Back in September, my 5-person board game group and I escaped our quarantines (after isolation and COVID tests) to hunker down for a 3-day micro “convention”. While we played a few different things, the crown jewel of the event was our commitment to play an entire campaign of King’s Dilemma. We spent almost 20 hours hunched over its board reading narrative exposition, arguing, debating, cajoling, and voting. Our campaign lasted 17 games. 17 games of the best damn tabletop gaming experience we’d ever had only to have the final concluding game pull the rug out from underneath us leaving us deflated, annoyed, and grumbling. At first we blamed the game, but after some consideration I think the issues are in part due to the expectations placed on games by the tabletop gaming community. We share in the responsibility here.
Before I get too far into it I want to mention a couple things. First, despite our frustrations with the final game we did overall love the experience. Our stickered and markered board is framed on the wall of our convention location and we all agreed we’d happily play a sequel, should Horrible Guild decide to make one. Second, this article will be as light as spoilers as I can make it—however I will have to broadly describe how the format of the last game changes in order to properly explain why it was such a let down. This description will be hidden behind a section heading you will have to click to read; if you don’t want to you can skip on by to the conclusion.
King’s Dilemma is a narrative legacy game where players embody Noble Families across centuries of rule. None of these families are the royal family; the titular King is always an NPC. Instead, your player families are more like the Small Council whispering advice into Royal Ears in service of the Kingdom and your own personal goals. This advice takes the form of voting on small narrative decisions. Do you send diplomats or soldiers to the barbarian tribes of the north? Do you fund an expedition of discovery or invest in your kingdom? Do you accept an offered trade of strange food or reject it? Each game represents the major decisions in the reign of a single King; it will end in either the abdication of the throne or the death of the King.
The decisions you make all come with consequences—negative and positive—represented by moving tokens up and down a track. The main game board is dominated by a long track of 5 columns, each representing a primary aspect of the Kingdom. These are Influence, Wealth, Morale, Welfare, and Knowledge. Accepting the strange food may increase Welfare and decrease Morale, while rejecting it would decrease Welfare and increase your Influence as neighboring countries see that you do not need help. Notably, the consequences to each decisions to not necessarily offset directly and you are not given any insight into the extent of positive or negative movement. Additionally, many of these decisions will direct players to sign stickers that fill the board ensuring that some particularly momentous decisions impact future plays across generations
In addition to these mechanical considerations, the narrative cards of King’s Dilemma drive an evolving story. Contained within this large cardboard box are 75 sealed envelopes, each containing a number of cards. Almost every decision made by your group will see you opening another envelope and adding cards to the story deck. Importantly, almost every decision also represents a branching point for your narrative. Did you decide not to send out an exploratory expedition? Then that storyline will shut down and you will develop an insular Kingdom. Did you send soldiers north to the barbarians? Prepare for war, and accept the loss of a potential ally.
There are 6 unique storylines that will together weave the tapestry that is your King’s Dilemma experience, and the decisions you make throughout each game will determine how each line resolves. When all was said and done, we opened every envelope just to see what we missed out on it and it seems as if each of those 6 storylines has 4 unique endings. Two will end in a stable kingdom and two unstable, but all 4 are unique. When a line concludes, you’ll also shuffle one last final set of cards into the story deck forcing you to deal with the consequences of your decisions.
At the beginning of every game, each player selects (or is left with) a secret agenda that will inform—but not define—how that player votes. If this generation of your family favors moderation, you’ll earn extra points for keeping the markers on those 5 tracks clustered towards the center. Rebellious families will want as many tokens to reach the bottom of the track as possible, forcing the King to abdicate due to instability. These agendas will reinforce or compete with your family’s private goals as well. Printed on the back of your player screen, these are both mechanical and narrative triggers that will guide your decisions. What does it mean to “Embrace Immortality”? You’ll have to listen to the story cards and vote appropriately to find out.
