Full disclosure: A review copy of The King Is Dead [Second Edition] was provided by Osprey Games.
Sometimes it just takes me a while to review a game because I’m just deeply terrible at it. I need the extra time to think about it, try and strategize, learn some tactics, pray to a false god or two, make a deal that I’ll regret; you know the drill. Is that what happened here? Maybe. Something something a photo of Frodo saying, “All right then. Keep your secrets.” It’s unclear. Anyways, Osprey has sent a few games in the past, and along with the exceptional Cryptid (and the very very good but difficult-to-review Imperium series), we have The King Is Dead: Second Edition! Haven’t tried the first edition, but let’s see what’s in this one.
In The King Is Dead, like The Captain Is Dead, exactly what you’d expect to happen has just happened. Three factions now have their eyes on the throne, but division is causing instability and nature abhors a vacuum. As powerful nobles, you and your fellow players have the means to pit these factions against each other to gain even more power (and perhaps the crown), but you’ll need more than power; you’ll need wits. If you don’t have those, you won’t end up powerless; you’ll end up dead. You likely have a favorite among the factions, but wisdom and prudence dictate that a backup plan might be to your advantage. Just be careful, lest France capitalize on your discord and take over. Will you be able to elevate yourself to the throne?
This changes a bit based on your player count, but it generally works the same way. First, set out the board:
Then, set out the Follower Cubes:
If playing with two players, return two cubes of each color to the box. Otherwise, set two followers of each color in their faction’s starting area. The two red cubes (Welsh) start in Gwynedd, the two blue (Scottish) cubes start in Moray, and the two yellow cubes (English) start in Essex. Put the others into the bag. Give each player two random followers from the bag, and add cubes to each region on the board so that each region has four follower cubes in it. For the ones that start with two, you just add two more. Each player receives a white Negotiation disk, and the black Instability disks get placed on France:
The disks matching the cube colors get placed in the supply, to be used later:
Each player gets a set of the same eight action cards:
If all players agree, you can replace the Welsh / English / Scottish Support Cards with three random Cunning Action Cards, dealt to each player:
The Region Cards should be shuffled and placed face up next to each of the numbered spaces on the board:
The victory card (double-sided) gets placed nearby:
And you’re ready to start!
Surprisingly, not a lot to say on this front. The game is pretty simple. Each player takes turns until either the Invasion ends the game or the Coronation does. We’ll talk about how we get there.
On a player’s turn, they must either play a card from their hand or pass. If they have no cards left to play, they must pass. Passing just skips their immediate turn; they are still eligible to play or pass on their next turn. If all players pass in sequence, a power struggle occurs. In the event of a power struggle, you resolve a contested region. That is the lowest-numbered face-up region of the cards in the numbered spaces surrounding the board. To resolve that region, check which faction has the most cubes in that region. If there’s a clear winner, remove all cubes from that region, returning them to the supply on the board, and place a disk of the winner’s color in that region. If one or more cubes are tied for the highest number of cubes of one color, remove them all and add a black Instability disk to that region. Once that happens, flip the region card face-down. That way, you know it’s been resolved. If it has a white negotiation
If you choose to instead play a card and resolve it, you will follow the card to the best of your ability. You may not be able to fully carry it out! Either way, once you’ve done that, you must summon a follower to your court by taking any follower from any region (not just the region or regions your action affected) and adding it to the supply in front of you. Note that that might change how power struggles resolve for that region, so choose wisely. Once the card is resolved and a follower has been summoned, discard it face-up in a pile. You never get your discarded cards back! You’ll only play eight turns over the course of the game.
The game can end one of two ways!
If all three Instability disks are ever played on regions, the game immediately ends with a French invasion! Just like real life. If that happens, the player with the highest number of complete sets of followers wins! A set of followers is one follower of each color. If there’s a tie, the player who most recently played an action card wins.
If all eight power struggles are completed without an Invasion, one player will be coronated! Place the Victory Card on the Coronation side, and use the faction disks to indicate which faction is the most powerful (order the three color disks on the card by which faction controls the most regions). The faction controlling the most regions is the most powerful, but if there’s a tie, the faction that last won a power struggle is more powerful.
