Let's be honest, who hasn’t wanted to be king for a day? Making decisions benevolent - or callous - that determine the fate of a nation. Story-driven board game The King’s Dilemma does not hand you the proverbial crown, but it does let you shape the history of the nation of Ankist. And because it’s a legacy campaign, your actions truly do echo into eternity.
So far, we’ve played four games out of roughly 15 chapters that make up a full campaign. As such, these are early impressions - as opposed to a full-fledged review. A preview if you will, and the first instalments of what's fast becoming a grand and desperate tale that spans centuries.
Here’s how King’s Dilemma goes. You each play a grand, noble house. Every game, you represent a new generation of your family. Perhaps you’d like to be pseudo techno-communists the Dukes of Olwyn, who invented fertiliser and have broken up the bonds of class. Or maybe you’d prefer to be extremist fundamentalists the Dukes of Natar: devoted to the Cult of the Mother, with a penchant for destroying ancient knowledge, and whose sigil is a green snake holding a vine.
There’s even the Marquises of Tiryll, who work as an ultra-conservative contingent. Their motto rings out: “No blood is like our blood.” Their emblem is a turtle carrying a turret. They really don’t care about poor people. The player who took this class (in the spirit of satire) developed a knack for checking the map every time we faced a dilemma.
“Are these guys next to me?” he’d ask, a grimace forming on his face. “Because if not, it’s no longer our problem: plain and simple.”
I opted for the cultists, namely because it gave me plenty of opportunities to shriek “give the people a grim display!” anytime we had the chance to execute someone. It turns out, there are times when not executing someone is absolutely the worst thing you can do. I enjoyed reminding “our brothers” of the folly of their fathers, who had said no to the axe and yes to crime.
Therein lies the beauty of King’s Dilemma. Not everything that seems outrightly ‘good’, ends well. At times, the worst possible decision yields the least harm. More on that later.
There are 12 houses in total, encompassing everyone from feckless hedonists to sad sea-faring poets. All come complete with a gorgeous family sigil emblazoned on your personal player screen. The screen is necessary, because you’re going to be doing a lot of things behind closed doors. It also comprises your unique goals, family motto and a biography outlining what your house is known for: whether that’s raising mighty ocean fleets or writing poetry.
In front of you, a board outlines the stability of the kingdom via a long line. Black and white tokens placed on it represent different aspects like culture and happiness - and how they’re doing in the grand scheme of things.
These move along with a marker depicting scales, which depicts overall kingdom stability. Theoretically, hitting the bottom end of the scale means all has fallen into horrifying chaos, while the top means you’re so great that the monarchy are effectively rendered pointless.
Most rounds, you open up a sealed envelope. Of which there are gazillions - or more specifically, 75 - containing upwards of 300 cards in total. There is also, in the trend of games such as Pandemic Legacy, a forbidden envelope marked out with question marks. We opened it. And now it cannot be unopened. I won’t say anything more.
Inside each envelope is an illustrated card depicting a grim decision you have to make. Every dilemma has an ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ choice, and most have a corresponding label that tells you what the marker consequences of that decision will be - and nothing else.
Curiously, not all cards display future markers. A few just simply say ‘aye’ or ‘nay’, and consequences be damned. These in particular really encourage roleplay, as they strip the strategy right out.
You might draw a card that says something like “Do we give the army more weapons, in light of X,Y and Z?”, and next to the ‘aye’ option there will be a symbol showing a downward swing of money, but an upward swing of military favour.
Then, all of you will discuss what decision you’d like to take. Whether you select what’s best for the kingdom, or your nasty, noble self, is entirely up to you. If you want to win, you’re going to want to play to your own hidden achievements (outlined on your screen) and/or your secret agenda card - which you select each individual game, meaning you don’t need to stick to just one for the entire campaign.
For example, my secret agenda might demand that the stability counters veer to extremes. I’ll take a look at the board, and see that money is falling fast. I want that to fall faster. As such, I’m going to want to convince everyone that we need to give our boys arms, and arms aplenty. Yes, spend that gold! A failing economy is most pleasing to the Cult of the Mother and, by extension, the good people of Ankist.