The genius of King’s Dilemma is in how it makes you feel the weight of these decisions and the weight of time. Your family’s personality will develop slowly, across many games. Narrative threads are picked up and put back down as the story deck delivers a blend of narrative decisions across all 6 storylines. That exploratory expedition feels as if it takes generations because it does take generations. By the time someone returns with new information your Family that was pushing to increase the Knowledge of the Kingdom may have grown into a craven and greedy family that rejects the discovery in the name of Religion. “Winning” any 1 game of King’s Dilemma means earning Prestige or Crave, one representing light shining on your family due to basking in a prosperous Kingdom and the other representing selfishly putting family above all else. Notably, you have no idea what these points do and how they’ll play into the end, just that both will be valuable in some way. Thus, you’ll make decisions due to the narrative as much as any personal scoring.
It helps that the stories are compelling. I can’t explain the details, but the narrative conclusion of one particular story brought our table to a quiet hush as the weight of what happened settled in. We got too greedy and created something that to us was truly horrific. Most of us had an actual pit in our stomach, and our voting immediately changed from that moment forward. As the post-conclusion cards came out of our story deck every vote was a unanimous one in opposition to the hell we had wrought, personal goals and agendas be damned. We felt something powerful through that storyline in a way that no other game has ever provided. While this was the strongest moment, through the entire campaign we all found ourselves pushing for a decisions because of its narrative implications even when they came at a direct detriment to our short term mechanical goals.
So how then, could a game like this sour so powerfully at the end? How could a game that adeptly incorporated mini-games for war, banking, and even a light-escape room stumble so hard at the finish line? The answer is that it failed due to our expectations. Not just the expectations of my game group built up over 17 games of narrative scheming, but the expectations of the community of tabletop gamers built up over years and years of play.
Click to Read Mostly Mechanical Spoilers
Once all of your storylines conclude, it’s time to end the campaign. Throughout play the narrative drops little hints to a meta-plot happening that concludes in the final game. You’ll take a look at the history of your Kingdom (as represented by the 6 storyline conclusions) to create a numerical baseline, and then start to make some decisions based on some checkboxes printed on the back of a card in a manner reminiscent of an Excel spreadsheet. Depending on what you choose, some additional Prestige and Crave will be awarded and one of the “sides” will win. If you’re on the winning side, congratulations. You get a few more points and are eligible to win the overall Campaign. If you’re on the losing side, you can’t win regardless of how many points you have. If you’re neutral, you don’t get any bonus points but can still win. You can talk things out, but it’s math-forward and you’ll finally know exactly how many points everything is worth and what each player’s total count is (and thus can potentially reach).
Worse still, is that this final story is fixed. The conclusions of your 6 storylines only matter with regard to how stable or unstable the Kingdom is at the beginning of this final game. There is no narrative input based on the decisions you’ve made. Every group who plays King’s Dilemma will play the same final game that plays out nearly identically, regardless of the decisions made leading up to that point. To say it took the wind out of our sails is an understatement. It left us disappointed and borderline angry. It almost completely soured the entire experience, though as I mentioned initially we’ve all come around on it.
Notice what is missing here? Story. Narrative. Intrigue. 17 games of negotiation seeing us all make decisions that often conflicted with our goals thanks to the strength of the narrative reduced to an arithmetic exercise and the declaration of a victory. There is a narrative in the last game but it takes such a minor backseat to the math laid plainly for all to see. Before any decisions are made you learn how many points your Prestige and Crave will be worth, you’ll see the max you’re eligible to earn, and be able to quickly deduce your optimal choice.
In the interest of a balanced presentation, I will include comments made by one of the other players in our group who had a different take:
At this point, Raf was handily winning by a wide margin as he had been for most of the campaign. I’ll never forget the feeling of pure, exhausted deviousness. How could we unseat the victor apparent without tipping our hand? Turn enough folks evil with a nod? There’s no way someone in the seat of power would risk their hand, so surely he would go neutral. Perhaps I should take the cowards way out, side with the evil folks just so I’m on the winning side? Is that the winning side? My house must survive, how can I make sure that happens!? This game did an amazing job of putting the weight of my house’s legacy onto decisions about whom to side with. Numbers were in play sure, but I’ve never cared so much about what boxes to fill in on a piece of paper. I think I cared more than any bubble sheet on any SAT or college exam.
