Full disclosure: A preview copy of Kingdom of Aer: Kingmaker was provided by Allan Chesher. I assume some things will be updated between my preview and the Kickstarter going live, so please take note that some rules, art, and gameplay may change.
The King is dead. While you’re probably not responsible for that, your house is chomping at the bit to see who the new king will be. Naturally, you assert, it should be your house, but there are four other houses that are arguing that they deserve to inherit the throne. Now, this is something that could probably easily be solved with some well-written documentation and conversation, but, I mean, it could also be solved with violence.
So we’re gonna solve it with violence.
In Kingdom of Aer: Kingmaker, you must defeat or wear down the other houses until the only remaining legitimate heir to the throne is, well, your royals. Will you be able to give them the crown? Or end up defeated?
Assign each player a color and give them their three Royalty cards:
These should go face-up in front of them. They should also get the other cards of their color:
There will also be four Attack Nomination cards per player, each in a different color:
That’s pretty much all there is to set up, with one specific caveat:
If there are fewer than five players, still set up as though there were five players. The remaining “players” will be dummy players who will play randomly.
Once you’re ready to play, your setup should look like this:
Every turn, all players (including dummy players) must choose a card from their hand (dummy players play randomly) and play it face-down to the center of the table, like so:
Once every card has been played (you can swap cards before then with cards in your hand), all cards are revealed simultaneously. There are a variety of effects that can happen and must be resolved, and I’ll talk about them in order.
- Jester: This card is immediately added to your court, where it functions as an extra Noble.
- Attack Nominations: Every player should have four of these, one for each other house. When you get to this step, whatever player has a plurality of nominations (the most nominations) gets “Hit”, which may or may not be resolved later. If there is a tie for most nominations, all tied players are “Hit”.
- Seer: If you played a Seer, discard all Attack Nominations against your house, returning them to their owners’ hands. Recalculate the majority player(s) with the modified pile. Essentially, the Seer prevents you from getting “Hit”.
- Marshals: If you are currently “Hit”, you are no longer “Hit”. Instead, all players who nominated you are now “Hit”. It’s a solid counter.
- Gold: You may look through the discard pile for a non-Royalty card of your house and add it back to your hand. Usually it’s Marshals. If the Dummy player does this, we’ll usually have them take back the highest-value card in the discard pile.
- Thief: If anyone else played Gold, their Gold’s effect is cancelled and you may look through the discard pile for a non-Royalty card of your house and add it back to your hand. You “steal” the Gold, in this case. One Thief will steal multiple Golds, and multiple Thieves can steal only one Gold. It’s handy! Again, if the Dummy player does this, we’ll grab the highest-value card in the discard pile. Also, if the Dummy player manages to do this, that’s … that’s rough. Sorry.
- Banner: Add this to your court. When you make an Attack Nomination, it counts as two Attack Nominations. Use this to make your will into law, basically.
- Fanatic: Destroy all Banners, including your own, if it’s out. The Fanatic just really hates Banners, for some reason. Can’t stand them.
So once all that’s done, if you’re still “Hit”, discard one of your Royalty Cards (or the Jester). Take Attack Nominations back into your hand, and discard other cards face-down to the center. At this point, if you have no Royalty left, you’re out! If your nomination was part of the vote that eliminated a player, tuck that Attack Nomination card under your Royalty — it’s worth 3 points at the end of the game! If not, just remove that Attack Nomination card from play — the player’s dead; you can’t kill them again.
Just get eliminated? That’s rough. However, just because you survived doesn’t mean your house necessarily wins. Rather, you have to compare your remaining points — via the cards that are still left in your hand and in front of you. Every card has a point value, and some have two, like so:
This Jester is worth 2 points if it’s in your court at the end of the game (there’s a crown symbol), and 6 points if it’s still in your hand (the card symbol). Cards in the discard pile are worth 0 points, as you might guess.
Now, keep going! Feel free to try and negotiate attacks or strategies against other players to advance your agenda (I usually wink a lot, but good luck trying to convince a dummy player to help you, since they play randomly). Once only two houses are left, the game ends! Count your points and the surviving player with the most points wins! If you’re looking for a humorous variant that we played with a few times, you could just make it whichever player has the most points at the end of the game wins, as well.
Note that there will be a tiebreaker element in the Kickstarter version that I have not played with — in it, you’ll be dealt a card valued 1-5, where that’s how close you are to the throne. If you happen to tie with another player, you reveal cards and the closer player wins! This might affect how you play and who you decide to attack, of course…
Player Count Differences
Humorously, the game has to play about the same with two as with five, because there are always five players (even if a few of them are random robots). I think it’s fine with any number because the random element gets more entertaining with fewer players (and honestly a bit terrifying — at two, the random players can team up on anyone and you can’t stop them). It takes about the same amount of time since you’re either shuffling hands for dummy players or waiting for human players to make decisions.
It’s fine at any player count, but honestly, I think it’s best below five, since you can’t negotiate with the dummy player. Sure, it makes it a bit more random and silly, but … that makes it better, in my opinion. It’s a game that craves being random and silly. You’re already backstabbing another player in order to win; might as well add in some random chance of getting wrecked by a cold, unfeeling random-card-playing machine. You can try a 1-player game if you want a vaguely hilarious / frustrating experience. I’d recommend giving it a whirl at least once, just for laughs, if nothing else.
