The King is Dead! And rather than take this opportunity to build a free people’s utopia, the citizens of Scotland, England and Wales have diverted their energy into civil war. In Peer Sylvester’s The King is Dead, players assume the role of a pretender to the throne, courting the different factions in an attempt to win the support of the most powerful nation by the end of the game. This 2nd edition from Osprey Games updates the original with gorgeously refreshed artwork and a new asymmetric play mode.
A base game of The King is Dead begins with the eight regions of the island of Great Britain randomly populated with influence cubes. These red, yellow and blue cubes represent the constituent armies of the Welsh, English and Scottish forces respectively. Players (2-3, or 4 in a team game) each take a matching set of eight cards and two random cubes to form their initial court. The order in which battles will be resolved is randomised by shuffling and revealing eight cards into slots around the board.
What’s interesting about the gameplay is that players do not take on the role of one particular faction. Instead, players manipulate the war using their cards to give different factions majorities in different regions, while at the same time gathering followers to their court to increase their favour with a particular faction. A turn is simple; play a card, pick up a cube from the board.
It’s area control, but you don’t have a fixed horse in the race unless you go all-in for one faction. The problem with that is your strategy is too obvious to your opponents. Plus, removing cubes from the board to your court weakens that faction. Meaning you might end up with a court full of Englishmen in a nation conquered by the Welsh!
For a game where you only take eight actions, The King is Dead is rich in strategy and tactics. The game is tight. You can only play each of your cards once, although, there is the option to pass on your turn. This can create a Mexican stand-off between players to see who will blink first and reveal their intentions. If all players pass, a battle is resolved in the next region on the track and power awarded to the faction with the most cubes (or a French invasion if scores are tied).
It is hard to describe the pressure cooker tension of this game. On the surface, you play eight cards and add and remove cubes; easy, right? Wrong! The game has a claustrophobic flow that I haven’t felt in any other game. Every action you take to make gains in the moment only weakens you for future turns. Peer Sylvester has successfully realised the maxim, ‘less is more’. Fewer decisions are heavier decisions.
The game ends when all eight regions have successfully had their battles resolved or three areas are resolved as ties with a French Invasion. In the first scenario, the winner is the player with the most cubes of the faction that was successful in the most regions. In the second scenario, players are crowned King (or Queen) if they can unite the nations against the French by having the most sets of all three colours.
I knew nothing about this game going in for my first play and boy was I blown away. No sooner had I finished, and won on the final card, than I wanted to dive back in and try again. What’s great is it is supremely easy to teach and is relatively short (about 40 minutes) despite having that exhilaratingly intense game arc.
Purists and fans of the original game may be happy to play the supreme tactical battle of everyone having the same eight cards. But I love the new asymmetrical ‘advanced’ variant which swaps three base cards in each player’s hand with three unique ‘cunning actions’. These cunning actions allow you to surprise your opponents with an unexpected move or have your best-laid plans thwarted by their own. For what it’s worth, I think the original game is the real ‘expert’ variant though.
The King is Dead is definitely a game that will be staying on my shelf for a long time. It gives you the intrigue and backstabbing of something more epic like Game of Thrones: The Board Game, without the need for an equally epic player count or game time. This is a Tardis of game design; bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside and, I think, essential for a strategy and tactical gamer’s collection. The King is Dead! Long Live the King!