Designer: Michael Rieneck
Artist: Franz Vohwinkel
Category: Card Game, Take That!
Player Count: 3-4
One of the first hobby board games I ever played after Magic and Catan was a game called Citadels from designer Bruno Faidutti. In Citadels, players draft character cards and use their abilities to build buildings and score points, but primarily use them to mess with other players. I vividly remember a game where I was assassinated (and had to miss my turn) for six out of eight rounds—not a particularly fun session for me! Citadels is now over fifteen years old, and is partially responsible for the craze started by Love Letter and Faidutti’s own Masquerade.
I’m telling you all of this because Brutal Kingdom from Michael Rieneck is very much in the same vein. It’s compact and short like Love Letter, but it’s got the character drafting and flat-out meanness of Citadels. But is it any good? Let’s find out!
This game doesn’t have any particularly offensive art, but the theme and gameplay may be off-putting to some. Most of the game is spent trying to kill each other’s characters and rewarding players for it, and it is very mean-spirited—brutal, even. 🙂
Let’s talk up front about the fact that this game is seriously mean. Among the sixteen character cards, there are entire subsystems of which character can kill which, and the game rewards you with VPs for killing. Furthermore, while each player plays cards face up on top of each other for four turns each round, if your top character is killed before it’s covered, the entire stack is turned face down. Since characters don’t grant you VP-giving gems until the end of the round, you can quite possibly walk away with nothing. In fact, in one three-player game, one player destroyed the entire pile of another, and then I immediately destroyed his entire pile on my move, the last of the round.
Now you’re probably thinking, “That doesn’t sound very fun,” and also, “I surely won that game.” I did win, but it was a nail-biter until the end. You see, Brutal Kingdom has a pretty unique scoring system. When you take gems of a color, they’re worth however many are left in the supply. So if you take two out of twelve blue gems, they’d be worth ten each (what’s left), and you’d have twenty points. If all the blue gems get taken? Then the gems are worth zero! So while the game has wild swings in scoring, someone’s luck can flip at the turn of a card. It’s quite easy for single plays to completely upend your current plans. That nail-biting tension and agony when things don’t go your way is so, so good.
What makes this game work, when I got so upset about dying over and over in Citadels? It’s because Brutal Kingdom is quick and streamlined. A game shouldn’t take you more than thirty minutes, and you have much more agency over what happens. There is an extremely basic draft each round where you each end up with four of the sixteen-to-twenty cards, leaving four left in the middle of the table. Characters let you kill other characters, or swap cards with the table, or see players’ hands, and so on. And the drafting is just enough for you to know where a few things are in your neighbors’ hands, but since you are only ever picking between two cards at a time, it doesn’t drag (looking at you again, Citadels). There’s also an entire memory element going on, trying to keep track of what’s been swapped where in the middle of the table, but it’s just enough without overwhelming you. I didn’t feel like I was able to make these grandiose plans—at most you’re picking between four cards. But most tough choices are binary, though some cards give open-ended choices. I did feel like those few decisions were extremely important, and I felt a huge sense of risk to the point where I got legitimately nervous. “Please, oh please, let him not have the Assassin as his last card when I just played The King…” Win or lose, I absolutely love that feeling.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Brutal Kingdom has its issues. By its very nature, some people are just going to hate this game, likely avoiding it if a second chance is presented. That first game or two, you’re learning twenty different card effects—it’s going to be a huge headache when someone gets completely ruined by misunderstanding how killing works. In particular, the King, Queen, and Executioner are laid before their targets, and every other kill is done by being played after the target. That led to some pretty annoyed players in our first game. Even once you get things under your belt, you’re just intentionally and cleverly ruining each others’ days instead on accident. If you like this style of game, it’s still an investment, knowing your first game or two is going to be much more about learning than winning.
It’s also unfortunate that the game is only for three or four players, but I think the resulting tight and smooth gameplay is worth that narrow player count, instead of making a broader and weaker game. Additionally, while I really like the card art and the extremely aggressive price ($15 MSRP!), I really don’t like the box cover and don’t understand why there are all these anthropomorphic meaniehead animals anyway. Ridiculous as it sounds, since people are always complaining about rehashing themes, I might have went for the traditional medieval theme, as the animal approach doesn’t really add anything except confusion. Speaking of confusion, it’s also odd that the token value of each card is on both edges of the card—it makes you think you earn twice as many gems as you actually do. Other than that snafu, the graphic design on the cards is actually extremely good, and the art by the renowned Franz Vohwinkel is also eye-catching.
Alright, now I’m nitpicking. Yes, Brutal Kingdom has its hurdles, but you can get this game online for around 10 bucks. The gameplay is, in my opinion, even better than Love Letter or Citadels once you’ve played a few times and know what’s going on. It’s got much more interesting decisions than Love Letter, and a tighter focus than Citadels by tying victory points directly to the characters instead of relying on the MacGuffin of constructing buildings. If you enjoy stabbing your friends in both the front and back, Brutal Kingdom is too fun and too cheap not to recommend.
Thank you to KOSMOS for providing a review copy of Brutal Kingdom.
The Bottom Line
Brutal Kingdom requires the investment of a few learning games, and it's an extremely mean game, so it's not for everyone. And it only plays three or four players. If you can get past those things though, this is a fast-paced dose of seriously intense, mean-spirited fun. And since it's so cheap, it's hard to pass up.