I’ll note, however, that due to the existence of the Neutral option it didn’t matter how many folks turned evil (or not) or how boxes were checked. The path to overall victory was clear, and thus any decisions were moot. The the leader was far enough ahead to guarantee victory given the right choices; the sheer transparency of the numbers made the choices obvious and stripped away the nuance of narrative.
And why? For what? Because we need a winner? Because 17 incredibly narrative experiences of table-talk, fiction, argument, and joy have to end with someone being told they won by the designers of the game? I have long felt that board games need to move beyond the world of zero-sum victory conditions and recognize that there can be amazing experiences in a game that is not black and white. I can honestly say that if the game had ended after 15 games with the remaining envelopes given over to a narrative conclusion that was more unique to the choices we’d made that we’d all have been much happier.
In a way, I’m almost sympathetic to the designers. Our community of gamers does not react well to amorphous victory conditions. Dead of Winter—which is still one of the best semi-cooperative games on the market—spawned 30 page threads on BGG as gamers demanded the game tell them how to behave when they could no longer achieve their personal goal but the Colony could still succeed. Nearly 45 years after its publication, gamers will still argue that the joint-victories possible in Cosmic Encounter are not “real” wins and that they cheapen the experience. What a lack of imagination. Even Pandemic Legacy Season 1, one of my all time favorite narrative gaming experiences, ends in the calculation of points and a final “score”.
When you consider this, you can almost feel the designers wrestling with how to end this game. They needed a winner, because that’s what people demand. They needed to have something that makes all the players feel like they’re still “in it” so you’re made to pick a side with only the winning side eligible for victory. However, they had to make sure that someone who has done well across the campaign doesn’t feel cheated, so the Neutral option exists to allow it (and, unfortunately, to file the edge off this decision). Ugh. You’re prompted to have discussions regarding the story and each opportunity for points at the ends comes with in-fiction explanations, but with the math so naked none of it mattered. We talked numbers, not narrative.
There could be so many more rich experiences available to us if we would not demand black and white endings that crown one player or team over the rest as we neatly put our experience back in the box. Imagine a game of Twilight Imperium where coming in 2nd wasn’t a loss but instead a seat at the table of power, where your alliance could be a real one that wasn’t destined to break as you both competed for the same prize. Betrayal would cut that much deeper if it wasn’t inevitable. It is legacy games in particular that should embrace this, offering the opportunity for calculated “sub-optimal” decisions that set you up to springboard into power in later games. We could finally play as Varys in a world of Robert Baratheons.
To play designer for a second, I think King’s Dilemma could have looked towards Fiasco for inspiration. In Fiasco you accumulate “good” resolutions and “bad” resolutions, represented by white and black dice. At the end, these dice offset and you’re left with a small handful of dice. The count and color describe the tenor of your ending. Lots of white dice means you get what you want and escape the fiasco in a generally positive place. Lots of black dice also means you get what you want, but at a deep personal cost. Any sort of moderation of dice likely means you died and the consequences ripple outward. I wish King’s Dilemma used Prestige and Crave in a similarly narrative manner, weaving the 17 generation record of your family into a narrative conclusion instead of a mathematic one.
I think in the end what we want is for our decisions to matter; when all the games we play condition us to expect a winner and loser at the end then the only decisions that matter are those that push you up the ladder. I wish Horrible Games had recognized that they’d crafted a narrative experience so rich that for 17 games what mattered was not who was winning, but what we were doing. Had they fully committed to the idea that narrative matters we could have ended our campaign smiling instead of scowling, the discussions that occurred in the weeks following could have reminiscing on our decisions and not us writing our own fan-fiction to provide closure.
As I said up top, we’ve come around on the game and would happily dive into a sequel. The negotiation and narrative for 17 games was top notch, and King’s Dilemma is a triumph. Few games have a narrative as compelling as this one; few games have lead us to undermine our own positions so regularly in pursuit of story. It’s just a shame the final game fell so flat. I think the fall hurts so much because it came from such a great height. I look forward to seeing what comes next from this game system, it just comes with the caution of a new King and not the confidence of a successful ruler.