Last Updated on November 25, 2020 by Bruno Lauris
When looking up reviews for this game, I noticed that most of the reviewers hadn’t even played the game to the very end or never bothered to update their opinions about the game after finishing it. Not to mention that they focused more on the game’s role-playing aspects and less on the gameplay mechanics.
In short, the universe demands balance!
I wanted to write a proper review of the game after finishing it so that I could take the whole experience in context and not just a session of 2-3 games out of 15. That is why it was so hard to write this review. Not to mention that this is my first time reviewing a board game and my first review in general after the “time skip”.
Still, I am not going to review every aspect of the game, but in general, I am going to structure my review based on the rulebook’s sections, and I will only note things that I believe to be noteworthy. The first part of the review will be as spoiler-free as possible. Yet, the sections starting with “The World and Story” are going to be full of spoilers.
Straight to the point, The King’s Dilemma is a perfect example of the expression ”the emperor has no clothes”. Many praise the game, yet ignore its obvious flaws. Personally, this applies to me as well. Since objectively the game has many problems, yet, I still enjoyed the game and I am happy that I played it with my group of friends.
But would I play the game again?
Unless the game was massively updated, to say the least. Not to mention, that I could only recommend the game to people who like light roleplay and don’t mind simple game mechanics. But we will get to all of that in the review.
The group of people that I played the game with enjoyed it. We were always playing with the same 5 people. We played a total of 17 games and it took us 4 meet-ups, 4 hours each to finish the whole campaign.
The general consensus was that if there was another game like this with a completely different theme or if enough time had passed they might even be willing to play again.
I also created the Chronicle of The Secret Council of Ankist (name inspired by the Livonian Chronicle of Henry) where I kept track of all our games: who was the king in the particular game, which house won, what were the consequences of our decisions, and the ultimate end of our campaign. If you want to be completely spoiled and to see how my group’s campaign played out, then please, follow this link if you wish to see the Chronicle.
I am not expecting you to read it since it is pretty long and written with a lot of grammatical mistakes (I was always writing them very late at night and had to go through every dilemma card that we voted on). Yet, it is there as proof of both the existence of my group’s game and as a reference material.
1. What is the game about?
Reigns is a strategy video game developed by Nerial and published by Devolver Digital. Set in a fictional medieval world, it places the player in the role of a monarch who rules by accepting or rejecting suggestions from advisors.
On some level, comparing the two games might not be fair. Yet, it is interesting to note that Reigns does some things better than The King’s Dilemma game. For example, Reigns is an app that provides the Dilemmas for you rather than having you read them yourself and having to save game states in between play sessions. Or the fact that Reigns has actual consequences if the resource tokens reach either their max or min values.
In short, there are things that the Reigns game does better than The King’s Dilemma even though it costs only 3-4 EUR depending on which version you buy on either mobile or Windows.
Not to mention that similar games either have come out or are going to come out from Kickstarter projects like Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile. It will be interesting to see how those games will stack up to The King’s Dilemma.
The King’s Dilemma has a similar premise to Reigns, but rather than being a single-player game and taking the role of a king, the players represent the various influential noble houses and function as members of the King’s Council – leading the Kingdom of Ankist on the King’s behalf.
The Kings of Ankist are like Robert Baratheon, but not as fat or useless, just… The Kingdom is so prosperous that the King’s presence is not as needed – the king leaves most of the decision making to the Council.
Your goal is to make Ankist prosper; however, you are also trying to increase the power and the prestige of your own family over the others. The game campaign spans decades and generations – you will assume the role of different representatives of your house.
The fictional world is very similar to Game of Thrones. We will get to that later. In short, the difference is that this fictional world does not have dragons or giants, or zombies. The story is more realistic. If there is any magic, then it has more to do with curses, oaths, and witchcraft. There are no fictional races like lizardfolk or the like, only humans.
Gameplay-wise, each round, you will draw one card from the ”Dilemma deck”. Each card is unique and happens only once, and it will pose you a problem (or Dilemma) that the Council will have to solve by either voting AYE, NEY, or PASSing. When determining the outcome, sometimes you will unlock more events that will happen in the future as a consequence of your decisions by opening envelopes with new cards to add to the ”Dilemma deck”.
You have to keep the Kingdom running while also seeking an advantage for your own house; this power struggle may lead the Kingdom into war, famine, or riot, or it could generate wealth and well-being. This will depend on how you deal with The King’s Dilemma!
2. Replayability and Legacy elements
Is the game replayable?
No, unless you are willing to do some micromanagement.
It is a legacy game that is designed to be played once since the components “can not be re-used”. Some cards need to be signed with a permanent marker. Stickers need to be attached to the board, etc.
One way to make the game replayable would be to sell the cards and the stickers separately, just like printer cartridges. Thus, rather than buying the whole box again, you could re-fill the used components.
Rather than attaching the stickers, you write all the info related to them in a notebook: which sticker, who was supposed to sign it, where was it supposed to be attached on the board, how many checkboxes it has, etc. That is a lot of admin, but you can do it.
When you have to give out open agenda tokens on stickers, give them to the player who was supposed to acquire it, rather than putting it on the sticker itself. That is better than the original rules since the player will remember that they have one in the first place.
Do not sign the story cards. Note who was supposed to sign them, but keep them on the board since they can grant players special abilities.
You can put the cards back in the envelopes after using them since there are serial numbers on them that correspond to the envelopes. The serial number is on the bottom left of the card. For example, if a card’s serial number is R.67.0.F. Originally, it was in envelope 67. Easy!
Do not write anything on the house screens. Have a separate little piece of paper as a replacement for each player’s screens. Mark on them how much prestige and crave points everyone has, which achievements have been unlocked, etc. Or you can just scan the original screens and print them out. Maybe create a custom screen this way.
There are other things to keep track of, but this is the gist of it. Whenever the game asks you to “ruin” a component by writing on it, etc., you do not do that but instead, note that action in a notebook. This rule will come in handy during the Grand Finally.
As a legacy game, I do not think it is a very good one. Legacy games tend to change game rules, and the game state drastically, or that is what players expect from them.
Not this one.
Yes, some story cards grant special abilities, but usually, they would only last for a game or two. Sometimes we didn’t even have the chance to use them before they disappeared.
Yes, there are house achievements that grant special abilities, but they don’t drastically change the game, just allow you to gain an extra something from voting or reduce the number of points you lose when scoring. So on and so on.
There is even the question, why is this even a legacy game? Most of the components could have been developed to be re-usable. Instead of stickers, use small cardboard cards. Instead of signing a card, note it in the rulebook, etc.
Another concern people have had on the internet is whether the game is just as fun with three as it is with five players?
I would suggest playing with five. The fun of the game is found in negotiating, bribing, and voting. If there are only three players, there is a chance that the voting might end up in 2vs1. With four players – there could be a lot of unsatisfying draws. Five is the best since then there will be more negotiations, more people to bribe, more differences of opinions, and more houses with possibly conflicting desires.
What about swapping players or allowing new ones to join?
The idea of the game is that there is a campaign of 15 individual games, and each game is one generation of people. By definition, it makes sense that for game nr.1 you would have Bob lead house “A”, but for game nr.2 Bob could not make it, and Lucy would step in to lead house “A” in his stead. A.K.A Lucy is playing as Bob’s descendant now.
That makes sense. Yet, look at the following limitations:
Not everyone (Bob) might like the idea that someone else (Lucy) is going to play as their house.
Many (Lucy) might not like the house they get to play in someone else’s stead. The way to fix this could be to choose houses as teams. Lucy AND Bob choose to play house A together, and they agree that if one can not make it, the other one can join in.
Another fix: You could allow people, if they join the game later, to choose one of the houses that have not been picked already, but that means that the houses that have been there for all the 15 games will acquire more prestige/crave to win the game and the houses that were present for fewer games – might not even have a chance to win.
There is also the issue that those players who get to play all 15 games will know the mechanics better than the ones that only come to play sometimes.
After we played the game, I asked everyone how they would feel about playing this game again?
Two players said they would be okay with it, but only if enough time had passed to forget the story. Or a new storyline should be developed for them to enjoy it.
Two others said that they would be okay with it as well, but only with a completely different theme.
My personal opinion is that even though I was happy to play it with everyone, I would not be able to play the game again since I have an active kinesthetic memory. I would remember the important things, even if you threatened me with a gun to forget them. Thus, I would need a brand new storyline or theme. But, I also would need game mechanics to be massively updated and re-designed because the same scoring system would be too predictable and easy to exploit.
3. Setting Up and Teaching the game
Before playing the game, one of you is going to have to read all of the rules. I suggest that person learns the rules properly before the first play-session. It will speed up both setting the game up in between games, teaching the rules and the bookkeeping. That might seem an obvious thing. Yet, in The King’s Dilemma, the campaign is only over after about 15 games. One game is going to take about 1,3 hours to complete, depending on how well prepared you are, how many players you have, and how long each voting stage goes. And that means that if your play session lasts for four hours, you might be able to play 3-4 games in that one session. After each game, you will have to re-set the board, do the bookkeeping, and maybe explain new rules as they come up during play. Also, you have to be careful while doing this since the game is quite simple, and even an honest mistake can change who wins and comes in last in the game.
The good thing about all of this is that the rules are quite simple, short, and intuitive. If you have played any voting game, poker, or legacy type game, then you’ll be fine. So there are no excuses not to know the rules well before your first session.
The bad thing is that the bookkeeping and board re-setting is boring. Everyone has to count tokens. Then you compare who has the most by type and award them with points. After that, you look at the board state and determine who has unlocked any achievements and score your secret agenda points. Award or decrease points for the stickers, if applicable. Count up all of the points and declare the placing, allocate crowns based on that placing.
Now you can clean the board and set it up as if you were preparing to play the first game + apply legacy setup effects.
Rinse and repeat after every single game.
We will get into all of this a bit deeper later.
Re-setting the board after the bookkeeping is quick, but don’t you dare skip a crucial step. Sometimes people forget to check the stickers and how they change the recourse tokens or the player voting token count, etc.
At the start, you might need to reference the rulebook or follow a summary of all the set-up steps. Yet, after the 2-3 game, the set-up should become natural for you.
After the game has been set-up for the first time, teaching the rules might take you 20 minutes because, even though the rules are simple, they are also all interconnected. You will have no choice but to explain all of them in one sitting (you can skip going in detail about the stickers and other legacy elements before the first game, just mentioning them should be good enough). The worst part about that is that you will have to upfront about the fact that the rules don’t state how you can win the game.
After the rules explanation, you will have to help everyone choose their noble house.
