Kings & Castles
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Plenty of interaction between players, as each player at various times will have to use some of their opponents' forces to try to achieve his or her own nefarious ends; they may also, in the process, have to grudgingly grant them some land that is ripe for taxation.
It is 1066 and Duke William of Normandy is about to cross the Channel to invade England. You are one of his most trusted nobles and stand ready to carve out a barony for yourself in England. For the next four hundred years, you and your descendants will serve the king -- fighting his wars, building his castles, collecting his taxes -- and making your family as rich and powerful as you can in the process. But have a care! Other barons plan to do no less for their families. You will only emerge victorious if you can use sufficient guile, cunning and skill to shape some of the most decisive events in England's history.
You could describe this game as Britannia without the dice--except that this game is less restrictive than Britannia, not more. The game mechanics are simple, innovative and very well thought out.
A game of Kings and Castles will be far less pre-ordained than Britannia. In Britannia, everybody watches what happens to the last Roman troops (for example) and says 'Oh, yes, that'll affect that and that and that'. In this game, in contrast, the future effects of this turn's actions are far more open.
One to play again.
From the release of Kingmaker years ago, I have loved the genre of nobles fighting nobles on the British Islands. This game had the flavor of History of the World and the cuthroat feeling of Risk. Many decisions, but in a very playable format. Great fun. Don't miss it; it makes you yearn for the great gameplay of royaly.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I got this game; it was a purchase made because I enjoyed the Ragnar Bros. earlier History of the World and Backpacks & Blisters efforts, and because I really like their trademark linen 'boards'. So I got the linen board I was looking for, and a pretty good game came with it.
Each player is an English baron with their own fighting force in the early centuries of the last millenium. Each turn, one of the barons is designated the King and sets about trying to conquer as much land in the five nations of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France as is possible. There will always be one opposing force in each region that is being attacked, sometimes augmented by a castle that acts as a defense modifier. There is no dice rolling, so the strength of the defender is known and victory is achieved simply by placing a larger force in the region. Sort of like Vinci in that respect. The attacking force comes from a 10-piece array that is drawn each turn. Some of these draws may come from a 15-piece 'household' that is the only known force players have for the game and must be managed as the finite resource that it is. The rest of the pieces that fill the array are drawn blind from a bag, and may include others of your own forces the same as comprise the household, enemy pieces, or pieces that belong to other barons. This is the only luck element in the game.
There are different rules of engagement for the attacks depending on whether or not enemy pieces are still present in a nation and it is therefore a disputed nation (at the start that's all that is on the board), or if the enemy has been cleared out and only pieces belonging to the varioius barons are in the nation and it is therefore labeled an undisputed nation (but the nation is considered to be in a state of civil war). I found the difference in these rules of engagement to be mildly confusing at the outset, similar to the feeling I had when I was first trying to get a handle on the different types of conflict in Euphrat & Tigris. The trick in the game is balancing the use of your given 'household' forces against those obtained in the blind draw, and manipulating the use of these forces on the board in attacking in disputed or undisputed nations (and also planning attacks so nations flop between those two states to your advantage). The winner is the person who has the most money at the end, gained through taxation of occupied regions, but this is merely a measure of victory points. At scoring points, one region--London--is worth 3, other larger cities are worth 2, and the rest of the regions are worth 1.
There are three aspects of the game that I found to be rather unique:
All in all, a very intriguing game that has much more that I need to explore.
The Ragnars are back--Ivar the Boneless and his brother Halfdan. (One of these days I must remember to ask Steve and Gary which of them sees himself as Ivar. And why.) After a flurry of activity in the early nineties with the classic History of the World in 1991, Backpacks and Blisters in 1993 and 1500 Gold in 1995, they went silent. I had come to the conclusion that the disappointing reception that 1500 Gold got had made them decide that there were more enjoyable ways of spending your time and money than being a small games company. So this return came as a very nice surprise. And to answer the obvious question: yes, the game does feature a tea towel.
The last English King (as opposed to King of England) died in 1066. This game is about what happened next. The men who occupied the throne for the next 400 years were a particularly unpleasant bunch, whose main thought was of personal aggrandisement. Having deprived the English of the right of self-government, the more energetic of them set about trying to do a similar job on their neighbours. In Kings & Castles the players take the part of these men as they pursue their ambitions at home and abroad. The treatment is broad-brush and fairly abstract: there is a map and the counters carry pictures of castles and soldiers, but you don't have to start worrying about dice and combat results; this is not a wargame.
The game lasts for 24 turns, which sounds a lot but isn't as these are player turns, not game turns. On each of them, one of the players will be king and will place military units on to the map, displacing some of the ones that are already there. This will alter the political structure--the "who owns what". The king then decides if this is to be a "taxation turn" (i.e. one on which everybody scores victory points for their current holdings). After that it is next king, next player and so you can see that this is not a complicated game. However, although the mechanics are very simple, there is plenty of scope for strategy and decision making.