The winning player is the player with the most followers of the most powerful faction! If there’s a tie, the winner is the tied player with the most followers of the second most powerful faction. Still tied? The player who played all their cards first wins!
Player Count Differences
The game is pretty wildly different at two / three / four players, just because of how inherently tactical it is. At two, you’re fighting back and forth, trying to not give up any ground while trying to predict and play around your opponent’s plans. At three, it becomes even more complicated because you’re playing in an uncomfortable triad; at any point, one player might turn against you and help your rival because they fear you’re getting too powerful. A lot to balance, there. With four, you play in teams of two with the player across the table from you and essentially play as normal. In the event of an Invasion, teams combine their followers, but for Coronations, they do not. Teams cannot discuss cards or strategy. Each player count is, essentially, pretty wildly different, but that’s part of the fun, I suppose. I’m not usually one for team games like this, so I slightly recommend against four players, but beyond that, I’ve enjoyed The King is Dead at all three player counts.
Just a heads-up: I am terrible at this game. So I’d slightly recommend just taking all of my Strategy advice and just doing the opposite of that. Just a thought!
- Don’t pull too far ahead too early. If you invest all your efforts in getting, say, red follower cubes, then you’re not only prematurely pulling them out of the supply, but you’re also stating to every other player that that’s what you’re going for. Especially with more than two players, that can be fatal, as players pile on to make sure that, if nothing else, red now doesn’t win. It’s often better to wait for another player (usually me) to make that mistake and then try propping up the current second-place color. You can flip things around pretty easily.
- At some point, you have to commit to something; you can’t hedge your bets the entire game. The only way you can is if you commit to the Invasion Ending, and even then, you are committing to that goal. If you try and just take followers of each color, you’ll end up having the most of none of them and you certainly won’t win via Coronation in that case.
- A particularly simple thing you can do after playing a card is take a cube from another region and upset the balance in that region. You can try to tilt it in your favor or tilt it toward instability; either works. The latter is particularly useful if you’re worried about another color pulling ahead; if you take the cube that they’re ahead by, they now tie, which means that they may end up losing the opportunity to score a victory for their preferred color in that region.
- There’s a key tension with cards. On one hand, playing them early can set you up for success, but also leave you vulnerable in the late game. On the other hand, if you hold your cards until the end, you might be able to make some pretty great moves, but the game may have shifted so much that those moves can’t turn things around for you. I honestly still haven’t figured out the sweet spot for this one, and I think it’s pretty dependent on your group, but at least keep the tension in mind. There’s definitely an element of timing to when and how you play cards, so making the cards work for you is going to be one of the biggest challenges to doing well in The King Is Dead. And it’s harder than it sounds.
- Generally speaking, if multiple players are going after the same thing, one of them is making a mistake. Only one player gets to win. You can see this if players are functionally collaborating on, say, helping red win more regions. Which player has more red cubes? The other player should notice this. There aren’t ties. Helping another player just means that one player is using the other, and the other doesn’t know it yet. Try to avoid that.
- With more players, you might be able to get one player to work against the other player’s interests, though they’ll likely stab you in the back if you start pulling ahead. Now working against a player in the lead? That’s very much up my alley. Lots to do there. You can collaborate with other players wordlessly if you want to, say, push back on red taking a ton of regions, but don’t forget that they’re not your ally; they’re just the enemy of your enemy. That does not make you friends; just collaborators.
- One fun thing to do is run the supply out of a cube color that your opponent needs; that may mess up some of their card plays and their plans. If there aren’t any cubes of a color in the supply, you just can’t place any more cubes of that color. That means that the Assembly and Support cards get a little bit ruined, if you can plan for them. That might let you turn an opponent’s turn a bit sour, or get them to pass ahead of schedule, which is great. You want to throw off their plans, to some degree, if you can.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I really like the old-timey art style of this game. It’s very Ye Olde, even down to the words on the cards, and I love it. I find that sort of thing a little goofy, just because it’s so stilted and purposeful, but I’m still a fan of it. I reminds me of those old medieval paintings that are always very funny in context. It’s nicely done, though! It looks authentically old-timey.