It took me about 40-50 minutes for the first time to both set-up the board, help everyone pick their houses, and teach all of the rules. Afterward, it took about 3-5 games for everyone to get accustomed to the gameplay.
The only issue, I was only able to relax with the rules moderating after the first two sessions (after the fifth or sixth-game). In the first few games, you need to check on players because they will forget to change the Leader token (player who votes first), to check whether they have unlocked a house achievement, etc.
Assuming that you have done this in order – set-up the board, taught the rules, and chosen your houses – you can begin the first game.
If you don’t care about what I have to say about the rulebook, you can easily skip the next chapter and move on to the fourth chapter “How do you win?”.
What about the rulebook itself?
The rulebook has a disclaimer about ”sensitive” topics for those who care about that stuff. I would not call this game a horror game nor a dark fantasy game in terms of its tone. I don’t even think that comparing it with Game of Thrones would be accurate either since the descriptions of events and their consequences are quite impersonal. Reading a Dilemma card is like reading an excerpt from a history textbook in class.
I will probably talk about this more in the story section, but I would have loved it if the game was even darker since the game likes to whitewash everything. For example, if you ended the previous four games with the king abdicating since most of the resource tokens went into the negative values, the game resets. Yes, the resource tokens start with different values than before, but… How can a Kingdom have all these crises and just reset as if nothing happened? At first, it did not bother me, but after the nth game, I wished that there would be some consequences to such outcomes.
The rulebook itself is well organized, because it starts with a proper game overview and then follows up with how to pick your houses, the set-up steps (+ legacy set-up rules for future games). Afterward, it goes into detail about how the game is played, starting with the round phases, how a game can end, and how to score points. The last two chapters will explain how to trigger the end of the campaign and will describe the lore of the fictional setting.
All of these rules are accompanied by easy to understand examples and pictures.
In terms of actually using the rulebook during gameplay, I only had to reference it a couple of times to make sure how many points are given to the two players who have the most power tokens at the end of a game and how the open agenda (sticker) scoring works.
The main issue I have with the rulebook is that there are no rules reference cards or sheets to give out to the players. Those would have made both teaching the rules and playing the game for the first couple of games super easy. It would also have freed me up to focuses more on the game itself and less on moderating the rules.
4. How do you win?
Before making choices in the game, like picking your house, you should at least know how to ”win” in the game or what the game expects you to do.
Games always have an end-game or an end-state. Like in hide-and-go-seek the end-state is when everyone has been found or time runs out, or the seeker gives up. The end-game is when you have played the nth amount of rounds and have to compare who has won the most games.
I am not going to spoil the end-game for The King’s Dilemma in this chapter, but if you do wish to learn more about it and my opinions on it after playing the whole game then, please, go to the eight chapter “This worlds must be spoiled”. Here I am only going to evaluate the information that everyone who has not played the game is supposed to have and how it influences gameplay.
In The King’s Dilemma, the end-game starts after about 15 individual games have been played (”about” because card draw is random and thus game count will be random as well). More precisely, you need 15 games to unlock 6 Mystery stickers that trigger the end-game.
When the sixth sticker has been unlocked, you are supposed to open envelope 70 that will provide you with the end-game rules.
You will unlock these stickers as a consequence of voting on Dilemma cards.
The Mystery stickers hide behind them secret lore and foreshadow what is going to happen in the end-game.
I will spoil the Mystery stickers in eight sub-chapter “The Mystery stickers revealed”.
To win the individual 15 games, all you have to do is score Agenda Points (furthermore points) that are given and totals calculated at the end of each game.
Before making choices in the game, like picking your house, you should at least know how to ”win” in the game or what the game expects you to do.
Games always have an end-game or an end-state. Like in hide-and-go-seek the end-state is when everyone has been found or time runs out, or the seeker gives up. The end-game is when you have played ”x” amount of rounds and have to compare who has won the most games.
I am not going to spoil the end-game for The King’s Dilemma in this chapter, but if you do wish to learn more about it and my opinions on it after playing the whole game then, please, go to the eight chapter “This world must be spoiled”. Here I am only going to evaluate the information that everyone who has not played the game is supposed to have and how it influences gameplay.
In The King’s Dilemma, the end-game starts after about 15 individual games have been played (”about” because card draw is random and thus game count will be random as well). More precisely, you need 15 games to get enough (when accomplished, open envelope 70 that will provide you with the end-game rules). You will unlock stickers as a consequence of voting on Dilemma cards. The Mystery stickers hide behind them secret lore and foreshadow what is going to happen in the end-game. I will spoil the Mystery stickers in the eighth chapter “This world must be spoiled”.
To win the individual 15 games, all you have to do is score Agenda Points (furthermore points) that are given and totals calculated at the end of each game.
Abdication: The King abdicated because the Stability marker reached the top-end (positive) or the bottom-end of the Stability track (negative) when applying the consequences of Dilemma ca
Death: The stability tracker stays between the two extremes, and the King dies of old age (best end-state). This happens if the 9th – 14th resolved Dilemma card has a skull icon on it, or the 15th Dilemma card is resolved.
After the King abdicates or dies of old age, players are awarded points based on the board state.
Acquire the most coin tokens at the end of the game – the first three players with the most money score points based on their Secret Agenda Card (you will have a different Secret agenda card in each game that will tell you how many points you will get for 1-3 place in coin amount and where do you want the tokens on the board to be);
Acquire the most power tokens at the end of the game – the first two players with the most power tokens (furthermore – voting tokens) gain 2 and 1 points, respectively;
Unlocked achievements or Story cards: you might have unlocked house achievements or signed (winner of a vote) a Story card that might influence how point-scoring functions;
Stickers and Open agenda tokens – will either reward you with +3 or +1 or -3 or -1 points. I will not go into detail here about how this works. Honestly, the sticker mechanic is one of the most useless mechanics in the whole game. You will see why in the seventh chapter “Scoring and Bookkeeping”.
These points will have to be noted and calculated on the rulebooks ”Realm Chronicles” section.
As you can see, the rules do not explain how you win the whole campaign. We only get an explanation on how you can win individual games.
The only thing the rulebook tells you about the end-game is that as you play the game, you will acquire crowns. There are Prestige (white) crowns, rewarded for honorable and respectable deeds, and Crave (black) crowns – represent the crave for power and actions that only help your house and not the Kingdom.
By unlocking house achievements (not all achievements will give you crowns);
Playing with the same Secret Agenda in four games. Each house has preferences for particular Secret agendas and will reward you with more crowns when you finish the fourth game with a certain Secret Agenda. Notice that the Rebel Secret agenda also awards you with +1 Crave if the Stability tracker reached the bottom a.k.a. the King abdicated;
Signing story cards: Either the Story card will have an effect that awards you with crowns or, if it is an Ending card that represents the end of a sub=plot, it will have a Majority signer effect bonus where the person who signed the most cards from that sub-plot will gain extra crowns;
Placement in individual games based on agenda points: whether you came in first or last, you will get crowns based on whether the King died or abdicated and what is your standing on the scoreboard.
Just to re-cap… We don’t know how to win the game… The rulebook only states that you will get Prestige for working for the realm and Crave – for working in your house’s favor.
This issue is the main reason why this review is going to be so long. Because of this vagueness, you can not give a proper review for the game without reaching the end-game. Otherwise, how am I supposed to know whether the ending will be worth all those 15 games you had to put in?
That aside, what influence does the obfuscation of end-game scoring have on the actual game?
The biggest issue is that not knowing how to win in the game, it takes the agency from the player. Can I just sit back and enjoy the role-play? Will I be rewarded for role-playing? Is it more important to win individual games? Or should I backstab everyone to get as many crowns as I can? Since I can’t answer these questions, I have to base my in-game decisions on unproven assumptions. In my game, I had players trying to focus more on winning the individual games, others tried to either gain more Crave or Prestige, and I was more interested in the story cards. Or at least, I tried to be. On the other hand, you might argue that this is a great game design since players will be forced to choose what is important to them and role-play accordingly. Yet, as I remember someone writing on boardgamegeek.com: “Even chess can be broken if you focus on getting all the white pieces on the white squares and not checkmating the king.”
The game also adds another layer of complexity by telling you that there are six sub-plots to the overall campaign. Certain Dilemma cards will move the plot of these sub-plots forward and eventually lead to an envelope with an Ending card that will end the sub-plot and award the campaign with Cohesion or Dissent points (). These, alongside the crowns, will somehow determine the overall game-winner… Yes, the campaign itself has points.
You could argue that all of this vagueness is quite realistic – people are quite bad at predicting the future, and there is always the chance that something will go wrong. Thus, this vagueness creates tension or at least unpredictability, etc. Yet, that is a given because it is a multiplayer game with voting. I did not need rule obfuscation for that. I already have four other players with their personalities and goals in-game.
When we started the game… This vagueness kinda protected the game from a lot of criticism because we did not know how the whole system worked. It’s like trying to cook food by following a recipe that has missing ingredients and deliberately hides the last two steps on how to finish the dish. How am I supposed to evaluate a recipe like that? I think that this design choice to keep things vague is worthy of criticism on its own. Playing a game with the same five people for 15 individual games without knowing how the game works… To say the least is asking for a lot.
The only benefit of this vagueness is that it kept some of us interested in reaching the end-game just to know how all of this ends. Now, knowing what the end-game scoring rules are, I don`t think that the game could even be played without obfuscation.
The only benefit of this vagueness is that it kept some of us interested in reaching the end-game just to know how all of this ends. Now, knowing what the end-game scoring rules are, I don`t think that the game could even be played without obfuscation.
As I said, I am not going to explain that in this section. If you wish to know what happens when you open envelope 70 and my thoughts on the final scoring, then go to “THE GRAND FINALLY!” chapter.
The end-game rules are only going to be analyzed in this chapter from the perspective of a new player who does not know the end-game rules.
So let’s talk about how my group reacted to all this?
In the first few games, my players concentrated a lot on the house achievements and winning individual games since that was the only feedback we were able to use to try and discern whether we were playing the game as intended. Plus, it is the only thing we know how to control.
The negative of this was that we were sometimes making decisions based more on mechanics. We were more interested in the board state and less in the story.
For example, sometimes we were voting AYE or NAY only to gain stickers so that we could try and score some Open agenda points and who cares whether people will starve to death or not?
Now you could argue that is fine. Sometimes people vote based on their self-interest. Except, it is not self-interest. At least not my self-interest as the player. I would have loved to vote purely based on what is going on in the story and what my house wanted, but it was hard to do. Why? Because the Secret Agenda card was screaming at me to make all the resource tokens fall to the bottom of the track. Why? So that I wouldn`t get ZERO POINTS! AGAIN!
