13th Jan2020

‘The King’s Dilemma’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

kings-dilemma-box

Even though legacy and narrative games continue to be awarded high praise in the board gaming world, the number of games that actually centre around them remains fairly low. This might be because the art of telling a story over ten to fifteen different sessions is a very different talent to that of building a solid mechanical engine. In The King’s Dilemma however, designers Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva appear to have blended storytelling and gameplay elements seamlessly to create quite the package.

The theme of The King’s Dilemma is well explained by the name of the game, really, and in each of what will be about fourteen games (this is a single playthrough legacy game) the players will act as advisers to a troubled monarch. The events of each game are detailed on cards contained in over one hundred sealed envelopes, some of which you will never see during your run, and other some of which you’ll wish you hadn’t! For clarity, all my pictures were taken before or during my first game, so this review contains at worst only minor spoilers.

The concept of The King’s Dilemma is simple; during each round of gameplay, the players will be led to an event (described on a card) that will be read aloud, and which will demand a decision. Again, without giving too much away, this might concern the fate of an enslaved concubine, or what to do when a seemingly unclaimed windfall should fall into the hands of a courtier who intends to keep it all for himself.

Loads of games (especially videogames) ask players to make black or white choices, occasionally continuing the narrative that begins with a seemingly obvious or innocuous choice and taking it somewhere darker, or at the very least more interesting. Both Fallout 3 and The Witcher 3 (the latter in particular) are the best examples of this that I can name, but it’s not something board games do well because of their very nature.

The King’s Dilemma changes that to a certain degree, because choices you make most certainly last from turn to turn and from game to game. The only caveat I would add is that whilst your choices will define which envelopes you’ll open, I didn’t notice many events occurring that harked back to four or five games ago – one or two games through? Frequently. This, for me, is quite a revelation and something that sets The King’s Dilemma apart from the crowd in a way that I just didn’t expect.

Let’s go back to one of the decisions I mentioned earlier – the greedy noble. In some games, the players would simply vote and the matter would be done with – on to the next one. In The King’s Dilemma, the players do vote for the outcome, which might be to either take all the money and have the man executed, or let him keep it and hope that he becomes a powerful ally. To make the decision, the players will essentially bid their power for either notion, bidding and rebidding until everyone has had enough and there is a clear winner.

Players also have the option to abstain, allowing them to take a share of the power that was spent, albeit at the cost of not being able to participate in this decision. The actual decision making isn’t the important part, however, and the consequences of these votes are where The King’s Dilemma really shines. Each card gives the players an inkling of what will happen – in this case maybe the card indicates that our kingdom’s funds increase if we take the money, whilst if we don’t, maybe we get a less clear outcome that might include placing a sticker on the board.

Let’s assume that we let him live. In this example, the game tells us to seek out a numbered sticker that is then placed on the board, changing the rules both for this game and any future games, unless something else overturns it. The sticker might give us a powerful one time effect, or it might be more passive, affecting the way resource tracks move.

On the other hand, had we killed the noble and taken the gold, then in this example we’d have moved our wealth up the track a number of spaces as instructed. But… We might also have been told to open a specific envelope that might then have led to a feud with the neighbouring kingdom, of whom the deceased noble was a family member. The consequences for this action will likely last a few games and can lead to writs, which are effects that must be signed by the player who “led” the voting.

These game defining events generally affect the player who signed them across at least two games and will lead to that player beginning the next game with either some effect applied to them or with a reduction or increase to their starting resource. The real question then becomes, well why would anyone want to risk making a poor choice?

The answer to that is that each player controls a house that has its own objectives. The basic concepts on each player screen are different and so are the objective cards dealt at the beginning of each game – giving players a mixture of consistent and varied goals to aim for. There are also milestones and achievements to track that can be ticked off and used to kind of score or at least compare between players once the final game has been played.

I mentioned the concept of the wealth of our collective kingdom earlier and that’s a point to note about The King’s Dilemma. There are five tracks in the game that move up and down depending on the outcome of the various votes. These include wealth, food, might and suchlike and each is tracked individually. As each of these moves, it gains either upward or downward momentum, meaning that it moves faster in the direction it moved in previously, which is an important thing to note because of the most important, separate track.

This final track demonstrates the stability of the kingdom, and should this track ever reach the highest or lowest point, the King abdicates and the game ends. This will certainly happen over the course of your series of games, simply because whilst it’s not something the players will often strive for, there will certainly be occasions when it matters little enough to the players that they’ll stop actively trying to prevent it. What should be noted is how fragile the kingdom is once one of the other tracks starts moving with momentum behind it – gain too much wealth or might too quickly and the kingdom will quickly be thrown into chaos.

Overall, it’s hard to knock The King’s Dilemma because whilst it is a “limited” experience of about fourteen to eighteen hours long, it is also constantly changing and very intriguing to play. Yes, there are some very dark, adult themes and there are long lasting and often painful consequences to some of the decisions, but because of those, the game is so much more exciting to play. Add to this thematic quality with solid, interwoven mechanics and some really strong legacy features that differ from player to player and you have a very unique and interesting prospect here.

**** 4/5

The King’s Dilemma is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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