, The King Is Dead functions much the same as the previous edition of The King Is Dead, which in turn functions in largely the same manner as König von Siam. The king has died, you see. Yes, it’s true. He’s dead, Dave. Now three factions are hoping to claim the old man’s chair. Their designations don’t matter that much, but for the sake of thematic flavor I’ll tell you that they’re the English, the Welsh, and the Scottish.

Only you aren’t English, Welsh, or Scottish yourself. You’re an independent lord who hopes to plant your bum atop the throne without undertaking the bloody work of battle in person. You accomplish this through spymaster antics. Influence. Nudges of support. Commands to march the troops, only you’re moving them to where they’re least useful.

Intrigue.

But here’s the thing: The King Is Dead takes the concept of courtly intrigues and makes them so dead simple that the whole thing is streamlined like a Crokinole board that’s been lovingly waxed by Daniel LaRusso. Most of the time, you won’t even take an action. Really, passing is something you’ll do as often as possible. Because you want to see what’s coming, what tricks your rivals will pull, how the map might be disturbed. If you can live with the state of the map, you pass.

Otherwise, you play a card. It’s that easy. Scratch that, it isn’t easy. For one thing, that card is gone from your hand for the rest of the game. With only eight cards per player, even one wasted action doesn’t leave much wiggle room for error, and might leave you floundering without options later. For another, while the actions themselves are straightforward, their application is anything but. Nothing is ambiguous rules-wise. New troops appear, move, swap with other troops, whatever. But because there are other people at the table, the implications of your actions are downright foggy. Sometimes a minor change will spur a bidding war, a flurry of cards spent into the discard pile to bring the war back into stasis. Other times, you’ll play a card to swing the next battle into your favor, and your rivals will shrug and let the battle resolve. Why? Why would they do that? What else do they have up their sleeve?

So important they posed for a close-up.

Supporters are one of the table’s most important details.

Perhaps the game’s smartest trick — which is saying a lot in a game this smart — is how it handles victory. I won’t dive into the particularities, especially since victory can mean one of two very different things, but the short version is that you want to hold the most supporters in whichever faction wins the war. It’s a bit like Pax Pamir in that regard, to describe a white-bearded gentleman by the cut of his grandson’s suit. One faction wins, and you win along with them if you’re their favored leader.

Think of this as the inverse of a stock game. Stocks usually follow the same principles. You buy a share. Investors recognize that company’s stock as desirable. The share price goes up. Your interest inflates the value of the thing you just purchased. Here, the opposite occurs. Whenever you take an action, you’re also required to pluck a cube from the board and add it to your court. But battles are won by simple majority, so fewer cubes on the board directly weakens that faction’s chances of victory. You’ve effectively bolstered your standing in a faction by chipping away at its manpower.

So many implications stem from this one decision. You can pick a follower from a region where there’s little doubt that their faction will win. Or you can pick a follower to weaken a rival’s investment in their faction. Or you can play for sets of followers and try to end the game with an invasion from France. Or you can follow my procedure by making terrible decisions from start to finish, bumbling from one misadventure to another, and then winning or losing without wholly understanding why. Regardless of the approach, it’s the sort of thing that feels like actual intrigue.

Second from the left is the BULLSHIT card. Because it gives you a follower in any faction of your choice at the end of the game. Which is BULLSHIT.

The alternate action cards aren’t necessary.

The King Is Dead is one of those games that unfolds over many plays. Untold depths, it has. At times this can give it a directionless feel, especially during those first few plays before the victory conditions fully make sense, before the map’s saturation of data properly compresses into bite-sized mouthfuls. Every setup is another barrage. Where each faction is strong, which pair of followers you’ve been dealt, how many cubes remain off to the side awaiting deployment, the order of the battles to come. Experienced players must experience a frisson of excitement as they unpack this deluge; I imagine as much because I can feel the first formative understandings dawn in my own mind. Here is a game entirely without chance apart from its setup, and even in a short half hour it rewards more long-term thinking than most wargames.

But this is also why I’m somewhat wary of its variants. With two or especially three players, it buckles together tighter than plate armor. With four, you’re placed on a team with the player seated opposite you. Communication is forbidden, while the game’s main victory condition is still assessed individually. Naturally, this requires precise coordination, partners using their actions and followers as complements rather than as mutual hindrances.

Still, it’s a mode I appreciate more in theory than in practice, adding even more variables to a game that positively overflows with them. The same reservation is doubled for the alternate action cards, which replace three of each player’s basic options. Asymmetry is all the rage, but parsing what your opponents are capable of is such a big part of The King Is Dead that I prefer not bid farewell to its usual symmetry.

I swear I've said something in this review that's going to draw the ire of some guy who's played König von Siam 4,000 times on Yucata.

Conquests both permit new options and narrow others.

Maybe I’m too much of a newcomer. Maybe such modes will appeal to me after I have another twenty plays under my belt. They shouldn’t take long, considering the game’s brevity. Either way, it’s a rare game that feels almost perfect apart from its variants. As someone who didn’t experience The King Is Dead until this most recent edition, it feels like a welcome throwback. It isn’t, of course. Rather, it’s one of the foundational titles in the history of shared incentive games. Much to my delight, it’s kept pace over the years.