Yes, I got zero points in one game. You can check that in the excel file I have added in Chapter X.
Eventually, many of the house achievements were unlocked, and we had even lost that North Star to guide us. Because what else is there to do except voting and counting points? Customization? No! Can you spend the coins to buy stuff? No, you can only use them to bribe other players and to use them to gain points. Can you… NO!
You could argue that role-play would become more important at this stage. Granted, it did. Yet, I don`t know if making more jokes and justifying “horrible” voting choices counts as role-play. There was very little actual role-play that was happening at the table.
This chapter is turning into a rant… So let’s continue to the next section.
5. Picking your house
How many “pages” in, and we have finally gotten to the noble houses…
Before your first game, each player will need to choose a house in the form of a player screen. The screen is used to hide your resources and to keep track of unlocked achievements and crowns.
This choice is for the whole campaign, so choose wisely!
In total, there are 12 houses. Each one has a unique backstory, achievements that you are expected to work towards unlocking, a sigil and motto, and a preference for Secret Agenda cards.
The negative is that you don’t have any customization options except choosing a name for the house that you will also use as a signature when the game asks you to sign cards or stickers. The good thing is that there is a big enough selection. Everyone should be able to find a house they would like to gravitate towards.
Let’s look at the anatomy of the house screen and analyze it:
Mechanically: The backstory rationalizes why houses have certain achievements. For example, house Crann’s backstory has a lot about raiding other countries. Thus, they wish for the influence token, which represents the strength of the Kingdom’s army, to be the highest and the end of the game. The backstory also explains the preference for Secret Agendas. Continuing with the Crann example, at the start of the game, Ankist is in a period of the piece. Yet, Crann’s wishes to conquer another kingdom. Thus, it is no surprise that Crann awards the player with the most crowns (3 crave) if they play as the Rebel (Secret Agenda) for four games. In short, the backstory quickly explains what a house is going to be interested in mechanically.
Narratively: The backstories themselves are… Well… It depends on the houses. Some of them have better backstories, some, not so much. Most of them are quite generic. Even though there is “a lot” of facts in that small paragraph… A lot of it is generic nonsense. It gives you information on where the house is located even though considering distance when voting is unnecessary. Some elements don’t come up often enough in the game, and some facts could have been shortened and presented in the form of a bulleted list, leaving space to add something truly unique for each house. On the one hand, all of them are quite bland. Yet, that blandness and generic backstory leave space for role-playing, which is good. On the other hand, some of them are obvious copies of Game of Throne, generic tropes, or real-life institutions. When I was introducing the houses to my players, it was easier and much more productive for me to introduce the houses by making a real-life or GOT comparison. For example, house Tork is like the Starks but without the giant wall and white walkers and have some associations with templar orders. Natas is the Spanish Inquisition that likes to organize witch hunts. House Wylio is the Lanisters without the incest. I think that the worst example is the Dukes of Coden, whose words are “Forrest’s grow strong”. Guess which GOT house you can compare them to? The good thing about this, besides the role-play aspects, is that some players will like the opportunity to play as their favorite GOT house. Except, that they are lesser knock-off versions of them.
This is where you will have to record each crown you have either acquired by winning games, unlocking achievements, etc. Nothing special to add to this. I only have a suggestion, fill in the checkboxes from left to right. When you have marked 5 crowns, don’t continue on the other side, but instead go down to the next row of 5 boxes. This way, counting crowns will be easier. Plus, you will have to count them a lot because Prestige determines who gets the Leader and Moderator tokens and gets to pick their Secret Agenda first and last every game.
This section lists all of the long term goals your house wishes to work towards. Each time the prerequisite of the achievement has been achieved, you have to check one checkbox. When all of the checkboxes have been checked, you will unlock that achievement and enjoy its provided benefits.
The Narrative achievement (furthermore – story goals): Each house has a thing that they wish to happen in the plot. These narrative goals are mutually exclusive – some houses have opposing goals. I wish the game had more of these because if players would have only narrative achievements then they would be constantly thinking about what is going on in the narrative and would have fewer reasons to think about mechanical point-scoring, etc. The other issue with these achievements is that some houses have a harder time to both acquire and understand story goals. For example, House Crann’s story goal is to “Conquer another kingdom”. Easy to understand but also easy to miss, because… *coughs* How many times do you think you will have the chance to attack another kingdom in the game? Or house Olwyn’s – “Embrace immortality”… I got excited about this one after reading it because my first association was… Secret vampire society!? Nope, there are no vampires in this game. Not to mention house Solad’s – “Find a new perspective on reality”. On their own, they are not hard to understand because you can imagine what they mean. Yet, in my game, whenever a player unlocked their story goal (only two players unlocked them), their reaction was: “Really, this is was what unlocked my narrative achievement?” Not to mention that unlocking them only gives you a couple of crowns and then they are never mentioned.
All the other achievements: These are related to the board state at the end of each game and have different benefits. Some have one-time-benefits, others have continuous-benefits at the start of each game, and some provide the player with an ability that they can either use once per-game or whenever a condition is present. When choosing a house, I would suggest looking at what is the board state that each house likes to see at the end of the game. For example, if you wish to play as a house that would like to be a force for good, then house Blodyn or Coden could be your choice since both houses want some resource tokens to be at their highest values and want the stability marker to be in the middle or at the top part of the board. That means that they care more about accumulating things for the Kingdom and don’t want the King to abdicate “in shame”. Or, if you wish to be more of a “warmongerer” and rebellious, then house Dualak could be your choice since they are the opposite of the previously mentioned houses – they want some resources to have low values and the King to abdicate in shame. Not to mention that their story goal is to curse the royal family. Before I forget, make sure to remind your players to check their achievements. After finishing our game and looking at the other player house screens, I am sure that they forgot to check a checkbox once or twice and did not use their achievement abilities soften enough.
Whether you like them or not is going to be subjective. Yet, I did not like most of them. Some of them are ripoffs from Game of Thrones like “Forrests grow strong”. Others are lesser versions of better quotes like “What we do echoes in reality”. Some are quite good and would be easy to use in role-playing and game discussions like “Never break a deal!” Others I can’t even remember unless reminded of.
Here you will note how many games you have played with a particular Secret Agenda card. After you have played four games with one Secret Agenda card, you will gain crowns.
Looking at the screens, I think the big question is whether there is a house that is easier to play, a.k.a. which house is mechanically superior?
First of all, yes, some houses are easier to play from a role-playing perspective. That is because of a better backstory that is easier to project yourself into. Or because their backstory has a nice tie in with the sub-plots. Some are harder to get into for the opposite reasons:
House of Natar – Spanish inquisition
House of Alweed – bohemians led by Tyrion Lannister
House of Wylio – money-hungry Lannisters
House of Crann – drunk Viking raiders
House of Coden – pacifistic farmers a.k.a. house Tyrell
House of Tork – house Stark but if they were a Templar order
House of Solad – house Greyjoy but without the cool Lovecraftian elements + they are good people
House of Tiryll – snobbish aristocracy
House of Gaman – workaholics
House of Blodyn – hard to understand narrative achievement, if Marry Sue was a house and not a character
House of Olwyn – researchers and doctors for world peace
House of Dualak – Reddit conspiracy theorists, probably the easiest to role-play form this bunch
I guess everyone can role-play whomever they wish to and can find something relatable in any house based on their subjective interests.
From a mechanical standpoint, after putting each game’s leaderboard scores and the house screen information in an excel spreadsheet for comparison, I think that, yes, some houses are easier to play as. I will get into the explanations for this later in the seventh “Scoring and Bookkeeping” chapter, but I will state my findings and short reasoning here as well.
So… Achievement and Secret Agenda card preferences make you feel like you are playing an asymmetric game where each house is unique. Yet, there is a balancing act going on in the background.
First of all, at the start of each game players receives ten coins and eight power (voting) tokens. Thus there is no asymmetry. Yes, there are achievements and game events that change this. Yet, you will notice that the designers tried to make the houses very similar to each other mechanically.
Second, all of the houses would gain nine crows if they would unlock all of the crowns from plying each Secret Agenda card four times. Nobody is going to unlock all of them. Yet, whitewashing and balancing are still there. Third, the same is happening with achievements. Most houses will be able to acquire twelve crowns if they unlock all of their achievements. Some houses will get up to two more or two fewer crowns from the mode. Yes, there is a difference, but the difference is too small to note. Even if you would say that the difference is substantial, the houses that could get more crowns will unlock less useful or influential benefits from their achievements. Another balancing act. Whereas houses that could only acquire only ten crowns from achievements have more practical achievement abilities.
What does this mean? The game, again, is trying to trick you into believing that these houses are unique (I think this is what players are expecting), but when you look at them, the differences are non-existent when nothing is unlocked. Even when achievements have been unlocked, the differences are minimal. Even if they would be substantial, then they are hard to unlock in the first place. Not to mention that you have to constantly keep track of them, and you need to know-how and when to use their provided benefits effectively.
The positive aspect from all of this is that no house is mechanically better and thus everyone should have an equal chance to win the campaign.
Yet, I still believe that certain houses are easy or harder to play with from a mechanical perspective, mainly based on the abilities that they can unlock from achievements. I am not going to mention all of the houses, only the most extreme options:
Solad – Whenever you sign a sticker, you gain two coins. There are 177 stickers. So that means that You could get 354 coins in a campaign? Wrong! I counted that during our campaign, we signed a total of 50 stickers. That would be only 100 coins, Still impressive, but… 1) To sign a sticker, you need to win a vote where a sticker is at stake. Won’t happen all the time. 2) You will have to sign negative stickers as well to get the full 100 coins. If you are willing to try and accomplish this, then the 100 coins might help you win a lot of games, but then are you even noticing the narrative, or are you just collecting stickers?
Allwed – 1) If you don’t have the most prestige, each player must give you one coin. 2) Whenever power is shared from the pool between players, take any leftover power. The ability tied to prestige is only good if you can manage how much prestige you have (or gain more Crave than Prestige), but for others, getting one extra coin from everyone is strong. There is a chance, that this ability might put you as the winner, in terms of coin count, at the beginning of each game. The second ability only works if you are passing, and there is going to be leftover power. Usually, the leftover is just one power. Still, free power is nice to have.
Coden – Whenever you pass, gain one power: Passing is a power move in this game. Not only do you get one coin for passing, but you can also gain extra power and save the power that you already have. I will explain why this is powerful in the seventh chapter “Scoring and Bookkeeping”. This ability makes passing a little bit more tempting.
