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Subject: In which I Take Back Almost Everything I Said in my First Review rss

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Chad Ellis
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A short while back I wrote a fairly negative review of To Court the King, at the end of which I added a disclaimer. Tom, a designer for whom I have a lot of respect, had (in a different thread) disputed some of my claims and I resolved to give the game another chance. Fortunately this was pretty easy to do as the game is available on Yucata, offering me an easy chance to play and a lot of good opponents.

I’m now back, and ready to take back almost everything I wrote in the initial review.

It’s always a bit strange writing a review after only a small number of plays. I do it from time to time for a game I'm not happy with in part because I think it’s sometimes possible to identify real flaws very early on and in part because few among us are going to play games we dislike lots of times – so unless we’re willing to write reviews off of a small number of plays we’re not going to see negative reviews. Of course, the chance of simply being wrong about the game is a serious one.

My first review was based on a handful of games. As I’m writing this now I’ve played 174 games on Yucata. If my record of 101 wins and 73 losses seems good-but-not-great, bear in mind that my games are spread pretty evenly between 2, 3, 4 and 5 players, and my win rate is significantly higher now than when I started. My rating on Yucata puts me in the top 50 of over 1600 players – granted, the Yucata system favors people who play lots of games, but I think it’s safe to say that I’m a competent player at this point.

The tl;di summary is that To Court the King is a challenging dice game with surprising depth and a lot of interesting decisions that require you to factor in timing, card combinations, scarce resources and the overall pacing of the game. Although it has some flaws (which I’ll discuss) it’s currently my favorite pure dice-rolling game, edging out both Liar’s Dice and Roll Through the Ages.

The Good

Lots of interesting decisions. My initial impression was quite the opposite. The way to maximize your chance of a large set is pretty straightforward, after all, so my first impression was that most turns were pretty obvious.

This turns out not to be the case, for several reasons. First off, the choices between cards are more interesting than I realized. Sometimes, particularly in games of 2-3 players, it’s more useful to take a slightly worse card than you could in order either to cut off an opponent or to avoid getting cut off yourself – i.e. take the card that’s likely to disappear now and then get the better one later. The most common example of this is in a two-player game where grabbing the Hunter can be very powerful as it’s the only die-adder at that level.

Second, timing is often very important. The double-turns mean that the gaps between one turn and the next can be anything from zero to quite long and you often have to manage risk based on an assessment of how likely the game is to reach a crisis point before you get another turn.

The cards also interact in ways that make static valuations difficult. The most obvious type of interaction is how certain pairs (or triples) of manipulators work together, but beyond that there are more subtle things to consider. Manipulators that move pips from one die to another tend to be great at putting together sets but work best at middle values which means that when it’s time to fight for the King you often have to build a larger set; this makes it imperative not to fall at behind on dice, whereas if you have a Lord or Lady and can snag the other there’s a good chance that they’ll work together to make you a high set and you can be relatively optimistic even if you’re a die behind.

Finally, there is more risk management than I first appreciated. You will often reach points in the later game where you’d like to get the General but know that your odds aren’t good. You then have to evaluate what cards you might get if you try for the General and fail or what your backup plan is. For example, you might choose to keep a single six rather than trip-ones because you really need to add a die and going for sixes almost guarantees hitting 30, or you might decide that going for ones virtually guarantees at least getting a Lady so the downside to trying for the General is acceptable. These judgment calls remain difficult for me, so I’m still moving down the learning curve at this point, which I like.

Solid interaction. It’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. You fight for limited cards and you set your pacing depending on what your opponents are able to do. Beginners play solitaire, but nowadays I look at my opponents’ cards and what they’re likely to do on their turns before even considering what to do with my initial roll.

Good pacing. The game feels about right in length. The buildup in power is noticeable each turn but doesn’t feel like it’s out of control and in most games between good players the outcome is in doubt up to or close to the end.

The Bad

The first turn. I get that in order for there to be risk there has to be the chance for bad outcomes, but I find the first turn of the game very unsatisfying – mainly because there’s usually no risk management involved in the bad outcome. I’ve heard some people say that it’s just luck like any other game but pick any game you want with luck and ask how you’d feel if at the start of the game everyone rolled a die and people who rolled a ‘1’ skipped their first turn. That’s essentially what this feels like to me.