To end on a cliché, the king is dead. Long live The King Is Dead.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on October 20, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. adds to list of games to play when that is a thing again

  2. Stefano Gaburri

    Nice! Praise for this game, which they just wrote me is crossing the Channel right now, heading towards my home! Tasty.

    But I have to complain about this tantalizing nugget: “Sid Sackson’s Acquire… spawned imitators… including titles by Martin Wallace and Reiner Knizia”? And you’re going to leave us like that, to do our homework? What is, the Boardgame University? I’ve already done way too much of that! (The Uni I mean, sadly no boardgames there).

    I suppose with Knizia you’re thinkinhg about Stephenson’s Rocket, but what is Wallace’s title? Perhaps The Arrival, with its dual ending that’s similar to the potential French invasion here? But what’s it got to do with Acquire? Enlighten us!

    • Knizia has Stephenson’s Rocket, but also titles like Tigris & Euphrates and Yellow & Yangtze, where players indirectly contribute to shared control of cities.

      With Wallace, I was specifically thinking of Byzantium and Liberté.

      There might be other examples, but those were the ones in mind when I wrote that sentence.

  3. I recently had my PP2E arrive and I am enamoured with the victory style of shifting one’s influence around wherever it suits me. I am interested by the design in that this is far more evocative than the theme of intrigue versus just hiding your plans until a simultaneous reveal and a sudden backstab from a traitor you briefly thought was your ally (I had many fun times with the GoT board game when I was in Uni with a regular group of friends, though!)

    Is this the sort of title you’d expect to keep in a regular collection, thanks to it’s short playtime and ability to suit 2-3 players with a punchy feel for the intrigue concept?

    • Oh, the old Game of Thrones BG is quite good. It’s just one of those games that came out a little too early, before certain other titles paved the way.

      And yes, this is one I plan to keep around. Not so much for two players, but three is an under-served demographic. We can’t play Greenland and Neanderthal every time!

  4. Anonymous, King of Siam is on Yucata.de right now if you want to try out a very similar game – we played it, and it works fantastic at 2 players.

    • I haven’t tried King of Siam on Yucata. Really, I haven’t tried anything other than Pax Porfiriana. How’s the implementation?

    • I play it King of Siam on yucata on and off quite a bit. I think the implementation is wonderful. I especially enjoy the yucata exclusive “King of Saba” map. If anyone wants to play, my name on there is: “akuden”

  5. My issue with the game, is that the last player to play always won. I loved the game up until that point, but I ended up trading it away because every game was the same.

    • Interesting! I haven’t had that happen yet. We’ve had tiebreakers, but it’s never gone to the most recent card. That seems like it would add some tension to the game, though, since you’d be prompted to balance between playing cards early (to win the tiebreaker) but not so early that everyone else has final say over the course of the last few battles.

  6. Great review!

    It seems like tempo is an important factor in the game, which has me intrigued. Currently playing quite a bit of both Bus and Root, two games where tempo is crucial to good play, but in different ways.

  7. Great review Dan! I keep going back and forth on whether I like the game, but my only real experience with it is through playing “King of Siam” asynchronously on yucata. I think it’s a smart design, but can be frustrating as there’s a constant feeling of ‘I don’t know if what I’m doing is the best move…” Then again that’s also a positive to the game as it creates constant tension. I am a sucker for early medieval art and this edition is gorgeous, so I may bite anyway.

  8. This is easily one of my favorite games. The amount of game you get out of 8 cards/actions is supremely impressive. A few years back I put together a print n’ play version where it was re-themed with DUNE. With the movie coming out maybe I’ll try and track ’em down again.

  9. It strikes me as superficially quite similar to Condottiere, how does it measure up against it? Or is there no real comparison at all?

    • There’s some minor similarity in that both games see you managing a hand of cards across multiple fights, but the parallels are, as you’ve noted, quite superficial. The King Is Dead gives everyone an identical hand and tasks you with taking control despite sharing nominal control of the three factions with everyone else. Condottiere is more about riding waves of tempo; sometimes you have surplus cards, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you don’t even need to contribute to a fight. In practice, they put themselves across very differently.

  10. When I read about the new version of the game (played previous edition of KiD, but would prefer the Siam version) I was quite sceptical about the alternate action cards. Precisely because the game is about psychology and that’s where you get asymmetry from, not from gamey gizmos on cards.

    I do admit white sea on the map is an improvement over the brown one in previous edition, but Siam had blue sea. And I like sea to be and remain blue. Heh.

  11. I must agree with your mouseover text comment on that alternate action card. Such ____ ! I’m glad to see this game continue to spawn new editions. Peer’s work is superb! It’s one of my favorite games to play with three players.

  1. Pingback: Review: The King is Dead: Second Edition:: Long Live The King Is Dead (a Space-Biff! review) – Indie Games Only

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