Wylio – 1) Once per vote, you can use one coin as one power. If you win, discard the coin. If you lose, keep it. 2) Once per vote, if you give a coin to one player to seal a deal, gain one coin. The first ability is pretty bad since coins are more valuable than power tokens. The second ability is also bad because bribing means that you are giving coins to someone else. Plus, one coin usually is not enough to bribe someone. And even if it is… Sure, you got the coin back that you just spent, but the other player might now have one coin more than you and might score more points based on coin count.
Natar – You can give one player one of your negative agendas + two coins to do so: First, you need to have negative agenda tokens to do this in the first place. Second, you need to give them money to do so, and money is pretty valuable pointwise in this game. Third, there is no guarantee that this will harm the other player.
Blodyn – Once per game, if you are the leader, you can declare an Equality vote at the banning of a voting phase – each player can only play up to one power token during that vote. First of all, it is only once per game. Second, you need to be the leader (possess the leader token). Third, the only benefit I can see from this is if you have a bunch of warmongerers in your game, you can use this ability to limit their chances of winning a vote. I also think that the text on this ability is wrong. As it is written, the idea is that every player, including the Blodyn player, can only invest one power token. Yet, I think that the idea is that the other players can only vote with one power token, and Blodyn is supposed to invest more power tokens. That would allow Blodyn to win the vote easily. If that is the case, then this could be a better ability than advertised.
Gaman – If you play more than five power tokens a vote and your side wins, gain two coins: Five power is 62,5% of your starting power amount. That is a lot of power to invest in a vote. What is clear is that you won’t be able to vote like this all the time. Even if you try to use this ability, you have to win the vote to acquire its benefits. The ability is also hard to unlock.
Crann – You lose one fewer point for each negative agenda: To use this ability, you need to have negative agendas in the first place. If you avoid signing negative stickers, then you won’t get negative agendas, and you won’t need this ability. The idea behind it is that this ability would allow Crann to vote in favor of decisions that would create conflict and war and thus reward Crann with a negative sticker.
As you can see, it is very easy to fall into the min-maxing trap, where you base your votes on unlocking these abilities and getting as many crowns as you can. At least you are guaranteed those if you work hard for it. If you haven’t played the game, then you might be oblivious to all of this.
Do you choose the house based on what would be fun to role-play as, or do you pick the house that might be easier to play as from a mechanical standpoint – easier to unlock achievements, practical ability, etc.? Or, you could know all of this, and (YOLO) choose whatever you want anyway.
In forums, you will read that a lot of player groups chose to just randomly select houses or they picked them based on how much they liked their sigils. Quick and easy, yet, I would not suggest that method since you could end up with a house that loves to kill kittens just as likely as you are to end up with a pacifist house that doesn’t even have their army.
On the other hand, these choices do not matter because the game mechanics are not well integrated with the role-play. Nothing is stopping you from picking a war-mongering house and playing them as you like, ignoring their narrative achievements, etc. Trust me, you might even win. Yet, if this is what you are up against, you might as well pick a house that you can get behind.
The other reason why you shouldn’t pick your houses based on random chance is because of group dynamics. Now, if most players in your group are wargamers and you are the only person who likes to play The Sims. Then there probably isn’t a lot you can do about this, and you will be stuck playing the game in a position where you will wish to vote for peace and wellbeing, but your three companions will vote in the opposite direction – war and blood. Thus, ideally, you should compose your game group, if possible, so that each player would have a house that conflicts with another player’s house. I don’t have a certain suggestion on how to do this, but this should be something on your mind when choosing houses. If you ignore this principle, then from where is all the conflict, backstabbing, and funny arguments going to come from?
In our group with five players, we chose to play as Allwed, Tork, Olwyn, Solad, and Crann. We always had the same group of players and thus the same houses in play. The following is how we picked them and how I suggest you do it as well.
Describe each house in a sentence or two – a GOT or real-life comparison, for example, “this is house Stark but if they were templars”. I went through all of the house’s backstories before our first game and introduced them in such a manner. If someone liked the description, then allow them to hold on to the house and go through its achievements, and then finally choose one house from all the houses they were interested in.
6. Playing the game
The gameplay is simple:
- Draw and read a card from the Dilemma Deck;
- The players take turns voting;
- Figure out which side won and which player takes responsibility for the vote – the one who spent the most power or voting tokens;
- Read the other side of the Dilemma card to figure out the consequences of the vote, and display them on the board;
- Rinse and Repeat.
Let’s look at some of these steps a little bit closer.
The Dilemma deck
At the start of each round, you will draw one card from the Dilemma deck, read the problem, and the consequences if voted YAY or NAY to everyone. After the vote, you will reference the back of the card to discover the outcome of your vote.
The Dilemma deck is the single, most important component you will have to interact with because it provides you with the problem that begs the Council’s attention. At first, the Dilemma deck will consist of the cards found in envelope 00. As you resolve dilemma cards, you will have to open other numbered envelopes with new cards in them to add to the deck.
I don’t have anything negative to say about the cards themselves, on the opposite:
The graphic design is easy to understand and practical.
Even though the artwork is very good – thematic, linked to the card’s text, well-illustrated, etc. – my group did not spend a lot of time looking at them. One reason was that many art pieces we re-used on too many cards. The main reason was that we were more concentrated on reading and understanding the text and the consequences of the dilemma. The art is a nice thing to have. Personally, I don’t need a lot of artwork in my board games in the first place, but I am sure that many would disagree.
The text on the cards is well-written if a bit bland, uninspired, and sometimes predictable. The length is perfect for both retaining attention and giving you enough information to decide on your vote. Yes, there are also some weird word choices and typos, and you can argue that some dilemma cards are more interesting than others and that there are too many cards to read overall. Otherwise, they fulfill their function.
Yet, mechanically, as we played the game, some issues started to creep up for me:
Each dilemma card shows you the potential (mostly correct as stated) consequences of the vote. For example, if we vote YAY, we will get a negative sticker, and our Kingdom’s influence will decrease. Sure, we don’t know by how much it will decrease, and there is always the possibility that there are hidden consequences. Yet, because we already know the outcome, rather than debating the narrative consequences, we skip that step and guide our gaze towards the resource tokens. Immediately, scheming in mechanical terms. If this increases, then does that help me unlock my achievements? Will the new board state give me more points at the end of the game, etc.? You will even see this in gameplay. There were many times when someone was, for example, lobbying for everyone to vote YAY and ban book publishing, only to realize that by voting against the ban, they could gain a positive sticker, and they would immediately change their opinion. Thus, showcasing to everyone that they don’t care about the actual banning of the book and only want mechanical benefits. Thus, I would have liked it if the dilemma outcomes would have been secret from the players. Let’s look at an example that I think won’t be a big spoiler since the card in question comes from the very first envelope. (before and after).
Continuing, even if you have decided on how to vote, the outcome is not always as advertised. If you have ever played a video game with dialogue options, sometimes you will choose a tame dialogue option, yet, your character is going to say something so outrageous that you will have to restart the game. Similar things can happen in this game.
The “last straw” for me was when some cards came out with no information on them on what exactly we were voting. For example, some cards said that our Kingdom’s scientists wanted to perform some experiments, and we had to choose one of them. Except, the card never explained what the choices were. There is a difference between not knowing the consequences and not knowing what you are even voting on. Depending on how you voted on the experiments… SPOILERS! You could have ended up with a Scythe-like (Jakub Rozalski) mecha robot or “metalworms” that spit acid. Maybe the reason why there were no descriptions on those cards was that the result is not important, since you won’t be able to use the mecha robot or the “metalworms” to assist us in a future vote anyway.
Then there is a smaller issue – the reading. There is a lot of text to read in total. I think this game would have benefited from an app that could present and save the Dilemma deck in the player’s place, “reading” each dilemma cards in the player’s stead. I think that the amount of reading could be a deal-breaker for some. Some will believe that it is too passive of a way to spend an afternoon. Others will think that the text is too boring to keep up the enthusiasm for 15 games, etc.
Yet, there are other cards except Dilemma cards in the game:
Put on one side of the board to showcase plot points in a sub-plot. Sometimes, these cards will need to be signed by the winner of a vote. At first, it was fun to sign them, but eventually, people stopped caring about that. Many Story cards bestow special abilities, similar to the ones you can unlock from house achievements. Some of them are tremendously useful and can help you easily win a game. The problem was that eventually, you might have six special abilities (one per sub-plot) that you needed to keep track of, and most of us would forget about their existence.
Event (dilemma’s with special rules) and Trigger cards (trigger the activation or end of an event) were more or less fun to experience. For example, when we wasted a lot of money to open a bank, and had to put investment in the bank with the hope of getting them back, felt tense since we could have lost all of the money (no, you can’t lose the money). Or when we organized a joust and had to vote on which knight might win, felt like an actual distraction from the bad things that were happening in the narrative. The only issue I had with them was that the consequences of these events never stuck around for too long.
Eventually, all of the story cards will lead us to an Ending card (it is basically a Story card for all intents and purposes), signalizing that a subplot has reached its end. The Ending card will usually unlock a house’s narrative achievement, give Dissent or Cohesion points, provide a new ability to use, and a bonus of crowns to the player that had signed the most cards from that sub-plot. It was nice to have endings for the sub-plots. Yet, 1) We still had no idea what Cohesion and Dissent points did. More on that at on chapter… 2) After a sub-plot’s ending, the game never really took these endings in effect. More on this in the chapter.
There is a QR code on the back of the rulebook that, if scanned, will lead you to a browser app that will help you troubleshoot the issue.
We never needed to use the QR code, but I did try to scan it. To troubleshoot the issue, you will have to answer a lot of questions about the board state, last opened envelope, etc. to figure out the issue. Thus, double-check before opening an envelope.
Voting and Negotiations
Voting is simple. You wait for your turn and vote by putting at least one power token on either AYE or NAYE card, or pick PASS and, instead of spending power tokens, gain one coin.
If you wish, you can bribe other players to vote in your favor or to do anything else except converting coins for power or buying the moderator/leader tokens. Bribes are “legally binding” – you can’t go back on a promise if you took the money. Easy!
What was not easy was a discussion on Board Game Geek where one person shared his impressions of the game and how the player who was mostly passing rather than voting AYE or NAY won more individual games than anyone else in the group.
Ignoring that other players saying the same thing, I noticed that some users on that post were responding with a hard time believing that one player could win so many games by just passing. Others went even further and said that the other players from that group must have been bad at games since they should have adapted their strategies to counter the winning strategy – meta gaming.
Now that I have played the full game, I can give my two cents on the matter. In short, I agree that by passing a lot, you can win more games.