This is where the second, and most dastardly part of the game comes in. After having a discussion - which is hugely fun if you’re committed to roleplaying - you all vote on your decision. You do this by placing power tokens - as many as you like - on your ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ cards.
At this stage, you’re encouraged to bribe other players. You can even bluff, if you’re good enough; "Help me out this time, old boy, and I’ll see you good for the next one," and that sort of thing. People will respond most favourably to offers of gold and power, as you’d expect.
It’s also completely insane what you can convince people of, with a tight enough argument - or ample gaslighting. Particularly memorable rounds included one apparently liberal house convincing everyone that cannibalism was in the interest of the people, while another game saw us all locked in a bitter feud over whether to sell off national symbols. We ended up making a tidy profit hawking replicas of an epic sword in a state-sanctioned market.
Whichever decision has the most power behind it, wins. Then you flip over the card and see what horrible consequences await following your choice.
Sometimes, the outcome will direct you toward another envelope - opening up a whole new set of circumstances. Other times, you’ll have to get out a sticker. This means something permanent has happened. You get to sign your name on the board when you lead on certain events. It's delightful. Unless of course, the thing you did turns out to be terrible. Then you will rue the day your forebears discovered cacti, or whatever.
A lot of the time, you’ll just shuffle the remaining cards of the envelope into the dilemma deck, which you will then pick from the next round. You’ll then complete any admin for the stability gauge, moving the counters to their relevant places as outlined. When his majesty finally dies or abdicates, you score your points for that generation. And that's King's Dilemma in a gilded nutshell.
Honestly, it’s been great fun playing a really horrible house. It comes with all the delight of watching a heel torment and finagle in professional wrestling. It also forces the more morally upstanding houses to really up their argument game. “This is objectively wrong” never quite cuts it in the world of King’s Dilemma, where everyone's angling for their own secret agenda.
So, how does King’s Dilemma measure up? Thus far, our group of five has crunched through four games of the 15 or so in a full campaign. Of these, it took most of one to work out how to set up the story engine. This was a drag, no lie - but worth it.
The second game, we found our flow, but also discovered dilemma decisions to be a little unsatisfying. Free the slaves? Don’t buy the diseased crops? It was all a bit obvious. We were hoping for big consequences, those real ‘what the hell did we do?’ moments, where you shake your fists at the sun and despair at cruel fate.
However, in game three, we found our dilemmas becoming a little less standard fantasy fare, and more complex and weird. We’d also established house dynamics by then, with folks setting up tenuous allegiances and bitter rivalries based on what had come before.
By then, decisions from previous playthroughs began coming back to haunt us. We found ourselves in cruel predicaments, where even the ‘right’ decision seemed to just land us - and our unfortunate populace - in more horrors.
We had plagues, uprisings and proper political quandaries. Many of our best intentions devolved into things shocking and unspeakable. At times, our shame united us - the gravity of the horrors we’d wrought imparting a strange togetherness. Some of us found our personal gains annihilated by the decisions of our forefathers, while others began to reap the rewards of playing to type. At this stage, it felt as if we were hinging on the end of the first act.
In the fourth game: things got real. We sought secret knowledge, uncovering a shocking mystery steeped in corruption. We plotted the demise of our enemies. We paid a grave and desperate price for past misdeeds and watched on powerless, as all spiralled ever further. Previously hidden knowledge regarding what had ruined our forebears was unveiled. It was a real thrill, we collectively gasped as we uncovered larger and more forbidden stickers; peeling them back for dire truths - each more terrible then the last.
What started out as an amusing but fairly arbitrary choose-your-own-adventure title with elements of social fuckery is turning into something else. King's Dilemma is epic, vicious and unpredictable.
In many ways, The King’s Dilemma comes somewhat close to what it means to play the Game of Thrones: to sweet-talk yourself into the highest echelons of power and watch your decisions shape the unfortunate nation waiting uneasily beneath your feet.