[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, non-production Kickstarter prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product will feature some variation in game play, art, and components.]
You knew this day would come. Ever since the King’s passing, petty princes have refused your rightful claim to the throne that sits empty. So you’ve had to start from scratch, building and scheming, raising armies and filling your coffers. No longer a minor overlord, your thriving kingdom stands as testament to your legitimate rule. You’ve defeated your rivals both domestic and foreign. Now only one challenger stands in your way. So it’s come to this…
How It Plays
In War of Kings, players are contenders vying for the throne of Arowyth. You must expand your original lands to take more territory, which generates gold and resources in order to build settlements, roads, and armies. The first player to earn 13 achievement points through developing his kingdom will be crowned King.
War of Kings is a thematic area-control, conquest game with a few other mechanics sprinkled in. You do raise armies, but they are singularly generic and abstract. This is not a “dudes-on-a-map” design with individual sculpts representing different units with unique strengths and abilities. After capturing territory, you can build settlements of different sizes, fortify them for greater defense, and connect them with roads to earn more gold and move armies faster. There is player elimination, but winning is based on victory points (called achievements). Battles are dice-based, but very quick and simple. Cards resolve various random events and grant modifiers in different aspects of play.
There are six phases to a round. The first is Construction, which is handled simultaneously, where players collect gold and resources, and then spend them to build. Villages, towns, and cities earn gold as long as they are connected to your capital by road – the bigger the settlement the more revenue it generates. Then one player rolls three, 8-sided resource dice. These have four different colored faces to determine which territories will produce resources for that turn – cattle, wheat, timber, or stone. Any territories you own of the colors rolled nets you a number of its primary resource based on the area’s level of development. If there is a town or city present, then you can collect its secondary resource, as well. As you expand, you’ll keep track of which colored territories produce which resources in your personal economic ledger, in order to make this process easier.
Once you’ve collected resources, in the form of cards, you can expend them to build. Settlements, fortifications, roads, and armies all require different resources. So a road costs 3 gold, 2 timber, and 1 wheat; while an army is 5 gold, 3 wheat, and 3 cattle; and a city requires 8 gold, 4 timber, 4 wheat, 4 cattle, and 2 stone (that’s after having already built a town and village before it). During this time, you can also trade resource cards with other players, buy one for 5 gold, or turn in a set of 4 from one type in exchange for 1 of another.
After construction, the next five phases are resolved individually in player order. In the event phase, you simply roll the 8-sided event die along with one resource die. If the event die shows orange, then you draw a Marauder card. The Marauders are foreign barbarians collectively controlled by all players in the event phase. They can have armies and settlements and you can use them to threaten another player even if you’re not near them. If the event die result is a settlement, then you consult the resources die. If you own at least one settlement of the type designated, or higher, in a territory of the same color, you may draw an event card. This is usually a rules-breaking ability or other benefit to play when appropriate.
Next is movement. Any armies you wish can simply march to one adjacent space – two if connected by road. Once they have moved, you place a “moved” token at its base, which will be important later in combat withdrawals and resupply.
If any armies entered a non-aligned territory, you conduct your discovery phase. Simply draw an exploration card and follow its text to describe what your army finds in the area or how it is welcomed. These can be beneficial, uneventful, or harmful, sometimes even rooting out another Marauder army.
If any of your armies ventured into enemy-occupied lands, combat ensues – unless a defending army with moves still available whishes to concede battle and withdraw. If no enemy army is garrisoning the region, you still may have to fight the militia of any present settlement. Combat is a touch more involved than the design’s other mechanics and I won’t explain every detail. But it’s still mostly clear-cut. Essentially, all parameters being equal, the attacker rolls four dice. These dice have two faces: crossed-swords and shields. The attacker scores one hit for each crossed-swords he rolls. However, the defender then rolls two similar dice and may negate a hit for each shield result. The defender places damage tokens on his army equal to the number of unblocked hits and then gets to counter-attack. The process is repeated with the sides reversing roles. If any army has sustained 3 or more casualties after the counter-attack round, it is eliminated.
Of course, not all battles will be equal. If you have more armies engaged you get a bonus die. If you’re defending in a fortification, you get a number of bonus dice equal to its level. And event cards can be played for similar benefits to increase your odds. Otherwise, it’s fairly straight-forward with even odds.
Finally, a player ends his turn by making sure all of his armies are in supply. The number and level of your settlements will support a certain number for free. Each army over that costs provisions or must be disbanded. Additionally, you can supply a depleted army for a cost and remove its damage tokens – as long as it has not previously moved that turn and is connected to any one settlement by road.
While expanding and building, you will be garnering glory and renown, also known as earning achievement points. At least if you’re successful. You achieve these by building and capturing settlements, carving out an empire of certain stature and mix of conquests, having the most heavily fortified territories, the most profitable economy, and the largest holdings. The first pretender to earn 13 achievement points claims the throne.
Mighty Kingdom or Petty Fiefdom?
It’s a familiar story, really – from the Arthurian legends of old to the current saga in A Song of Fire and Ice. The King dies without an heir (or a questionable one) and so powerful nobles, petty lords, and opportunistic pretenders squabble and fight for the throne. The land falls into disrepair and neglect. Lawlessness reigns. The fractured kingdom longs and waits for one strong ruler to emerge from the turmoil, uniting the people and returning prosperity. It’s also a theme addressed before in gaming, not the least of with the Camelot and Game of Thrones themes, as well. So where does War of Kings fit in that narrative?