Let’s look at a hypothetical yet, simple example to illustrate why that is the case: This is close to the end of the very first game. Everyone started with the same eight power and ten coin tokens as they should have. During the game, the amounts would have changed, but let’s say that they remained the same. You draw the next dilemma card that gives you the following options. If you vote YAY – then the Wellbeing token will increase, and the King will die of old age. If you vote NAY, then the Well-being will decrease and reach the bottom of the board, forcing the King to abdicate. You are the last player of five to vote. I want the NAY side to win since a decrease in Wellbeing will allow it to reach the bottom of the board, and that, in turn, will give me another checkmark for your house’s second achievement. Until your time to vote comes up, two players voted for AYE with three tokens in total. The other two – voted for NAYE with four. Thus, NAY is winning by one. Now, it is your turn to vote. Let’s re-summarize the options:
You can vote for AYE, but then you will have to spend at least two power tokens for that side to win. Plus, you won’t be able to add that checkmark to your achievement. I could hope that a signable card or sticker could come out of this, but that is unlikely.
You could vote NAYE. Yet, that side is already winning. Plus, if you wanted to be the winner of that side and, maybe, sign a card or sticker, you would have to overbid the current winner of that vote by spending three power tokens. Not to mention that the other side would gain a chance to over-bid again. So it’s not even guaranteed that you will win the vote. Assuming that you would, you would gain another checkmark for your achievement but would have to spend three power tokens to do so.
The final option is to PASS, gain one coin, get the achievement checkmark without spending any power tokens. Since the other players are voting, that extra coin and tokens you got to keep might help you get closer to winning the most points from coin and power token amount. That means that I could end up with one extra coin that will help me get first place for coin count. Plus, if you are passing to gain power (you can also -ass to gain the Moderator token), you would even gain extra power tokens if there were any leftovers from the previous vote. The other players will have wasted them and will have to, at some point, pass to recover the tokens they spent.
Why would you choose anything else but Passing for power tokens?
You could do it for role-playing reasons if you wanted to, but mechanically it would be a weaker move – you would have spent more and gained less. Plus, now you have more tokens for other votes, that could be more important than this one for your house. Also, nothing is stopping you from talking, role-playing, or bribing others. You can even role-play as you justify why you passed. You are still a participant in the game.
Free tip: This game works similarly to poker. When someone “raises the pot” by adding more power tokens, everyone has the chance to “check” (add the difference) or overbid (bid even more tokens). Thus, you have to understand that to win a vote, adding just one or two power tokens over the current biggest bidder might not be enough since the other players might be able to overbid you, if there is a draw the moderator might not vote in your favor, etc. If you want to win: Put a lot of tokens straight up or when you are overbidding – add 4 or 5 tokens instead of just 1 or 2. This way, everyone will be too scared to try and fight you for the vote (not all the time) – they will think that you are serious about winning the vote. If 4 or 5 tokens are too much for you, you can then pass the next turn to get them back (or a couple of them).
You could do it with the hope of getting a signable Story card or sticker out of it, but that is only guaranteed if the Dilemma card tells you that you can get a sticker (sometimes it is not stated). Plus, signable Story cards are reserved for decisions that push the sub-plot forward. Plus, the other players would have a chance to overbid me – victory is not guaranteed.
Passing is not overpowered, as someone stated in the previously mentioned post. We had players who did not pass that much in comparison and still win. Yet, it should be a vital part of your strategy, allowing you to keep power and potentially gain extra power tokens and to gain an extra coin when needed. Why reject such a boon if the board state or the story is going in your way?
Another thing mentioned on the forums was that a good player would adapt to the strategy of the winning player and try and stop them from abusing the same strategy. The thing is, you can only do so much.
In our group, our Crann player, a.k.a. Snaketongue, passed a lot in every game and thus won more games than everyone else. We learned from that and started to choose the PASS option more. Thus, making passing less attractive. Before we adopted, Crann was the only one passing and would gain a lot of leftover power from the previous games and a lot of gold, but now that pot had to be split, and other players were getting gold and taking bribes.
Then Snaketongue adapted and started passing for the moderator token to use it to soliciting bribes from the other players whenever there was a draw.
We learned from that and stopped paying the moderator. Thus, when Snaketongue was passing for the moderator token, the token became useless since nobody was willing to pay him. On top of that, we were either voting and passing for power, thus gaining more out of our moves than Snaketongue.
In the end, all that meta-gaming ended with:
Nobody wanted to give out huge bribes or bribe at all since coins were the second most lucrative point giver.
Nobody cared for the moderator token since players would pay very little if at all or resolving draws in their favor.
Meta-gaming, I think, leads to the opposite of what the game designers intended – there is less bribing, less big-swig votes, less moderation, etc. It was still fun, but not ideal.
Speaking about the role-playing side of voting.
If the players are trying to follow the narrative, try to vote for fun outcomes, and immerse themselves in the idea of them being council members, the game is fun.
As I have noted many times, this game will be compared to GOT. While playing, I never felt that this game would be a great GOT simulator since 1) It was hard to be mad or disappointed in a vote when people were voting based on meta-gaming. 2) I never felt that any house was doing so much worse for our Kingdom, that I needed to treat them as my arch-enemy, or that I had such stark differences of opinions that we were by design put into odds with each other. Yes, on some votes, but not enough to start alliances against a particular house. 3) Even if you would be playing as the xxx , which are the Lannisters, unlike the Lannisters, they are not evil. They have a lot of money and think that having a lot of it gives them privileges. The only “bad” thing is that they are willing to do anything for that money, but how far they will go depends on the player. You can’t compare that to the stuff the Lannisters do. The only house you could say is “evil” is House Dualak since they openly don’t like the royal family and secretly wish to curse it. We had a Dualak player, and not only did I not treat them as being evil, but there were many times when we were on the same page.
If there were alliances, then they only lasted for one dilemma card. When we drew the next Dilemma card, the alliances ceased to exist or swapped houses easily. Yet, it never felt like a betrayal since the Dilemmas were so different. In one, you vote about punishing war criminals, and in the next, you have to decide on whether to pay for a jousting tournament. I think that this is good, but if you were expecting to have long-lasting alliances and painful betrayals, you will not get them.
As the games progressed, long and swingy negotiations/bribes became rarer because everyone was more or less able to tell when it was worth voting/bribing votes and contesting votes and when not to. That is because the only thing you had to consider is the player’s goals and motives, amount of tokens, etc. There are no hidden abilities that the players could use or complicated progression, or anything else that would make such predictions hard to make. I do not think that to be bad in itself, but since the campaign lasts for 15 games on average, the lack of new mechanics or abilities is not good since it makes the game very repetitive or predictable at times.
There should have been ways how to influence the voting process. Rather than having passive abilities that deal with open agenda points, etv., I think it would be better if each house had an ability that could allow them to interact more with the voting process or other players. For example, stealing power or coin tokens, etc. The sad thing is that you can’t have many of those by design because the voting mechanics are simplistic.
Gold is an important resource for scoring points and bribing (sometimes). Otherwise, it has no other value. On its own, it is fine. Yet, I think that players have this association with money in games that, if you have it, you should be able to buy something with it, for example, buying upgrades or items. Yet, all we do with it is hoard it to win points. Bribing people also was problematic because when you bribe someone, there is a big chance that the probability of you scoring points for the number of coins you have would be smaller. Yes, that probably would make the game even longer, but it could have given us more chances to customize our houses. You could have items that give you special abilities or upgrades that would enhance our current achievement abilities, etc.
Not so sure about this one, but being able to change votes would be interesting. Maybe every house could do this once per game. Being able to do that would create more memorable moments. Imagine a player puts down a lot of tokens on AYE, believing that the other player would also put power on the same vote, but that player betrays them and swings to the other side.
The same could be said about bribing. Imagine that players wouldn’t have to keep their word when bribed. The only issue with that is that money is only used to bribe and gain points. This new rule would make bribing happen even less, With exceptions.
7. Scoring and Bookkeeping
After we have chosen our houses, played our first game, we have to score the points.
I already alluded to the ways how a player can score points, but let’s go a little bit deeper.
At the start of each game, every player will receive a Secret Agenda card that will determine two ways on how to score points:
Resource Goal – related to where the Resource markers are located on the board at the end of the game,
Money Ranking Goal – related to how many Coins you have at the end of the game.
The number of Agenda Points you gain from your Secret Agenda depends on how well you performed regarding these two goals.
To acquire a Secret Agenda, you have to draft it at the start of each game – one player (lowest prestige) starts by shuffling the deck of Secret Agendas, takes one out of the game and looks at the rest, picks one for themself, and gives the remaining cards to the next player (newt lowest prestige). Rinse and repeat.
The next point scoring method is Open agenda points.
Second, when you have acquired a sticker, signed it, and stuck it on the board, you have to make sure (pray) that that sticker is going to be the most recent one at the start of the next game. The rules state that the most recent sticker associated with each resource marker (yes, stickers are also associated with resources jut like Open Agendas), will gain an Open Agenda.
Third, if the sticker is the most recent from its resource category, it will gain an Open Agenda token based on whether it is a Positive or Negative sticker.
The next and final option on how to gain more points is power. The two players with the most power at the end of the game will get two and one points retrospectively.
There are also exceptions to these four ways, like special abilities from houses or Story cards, that can influence scoring.
Now we have to count the points together and rank everyone based on how many points they have acquired – first place most points, last place – leat points.
After ranking all the players, crowns – prestige or crave – will be warder to them based on their standing on the ranking and whether the King abdicated or died of old age. There is a table that tells you who will get what.
Enough with the exposition…
The scoring of the game is one of the main ways that informed me about the validity of many of my previous criticisms in other sections.
I put our scoreboard in an excel spreadsheet to do some comparing and calculations here.
The main conclusion is that some methods of gaining points are objectively worse than others. If they are worthless, then there might not be a reason to even try them. If we don’t do them, then there is even less to do in this game. There aren’t many things you can in the first place, and now there will be even less.
The main hierarchy would be that Secret Agenda points > Coin points > Powerpoints > Open Agenda Points.
Why this arrangement?
If you look at what % of total points gained through the campaign are distributed by the four types of point-scoring methods, you will see that on average 78% of points are scored from Secret Agendas (resource markers) and 15% Coins, 5% – Power, 2% – Open Agendas. What this means is that scoring points from Secret Agendas are the nr. 1 method that will help you win individual games and gain more crowns. The second one is coins, yet, by a substantial difference of *5,2. Open Agendas and Power tokens mattered so little in our games that you might argue it was useless to try and score points in such a way. I even created an excel page in the spreadsheet “Only Secrets and Coins” and re-wrote the scoreboard, assuming that nobody got any Open Agenda or Power points to see if that would have changed the standings. The conclusion?
