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Subject: King me! rss

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Michael Debije
Netherlands
Eindhoven
The Netherlands
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Kings and Castles was designed and published by the Ragnar Brothers in 2000. It is playable by 2 to four players in about 1 or 2 hours.

What You Get


Inside one of the standard, smaller Ragnar boxes with a somewhat drab cover depicting a knight over a ‘family tree’ of English nobility you get the cream of the game: their beautiful, large, cloth map depicting the current United Kingdom and northern France. These maps are really stunning and, from experience, I can say they wash beautifully, and it is a great way to remove any unfortunate coffee stains from a disaster that may occur the very first time you set up the game… Anyway. You also get a lot of counters, which come with the strong quibble that the colors purple and black are so similar it really is a strain to differentiate them, and you need to differentiate them a lot. You also get a little black draw bag and a faction card for each player. Overall, the contents are decent, but not spectacular, and the color choice of purple/black probably looked better before they were sent to printer.

What You Do

The goal in the game is to amass the most wealth by conquering regions and choosing judicious times to tax. Each player starts by choosing a color and taking a player mat. The map is set up with one black ‘enemy’ counter placed in each region of the map randomly (except in Rouen, for some reason). You start with a number of your counters, depicting knights (value in combat: 3), men-at-arms (2) and archers (1) face up on your playing mat as the ‘household’ forces, four of each in the longer game. The rest of the tokens go in the bag. You now need to choose your initial array of ten counters to begin the game: you can choose any number from your ‘household’, and the remaining will come from random draws from the bag. This makes it very interesting, as the bag contains mercenaries, castles, enemy counters, as well as counters of your opponents. Getting the right balance of troop numbers to score at the right time is the balancing act of the game.

Once the mats are ready, player order is chosen. Along the two map edges is a ‘time track’ depicting the Kings of England, from William I to Richard III. In player order, a player marker is placed on one of the Kings indicating one wishes to take a turn representing that King. No two Kings can be chosen consecutively by the same player, unless there is no other option. Once all the 24 King spaces are filled, play order is known, and the game begins.

The King next due a turn takes their move. Each King has two details: how many extra draws they get from the bag (1 to 4) as well as the region they were primarily active (France, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland). For example, Henry gets 2 draws, and is active in England. The counters are drawn and placed on the card. Players then may launch attacks.

Attacks may be directed within the country depicted on the King track, and in one other country. To conquer a region, an attack value exceeding the defense value of the region assaulted must be achieved. For example, if a knight defends a region (strength 3) then 4 points of attack strength must be brought to bear (say two men-at-arms, or a knight and a mercenary). When black ‘enemy’ units are present in a country, attacks may only be made by the colored markers against the enemy. You can attack with any color on your display, not just your own. You can also use black to attack, usually to remove your opponent’s pieces. Once a country is completely controlled by player factions, a ‘civil war’ can start, and players may begin to attack each other. Attacks are always made by units of the same color, perhaps supplemented by neutral mercenaries. One an enemy is removed, it is replaced by the single most powerful unit involved in the victory: the other units used in the attacks are removed. It should be noted no ‘overkill’ pieces are allowed in an attack: you can’t go after a knight with two men-at-arms and an archer, for example, as the two men-at-arms are all that you need to win. Defeated and excess units are removed from the game. At the end of a turn, when one wishes no more attacks, any castles drawn from the bag can be placed: these add 1 to 3 defense value to a space, but are removed if an area is conquered.

Finally, the player may elect to tax. Each player may only tax three times during the game, so one must choose carefully when to do so: it should be at the height of your power, and at the nadir of your opponents. There are three area values: 1, 2 or 3 gold worth. London is worth 3, for example, while Dublin is 2 an Stirling 1. If you declare taxation, you score double the value for all your holding on the map, but all other players collect normal income. At the very end of the game, there is a bonus taxation phase for everyone, so you like to be in good standing at this point: also, one player will essentially have the opportunity to tax twice consecutively.

What I Think

Once you get the hang of it, this is a really simple yet challenging game. You have to manage your attacking array cleverly, as there is a good chance you will have a hand with lots of opponent’s counters. Do you let them lie, clogging your options in future turns, or perhaps use them to clear away pesky enemies or opponents so you can get them more easily? How much do you plan to seed your men on your card to go for the big score round? Which Kings do you choose to allow you most flexibility in attack areas and strength of forces? When do you pull off the all-important taxations?

There are quite a few opportunities for clever moves, and some real decisions about when to score and when to hold off, hoping to reduce your opponents before calling for a tax. Do you want to grab a lot of early Kings and dominate before the map gets too crowded, or do you try to save a go near the end when people are weaker?

This is not a very well-known game, but I think it is a worthy one. It plays pretty quickly, with rules to shorten it to about 1 hour, and rules to make it challenging for 2. It usually has come down to the wire at the end. There is a lot of luck in the draw, but it is not luck as to how you use the counters drawn. This is an abstract, but the interesting theme and presentation still involves me, a decided ‘non-abstract’ player. Recommended.
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Scott Muldoon (silentdibs)
United States
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mi_de wrote:
one player will essentially have the opportunity to tax twice consecutively.

This rule has always been a clunker for me. Do you think it unbalances the game?
 
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Dave L.
United States
Portland
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Great review Michael. I liked this one more than I thought I was going to. Managing your array and getting the timing of advancement and taxation is an interesting challenge.

I am still mulling over a variant where you bid for control of each reign as it comes up - keeping the same rules. Same player can't have two consecutive reigns unless no alternative, and you would have to have a rule to force a player to take the next reign if no one wanted to bid. I'm not sure how well it would play in practice (and I'm not even a fan of auctions, damnit), but I feel it would be more thematic and at least create a market value for the double tax position.

I only played once. The double tax was not unbalancing in our game, but nobody quite knew what they were doing, so I have no good opinion.

 
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Scott Muldoon (silentdibs)
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Emile wrote:
you would have to have a rule to force a player to take the next reign if no one wanted to bid.

Make it the player who took his last turn furthest in the past (although that doesn't work for the first few reigns).

The auction idea is kinda neat.
 
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