Review: The King is Dead
Designer: Peer Sylvester
Artist: Peter Dennis
Publisher: Osprey Games
Category: Medieval, Political
Price: $21.70 Amazon
The King is Dead is Osprey Games’ first published board game, and is also a reimplementation of 2007s King of Siam. King of Siam was also designed by Peer Sylvester, and published through Histogame. Peer has also designed Let Them Eat Cake, Discover India, Singapore, The Lost Expedition, and other titles.
Osprey Games is an imprint of Osprey Publishing, originally established in 1969. Osprey Publishing is a longtime book publisher, including many prints of war games and tactical historical military titles. The King is Dead is Osprey Games first printed board game. Osprey Games has also published titles such as Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, Frostgrave, Odin’s Ravens, Escape from Colditz, and the upcoming reprint of London by Martin Wallace.
The King is Dead is a game of political takeover and conniving planning. This is all done through card play without any printed violence, just maps and maps.
The King is Dead is an eccentric, 2-4 player, territory control game where players must wisely choose when and where to exert influence to reunite the kingdom. Players act as the remaining members of King Arthur’s court, who has recently passed away from illness and injury.
Players hover over a map of Britain, divided into eight regions, each bearing four cubes. There are three colors of cubes, and each represents the faction influence of three people groups: The Scots, the Welsh, and the Romano-British.
Typically in area control games, players move units around and battle one another for possession of territory. Here, all conflict is purely political. Thematically, you are sorting out the cultural issues of the people and attempting to install a majority leader in each region.
On a player’s turn, they may either play one of their ten cards or pass to the next player. Cards are extremely valuable and change the state of the board. Once a card is played, it is discarded for the remainder of the game, so players will need to be picky about when and why they play their hand.
One card allows a player to switch the positions of two power struggle cards, placing a crown on one of them, which disables other players from moving the same card in honor of King Arthur’s recent passing. Another allows a player to grab one cube of each color, then placing them into three regions of their choice. Another card allows a player to move two cubes from one region into an adjacent region, then moving one cube from that region back into the first one. Cards not only allow for precise adjustments to cubes existing on the board, but after playing a card, a player will also take one cube of their choice from the board. In effect, a player can influence the board with a card, but also remove and keep a cube from the board, making two changes that can have long-standing implications.
Over the course of the game, eight rounds will play out, as detailed by the aforementioned eight power struggle cards depicting the eight regions of Britain. These cards surround the main board, and when a round ends, the corresponding card resolves influence in the region of the country depicted. The faction with the most influence cubes take control of that area in the power struggle, removing the cubes once present, and replacing them with an influence chit. Once all eight regions have been resolved, the game ends.
There are other methods to ending the game, however. A tie represents too much time taken to resolve a majority leader in a region. This leads to a forced takeover by the Saxons. Saxons are kings of chaos and if they possess control of four regions, the game immediately ends. The King is Dead also provides a variant where Mordred has instilled his own followers into the country. Because Mordred is far more chaotic than the Saxons, simply controlling one region will immediately end the game.
What makes The King is Dead unique in comparison to typical gaming fare are not only the multitude of end-game conditions, but also deciding the winning player. Each player begins the game with two random cubes as a starting point for their influence.
If the game ends after the eighth round, the faction with the most influence chits on the board is determined as the faction in power over Britain. Furthermore, the player who has the most influence cubes of that faction is declared the winner of the game, becoming the ruler over Britain. If two factions are tied for control, the one who most recently won a power struggle takes power.
Here is where things get interesting and must be paid attention throughout the course of the game. If two players are tied for faction control, then thematically, the people are too confused and enraged against themselves to take power over Britain, and because of their futility in frustration with one another, instead the faction with the next most control chits on the board takes power in Britain, and whichever player has the most influence in that faction will win the game.
Barring the Mordred variant, the final method of determining a winner is if the Saxons take control of Britain by placing all four control tokens. This means the people of Britain couldn’t come together to decide on leaders, and now the winning player is the one who can unite all of the factions. In this case, the winner is the player who has the most complete sets of followers, having gained enough influence and clout with each faction.
The King is Dead is marvelous. As I’ve already made clear, there are a plethora of decisions one must make, and many outcomes must be prepared for. In a two or three player game, players are out for themselves, trying to unite the kingdom quickly. In a four-player game, players are split into two teams and will work together assembling influence with the better-performing player of the two taking the lead when it comes to scoring. The Mordred variant adds even more chaos, as the game has potential to end extremely early.