The Ugly

The flavor still does nothing for me. If that’s an issue for you, it applies here.

Runaway leader. This isn’t as bad as I first thought – games between strong players tend to stay competitive longer – but it’s still there. Two-player games in particular can see a slow start by one player turn into being cut off from die-adders and being totally helpless to fight back.

Conclusion

To Court the King is a fast-paced game with lots of interesting decisions. The length feels about right and even though the same cards are available every game it doesn’t feel stale – even after closing on 200 plays. It’s currently my favorite dice game and one of my favorite medium-weight games, and I’ll be happy to accept your challenge on Yucata.

Strategy afterthought: Die adders vs. Manipulators

In my original review I said that die-adders were simply better than manipulators. Tom disagreed strongly, arguing that the game’s math strongly favored having 1-2 manipulators, and that the focus on dice by some people was self-fulfilling group-think, i.e. if everyone focuses on dice then by definition someone gets lucky and wins.

My original view was too strong, but I still think Tom’s wrong, and that – as good as maniuplators can be – they are, overall, weak picks. Not as weak as I originally thought (and if you roll 1, 3, 5 or 2, 4, 6 on your first roll and reroll any of your dice you’re flat-out wrong to do so), but given a choice you should almost always add to your die-total early on and whenever in doubt.

One of the interesting points of math behind this is that even if the average expected result for N dice and 2 manipulators is better than for N+2 dice, the players with N+2 dice may still have a better chance of winning in games with more than two players.

Let me use an odd analogy to illustrate. Suppose you’re having a target shooting contest and you have two possible choices – shoot from the hip or ready, aim fire. Each shooter gets one shot and the first one to hit the target wins. Shooting from the hip isn’t very reliable – you have only a 40% chance of hitting – but if you ready and aim you’re guaranteed to hit. If multiple shooters use the same strategy and hit the target the winner will be chosen at random among them.

What should you do?

If there’s only one other shooter, you should ready, aim and fire. That strategy has a 60% chance of success against shooting from the hip and a 50% chance against another ready, aim fire, vs. 50% and 40% respectively if you choose shoot from the hip. No matter what your opponent chooses, you’re better off taking your time.

As the number of other shooters grows, however, the chance that one of them hits before you even fire increases. With two other shooters it’s almost a wash; with three others you’re better off shooting from the hip. With four others, you’re much better off. This is because you can only win if the other shooters all miss.

A similar dynamic applies to dice-rolling with manipulation, with "hitting the target before you even fire" replaced with "rolling a set that's larger than your total number of dice". If you’re rolling seven dice and I’m rolling nine, I have some chance of rolling eight or nine of a kind. Even if you have perfect manipulation (i.e. you can guarantee seven sixes) I have a chance to win – and the more players there are with nine dice the greater the chance that one of them does.

This can create the illusion of group-think (i.e. we think that dice are better so most of us go for dice and thus most games are won by dice) but that’s an illusion that shouldn’t hold up if some players are resisting it. If taking 2 manipulators is optimal then players who do that should have better win-loss records than those who don’t – and from what I can see this isn’t the case. (I’ve also tried hard to demonstrate that dice aren’t better by adopting more manipulative strategies; the results have not been good.)

I haven’t tried to prove this mathematically, but my strong sense at this point is that having 2 manipulators does yield a higher mean result than straight dice but that in games of 3+ players this is usually overbalanced by the broader range of outcomes – i.e. the chance that each die-heavy player has to make a roll that the manipulator literally cannot match.

I don’t run from manipulators. I think one is generally better than none and two that work well together are sometimes better than one. I’m more cautious about them as the number of players increases, however, and I try to avoid taking them early if I can help it because of the Scarce Resource problem. That’s discussed in another thread, but the short version is that if you want five of one thing and one of another and they’re equally easy to get then you should take the first over the second most of the time. I tend to pick up my manipulators as back-ups when looking for die-adders, which may be why the Lady is one of my most common picks.