- Surprisingly easy to learn. There are only eight actions, and most of them either move cubes, place cubes, or swap cubes. Once you’ve got that down, the game flows pretty simply. I think what makes this game interesting is that like Othello and Go and a bunch of other tactical games, the challenge is in the strategy, not the rules. It feels well-designed, as a result, and its robustness unfurls for players over multiple games. Or it should, I suppose; I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out.
- I love that every player has the exact same moves available to them. It adds an extra thrill to the challenge, I think. That level of balance makes the game feel very chess-like in its tactical nature. I like that a lot.
- The advanced cards add an extra wrinkle with asymmetric play, which is really interesting. I know I just said I like that everyone can use the same actions, but I also think the asymmetric play is an interesting additional option. I also like it because if you don’t like it, you can just play the basic game and still have a good time. It’s essentially an included variant / expansion.
- For a game with only eight turns per player, it’s intense. This is one of the most deeply tactical games I’ve ever played. I think I still prefer the 3D nature of Santorini, but I could imagine players who are looking for something in this vein being very pleased with it. I appreciate that it plays a bit more interactively and quickly than War Chest, for instance, and that you’re trying to prop up one color that someone else might try to take over. It’s just a very interesting, challenging, and stimulating game. I just wish I were better at it.
- I appreciate that the Instability end is a separate and distinct thing from the Coronation Ending. It adds a fun threat to the game. It solves ties nicely and gives players something threatening to shoot for if enough ties happen. Are you willing to pass if it means an Invasion? Probably not. But is it worth using up all of your cards to prevent it? Unclear.
- Every game of this is wildly different, especially at different player counts. Just a super interesting game. I found it super engaging at each player count, though my noted distaste for team variants still came through, to some degree. I think just the nature of the game lends itself to a bunch of different types of games, depending on your player count, which is always fun.
- I do remain annoyed when I’m trying to teach / learn the game for the first time and it’s a team-based variant. I just kind of wish that was marked on the box or something. Team-based variants change the learning curve for the game and add extra pressure, since you learning the game poorly now sinks your teammate as well as you (or, in my case, me knowing the game already but being bad at it sunk my teammate; sorry Netters). It’s still legitimate, and I understand why these are included and how they help increase the audience for the game, but whenever there’s a two-player variant or a dummy player or a team-variant I wish I knew before I suggested it to a group without realizing it.
- My one gripe is that you can end up at a point where it’s pretty clear you’re going to lose, but the game keeps going, at least for a little bit. My general recommendation for games is that once a winner has been determined, the game ends quickly. The game still ends mostly quickly, by virtue of it not being all that long of a game, but you can definitely end up behind the eight ball if you make some bad choices and be completely unable to get out from behind it. At that point, you’re just done. I suppose resigning is fine, but it depends on your player group.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think The King Is Dead is a super interesting game! It’s fun, as well, but interesting is the first word that comes to mind. Not because it’s bad (at all!), but it’s one of those games that I fully realize is just smarter than I am. I respect that, truly, but it is. I haven’t played a ton of games like that, which makes the experience more compelling, but I am also genuinely, uniquely terrible at this game. Hilariously bad? I’m really unsure as to why I am so colossally awful at The King Is Dead. But I am! That’s half the fun, I think, just getting skewered. I’m learning a bit (Editor’s Note: he’s not.), and I plan to eventually get better at this one, but in the meantime, I’m still enjoying it. I really like the Ye Olde feel of the game; it makes the cards fun and the spellings difficult to pronounce. It gives the game an authentic strategic feel, which I enjoy. I also like the threat of eight turns where every player has exactly the same actions. You have a randomized starting state, but everything after that is tactics and strategy, which is why I’ve lost every game I’ve played against someone who wasn’t also me. Pretty badly, I’ll add, though I’ll regret writing that at some point, I’m sure. The Cunning Actions add a lovely bit of asymmetry to the game, though an Advanced Variant likely implies that I’m okay at the Basic Variant, which I’m not. Alas. Self-deprecation aside, The King is Dead does a nice job of keeping with Osprey’s high-quality, deeply compelling strategy games, and I’m glad I got a chance to play it. If you like historical games, tactical games, or you just enjoy some fancy, old-timey themes, you might enjoy The King is Dead, as well! I’ve had fun with it.
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