Tellstones: King’s Gambit board game review - Mechs vs Minions creators’ second tabletop outing demands attention it doesn’t deserve
According to its rulebook, Tellstones: King’s Gambit has long been played to resolve grand disputes that occur across Runeterra - the world that Tellstones shares with video game League of Legends. Monarchs have won their crowns and soldiers have defended their name by playing. All these epic events happening as a result of Tellstones is a strange concept, considering that the game itself is such a chore to play.
Unlike studio Riot Games’ debut tabletop title Mechs vs Minions - co-designed by Tellstones creator Chris Cantrell - Tellstones doesn’t successfully translate any of the aspects that make League of Legends so incredibly popular. Though Tellstones does take more inspiration from the video game’s lore than its gameplay, it not only fails to engage its players on a thematic level - it fails to engage its players on any level at all.
That’s a shame, because the initial impression it gives is very positive. Tellstones comes in a slick metal box with a clamshell design that, when opened, reveals a pleasingly thick foam inlay. Sitting inside the inlay are a selection of tokens showing various symbols, as well as a rulebook, a set of reference cards, a letter from a League of Legends character and a playmat. The tokens are the most important components in the game, their thickness and deep carvings invoking the epic stories described in the rulebook.
The downside of all this ostentatiousness is that the game isn’t quite as portable as it could be. The heaviness of the tokens combined with their size means that the game box is unnecessarily large considering what’s actually needed to play. The beauty of small games is that they can be taken out of a pocket, played and put back in a matter of minutes. You’d need a very roomy pair of trousers to hold a copy of Tellstones.
The lack of interesting mechanics means that Tellstones barely qualifies as a worthwhile diversion.
Nevertheless, Tellstones has all the markings of a great filler game. Learning and teaching it takes a matter of minutes and the pace of the game makes it easy to play multiple rounds in quick succession. However, the lack of interesting mechanics means that Tellstones barely qualifies as a worthwhile diversion, let alone something you’d want to keep coming back to.
The line - a piece of felt placed between each player - is where the majority of the action takes place. Each turn, players ask their opponent to either place, flip or swap any one of the tokens on the line. At any point, one player can challenge the other to name a facedown token, in the hopes that they have not been paying enough attention to give a correct answer - otherwise they risk giving their opponent a chance to score.
The gameplay in Tellstones should build the tension required to make the moments where one player fails or succeeds in challenging the other feel suitably climactic. Instead, these actions feel mundane because there isn’t much to focus on beyond the physical process of moving, flipping and swapping the tokens. Here lies the problem of balancing an entire game on the mechanic of memory, with almost nothing else to bulk out the experience. Memory isn’t an inherently bad mechanic - it can really engage players’ brains when executed correctly, as in social deduction game Coup. However, it works better when paired with other mechanics designed to complement it, such as bluffing.
It’s very hard to pay close attention to the location and identity of every single token and hold a conversation at the same time.
Tellstones is described in its rulebook as being a “bluffing game”. But it feels like this statement doesn’t go beyond the manual. A page dedicated to the lore behind Tellstones describes how King Stanton the First - a ruler in Demacia, a province of Runeterra - could have entire conversations about whatever he fancied whilst playing. I honestly feel like taking my hat off to him, because I’ve struggled to even mention the weather throughout every game of Tellstones I’ve played. Either my memory isn’t what it used to be or it’s very hard to pay close attention to the location and identity of every single token and hold a conversation at the same time.
Players can even use their turn to peek at a facedown token - or several, if their opponent just scored a point - but that information soon fades once the tokens get moving again.
Another obstacle getting in the way of Tellstones being a bluffing game is that manipulating someone takes quite a bit of effort, especially if you’re not very confident at it. There’s got to be a strong motivation to bluff if the game expects players to do so. Tellstones hints at opportunities to find this motivation with the mechanic of boasting. One player can claim to know the identity of all the currently facedown tokens and win the game if they successfully name them. Boasts can be stolen by an opponent if they say “I don’t care, I know them too,” which the first player can respond to with either a concession - giving the stealing player a point, but preventing them from winning the game outright - or a refusal, passing the pressure to name the tokens onto the would-be thief.
Tellstones never comes close to the kind of mind games described in the game’s rulebook.
The boast mechanic has the potential to encourage good bluffing, as the boasting player could just be pretending they know the identity of all the facedown tokens in the hopes that their opponent will hand them a concession point. However, the experience of playing Tellstones is so unengaging that, by the time it gets to a point where bluffing could change the state of play, it’s very hard to care enough to bother.
Tellstones never comes close to the kind of mind games described in the game’s rulebook. King Stanton the First’s gripping exploits felt leagues away when my opponent and I were playing. The game doesn’t leave any room for simpler pleasures, either. Filler games are great for providing a backdrop for conversation, taking and leaving exactly enough attention needed to carry out a lighthearted chat. During Tellstones, player focus is entirely dedicated to keeping track of the tokens’ whereabouts and identities.
Tellstones is not engaging enough to warrant your attention, but it will monopolise it all the same - making for a board game that feels more like an obligation than a rewarding experience.
Tellstones: King's Gambit is available now for $30/€31.50 via the Riot Games store.