A lot of this game is luck (even more so when playing with dummy players), but there are definitely tricks you can use to turn the game to your advantage:
- Ruin any player that’s already played their Marshals and Seer. They can’t block attacks or reflect attacks, and those 3 points for eliminating them are going to be valuable. It’s often helpful to point this out to other players, so that they will join up with you.
- Avoid playing high-value cards unless you have to. Generally it’s best to keep Marshals and Jester in your hand, so don’t get in a position where you need to play those, otherwise you’re losing 8 and 6 points, respectively. That’s a lot!
- Let other people do the work for you. Similar to Coup, this game is often won by the player who manages to escape the other players’ notice. This might mean playing Fanatic to burn some Banners, but in general you want to have other people wear other players down and then you want to be part of dealing the final strike, again, for those 3 extra points. This might also mean backstabbing players that you just swore up and down to help, but, well, only one person gets to be king.
- You really want to attack players with only one Royalty left. Again, if you can eliminate them, 3 bonus points.
- Jester has its uses. In my opinion, the biggest use for Jester is to add the extra Royalty. Not for the points, mind you, but to have two Royalty instead of one. It makes you a less attractive target, and people are more likely to go after another player. It’s even better if your play of Jester prevents you getting attacked, as there might be more attractive targets.
- Try to read other players. If a player has one Royalty left and just played Marshals, it’s likely that they’re going to play a Gold next to get the Marshals back. If you think that’s going to happen, play Thief to steal their Gold, or just attack them to finish them off.
- The people with the Banners make the rules. They have twice as much weight to their nominations as normal players, so if you’re in a three-player game, for instance, you’d have to coordinate with the other player to even tie with them. That’s tough! Don’t be afraid to ruin their Banners with the Fanatic (it’s worth 0 points anyways), though that might leave you open to an attack…
- BEWARE THE DUMMY PLAYERS. They have no strategy for you to read, so you might arbitrarily choose to attack them, only for them to wreck you by playing Marshals at a time that doesn’t normally “make sense”. That’s not good. That said, once they’ve played Marshals and Seer they’re basically free points. Unless you want to run the risk that they’ll help you take down someone else…
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This is probably my favorite dummy player mechanic ever. This and Tokaido, honestly. We’ve laughed and laughed as our best laid plans have gotten wrecked by the bull in the china shop that is a random-playing dummy player. I mean, absolutely ruined. I’ve had two dummy players individually team up on me, randomly. It was a good time. Even in this last game I played, I got hit by the dummy player relentlessly.
- Pretty funny to watch, even if you get eliminated. I’m still playing mind games with the non-eliminated players as I’m typing this review (I’m sort of mid-game). It’s delightful. I enjoy the variant where you can still win if you get eliminated, but that does make some of the strategy seem a bit degenerate.
- Easy to learn the rules. The cards all make sense once they’re explained and the gameplay flow is pretty simple.
- Interesting first turn. There’s no real strategy to what you should do on the first turn, so it’s sort of a standoff between all the players. You just kind of have to convince other players not to attack you, which is difficult to do.
- It’s neat that all the Royalty have different titles. I like it, at least. Makes it easier to tell the houses apart.
- The art’s pretty cool. It’d be nice if it were different beyond a palette-swap, but it could be a stretch goal or something. I don’t know.
- Feels mathable, which can slow the game down. A savvy player should be keeping track of what cards their opponents have played and using that to keep track of where they are, score-wise, relatively speaking. That causes players to be doing score math on their turns rather than thinking through strategies, which can make the game take longer. It might be neat if the player cards are more variable in some way to incentivize playing them or make the calculations harder.
- It feels like the optimal strategy is often to play no cards other than Attack Nominations. Effectively, if you manage to be part of the final Hit against enough other players and play no other cards than Attack Nominations, you will likely get 31 – 40ish points, which, if other players are forced into playing Marshals and Seer, is usually enough to win the game. That said, you run the risk of other players eliminating you, but if you’re lucky there’s usually a more attractive target. Half of the game is manipulating other players into doing what’s best for them (or, rather, what’s best for you) anyways.
- It can be frustrating when your strategy is ruined by the dummy player. Generally it’s really funny, but it can be a bit annoying. This is why you don’t see a lot of dummy players that play randomly in longer games, I suppose. This might not sit well with your group, but I generally find it amusing, even if I’m receiving the brunt of the dummy players’ ire.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think this is a good little game. It’s a nice warm-up if you’re looking for a game where you’ll need to do a bit of talking, and it’s fun especially if you’re okay with getting randomly bonked by a dummy player. I think there are some things that could be better about it (I just don’t ever feel incentivized to play Marshals), but that might be tweaked / could be improved in the upcoming Kickstarter. I’m likely going to follow it and will see what happens. That said, if you are looking for a game with a lot of table talk and a bit of negotiation, Kingdom of Aer: Kingmaker might be worth checking out!