29th Nov2022

‘Royal Visit’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

I recently read that legendary game designer Reiner Knizia is now credited with over 700 titles – which is an unbelievable achievement. Among these, I’ve played probably thirty or maybe forty of them, and to be honest I often find Knizia titles a little too straightforward. They are always easy to pick up and play, and usually centre on a single mechanism or concept that defines the entire experience. Royal Visit is similar in that it only does one thing – but because it focuses on the two-player experience and lasts for maybe twenty minutes at most, it always manages to stay entertaining.

The concept here is simple – two rival duchies will compete for the attention of a visiting King and his royal court. They will do this by playing cards from their hand that move the King, his guards, the jester and the court magician closer to their side of the rather lovely cloth playing surface – if they can end their turn with the King in their chateau (which constitutes the last two spaces of the board closest to that player.) There are various rules about how each of the pieces move – and how far they move – including that the King must remain between his two guards at all times and that the wizard can “summon” either a guard or the King to his space.

Unsurprisingly, this creates quite a tense push and pull – but because the game is card driven, there is always the element of luck. On their turn a player will use as many cards as they wish, as long as they all affect the same character. So, if you want to move the guards multiple spaces, you can, but you’ll need several guard cards to do so – most of these only move one guard one space, whilst some move either both guards one space or one guard two spaces. A final, less common guard card moves both guards directly to the two spaces adjacent to the King. As another example, if the Jester is on your side of the board (in your duchy), then you can play jester cards as wild – allowing you to move any single character.

Describing Royal Visit by its mechanics is perhaps the worst way to do it however, and if I think back to when I read the manual and learned the game, I didn’t get any sense of what it was like to play from simply understanding the rules. This is a game that feels very different to how it is articulated – it almost sounds fiddly and frustrating with lots of little subtleties between the cards for each character and lots of “if this, then that” kind of situations where you either can or can’t do something because of something else… But none of that really translates into the way the game feels on the table.

Instead, following some familiarisation with the flow of the game and the way cards are played, Royal Visit because an extremely tight tussle between two players who are completely focused on their objective. Whilst some early games felt a little frustrating at times with one player feeling that the cards were not in their favour, later plays taught us that all cards are broadly equal – so sure you may simply have no wizard cards to bring that key character to your side, but instead you’re going to have guard, or king or jester cards that will affect the game just as much – and in fact, using an entire turn to summon a single piece using the wizard can be worse than using several to potentially move one piece a long way, or both guards…

Royal Visit brings the classic replay value of head-to-head games like Chess, whilst introducing the random element of card draw into the mix. Yes, you may prefer a wizard or a jester strategy, but to some extent your cards will dictate what you can actually do. Sometimes a player will hold cards of a certain type to try and prepare for a big turn, whilst on other occasions you’ll simply have to chip away at the board position playing one or two cards per turn. The fact that you’ll never know what cards your opponents have until they play them is a nice touch, and given that there are so few pieces and a linear board, it is necessary to use hidden information as the mechanism for movement.

Aside from offering a good level of mechanical satisfaction, Royal Visit also looks and feels absolutely fantastic. It’s a smallish box production, but every piece is made from thick, chunky wood with a detailed screen print bringing the characters to life. The board itself as I mentioned earlier is made of cloth, and it looks really good when unrolled on the table (even if it does take a few minutes to flatten out.) The manual is good and teaches the rules briefly and clearly, even if they do feel a little fiddly at first – I can’t think of any better way to put them across.

Overall then, Royal Visit is a really nicely presented, very satisfying and highly replayable two-player game. It offers no opportunity for solo or multiplayer play so you need to keep that in mind, but if two-player games are a regular thing in your household, this is a great fit. It’s card driven but it is as much a spatial and timing puzzle as it is a card game, and you will definitely learn more about it with each game you play up to a certain point. There is some truth in the idea that the play in Royal Visit is directed slightly more by card draw than strategy, but for me the real fun is in reading the board state, assessing your cards and then making the best play in the moment – and that in itself is fun for at least two or three games a session.

***½  3.5/5

A copy of Royal Visit was supplied by CoiledSpring Games for review

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