It didn’t. The removal of Open Agenda and Power token points did not change who won in every game. It did not even affect who got second place in every game. Only when speaking about 3rd, 4th, or 5th place, did it (sometimes) change the placing. What does that mean?
- Fighting for Open Agenda and Power token points might only be useful if you know that you will not score a lot of points on your Secret Agenda and Coins. Thus, you might at least gain a better placing in the ranking on 3rd, 4th, and 5th place, if you care about that.
- You should focus your efforts on gaining a lot of money and scoring Secret Agenda points. How do you get a lot of money? By passing and selling your votes like a common whore!
Why hoarding power tokens and scoring on open agendas is not that useful? Power tokens are easy to explain. You can only gain +2 points max per game.
Plus, to have the most power tokens, you can’t waste them and would have to pass for power. There is no other way to gain power but to pass for power and hold on to the ones you get at the start of the game. There are, of course, some abilities that give you extra power. In short, the +2 point gain can’t be compared to points gained by Secret Agendas (that everyone scores as long as they have at least one of 5 resources on the desired location) or Coins (that three players have a chance of scoring instead of the two players for power points). Plus, if power points can give you +2 points, then, assuming that you are bad at the game and only get one resource marker where you want it to be) you would gain a min of X points (as a moderator player), and for only being third based on the number of coins you have (as a moderator player), you would have gained x points.
The Open Agendas are a bit trickier
The first problem is that they are limited by the rules. One player can only have two positive and two negative open agenda tokens in play at once. This means that even if you do well, you could score no more than 6 points.
There is only one positive and negative token for each resource.
To get one of them, you have to, as I already mentioned, gain a sticker and have it bee the most recent. To do that, you have to win a vote, which means you have to vote, and voting means that you won’t gain power or coins. Power and coins that are needed to gain points for the other two point-scoring methods.
Let’s say that you have gained two positive open agendas. Now you have to make sure that the related resources are the highest on the board at the end of a game. Yet, you can’t predict what dilemma cards will be drawn, and whether those dilemma cards will influence the resources you need to get on the top of the board.
I am going to stop here…
This analysis was based on OUR games. There is always a chance if 100 player groups would source all their games into one spreadsheet, and we analyzed it, we could get different results. Yet, I don’t think that would be the case for the reasons mentioned on this numbered list above.
Disclaimer: All these conclusions are just more arguments that explain why passing is so attractive and effective in this game.
What are my conclusions about the scoring and bookkeeping phase:
After the scorekeeping, you will have to re-set the board and start the next game. Sadly, the transition from game-to-game is whitewashed. Let’s look at an example, assuming that in the previous game, the King abdicated and the stability marker dropped at the bottom of the board because the Council spent all of the Kingdom’s Wealth to sponsor the creation of artworks, do scientific research, and go to expeditions. In other words, the Kingdom now has no money, but when we re-set the board, what happens to all of the resource markers? They go back to the middle (and based on what stickers are on the board, they get moved up or down by a max of 3 spaces). Meaning, that the Wealth marker is also magically re-set. So… Where did the Kingdom get that money? Are there any consequences to the Kingdom getting that money? In GOT it is a big deal that the Kingdom owes a lot of money to the Lannisters, etc. In these games, who cares? I think that there should have been more consequences in times like this. It would have made the fiction feel much more real, that your choices have consequences. Without any consequences for bankrupting the Kingdom, there can’t be any “evil” houses.
After you win a game, you are rewarded with the opportunity to name the King. Sadly, this is meaningless. When we started playing, it was a fun thing to do. Yet, at some point, we started wondering. Is there going to be a reward for having the most named Kings belong to our house? Or do we name the King, and that is it? The answer: You name the king, and that is it… When I was playing, I was a bit jealous that everyone else was able to name a King, yet, we quickly got disenchanted by that reward. For peace’s sake, we had a king named Pass I… PASS I… Because PASSING IS NR. 1! *facepalm*
Honestly, I think it would have been better if there was no point-scoring or that winning a game would give you something, anything better than just naming a useless King. If you remove the scoring, then players wouldn’t have to worry too much about how many coins or power tokens they have, but they would have to worry more about what is happening in the story. So… What do you replace the point-scoring? Leave the crowns as the main thing that players need to acquire, get rid of the point-scoring, and add more narrative rewards and consequences in its place on how people can gain and lose crowns. For example, rather than having one Narrative House Achievement, you would have multiple… As I was writing this suggestion, I realized that this would never happen… Since the Dilemma Deck System has been trademarked by Horrible Guild…
8. This world must be spoiled
This chapter is going to be structured as follows. I will avoid evaluating the worldbuilding that is presented to us at the start of a new campaign since it all boils down to “Game of Thrones with less magic”. That might sound harsher than it O had intended… Instead, I wish to concentrate on the story that the Dilemma cards and sub-plots present to the players. How all of that culminates in the players figuring out the mysteries surrounding these sub-plots and reaching the Grand Finally.
The Sub-plots and their endings
We found a monastery in Lorain that had a hidden chamber. This chamber was full of the iconography surrounding the Mother Goddess, yet it was eerily twisted.
We met a slaver who had captured a woman named Sera, claiming to know where The Golden Mao – an ancient artifact – is hidden in a temple, located in the City of Tents, Ivory Desert.
We heard rumors that a wich who can bend reality is living in the woods that belong to House Dualak.
We found smugglers illegally selling red iron – a new type of improved metal – on House Tork’s territory neighboring Enkhal – a Kingdom of barbarians led by a Warrior King.
Drought hit the lands of House Tyrill, but our neighbor, the Kingdom of Mhuir – with whom we recently were warring – has offered us to help feed our people.
The prospects of embarking on expeditions outside of our known borders have presented to us.
So, these are the inciting incidents or the dilemmas that trow the players in these sub-plots. By themselves, they are pretty generic, but that does not mean that players can’t find something subjective about them to enjoy. Some will like the idea of sponsoring expeditions to discover The Golden Map, and some will think that it is too similar a premise to El Dorado. Yet, on their own, I still believe that some are better than others.
For example, the first sub-plot was the most interesting one to me because it connected itself with the fictional religion of Ankist – The Cult of the Mother.
I believe that if a fictional universe is developed, then you should use the fact that you have no world-building limitations that an established IP could have, and you should make something unique out of it. The Cult of the Mother is one of those unique additions and thus immediately interesting.
The Cult of The Mother believes that there is one God, and she is a Goddess. She rules with her eight Saint Daughters. When a person dies, their soul returns to her womb and can be reborn again. The Cult is only allowed to have women as clergy. In short, The Cult is a combination of Buddhist karma and reincarnation, Wiccan Mother Goddess veneration, and the structure of the church of Christianity but with women, not men leading. It might be an amalgamation, but an interesting one.
The sub-plots that had potential but fell short were sub-blots 2, 3, and 6. The second sub-plot had potential because it tied itself with slavery. The idea of the Golden Map also reminded me about Pirates of the Caribbean with the character Captain Jack Sparrow, which got me excited. I was especially excited for one of our players, who was playing as the house with all the explorers and ship navigators. She even named her House Blackpearl, which seemed so appropriate. Yet, because of that association, it was not able to live up to my expectations and ended up being an Indiana Jones/El Dorado story but not as exciting.
The third plot was interesting because it was happening on one of our player’s House Bittersting’s lands in Dualak. The idea of a superstitious mob of farmers looking for a supposed witch to burn felt like there was some urgency. Yet, there was no urgency, only the illusion of choices since the storyline goes in the same direction no matter what we did. I will get into that a little bit more when will discuss the endings for these sub-plots.
Not to forget the expeditions. They didn’t matter. No matter what choices you made, you would always get to the same island, and we never found anything interesting in any of the other expedition locations. If I was designing this game, we would have had some papa Dagon/Innsmouth fish mutants over here. Such a waste.
That leaves us with the 4th and 5th sub-plots. Just reading the inciting incidents obviously foreshadowed that they would lead to escalations and threats of war with both our neighboring Kingdoms: Mhuir and Enkhal. The intriguing thing was that these events were happening near the lands controlled by two of our players. It made it a little bit more personal, yet, if we had chosen other houses to play as that would not be the case. Plus, if there were any armed conflicts, then they all felt quite impersonal because they read as history textbook excerpts (with some exceptions). If these events would have been tied to a concrete house. For example, if there ever was a battle, then the text on the Dilemma card should have emotionally described a single house’s involvement and struggle in that Dilemma.
Of course, to accomplish that, the designers would have to decrease the available houses from 12 to 5. Why 5? Because the sub-plot amount should be decreased from 6 to 5. How does this help? One, each player would have a more developed house because the designers won’t need to waste time designing 12. This could have allowed the designers to, maybe, add some customization – like choosing your narrative achievement, pre-built backstories, etc. Plus, each player could have one sub-plot relating to their house solely. Yes, the Council votes on what happens, but those votes would 100% relate to their house. Plus, you could have a house-specific ending based on whether they achieved their narrative achievements and reached a good ending at their sub-plot, above the overall campaign ending. What if some groups only wished to play with three players? I do not recommend this. I already explained that in the second chapter “Replayability and Legacy elements”. I also think that it is ok to decrease the number of houses because when we were choosing our’s to play as I was expecting that players would have a hard time deciding which one to choose and would fight over some of them. Nope. Not to mention that based on this BBG post. A lot of people just randomly chose their houses.
After playing the game, I spent some time to re-assemble the envelopes so that I could open them up again as if I was playing a new game. Thus, I was able to determine how each envelope connects to all the other envelopes. You can see the branching storyline in the below image that I created.
I think that the trailer for The King’s Dilemma makes the narrative look like it has more branching paths to take than there is in reality. That does not bother me per se since you have to get people to exist somehow. Yet, I do think the story is too linear to call it a “grand experiment in narrative gaming”.
Remember, each card consists of an average of four cards. One of them is a Story card that moves the sub-plot forward. The rest are three dilemma cards that you will have to vote on. In some cases, you will have more than just four cards – if an envelope has a Trigger or Event card. These represent events that can not be resolved by a simple vote.
What did I learn after playing the game, opening every single envelope, and creating the diagram on how the narrative branches out?
At the end of our game, out of 74 envelopes, we had opened 44 of them. Meaning that 59.45% of envelopes get opened.
The average amount of envelopes that you need to go through to reach an ending for a sub-plot are ten envelopes or about 30 Dilemma cards.
There are patterns in how the envelopes work. One of them is that when you reach an envelope with an Ending card, one of the Dilemma cards in that envelope is going to lead you to a Mystery sticker. In other words, you can’t get a mystery sticker until you have reached the end of a sub-plot.
