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The Rose King is a two-player-only abstract strategy game that plays in around 30 minutes. In the small box (8x8x2-inch) you’ll find the game board, 52 rose tokens (wooden in the old versions, cardboard in the new English one), 32 cards and a wooden crown token.
The board is a well-drawn old-style map of northern England, where the War of the Roses was played out between royal rivals from Lancaster and York in the 15th Century – but in game terms it is just a nine-by-nine grid of squares. The card art is nice, if just functional rather than elaborate, but does the job perfectly.
You can find the game for less than £20 and (spoiler alert) there is more than enough game in the box for that price. However, since the original (with wooden pieces) was about the same price, I’m surprised they didn’t lower the cost of this significantly. Why not go the whole hog, make the board thin card, and sell two versions – the ‘deluxe’ original and a super-cheap cardboard one for under a tenner to try and grab some more fans?
As with all classic abstract strategy games, the rules of The Rose King are very simple – the skill comes from the tactical decisions you make; or often in what you fail to see that then bites you in the ass. The crown piece starts the game in the middle square of the board. Each player starts with four one-shot ‘hero cards’ in their colour; and is dealt five face-up cards from the shared ‘power card’ deck. A player may never draw a card if they have five power cards.
Taking it in turns, players choose to either play or draw a power card (simply draw the top one from the deck). Each power card displays a direction (N, NE, E etc) and a number between one and three; and the cards of both players are face-up throughout the game. When playing a power card, you place it in the discard pile and move the crown token from its current location by the card’s exact amount and direction (eg, three spaces NE). You may only play the card if it is legal: the final position of the crown token must be within the board’s boundaries and the spot it is moving to must be empty. If this is the case, place a rose token of your colour in the square and place the crown on top of it.
The exception is if you play a hero card. These are played along with a power card and allow you to move the crown to a space occupied by your opponent’s rose – and flip their rose to your side (you can never move the crown to a space you already occupy). But remember you only have four hero cards and once they’re gone, they’re gone. Play continues in this way until either all of the rose tokens have been placed on the board; or until neither play can play or draw a card. Players then score their rose tokens, with larger orthogonal clusters scoring significantly more points; it is the number of spaces squared, so a cluster of 3 will score just 9 – but a cluster of nine would score 81.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
The writer: I can’t believe how many interesting decisions, and swings, The Rose King packs into such a simple and short playing game experience. When to use your hero cards is key: when you have none left and your opponent does you are extremely vulnerable – but if you have the opportunity to take a lot of points, it’s hard (and possibly a mistake) to resist. Without them the game would be average; with them, for me it’s a classic.
The thinker: Fans of games such as Go and Chess may baulk at the random elements on show here, but I would urge them to give it a try. While it lacks the purity of strategy those games thrive on the tactical challenges the game throws up have their own charm. A good player should always beat a novice, but it won’t take an intelligent gamer long to get up to speed – and then you’ll be in for some close games. And there isn’t always an optimal move, leaving genuine choices rather than a simple right or wrong move.
The trasher: While I’d prefer more theme, The Rose King is a brutal game and probably the most fun I’ve had with a two-player abstract. The game is purely tactical, while not giving you too many decisions to parse at once, so it zips along nicely but can throw you some real curve balls. You can think you’re in a really strong position, then your opponent draws the perfect card for themselves and suddenly you’re on the defensive. And there are so many time you want to use those hero cards to swing the tide, but they’re like hen’s teeth!
The dabbler: This game isn’t really for me. It’s OK, and clever, but because there is no theme – and no mystery (every playing piece is visible) – the stand-up moments just aren’t there. Sure, there are those ‘oh no’ moments when you realise you haven’t seen what’s about to happen to you – and it feels great when you spot those and your opponent doesn’t, letting you score a big area. But at the end it tends to feel like you’ve lost my making mistakes, which doesn’t make me feel too great! I prefer a game with shocks and moments where players feel they’ve made a great play, rather than waiting for the mistakes of others.
The Rose King is often criticised for its random elements, and lack of control – and so for the lack of strategic planning. All true – this is largely a tactical game, but I don’t think it’s any weaker for that. I guess some may get the wrong impression by its look, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it pretends to be anything it isn’t. Speaking of its look, the complete lack of theme has some bemoaning the fact they tried to paste one on at all – while others complain it is very dry, perhaps because they expected a War of the Roses game to have more than pictures of knights on cards, a map and some tokens with roses on. These are points of view I understand, but I don’t see them as really slights against the game; so yes, it is a little dry – but good dry.
Tactically, you can argue hero cards are a little too important – as the player who runs out of them first does tend to lose. So holding them back is the play – but if you hold on too long you can end up not being able to use them, so it isn’t quite that straightforward. And finally some complain games can be a blow-out, with a big scoring area blowing the other player out of the water. To these points I’d say two things. First, I don’t think this is a game people should overplay – it’s not an every day or back-to-back plays kind of game for most people. As for blow outs, you need to remember this is a 30-minute experience – we’re not talking one player starting to get hosed then having to be beaten down for a few hours.
Alongside Ingenious and Can’t Stop, The Rose King has been one of my favourite abstract games since I picked it up back in 2012 – but I’d been playing it for years before online at Yucata.de (as ‘War of the Roses’ – a great place to try it out). I love that you can teach it in five minutes and play it in 30, making it a great lunch break experience – especially to introduce to Chess or Go playing colleagues as an introduction to our great hobby. I’m a little disappointed with the inferior cardboard components in the most recent English edition, but I wouldn’t let that stop me recommending this fantastic game to anyone who loves a bit of an abstract tactical challenge with a sprinkling of luck thrown in.
* You may have noticed the lack of my usual ‘class A’ photos (ahem). This is because the version I own is the German original which has different components (but exactly the same rules), so I’ve used the Kosmos promo images here instead.