When a game promises “politics and power struggles in the dark Arthurian Britain” and only eight actions per player, per game, the money flies out of my wallet. The promise of simple game mechanics that belie a deeper, strategic experience are nearly always a major draw for me. The King is Dead delivers on these counts.
I first discovered The King is Dead at the Osprey Publishing booth at GenCon Indy this year, and what immediately captured my attention — before hearing anything about the gameplay — was the quality of the components. The linen-textured game box opens like a book, and printed on the inside surface of the box is an atmospheric depiction of knights approaching a hillside village.
The mounted game board has an antique, distressed look and depicts Great Britain partitioned into eight, historically accurate territories. The game’s cards mirror the aged look of the board with clear depictions of the actions they convey, and the remaining components include faction control counters, wooden faction cubes and a cloth bag from which to draw them. Finally, Osprey has provided purposeful storage trays in which to store the game pieces.
The King is Dead takes place within a power vacuum that follows the death of King Arthur. The map’s eight territories are up for grabs, so at its core The King is Dead is an area-control game. Each player is a potential claimant to the throne and spends their limited actions manipulating three factions to control regions and gain followers (wooden cubes). Simply, whomever has the most followers of the reigning faction at the end of the game becomes the power behind the throne and wins.
The factions are the Scots, Romano-British and the Welsh, and each is represented by its own collection of colored wooden cubes.
It’s hard to imagine a whole game playing out with only eight actions per player, but it is this fact that lends The King is Dead its elegance. Two to four players begin the game with eight action cards each. That’s it. Your whole strategy hinges on how you manage this small, but powerful hand of cards.
When the game begins, the pile of region cards are shuffled and placed along the edges of the board, taking random positions from 1 to 8. The position of these cards dictates the order of the power struggles.
Players also populate the board with faction cubes at the start (four per region), so with the random placement of territory cards and faction cubes, every game presents a unique challenge.
It’s not a coincidence that there are eight territories for you to contest and eight action cards in your hand. How many will you play on each? If you play two or three cards on the power struggle for one territory, you’ll be sitting on your hands while players with more cards fight over others. If you play just one card per power struggle, will that be enough to carry out your plans? Probably not.
Let’s take a look at what these cards can do, keeping in mind that the goal of the game is to see that your most supported faction wins territories. Know that the faction or factions you support are entirely up to you, and in our games, it certainly isn’t unusual to change course. If your opponent is suddenly sweeping up tons of blue cubes (also known as Scots), you may decide the Scots are a lost cause (for you) and begin focusing your efforts on the success of Welsh or Romano-British factions.
One card action is to simply switch two followers in one region with one follower in an adjacent region. Similarly, another has you switching one for one. Each time you use a card on your turn, you also take a cube into your possession from anywhere on the board. Thematically, this is how players gain influence within the factions. Ultimately, if I end up with the most Welsh at the end of the game and the Welsh control most of the board, I win.
Most of the other cards have you placing faction cubes onto the board, and one unique card allows you to tinker with the order of region cards themselves, switching two of them — even one currently being contested — with another. You can then lock one of them into its new slot so it can never be moved again!
This can have dire consequences for an opponent who has been pouring action cards into a territory, only to see it moved to a another position where he will likely not have additional actions to influence it later on.
Saxons Love Your Indifference
Besides Scots, Romano-British and Welsh, another faction lurks around the edges. When players are unable to establish control of a region, the Saxons are more than happy to assert their control.
If the players allow the Saxons too much free reign by game’s end, the victory conditions could change. In other words, if the Saxons end up controlling four of the territories, the player with the most complete set of followers is the winner, as opposed to the player with the majority of one faction cube. (See the sidebar at right for a detailed example from the rulebook.)
The Heat of Battle — Final Thoughts
From time to time you may have seen the “Mensa Select” label on some board games, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find one on The King is Dead. The game embodies the “original, challenging and well designed” distinction of that label. The reason I point this out is that other Mensa Select games I’ve played tend to leave me mentally exhausted. In boardgaming circles, I equate that feeling with the Runner’s High. It’s the invigorating feeling of accomplishment that you’ve just completed something worthwhile. You’ve worked your brain in new ways, and you wind up the better for it.
The King is Dead is not the easiest game to play. To be clear, the actions available to you are clear cut, but there’s an implicit irony and challenge built into the game best illustrated by example:
If you’re gunning for the Romano-British, it’s best to have as many Romano-British on the board as possible; however, (and this is a big “however”), gunning for the Romano-British means you’ll need the majority of the Romano-British cubes at game’s end. That’s the irony, the challenge and the beauty of The King is Dead. Rally your support for your preferred faction, but try doing it while occasionally (and necessarily) chipping away at that faction’s presence on the game board. Granted there are cards to bring more faction cubes onto the board, but it’s this balancing act that makes The King is Dead a satisfying and unique area-control game.
Finally, if you have the luxury of setting up a four-player match (it plays with 2-4 players), you’ll be playing with the person sitting across from you. The King is Dead transforms into a team-based match, and as the rules state, “players are not allowed to discuss tactics or strategies during the game.”
Observation is key in these games, and the challenges are new. Do you and your partner vie for the same influence cubes to lock up a monopoly on one faction, or diversify your tactics? Despite your best efforts, have you really been working together, or are you unknowingly undermining your partner?
Requiring forward thinking, card management and calculated risk taking, The King is Dead is a game that will leave you wanting to play again, if only to plumb the depths of options available to you in this deceptively deep strategy game set in Arthurian Britain.
About the Designer
Peer Sylvester started his career in boardgaming quite early, because his dad needed an opponent in chess. In third grade he wanted to become a professional chess player. Instead he turned out to become a teacher for math and chemistry. He designs boardgames in his spare time and also writes about games on his blog.