The Maladorian Marauders are the most unique and interesting mechanic in War of Kings. While the idea of a non-player power controlled by everyone at the table seems awkwardly contradictory, it works amazingly well. It’s simple. The event dice let you know when to use them, while the cards clearly specify how. It’s unobtrusive. The Marauders only appear randomly, so they will not wreak havoc during every player’s turn. Yet, they’re also effective. You can use them as “temporary allies,” either through direct attacks on opponents or by simply positioning them so that they threaten another player – whether it’s a neighbor or a claimant clear on the other side of the realm. Plus you cannot ignore them when they pressure you! It’s permanent. These barbarians don’t just pillage the land with a disorganized mob and then leave, but instead may take over, occupy, and even establish settlements of their own. They’re moving in to stay – at least until you eliminate them. On top of all that, it’s thematic. What mighty empire throughout all of ancient and medieval history hasn’t known of a foreign scourge taking advantage of its woes? Simply put, this mechanic alone is worth the investment into this game.
The resource system is clever and will remind players of Settlers of Catan, both in collecting them based on dice rolls and in spending them in varying amounts to build. Like Settlers, you can trade resources and cards represent cattle, wheat, timber, and stone. As long as you keep your economic ledger updated, it’s also quick – although fiddling with the cards is sometimes clumsy. If you don’t update your ledger as you expand, build, and lose ground, then it can be a chore to calculate what you collect according to the resource dice. Deciding what to build may not be as easy, as you have limited resources and lots of stuff you want to buy!
The combat system is quick, very simple, intuitive…and often brutal. It’s also very random in unmodified, even battles. I have seen the use of upgrades, bonus cards, or special unit abilities that cancel hits or wounds in previous war games, but the opportunity to negate hits with die rolls is new to me. It adds action for the one being “shot at,” since he doesn’t have to just sit there and take it. But it can be frustrating, too – for the attacker watching his successes fall for naught; or the defender missing an opportunity to deflect some damage!
A good deal of strategy will involve bringing numbers to bear at critical spots, playing an event card to gain an upper hand, and relying on fortifications for defense. You can’t always rely on sheer numbers, because you only have six armies, a strategic limitation that requires tough choices and creates a lot of tension! Assaulting a fortified settlement is risky business because of the defender’s bonus die (or dice). If undertaking such a task, make sure to have numerical superiority or a beneficial event card in hand. Or use Marauders.
The important thing to remember in War of Kings, though, is that conquest is only half the game. In the end, the design is indeed a war game. However, your economy and infrastructure are just as important and likely to garner you more achievement points. True, developing settlements and roads is closely tied in with your ability to expand and protect your borders. But never underestimate the value of a smaller, compact, but well-developed kingdom.
Just as with its military aspect, War of Kings utilizes a “big picture” economy. Territories produce 1 or 2 resources, depending on how sophisticated you’ve developed them. Higher level settlements generate more revenue. A simple road system is implemented for both tax levies and military movement. So there’s not a lot of detail, special circumstances, or strange modifiers. It offers just enough variety with a welcomed simplicity.
Another unique feature to note quickly – the design emphasizes “culture.” If another player captures one of your settlements, your colored miniature remains on the board. If your enemy leaves the region and you return with an army, you liberate it without a fight. Any other time you assault a settlement without a garrison, you must fight the local militia. Depending on the settlement’s size, the militia rolls less dice and is eliminated with fewer hits, so they’re not as strong as a regular army. Nonetheless, it helps with defense somewhat considering the 6 army limit – you’ll never be able to protect everything you want.
Finally, there is randomness – with producing resources, acquiring events, triggering the Maladorian Marauders, and, of course, in resolving combat. Furthermore, each instance affects players differently. Even in resource collection where everyone uses the same dice, it depends on not only owning territories of that color, but then whether the resources generated there are most helpful to you, or not. Some turns you’ll get an event or trigger the Marauders – results will vary pretty widely from player to player and turn to turn. Just so that you know what you’re getting into. All of these help keep the design moving, accessible, and attractive to non-war gamers. But hardcore gamers vehemently averse to luck, make a mental note.
While the game runs around a couple of hours, you may be pushing that with more people, but still under 180 minutes. I was only able to break out 3-player games, but think I would recommend more – even considering the extra length and greater downtime. It would create tighter competition, more frequent encounters, and increase Marauder incursions. That might add a little more chaos and randomness, but would amp up the action and the theme. If playing with less, it is recommended you “shrink” the playable map area, which would force everyone together sooner. Unless you’re specifically looking for a game of peaceful expansion and non-aggression, I guess.
War of Kings very much focuses on the forest, at the expense of the trees, and can therefore be played in a couple of hours. You will still raise armies, conquer territory, and develop yours lands with towns and castles, but most of the cumbersome details are abstracted for ease of play. Strategy is important, but there are enough random elements to keep things interesting and unpredictable, while not totally derailing the system. The communal, non-player Marauder mechanic is particularly fresh and effective. The resource system, emphasis on economy, and use of victory points will be familiar enough to draw gamers from other genres and corners of the hobby. In essence, War of Kings distills the elements of a grand strategy conquest game into a compact and imminently playable experience without losing its epic flavor.
War of Kings is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter. The project has already funded and will continue through March 23. If you want to pick-up a copy, pillage and ransack your way over to the campaign page to join the action. You can get the basic game with its 91 detailed settlement miniatures – and all of the later stretch goal rewards – for a $69 contribution (MSRP of $89). It’s a deal worthy of a King!
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