Usually, Dilemma cards, where a person asks for the Council’s help in conducting research, is going to reward you with the Mystery Sticker with the most lore.
Before looking at the image of branching envelopes that I created, you might have thought that the narrative is very complex, intertwined, yet, that is not the case. First of all, the story is very linear, and at the end of the day, only some Dilemma cards are crucial in moving the plot forward. On its own, that is not bad, yet, after looking at the trailer for this game, I had the idea that the narrative is going to be more complex.
Some Dilemma cards and the choices that they present are unreasonable. I think that I already mentioned the example of Experiment cards that come out and aks you to either vote AYA or NAYE without explaining what are you even voting for. You could tell that this is mysterious, but I would have liked to know what the experiments are because some of them lead to a steam robot while others lead to acid-spitting “metalworms”. Sadly, if you look closer at how the narrative works, it does not matter because the game never takes into effect that you have unlocked something like that.
There is also no opportunity to go back on a previous choice or to 360 a choice. Meaning that if you made the “wrong” choice, then you are locked in a path that you can’t go back from. I think that this is a good thing for the most part because it makes you feel the consequences of your choices and makes you take them more seriously.
Depending on what endings you end up with, if you reach the best endings, you can get 120 Cohesion points. If you reached the worst endings, you can gain 125 Dissent points. I think that there is a mistake here. Meaning that I believe that the designers wanted there to be an equal amount of Cohesion and Dissent points.
Speaking about the endings:
The witch in the woods: No matter what we choose, the witch Hysadora reveals herself, and she will ask to join our court. Whether we allow her to join us or banish her, we will uncover her research with the experiments that I have referenced many times. Up until these points, as always, the “negative” choice is much more fun. If you decide to ignore her existence, angry mob forms, and they start combing the woods, leaving us to deal with their actions. Yet, sending the army to find the witch mostly goes without interesting Dilemma cards. Continuing with the experiments, some of them are much more interesting than the others. For example, in one example you can either end up with smoke that makes everyone perform orgies or acid-spitting metalworms. That, of course, is subjective, but the biggest issue is that you are not given a chance in the story to use these discoveries like the Steam Giant of the Onix Dust. Imagine how cool it would have been if there was a situation where, if we had these discoveries, we could have used them to win a war, etc. There is even a Dilemma card that allows us to confiscate the Steam Giant for the military and has the gall to propose that “this is for the greater good”. After these experiments, the sub-plot ends in one of two ways. Your previous actions like which experiments you accomplished mean nothing. There is one Dilemma card (10 or 11 envelopes) that will determine the ending you get. The card proposes that there is another research paper that deals with harmonizing knowledge and religion. We have to decide to authenticate it (envelope 13) or ban it (envelope 12). It is obvious what this will end in. You either reach harmony between knowledge and spirit or you don’t. Both endings reward the Campaign with the same Cohesion points (10). First of all, there are only good endings and no opportunity to make a bad decision. Second, it does not feel that both endings are the same and thus should give out the same amount of cohesion.
The expeditions to unknown lands: No matter where you choose to go, you always end up on envelope 19. Either you get there from envelope 17 – the wreckage of ships from the Salaan Union – or 18 – the Glass Tower that functions as a library of ancient knowledge. And, no matter what you do with the wreckage or at the Glass Tower, you will acquire the object from envelope 19, which is an old book called The Book of Choices. Plus, no matter what we do with the Book of Choices, either we read it with the King or leave it in a vault, the King still reads it, and we get transported to the Labyrinth in our collective minds. Whether we solve the puzzle of the Labyrinth or not, the King will become mad. The difference is between what type of madness is this? The madness of wisdom (envelope 22) or of a broken mind, and the King will call himself The Mad King (envelope 21)? The endings in this sub-plot were much better than the previous one, but the process of getting there was much more boring. I also liked the fact that there was one positive (Cohesion points) and a negative (Dissent points) ending. Yet, no matter what you do, the King becomes mad.
The Golden Map: Ignoring that the locations we visit on the way are quite boring, no matter what you do, you find the map. There is no option where you would lose the map and find something else in its stead. For example, the Golden Map could have been a complete Red Herring that does not exist and is just a story to lead people into a trap or something like that. Also, no matter what you do with the map, you will always end up opening envelope 47, reaching The Golden Temple. In the end, you have a choice to make do you a) Get a lot of gold or b) Get a lot of gold. In one option we create gold from blood rituals in the other – by de-constructing the temple. But the result is the same. You gain Dissent points for both. That means that no matter what you do, you reach a negative ending. There is no third option where you, maybe give The Golden Temple back to the local people who have been enslaved and gain Cohesion points. The blood ritual is much more interesting, but we made the other choice assuming that this would read to a more positive ending.
Wheat from Mhuir: The choice to take the food from Mhuir ends the same way no matter what – some people become Ashers. The explanation is that either you eat wheat that is rotten or people try to grow more food, but the soil has been corrupted from Mhuir throwing out bad wheat near our lands. That, in turn, leads us to war with Mhuir (envelope 52). The idea that if Mhuir can not give the wheat to us, they throw them out near us, which is a great set of what-ifs. Also, the fact that there are three endings to this sub-plot is good. Yet, it was a bit too hard to predict the outcome of our votes. For example, eating wheat was always portrayed as a bad thing. Yet in the end, if we all start eating the wheat then we reach the “good” ending where everyone becomes an Asher. Thus, since everyone is an Asher, we are now equal and have reached the narrative achievement about fostering equality. So, we were primed to think that wheat is bad for everyone, but if we eat it, we become a society of seers. Plus, how can we have equality if we have slavery or support it (depending on how you play)?
Even though many of the sub-plots have some well written and fun individual Dilemma Cards, the Secret chamber sub-plot is one of the better sub-plots in general, both because there are more endings to the story (three), with different results and with a great story through it. Yet, it has a similar problem as the last sub-plot I described. Some of the endings were hard to predict. For example, if you allow Celestina to marry the King, then she becomes an Eternal Queen (because of reasons). Yet, through the game, the idea of an eternal queen is foreshadowed to be a bad thing, yet, we gain Cohesion for allowing her to become a Queen. Or, the “best” ending where the clergy and army band together to vanquish the evil of Celestina, it ends with a boring ending – a statue being built. More importantly, it ends with the narrative achievement about vanquishing the world from evil. Yet, you can have this achievement and still have slavery, etc. in your Kingdom.
The Enkhali: This is the one I don’t have any issues with. The individual Dilemma cards might not have been as interesting at first, but this subplot is good since it has three endings that are quite distinct. One ends with an endless war, another with marriage and alliance between kingdoms, and in the last one – we win the war and assimilate the Enkhali. I have no problems with how many or which points do which ending reward you with. I have no issues with narrative achievements, etc. The only issues I Have, but that is a general issue in the game, that our previous choices are not taken into effect. I was so sure that we would win the war because of all the military upgrades we had researched, bought, and discovered, yet, it did not matter.
As you can see, most choices will always lead you to where the designers want you to end-up because the story is quite linear. That reminds me of the age-old discussion that I remembered started with Telltale Games like The Walking Dead. Is it fair to say that your choices matter if you end up in the same places no matter what? Are the choices distinct enough, etc.?
The story as a whole is quite generic since it is an amalgamation of multiple other video and board game stories. Wait until we get to the Mystery stickers. In short, this game is the medieval version of Mass Effect. Not to mention how the campaign ends – anti-climatically.
The only thing saving this game from my complaints is the amount of content that it has. Because of the amount, it is easy to trick yourself into believing that your choices matter. Because of the amount, even if the quality is not a 10/10, quantity is also a value on its own.
Yet, the quantity and randomness work against the game. If I had not written everything down in our Chronicle, it would have been very hard to remember and know what is going on in the story. Maybe that is the point since the idea is that each game is one generation of people, and history is not always accurately remembered. It is realistic, but not fun. I wish to remember what happened, but I only remember a couple of Dilemma cards. I also can’t re-tell our story to anyone since the cards are random, and, thus, the story does not have cohesive pacing/narrative.
I in the next chapter, I am going to spoil the actual ending to the campaign and reveal the mechanics of how that ending is reached.
The Mystery stickers revealed
As mentioned in previous chapters, whenever you reach the end of a sub-plot, a Dilemma card will appear, asking the Council to help with a research project. If you agree, then you will be allowed to open a Mystery sticker. If you disagree, you will still be allowed to open a Mystery sticker, but a lesser version. By lesser, I mean, it will reveal less lore to you.
Why do we care about these stickers?
Mechanically, we need six stickers to trigger the Grand Finally a.k.a. opening of envelope 70.
Story-wise, the content behind these stickers reveals the hidden lore of this fictional world and foreshadows events.
Before I analyze the stickers, I am going to summarize their contents without going too much into detail:
In the end, it was revealed that The Black Dawn is basically the Reapers from Mass Effect but a fantasy version of them. They are an organization that wants to maintain a balance between the kingdoms. Thus, when one becomes too strong and the time is ripe, they come to break it apart, allowing new Kingdoms to form from their ashes. They consist of 9 members since 9 is the number of council members they had as the Sun Empire.
It was revealed, that the First King Ommad was Rhea’s son. Rhea was not able to have a daughter, and the soul-swapping spell only works on daughters. Thus, Rhea’s matriarchal line was over, and Ommad took over. It was implied, that Rhea is Ommad, that she swapped places with him, but then other lore says that only the female line can use this power, etc.
King Ommad took the remnants of the Immortal Empresse’s army and continued her war, invading many kingdoms, eventually creating one. After his conquest, Ommad created the religion of the Mother Goddess in honor of Rhea and wanted to spread it to everyone either by force or diplomacy. After his death, he splits the Kingdom between his three sons (I think the three Kingdoms are Mhuir, Enkhal, and Ankist, but there are counterarguments in the lore).
Now, as an actual Empress, Rhea tried to take over the lands of the Enkhali (the Enkhali sub-plot), yet, her army mysteriously disappeared (the Black Dawn comes for Rea).
The blood rituals are explained: how to create gold (The Golden Map sub-plot), how to control others (no more than eight husks), and how to be immortal by swapping your spirit/mind with another.
The Sun Empire remnants vowed to one day return and avenge themselves against Rhea as a Black Dawn that comes after an eclipse (foreshadows what will happen in the Grand Finale; the King’s Mystery sticker foreshadows this even harder).
She started a rebellion and won against both The Reign of Chalice and the Sun Empire.
There was an Immortal Empress named Rhea that discovered the secrets to immortality (the secret chamber sub-plot) but originally got banished from her Kingdom – Reign of Chalice – since her practices were too barbaric.