Each game, three regions are bastioned for their specific faction, but are still surrounded and infected with cubes of different colors. This varied game setup provides for lots of replayability, as if the many end-game scenarios didn’t give enough variance. These cubes are critical to success, and players must take inventory of their own control while keeping an eye on their opponents.
The meat of The King is Dead is focused on when and why to play your card abilities, and where and why you take specific cubes from the board. You’ll play an ambassador card to switch up the influence in the region imminently being resolved through power struggle, only to have another player play the crown and switch out the region with another, foiling your move until later in the game. Taking cubes from the board is inherent in increasing your influence over a faction, but until you’ve played enough, isn’t obvious in communicating the trade-off: that cube’s faction color losing influence on the board. You will gain more control over a faction, but the cost is the same faction losing established power, which could potentially hurt in the long run.
One huge tactical decision players make each round is whether or not to play a card. Because actions and cube retrieval are finite, each action must be optimal and well-planned. The round will not end until all players at the table have passed in turn order. This means you could pass once, and then if other players have played cards, you could counteract their action with one of your own instead of being excluded for the remainder of the round. I love this mechanism. While it doesn’t work in other games, it fits beautifully here. Players wait patiently for the anxious moment to stab another in the back trying to undo parts of their opponent’s strategy, while increasing their odds for success.
Pacing yourself is king. Learning when each card matters most is important. Some cards won’t even be used for their abilities in some games. What I mean is if one of the factions never controls a region, their card that allows placing two cubes of their color will not be used. Players can still use this card to take a cube from the board, however. Since players must also place all played cards into a face up discard pile, others at the table must remember what has been played and what remains in each player’s hand. These discard piles are private information, besides the last played card resting on top. Expect to spend a lot of brainpower trying to remember what has been played on previous turns, because it means the world in terms of deciding a winner.
The last few rounds of the game feel paramount. It’s when the Britain-controlling faction is almost determined. You’ve spent most of the game taking just one more cube in blue than your rival. You feel certain blue will take control of Britain, when finally your rival plays a card that switches favor toward the red faction. It’s a brutal moment, and if you don’t act swiftly, you’ll lose the game because you’ve fallen into the trap they’ve set for you. These moments rear their heads each game, making unique experiences and setting the stage for future strategies.
In terms of presentation, The King is Dead is almost pristine. Cards are tactile and satisfying to the touch. The many maps of Britain on cards and the board are vivid colors and don’t feel stagnant and uninteresting like I’ve experienced with other maps in games. This will sound weird, but I’ve never held cubes like these before. Laminated is not the word I’m looking for, but the small cubes have a likability to them. They feel smooth, drop onto the board well, and are delightful to play with and stack nervously as you count them up throughout the game. The only weak spot of production quality are the control chits for each faction. They feel light and thin, and maybe underproduced. They don’t match the quality of the other pieces.
The rulebook is a pleasure; it’s organized well and reads quickly. You’ll first learn of the many ways the game can end, as well as how power struggles resolve. Finally, on the back of the book, you’ll learn what each ability card does. At this point, gears will click in your head, and you’ll look forward to your first play. Manipulating cubes on the board and working towards ravaging the work of your opponents is fascinating.
The King is Dead is far more interesting of a game than I’d imagined it would be. Each player count offers a unique experience, unlike every other player count. Playing on a team is totally different than hammering out a two-player game. You’ll worry about the Saxons because you’ve focused too much on a single faction. You’ll stress over taking the blue instead of the yellow, only to realize you actually played the wrong card in the first place. Mistakes like this are not a game breaker, but lend to the reality that one will need multiple plays to get into developing fine-tuned strategies. This is obvious with most games, but the unconventional nature of The King is Dead’s end game situations lend the most satisfaction when understood well.
I keep mentioning this in my other Osprey Games reviews, but it needs to be said: Osprey Games publishes excellent titles. Each game has a different theme, excellent component quality, and doesn’t feel like I’ve wasted time playing it. There is a high level of quality and almost some level of morphed auteurship. I recognize the traditional definition of an auteur is usually individual, but for sake of a different adjective: when you play an Osprey Game, you just KNOW it’s an Osprey Game, and that’s a darn good thing.
I really like Osprey Games, and I really like The King is Dead. If you want a shorter area control game (30-60 minutes) with lots of decision making and opportunities to read your opponents, look no further.
A review copy of The King is Dead was provided by Osprey Games.
The Bottom Line
The King is Dead is an excellent area control game that plays well and differently at all player counts. Mostly exceptional production quality, great price point, and relatively short games make this one an easy inclusion for many game collections, if you can figure out the end-game possibilities.