This is a complex debate and I doubt very much that this is the final word on it. Hopefully I’ve put some theory behind the practical conclusion most good players seem to reach. I also don’t consider this a flaw in the game (as I once did) because even if in general you should err on the side of dice there are lots of situations where that’s not clear and there’s an interplay between the two types where you’re often aiming for a card of one type and having the other as a fallback if you don’t quite succeed.
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Tom Lehmann
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Thanks for your re-review. While I don't agree with everything you say, I do appreciate the fact that you were willing to play the game more and re-examine your snap judgement.

I try to design games that support repeated play -- I always find it a bit frustrating when a game is dismissed with a snap judgement that I believe is false. It happens and every individual is certainly entitled to their opinion, but often people (not you) who make these snap judgements label them as "facts", as opposed to their personal take on a game based on a small number of plays.
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Chad Ellis
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As a designer and publisher myself, I know the feeling.

You probably don't remember, but I was a guest at DDJ's house once when you were showing a prototype of Race for the Galaxy. I thought it was neat but not really my thing because there wasn't enough interaction. Friends convinced me that it only seemed this way at first so I kept playing and it remains one of my favorite games to this day. That experience made it particularly easy to assume that you were probably right that I was vastly underestimating this game as well...although I hope that any time I form an opinion about a game based on a few plays that I hold that opinion to be highly provisional.
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Snooze Fest
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We love our pups!! Misu, RIP 28 Nov 2010. Tikka, RIP 11 Aug 2011.
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you're making me want to go play this game even more now!

nice re-review!
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Nic Chilton
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The dice-giving cards are important, and you should be aware of what players are getting, but the manipulators play their part. As each player ends up with the same number of cards, unless you are badly organised to get a fool a few times, then one or two manipulators will help you to make the most of your final roll - yes a dice heavy player may get lucky rolls to which you cannot do anything, but that's just chance.

You can't just say that more players mean higher chance of a dice heavy player getting set of all dice, because the number of cards available changes depending on the number of players. So you won't be able to get them all.

 
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SAKURA in KYOTO 2018 Back to Kansai
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There's only one thing wrong with To Court The King. The teeny tiny graphics on the cards. All the dice and icons are so bloody small, it's hard to figure until you learn the characters. The odd or even dices are the worst, you're supposed to be able to see the actual pips on the teeny tiny pictures of teeny tiny dices and figure out if they're all odd or all even.

MAKE THE BLOODY ICONS BIGGER SO WE CAN BLOODY READ THEM! which should be the golden rule for all graphic design in games.
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Paul M
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EYE of NiGHT wrote:
MAKE THE BLOODY ICONS BIGGER SO WE CAN BLOODY READ THEM!

Repeating this, because it is that important, not only in this game, but in others, such as Horse Fever, where the criminally small iconography detracts from gameplay.
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Chad Ellis
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nicch wrote:
The dice-giving cards are important, and you should be aware of what players are getting, but the manipulators play their part. As each player ends up with the same number of cards, unless you are badly organised to get a fool a few times, then one or two manipulators will help you to make the most of your final roll - yes a dice heavy player may get lucky rolls to which you cannot do anything, but that's just chance.


Sure, but I don't think this is in conflict with what I've said. I usually aim to get one manipulator and will sometimes take a second. This is compared with 4-6 die-adders. The relative scarcity of the die-adders (both because you need more of them and because you're more likely to find their piles empty) is a significant factor in deciding which card to take in your early turns.

The thing about "just chance" is that the odds of something happening change with the number of people attempting it. Just as in the target shooting example, taking time to aim (or picking up manipulators) is more likely to work the fewer people there are fighting you.

Quote:
You can't just say that more players mean higher chance of a dice heavy player getting set of all dice, because the number of cards available changes depending on the number of players. So you won't be able to get them all.


In my experience it's not much harder (or easier) to get dice based on the number of players. In games with 3+ it's possible to get shut out of a first-row card but this is balanced by their being proportionately more cards in the higher rows. (In a two-player game, only half the players can get the four-of-a-kind adder; in a four-player game, 75% can.)
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Todd Kauk
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This game is amazingly fun...but literally impossible to find! shake


Thanks for the re-review!
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Raymond Ganancial
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This is now re-implemented as Favor of the Pharoah by Bezier Games. Will be demoed at GenCon 2015 and released at Essen 2015.
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