The King’s Dilemma

Hjalmar Hach, Lorenzo Silva
3 - 5
14 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

This review is spoiler-free. Even the photos were taken with the The King’s Dilemma demo pack, kindly provided by publisher Horrible Guild together with our review copy.

[pullshow/]How far can you get with only yes/no decisions? Pretty damn far, if you ask anyone working with computers. But how about in terms of game design? How far does a game of yes/no decisions get you? That’s a question to ask Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva, the designers of The King’s Dilemma. While there is a bit more around it, the core of the game is a series of yes/no decisions.

Players in The King’s Dilemma are advisors to the king, and by voting on a series of issues they control the fate and future of the kingdom of Ankist, as well as the fate and future of their own noble house. Those two things may not always be reconcilable. And there’s your dilemma.

Sovereignty made simple – how to play The King’s Dilemma

The King’s Dilemma is a campaign game where the fate of Ankist emerges over many games. Nevertheless, a single game of The King’s Dilemma is really quite simple.

For every round, you draw a Dilemma Card. On the front, you have a description of the problem you face, and indicators what might happen if the vote goes Aye or Nay. Those indicators are usually accurate, but there are exceptions and often there are additional consequences. A card might say something like “The North of your Kingdom is beset by rampaging badgers. Send the army to deal with them? Aye will increase Morale but decrease Wealth, Nay will decrease Morale.” Only the real cards won’t be about badgers because The King’s Dilemma is not a silly game.

The crisis understood, players will now vote how to handle it. Starting with the current Leader, there are four options. A player may vote Aye or Nay by putting the corresponding card on the table and a number of their Power Tokens with it. A player may Pass and opt to take Power Tokens after the vote. One player may also pass and become the new Moderator, the one who decides ties – a powerful position.

If you vote and put more Power Tokens on your card than the current Leader, then you immediately become the new Leader. Since voting continues until the player to the current Leader’s right voted, this has the interesting effect of extending the round. Anyone who voted may add more Power Tokens to their vote, but they may not change their vote.

While this is going on, negotiations are not only possible but encouraged. You may offer money or future cooperation in exchange for opponents’ votes, for them to pass, for the Moderator to break ties your way, or for anything else you can come up with. The only things exempt from those deals are Power Tokens, the Leader Token, and the Moderator token, anything else is fair game. Just remember, a deal is binding if, and only if, money changed hands.

When the voting is finished, you flip the card over along the Aye side or the Nay side and apply the consequences. The most common consequences are adjustments to the five kingdom resources: Influence, Wealth, Morale, Welfare, and Knowledge. The resource counters seem to move slowly, but they are in fact quite temperamental because of Momentum. After you move a counter, you mark the direction it went. If the counter’s next move is in the same direction, it moves an extra space – when your economy is in decline, it’s easy to speed it up.

Less commonly, consequences may tell you to apply a Chronicle sticker describing what happened because of your decision – signed by the Leader, because the kingdom doesn’t forget.

Even less commonly, you may be called to open an envelope with new dilemma cards and shuffle them into your dilemma pile. This is how the story of your kingdom advances. After you made a decision that steers Ankist into a new direction, these new cards will have dilemmas that could only occur in this branch of history.

After you apply all the consequences, you check if the game ends. This can happen in two ways. The king may have died of old age, which happens if you go through enough dilemma cards without hitting the other end game condition, or the king may abdicate because the Ankist has become unstable. Whenever you move any resource counter, you move the stability counter along with it. This way, your kingdom might be stable even if your Wealth is all gone, for example if your Knowledge and Influence moved up at the same time. But with more than one counter moving the same way as a consequence of your decision, plus Momentum, it’s surprisingly easy to hit the end of the line with your stability counter.

No matter how the game ended, you’ll now score points and apply persistent changes to your noble house. Your points come remaining power tokens and from your secret and open agendas. Your secret agenda comes from a card drafted during setup and awards points for resource counters in the right part of the track and for your relative wealth. If you have the Moderate agenda, for example, you’ll score most of your points for having the resource counters in the center portion of their tracks, and only a few points for being the richest player. Your open agendas reward you for having a specific resource counter at the top of the track – or punish you for having that counter at the bottom.

All those points calculated, you now mark advances for your house. Based on your score, you gain a number of Prestige or Crave points. Prestige points represent all the good things you did for Ankist, Crave points your egoistical drive to power, and both will have an impact on your house’s future at the end of the campaign. You also mark a point on your house screen for the secret agenda you played, which may award yet more Prestige or Crave, and you mark all of the special house achievements you completed. Those are especially nice because they’ll unlock a special ability after you completed them often enough.

And then you’re done and you could save the game with a simple yet effective system. But you won’t. You’ll set up for another game, because at this point you’re hooked.

How does it feel to make history? Our Verdict

Even though the game is called The King’s Dilemma, what it’s really about is your dilemmas. Dilemmi? Dilemmae? Whatever the plural is, you’ll have enough of them. You only vote on yes/no decisions, but there are so many consequences attached to each of them.

You have the obvious one that changes to the resource counters might destroy the kingdom’s stability and end the game early. But maybe that’s what you want, if the game game ends because the stability marker hit rock bottom only the player with the fewest points will gain Prestige.

Even if you don’t end the game, though, you want keep the resource marker in the range your secret agenda demands. Or not, because it might conflict with your open agenda and you have to decide what is more important right now. Or you might work against both your agendas because you don’t want to sign a Chronicle sticker that you’re pretty sure would make your house be remembered for ruining the kingdom’s finances. Or is worth taking that hit to your reputation because you’ll mark a house achievement and unlock its special ability? Unless you accept that bribe from an opponent to vote with them, because money is important for your score. On the, by my count, sixth hand, you did promise another opponent to support them. No money changed hands, so it’s not binding, but upsetting more people against you doesn’t sound like a success story, either, does it? And all that is before you consider the actual question you’re talking about. If it’s strategically better for your house to unscrupulously dispose of a group of people, do you really want to go that way, even in a game?

That is what I love about The King’s Dilemma. The rules are pretty straightforward, you don’t create complex strategies or long term plans, but [pullthis]all those simple decisions have so many consequences to consider[/pullthis]. And the absolute best part? Your decisions change the story. Even in games like Pandemic Legacy – which, don’t forget, I adore – the storyline is relatively static. You change all the details, but you’ll always hit the cornerstone events. In The King’s Dilemma, opening one envelope means that you don’t open another. If you go down one path, you’ll never know what could have been.

With all my gushing, there is one point about The King’s Dilemma that is not bad as such, but it takes getting used to. You don’t have a campaign goal, or a campaign strategy. You collect Prestige and Crave points, but nothing tells you what they mean. You’ll be tempted to assume that having a lot of Prestige will be good for you, but you don’t know. For all you know, maybe the player with the most Prestige will be sacrificed to the badger gods and the player with the second-most Prestige wins. Or the player with the most Crave points, evil incarnate, might win, and Prestige might mean nothing. It’s disorienting not to have a set goal to work towards. It does, however, make it much more interesting to explore the story. You don’t know what will happen, or how you might win, you just know what you want to achieve.

So, how far can you go with a game based on simple yes/no decisions? For one thing, you can go to a Kennerspiel des Jahres nomination. Maybe even to an award. So: pretty damn far.

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