Long Live The King Is Dead
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
A complimentary copy was provided.