The King is Dead is both the name and opening line of this game, designed by Peer Sylvester and published by Osprey games. It’s a two to four player area control game where you win by exerting influence over three factions (English, Scottish and Welsh) to determine the future King or Queen. After eight power struggles across the regions of the British Isles, the winner is the player who uses their cards to influence the power struggles in each region to unite the kingdom once again. To be crowned winner, you must gain the influence of the most successful faction, or unite the factions against a French invasion.
I haven’t played the first edition or previous iteration of this game (The King of Siam), so my thoughts are about this version only. The components and art are delightful, capturing medieval Britain with a beautiful aesthetic in-keeping with the game’s theme and are I believe updated from the original.
There are several ways to play the game. Firstly, there are standard rules for two to three players, where everyone has the same eight cards, and an advanced version where each player has an additional three cards contributing to hidden intrigue and encouraging different strategies. I haven’t played the four-player game, where players are split into two opposing teams, and while this doesn’t appeal to me as much, it is something I would like to try at some point. The rules are concise and easy to understand with clear tie breakers and win conditions with further details for the advanced cards. The cards are well designed and handy drawings help provide clarity to the actions.
Eight power struggles stand between you and victory. On each turn you play one of your eight cards, or pass, working through each region in the order determined by the set up. If all players pass, the region is resolved and you move on to the next. If you pass and someone else plays a card, you have the option to play again but be wary! Once those eight cards have been played, you have used up all your chances to influence the game. Play your cards too early and you’ll lose any control over how the game unfolds, play them too late and you might miss the chance to be crowned.
The first thing that struck me about this game was the simplicity of the rules. ‘Ah! This will be easy’, I thought, and midway through the first play I had a moment of clarity. A lightbulb flickered somewhere in my brain. A mistake had been made, and it dawned on me that I didn’t know how to win. This is where The King is Dead shines - its simplicity draws you in. Play cards and move some cubes, easy right? You think this at first, before realising you’ve played the wrong cards at the wrong time and it’s too late to use your remaining cards to save yourself.
The King is Dead delights in the interplay of starting big and getting smaller and smaller with each power struggle. Each push and pull of the cubes becomes more and more meaningful with each decision. In the basic two-player game, knowing your opponent has certain cards makes it feel chess-like: tight and tense. With three players, you are openly vying for control and actions can be used to stop one player getting too far ahead.
Having played the game multiple times, it still hasn’t become stale with new strategies and plays emerging with each game. The simplicity of the rules make light of a deeply strategic game where limited decisions matter more than you first realise as you peel away layers that aren’t immediately visible. I adore this game and look forward to each opportunity to play The King Is Dead.