The Black Dawn purges kingdoms in circles. They started with the Sabbyan League (Golden Map, Asher slaves, and their revolts). Then the Salaan Union (expeditions sub-plot).
What do I think about Mystery stickers? It would have been better if lore was hidden in the Dilemma card text. Otherwise, it was very easy to notice how this lore intertwined with our sub-plots. Mainly, because this lore is separated, and, thus, we immediately started paying attention to it.
I think that this lore was a great platform for developing sub-plots, Dilemma cards, etc. Yet, I wish that the lore was more connected with our sub-plots. For example:
Then there were smaller complaints. Like why the Black Dawn consists of nine members? Why not seven? Thus, there would be 12 houses to choose from; 12 (houses) – 5 (players) = 7 (Black Dawn).
It does not explain why the Black Dawn exactly does what it does. If it was revenge, then why care about keeping balance. If it is balanced, then balance for what? This storyline is very similar and has the same issues as the Reapers from Mass Effect. I wish this was either better explained or kept as a secret, but gave us lore to speculate. Right now, it feels artificial. The one-piece of lore, I thought could save all of this was one passage – “sleep under our cities”. Black Dawn vampires? Sadly, nope…
They could have made so that Celestina, the Sister that was protecting the hidden chamber, was Rhea or Ommad and revealed that to us, giving us the choice – respect their royal line or neglect it.
These are smaller complaints and personal preferences, except the Mass Effect Reaper similarity. The biggest issue I had with this lore… I don’t know how the players of my group looked at this. But, based on the lore, especially the similarity of the Black Dawn = Mass Effect Reapers, I knew what was going to happen in the end, but there was nothing I was able to do about it. Even though this lore is revealed to the Council, the Council just keeps on tracking, leading to the Grand Finally.
THE GRAND FINALLY!
The Grand Finally begins when your group unlocks the 6th Mystery sticker. After you read the sticker, the current game ends, and you have to open envelope 70 and 71 eventually.
I already wrote to an extent about this phase in our Chronicle here. There is a section about the Grand Finally. I am saying this because I do not know whether people want me to spoil all of it or no?. As of writing this, I have decided to summarize the Grand Finally and give my opinions on it. Nothing more. If you want more, ho look up our Chronicle.
What happens in the Grand Finally?
You have to stop the current game and calculate points, determining the winner, giving out crown points as per usual.
It is revealed that the King has been murdered by the Black Dawn: The lore-dump mentioned that someone from the Court is the traitor, but based on how the rules play out, it is possible that nobody joins the traitors and, thus, there are no traitors in the Court.
Each Council member receives a letter (found in envelope 71) from the Black Dawn. The letter states that the Black Dawn wishes us to join them and re-kindle a new flame, a new Kingdom: The Black Dawn looks a lot like the Harpies from Game of Thrones.
We had to use the “Recap card” to count each player’s total Prestige and Crave points/crowns and the amount of Cohesion and Dissent points that we got during all our games separately: Other people on BGG have reported that the difference between Cohesion and Dissent points can be so huge that all the other steps become meaningless. And I can see how we were quite lucky ourselves because we got an almost even split. Thus, there was still hope for both sides to be victorious.
We had to open envelope 72. It had cards with rules on both sides. In short, steps from 1 – 4 were just set-up. Now the final part of the game begins, and it is a set of decisions to make on whether we will join the Betrayers, a.k.a. The Black Dawn, or the Loyalists who are loyal to the Kingdom and duke it out with each other: Meaning, that all the decisions you made and all the narrative achievement we unlocked, the endings for the subplots we reached, do not mean anything and are not taken into account. The only thing that matters are the numbers. The crowns and the campaign points.
On the back of the letter that we acquired from the Black Dawn are all the choices that we can make. We are supposed to choose two from the 18 presented to us. Each choice will grant extra crowns to players and campaign points. The choices are divided into five categories, and each is resolved one-by-one: It would have been better if these choices could have been done during the game when we were voting on Dilemma cards. Like spaced out between multiple games and not have been pilled on to us at the very end. Maybe we could have made these choices secretly at different points during the campaign. Like when the Mystery sticker surrounding the Black Dawn is revealed, secretly choose your faction.
Everyone chooses to join a side in secret by signing the white side of the appropriate voting card. Join the Loyalists (AYE card), the Betrayers (NAYE card), or stay Neutral (PASS card). Neutral players will get to survive until the final scoring with no bonuses, but the other players are going to have to duce it to gain a bonus for their side, but risk elimination from the final scoring.
After choosing sides, players need to start making choices by marking two of them on the other side of the letter that was sent o us from the Black Dawn called a Battle card. Each choice has benefits that it provides to the player and/or the Loyalist/Betrayer side. In short, they are all bonus points and crowns. I am not going to go through all of these choices since you can see them in the scanned card. Plus, I wrote about them a little bit more in the Chronicle. Thus, I am not going to go through all of the choices and what they are. I will continue with the steps and then give my review of this whole Grans Finally.
After negotiations have ended, if there are any, factions have been chosen and choices made, everyone has to reveal their factions. Nobody gets any bonuses yet, but everyone sees where everyone stands.
Players have to proceed with resolving each set/category of choices, starting with the Battle at the gate and ending with Assassinations, marking all gained crowns on their house sheet, and all of the other decisions on the “Resolution card”.
After you have gone through all of the choices, re-calculate the new amount of Dissent and Cohesion.
If there is more Cohesion than Dissent, the Loyalists won, and the Betrayers are eliminated from the game. If the opposite happens, the betrayers win, and the Loyalists are eliminated.
Take the corresponding envelope, based on which side won (73 or 74).
The new envelope will inform you which end you reached: Notice that there are only two envelopes, thus only two endings. There is either a positive one or a negative one. There are no house specific endings or differences based on what happened in the sub-plots.
The new envelope will also have a final card where you can re-calculate how many crowns everyone now has after the choices were made and faction bonuses were given out: We did a little mistake when calculating these, it did not matter, but we did not know that there would be a card like this, so we calculated all of the crowns on a separate sheet of paper, and, thus, the card was not filled properly, because we did not want to re-do all of the calculations. Plus, we had to recount the crowns once.
The player with the most crowns is the overall winner.
What do I think of the Grand Finally, aside from what I already wrote?
The Grand Finally had too much reading. It was not a fun experience.
The endings are quite uninspired because all that happens is one side wins, the house, from the winning side that has the most crowns, is the house that gets to rule over a Dark Age or a Golden Age. Sorry, the Unquenchable Age. It is like the ending in Mass Effect 3, except there is no third ending, and there will be no free DLC to try and fix the narrative issues.
I was disappointed that we did not get concrete resolutions to our sub-plots. Like what happened to the Enkhali? In our campaign, we ended with an Endless Warr with them. Is the war still raging on even in the Golden Age ending? In the Dark Age ending, do they just allow us to exist and do not capitalize on our weakness and conquer us for good? In short, everything gets whitewashed as if it never existed in the first place. On the one side, I have to commend them because that is a great way how to avoid having different endings – everything just is destroyed in the war and re-sets. On the other, it is bullcrap, and your mother smells of elderberries!
I also was expecting house relevant endings, but when you have 12 houses, I guess that was too much to ask. Which is why I think they should have decreased the number of player houses. Have a smaller amount, but spend more time making them unique, with unique endings, etc. One way to do this would be to not have the final battle at all and just count the final crowns, and the winning house would have a special envelope for them if they won. They would have to be restructured to accompany this, but I did not feel like the winner after winning the game (spoilers, I won). Not to mention that I was not even expecting to win. That is a different story.
There is no point in staying neutral in the final. There might be exceptions since I can not predict all outcomes of how the final battle plays out. There are too many variables – player standing based on crowns amount before the final battle, number of players, different choices… Yet, what is clear is that one side will win, and one player on that side will gain a minimum of 8 crowns or a maximum of 12 crowns, assuming that they only defended/attacked the gate. Neutral players just can not win. Since there is no way a neutral player could score that amount of crowns at the end. They could score 10 (steal treasury and motivate the people), but only if nobody else chose what they chose.
All that playtime, reduced to two numbers. It is not a satisfying payoff.
The following might be a bit random, but the experience of playing The King’s Dilemma reminded me of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In the sense that objectively I can’t give the game a high rating based on all the crashes, bugs, and other imperfections, yet, subjectively, I enjoyed the game.
I have similar feelings towards The King’s Dilemma, the only difference being that I can not mod-away the several issues surrounding the game. Plus, unlike Skyrim, which I have played for more than 200 hours, I have no intention of playing this one again, even if I enjoyed my time with my friends.
By looking at the game under a magnifying glass, I have destroyed some of the magic this game had. More precisely, I broke through the charade of illusions it tries to put the players over.
Even if I had known all the things I discovered after finishing the game, I still would have bought the game, but I would have wanted to know these things beforehand.
I believe it to be vital for potential players to know whether a game provides a player with meaningful choices or only creates the illusion of choice.
Yet, nobody whose reviews I watched had actually finished the game, and, thus, I felt the need to fill the void by creating this post-play-review that you just read. Thank you for that, by the way.
Many have called this game “an experiment”. I believe that to be an accurate descriptor.
This game wants you to role-play as a Council member, representing both Kingdom, and their noble house, yet, gives you very little tools and space to role-play.
At the same time, it wants you to compete with other players for points. Yet, it does not explain how all the mechanics work together, in the end, reducing all of your efforts to a single number.
To play the game on a mechanical level, you have to disconnect entirely from the narrative, and if you play narratively – you will lose to players who scheme mechanically.
The game’s mechanics are too light to give you agency over winning, and role-playing can often feel punishing rather than rewarding because of how little influence over the linear narrative you have.
That is why the game is experimental – it is not the game’s design that generates fun, but because the players make it fun.
I have to mention that even though a love of Game of Thrones is a great motivator to play this game, I highly disagree with every review that this is the Game of Thrones board game. No matter what happens during those 15 games, your house survives. Even at the Grand Finally, there is a chance that everyone might survive based on their choices. Even in the individual games, when you are playing as a single representative of your house, they can not be killed while on the toilet like Tywin Lannister or like Rob Start at the Red Wedding. There is even a wedding ending at this game. What a missed opportunity.
I am not saying that I was expecting plot points like this, but you can not call this game a Game of Thrones simulator without people of your house dying at the very least.
Yet, it is still possible to enjoy and even love the game: if you have a group of amazing friends, an interest in fantasy, and a secret wish to be a leader of a noble house like Eddard Stark from Game of Thrones.
That is a big ask for some people, but if you meet these requirements, this is enough to enjoy the game.
“Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.” ― Mark Twain