The map shows England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland plus Northern & Western France--the places where these men made nuisances of themselves. The countries are divided into large provinces and down the two long edges of the board are 24 boxes each containing the name of a king, a bonus number and the name of the country where the king concerned concentrated his activities. For the most part each king has a single box, but the more long-lived ones are split between two, one for each half of their reign. This device also means that the kings with long reigns can have different objectives (and different levels of effectiveness) in the two halves. So, for example, "Edward I, bonus number 4, Wales" is followed by "Edward I, bonus number 3, Scotland". Each province has a basic revenue value: London being worth 3 and everywhere else 1 or 2.
The rest of the equipment consists of player mats, where you each organize your units, and six sets of counters. Four of the counter sets belong to the individual players and contain military units. These are archers (worth 1), pikemen (worth 2) and knights (worth 3). Only the strength value is important, as combat, when it comes, is just going to be a matter of comparing numbers. The fifth set is made up of the same three unit types and functions as a generic set of "enemy units"--with "enemy" here meaning any Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Welsh, Irish or Frenchmen who preferred home rule to being part of the Norman/Plantagenet empire. The last set is a mix of castles and mercenaries and here too the strength values run from 1 to 3.
At the start of the game all provinces on the map apart from Rouen contain an enemy unit and each player has a "household" made up of 12 of his own units--four of each of the three types. These household units are a non-renewable resource and how wisely you use them will have a significant effect on how well you do. Players also have a set of crown markers and three taxation markers. The remaining player units, enemy units and all the castles and mercenaries are put in a bag, from which the players draw further units to help fill up a 10 space array on each of their mats. When filling up this array you may take some units from your household and some from the bag, but the household ones must come first. Once you have taken a unit from the bag during a turn, you can't take further ones from your household. The advantage of drawing from your household is clear: these units are guaranteed to be in your own colour and that is a good thing. However, you will be filling up this array each time you are king and so can't really afford to blow your inheritance all in one go. As I said, the household units are not things that you get to replenish and once they are gone you are wholly dependent on the luck of the draw from the bag. That done, players take it in turns to choose which kings they are each going to play. This is done round the table, one choice at a time, with the crown markers being placed in the king boxes to indicate possession. The game proper is now ready to start with William I, bonus number 4, country of interest England.
The player who is William draws further units equal to the bonus number and adds these to the 10 in his array. So William will have 14 units which he can use in his campaign. He may campaign in England (the country decreed to be his main interest) and at most one other. "Royal units" (those in his own colour) may only be used in England; the others in either place. Mercenaries can't fight on their own and castles will be placed after the fighting in order to boost defences in readiness for future turns.
To take a province you simply have to move in enough units for the attacking strength to exceed that of the defenders, but there are some restrictions on the make-up of an attacking force and on which units can attack which other. Apart from the possible inclusion of mercenaries, all the units in the attacking force must be the same colour. You must also, for reasons which will become apparent in a minute, use minimum force, by which I mean that you can't attack with a force from which you could remove a unit and still be stronger than the enemy. The other restriction is that royal units can not be used to attack baronial units (those belonging to other players) if the country still contains enemy units. In other words, no civil wars until the place has been properly pacified. At the end of the combat, all the defensive units are removed together with any mercenaries and all bar one of the attacking units. This one remaining attacking unit is left in place as the new owner/defender of the province.
At this point you are probably wondering how you handle an array which contains military units that aren't your own. So suppose that you are William, that your colour is green and that in your array are a couple of blue pikemen, and three black archers. Suppose also that Canterbury--the province which the rules say that you must use for your invasion of England--is defended by an enemy knight. You begin by sending in the two blue units. Their combined 4 beats the knight's strength of 3 and so they win. Off comes the knight and one of the pikemen. The province is now defended at strength 2. Next you use the three black units to launch an Anglo-Saxon counter-attack from neighbouring Winchester. Another win. Off comes the other blue unit and two of the black archers. The defence of Canterbury is now down to 1. Time to use your own guys.
At the end of your turn as king you may opt to declare a taxation round. In a four player game you will be king six times and can tax on just three of them. It is your choice as to which three and that is what the taxation markers are for--you hand one in each time you declare a tax round. In a taxation round everybody scores victory points and you do this by adding up the revenue values of the provinces you control. For players other than the king, this number is what they score; the king doubles the basic revenue count and scores that.
The game contains a fair amount of luck in what you draw from the bag, but there is also a lot of scope for subtlety, both in the psychology that is always present in these games of whom you help and whom you hit and in the choice of kings. You aren't allowed to be king twice in succession, but having two turns close together and with only one other intervening tends to put you in a good position for a scoring on the second of them. Having nearby kings who campaign in the same non-English country is also a good idea, as your rivals may find that the job of dislodging you would take up more resources than they can conveniently commit.
The rules are short and for the most part clearly written, though there are one or two places where more examples would have been helpful. My only problems were with the procedure for filling arrays, where the rule as written is ambiguous (the correct version is as stated above) and with the question of where you can place castles. This isn't addressed, leaving open such matters as whether or not you are allowed to place a castle in a province you don't control. The answer to this is that you may. The components are good, although I do think it was a bad idea to have dark blue as one of the player colours and black as the enemy one. Even in a good light they are too close for comfort. But these are all minor glitches and I regularly come across worse from professional companies. All in all this is a good and interesting game and I hope it does well.