Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
The King's Dilemma deconstructed

While still looking at legacy board games, I stumbled upon the game The King's Dilemma. This is a game that would interest me very much: It is a strong narrative game, which is mostly about the consequences of your decisions. It is a legacy game of about 15 games, taking about 15 hours to finish. There is a certain Game of Thrones vibe to the game, with each player representing a house in a low-fantasy kingdom, sitting in a council to solve the various dilemmas the king is facing. Game mechanics-wise this is very light: If you know the video game Reigns, this is basically a multiplayer version of it. Every dilemma boils down to a yes or no vote, each player votes and puts power tokens on his vote to influence the outcome, the vote with the most power wins, and the player who puts the most power behind his vote becomes the leader, responsible for the outcome. Each player has hidden and open agendas, and will not necessarily vote for what is best for the kingdom, but for what is best for his house. Players are encouraged to discuss each decision, negotiate, bribe, roleplay, etc., so the overall experience is a very political game. With relatively low stakes, houses can't get eliminated, lose their lands, or anything similar, every vote just boils down to different victory points for each game.

As a game of political negotiation, The King's Dilemma is impossible to solo, and plays very badly with just 2 or 3 players. You basically need at least 4 players, and preferably 5. As the number of times over the last 12 months that I got 4+ players around a table to play a board game is just once, I ended up not buying The King's Dilemma. Your mileage may vary; but ideally you would need the same 4 to 5 players agreeing to play this at least 4 sessions of 4 hours each to get to the end of the campaign. That is not easy.

This is made even more complicated by the fact that you don't actually want those 4 to 5 players being hardcore gamers who care a lot about game mechanics and winning. The King's Dilemma doesn't even tell you how to win the campaign before you actually get to the end. As I didn't buy the game, but was interested in how it would end anyway, I ended up reading a very detailed deconstruction of The King's Dilemma on a blog. Very spoilerific, and as the writer says himself: "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.".

While such a detailed deconstruction of a narrative game is interesting, it obviously ruins the game. No game survives having its decision tree mapped out. Other than Real Lifeā„¢ (a game with a different set of problems), I don't know any game in which the feeling that your decisions have consequences is more than an illusion. Over the course of the whole campaign of The King's Dilemma, the players will make around 100 yes/no decisions. That would result in over 1 nonillion (1e30) different possible combinations. It is simply not possible to implement that in any game, printed or digital. So in The King's Dilemma there are actually just 6 main story lines, and each of them has between 2 and 3 possible final outcomes. The decision tree of any computer or board game always has some branches of the decision tree flowing together again; the narrative explanation might be different, but three decisions later in the tree your kingdom *will* be at war, creating a new single starting point for the next branching decisions. Map out the tree completely, and you will end up disappointed and disenchanted. Ignorance is bliss.

I would say that for the best result, you should play The King's Dilemma with a bunch of regular people: In some cases their vote will be decided by strong personal feelings on some of the issues the game brings up, like slavery; in other cases their is no strong moral choice to be made, and the player might vote by what he thinks brings him the most victory points, or he might try to roleplay the character of his house, described on his player screen. The low stakes make the political negotiations less cutthroat than for example a game of Diplomacy. And after the vote, reading about potentially unintended consequences will make everybody laugh or groan. Maybe at the end of the campaign you will not be happy with the overall outcome (which completes the Game of Thrones vibe), but you certainly had fun every turn along the way. If you can get the players together for a whole campaign, I envy you!


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