31st Jan2024

‘Kingmaker’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

First released in 1974, Kingmaker is a classic medium-heavy wargame that deals with the politics and conflict of the English War of the Roses – during which the forces of York and Lancaster competed for almost fifty years to determine who would hold the crown. This conflict ultimately led to the replacement of the Plantagenet line with that of the Tudor’s and only ended through a convenient marriage that essentially consumed the claims of both York and Lancaster into a single claimant – Henry VII.

In the new 2023 Kingmaker which has been extensively redeveloped by Alan Paull, there are four ways to play and several variants. There’s Classic Kingmaker – a potentially four-hour-long experience that takes the premise of the original game, streamlines it in almost every way and then demands that players compete until only one claimant to the throne (out of a starting fourteen) remains. If you enjoy this mode, then you’ll probably get something out of Extended Classic Kingmaker – which increases the length by an hour or two but brings in loads of new features and modules for parliament, determining battle outcomes and more.

There’s also a solo mode which is excellent for learning the flow of the game (and provides a stiff challenge in its own right), but the main mode I’ll focus on in this review is probably the core of the new Kingmaker. This mode is called Kingmaker II and offers about two to three hours of gameplay, with much of the same political and military tug-of-war that the classic mode has, albeit with win conditions that allow for different strategies. Having control of the last surviving claimant is still a very satisfying way to win, `but now players can also gain prestige points for holding key cities, titles and other important roles such as those in the Church or Government.

Kingmaker is certainly more complex than most other mainstream titles you may be used to, yet the flow of gameplay is actually quite smooth once you take a few practice turns and start getting into it. The main concept to understand is that each player controls a group that has an interest in the outcome of the succession – and not either the house of York or Lancaster itself. This means that any given time there may (and almost certainly will) be more than one player who is keen to see each house rise. This is because as the game progresses, various claimants may come under your influence – and interestingly, even if you have (for example) a Yorkist claimant, you may still wish to see higher ranking Yorkists killed simply because your own cannot be crowned until they are the highest ranking in their family.

During setup, each player is assigned a handful of nobles – either through a pre-determined setup or by using an alternative set of instructions. This gives each player a sense of personality about their group of nobles, sets up their starting locations on the board and informs their strategy. The pre-determined setup is well balanced and therefore recommended for new players – this is the only setup I’ve used to date, but I can already imagine how varied some of the possibilities are if you were to use the alternative setup arrangements.

Once you have some pieces on the board and the various royal pieces are in place, the game begins. Each player will take a turn before a round is over, and each turn consists of an Event Phase, a Movement Phase, a Combat Phase and then an End of Turn Phase. Depending on conditions at the time, a player may also be able to call a Parliament Phase and/or a Coronation, which is always a joyous occasion because it probably means that you’re in control of a royal piece that will become King (or Queen Regent) and could potentially win the game.

There is a fair bit to take in with some of these phases, especially movement – which is a hell of a thing. The Event Phase is simple, but you will most certainly grow to hate it at times. As a card is drawn, you’ll review the top left half of it, reading (often in horror) about a plague that wipes out your strongest noble, perhaps even killing your crowned royal at the same time. Other cards might summon a noble to another location – for better or worse – whilst a small few cards will give you a free movement action to use later. In Kingmaker II, randomness exists and can be brutal, but trust me when I say that it has been toned down quite a bit versus the original game (which even from a rules readthrough sounds quite extraordinarily punishing.)

Movement, well, I won’t explain it all – but basically you’ll be positioning your armies primarily via road or via the use of ships – and movement range is pretty generous as long as there are no fortified locations held by your enemies along the way. In occasions where such a meeting does take place, moving nobles (and the armies and royal pieces with them) must stop – and you can probably guess what follows in most instances. If you guessed that a battle (or siege) would occur, then you guessed right – however it’s worth noting that battles are not mandatory, and the player moving into the space may choose not to attack the other player.

When a battle does occur, the resolution mechanism is quite elegant, with a ratio based system used to determine the likely winner and set the odds. The involved players then play cards from their own hand to affect the ratio until ready to compare strength and resolve the battle. After this, an event card is drawn – and depending on the ratio shown, the larger force will usually win, but in some cases the battle can be declared indecisive if the larger force is not overwhelming. Whilst I haven’t tried it, one of the things that most intrigues me about the Kingmaker Classic Extended mode is that it uses a completely different battle resolution board that is less deterministic.

I should also mention that all battles are dangerous – and sometimes nobles can be listed as killed in battle, and if they happen to be there, then yes – they die. For winning a significant battle decisively, a victorious player will take a major victory card, which in the Kingmaker II variant is a decent step towards having enough prestige to win. Sieges are a little more complex to resolve but follow similar principles and can take place over multiple turns – literally because the town or city being attacked is considered to be besieged. During sieges, multiple allied players are more likely to become involved, but this simply adds to the ratio calculations I mentioned earlier (albeit there may be more than one winning or losing player.)

As I mentioned before, nobles may be killed in battle or during an event simply because a matching card is turned over – and them are the breaks. However, nobles (and royal pieces) can also be captured and/or killed following sieges, and it’s this process that really determines the winner. Armies are never large enough to become completely decisive in battle, and even the most decorated noble can fall to an unexpected disease. Nonetheless, players will whittle down the royal claimants one by one until only a few remain, and Kingmaker has an excellent way of creating shifting alliances. One minute two players are fighting for York, but then one of them gains access to a more relevant Lancastrian piece and kills their own pretender during a battle.

On the table, the new board is really the star of Kingmaker, thanks to its bright, vibrant colours and extremely clear iconography. The instruction manual is also extremely clear and methodical, which I really appreciated. Where I am perhaps less impressed is with the tokens – many of which are very, very small and fiddly to use. I would have loved to see some chunkier wooden pieces for at least a few of the elements (such as noble crests) but it’s a small complaint really and there’s nothing about the components which has a negative impact on play. The cards, for example, are very plain and feature no art or flavour text, but nonetheless provide exactly the information you need to use them.

Kingmaker is probably the most painstaking restoration of an older game that I’ve ever seen. Alan Paull and Gibsons Games have presented us with a labour of love that is incredibly rare in its scope and execution. There are certainly things about Kingmaker that I don’t love, and which I feel may be a little bit too reminiscent of the design methods used forty years ago, but this is still a streamlined experience in many ways. Even if there are occasional mechanical snags or frustrations due to random draws, the experience you’ll have in forging alliances around the table and then backstabbing your friends will be unforgettable. I also enjoy games where multiple players compete for control over “neutral” factions, and Kingmaker does that better than any other game I’ve played.

Whilst perhaps a little heavy for every taste, Kingmaker is still a very fun game and one which captures the feeling of the moment in time that it is intended to replicate. When games tell a story through their mechanics that matches their theme, you know that if the subject matter is one that appeals to you – you’re going to have a good time. Get some friends, brim your tankards and strap in for a good three hours or so of ruthless regicidal action.

**** 4/5

A copy of Kingmaker was supplied for review by Gibsons Games.

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