War of Kings is a medieval themed 4X strategy game. Players are trying to expand their kingdom in order to accumulate the most victory points. To do this, you’ll need to carefully manage your resources (timber, wheat, cattle, and stone), build settlements, and conquer unexplored territories while defending your own. Each territory can produce up to two different resources, but in order to do so, a town or city is required to harvest the secondary resource.
In addition to raising armies to protect your settlements, you’ll also want to construct roads to connect them. The concept of roads in War of Kings offers a neat mechanic where making a road allows the settlement to transport gold back to the capital (assuming the road connects to the capital). Roads also allow army units to move up to two spaces instead of their normal single space.
Another neat thing in War of Kings is that regardless of the number of players, there will always be a marauder force to contend with. These marauders, called Maladorians, are semi-controlled by the players when the corresponding event is rolled during the Event phase. I say “semi-controlled” because when you roll the event dice and they come up with the Malador symbol, you’ll draw a Malador card. This card will dictate what you do, such as place a Malador army unit, but where to place that unit is up to you.
The four phases that make up each player’s turn are: Construction, Event, Exploration, Battle Resolution (which may or may not happen), and Supply. The Construction Phase happens simultaneous for all players, which is great; otherwise this phase would be really drawn out. All other phases happen in turn order, with one player completing all of their phases before play passes to the next player.
The Exploration Phase isn’t as cut and dry as it is in some other games. Instead of simply moving your army into an unoccupied region and taking it over, each time you move into an unexplored territory, you’ll roll exploration dice. These dice determine what happens as a result of your exploration. It is possible that you’ll conquer the new territory without incident. However, it is far more likely that you’ll meet a band of marauders or encounter a plague. There are some beneficial results as well, such as immediately gaining resources produced by the territory. I really like the random aspect of exploring.
I’ve mentioned a few things that I like about War of Kings, but now let me list some of the things that I felt fell short.
While most of the components are top notch, the cards are a little thin. My copy of War of Kings was brand new and all of the components were sealed, but somehow a few of the cards had slight damage. This damage was very minimal, slight wear around the edges and such, but I’m not sure how/why this was present in a brand new copy of the game. The resources are also thin and come in odd strips. Some of these were stuck together, but I only noticed one strip with a noticeable defect. I’ve never seen another game use thin strips for resources like this and their shape/size were not well received. Being mostly a euro-gamer, of course I would have liked to see wooden cubes, but cardboard squares (or anything else really) would also be a welcomed change. My wife made the comment that she would have rather played with Monopoly money, which is a ghastly thought, but shows how much she didn’t like the resource strips.
The rulebook is both good and bad. It is quite lengthy (30 pages!), which always seems daunting, but it covers everything. I would have liked to see a quick start guide or something similar as the actual turn sequence is straightforward and easy to understand. You wouldn’t know this by reading the rulebook though as there is no summary, instead we get four pages dedicated to the turn sequence. While I like that everything is explained in such detail, it seems that the rulebook could have been condensed, or, as stated above, a quick start guide could have been included. This would have made digesting the gameplay a lot more palatable. There are plenty of diagrams and charts in the rulebook and this is another good/bad type situation. My wife took one look at the rulebook and threw it back at me, exclaiming “It’s full of charts!” Some of these charts are included on the individual player reference cards, but not all of them, which means you’ll consult the rulebook a few times, especially during your first play. Some aspects, like the Militia Characteristics, are easy enough to learn and after your first game you might not have to consult the rulebook for how much damage it takes to take over a Town, or how many Defend and Counter-attack dice it rolls. But for your first game, you’ll be flipping through the rulebook to find things like this.
Individual “Kingdom Economic Ledgers” are provided as tear-off sheets, and I don’t want to think about playing the game without them, however other games have provided similar ledgers in a much better format. As it is these are tear-off sheets, so if you play this game a lot you are going to run out of them. Also, the game is lacking in the graphic design department overall (the player reference cards are plain white) but for some reason these ledgers contain the War of Kings logo as a grayscale watermark, which makes it difficult to read. Instead of being tear-off sheets, I would have liked these to be incorporated with the player reference cards so they could be a permanent part of the game. This would require re-envisioning them slightly. Having separate tracks for the different resources with different colored counters would be easy enough to implement and I think would be better digested by the players. Simply slide the yellow marker on the Timber track to the corresponding number is a lot easier than writing 1, then erasing it, writing 2, slashing that out, writing 4, repeat, etc. This would also help visualize the resources available to other players. Trying to write even simple numbers, while playing a game, is a distraction, especially when there aren’t enough pencils to go around.
It seems that going first is a disadvantage, and turn order doesn’t change for the duration of the game. Going after the first player means that if they didn’t attack and/or move their troops to fortify a location, the next player can easily explore and generate another army unit before the first player gets another chance to attack. This means that if I am not the first player, I’m able to expand at a greater rate because I don’t have to worry about the first player attacking me once their turn is over. If they left me with any units to move, I’m going to use them to explore and expand, which means I have a greater chance of winning. It is easy to position units in such as way that the first player has to turtle up so one of their principle settlements isn’t overtaken. In essence, you are forcing their hand; they can’t explore as easily lest they get attacked and lose. This leaves you in a much better position to explore. Of course, this might not be an issue with a more aggressive first player.
There are some little rules that can go unchecked but greatly affect the game. One such rule is the number of army units you can support at one time, and specifically where these units can be located/initially deployed. The number of army units you can have is determined by the number of settlements and their size. A village can support one army unit and it can’t leave the village. A town can support one army unit and it can leave to go explore. A city can support two army units and they can also leave. Army units spawn on a settlement, not just a region you control. If I have two villages and a town, I can have three army units, but I can only move one of those units. This is a big deal but it is easy to overlook and play incorrectly.
I would have liked some kind of permanent victory point tracker as well. For achievements, which are equivalent to victory points, a card detailing the achievement is given to the player that earned it. This certainly helps keep track of the amount of victory points you have, but this is only for achievements. For settlements, you just have to count those. This is a very minor gripe, but because cards are given for some victory points it seems they should be given for others as well, or not given at all. Personally, I’d like the victory points to either be all cards or a point tracker on the board as I really don’t like to keep track of it with pen and paper, not when it changes so frequently. My points went from 3 to 4, then to 6, 7, and 8, then back down to 7, then up to… I found it tedious to continuously update my score via pencil on the score pad.
Two more minor gripes that do not impact gameplay. The first is that it is rather difficult to fit all of the components back in the box. The game comes with a custom-molded plastic tray, but the custom slots are really only for the cards and dice. Everything else—all of the miniatures, tokens, and money— have to share the other half of the tray. It takes a little finesse, and maybe some deep breaths, but if you are patient then it is possible, if only barely, to fit everything back in the box and close it up. The second is the box cover, which is pixilated. This is just rather unfortunate and I have to imagine frustrating for the designer/publisher.
While I’ve mentioned a few things about the game than can be considered negative, overall War of Kings is a solid game that is fun to play. There is certainly a great deal of strategy and the double sided board is superb and extends the replayability of the game. The cardboard tokens and coins are top notch. The miniatures, which represent villages, towns, cities, and the various fortifications that can surround them, add a nice spatial and tactile element as well as look great. There is far more to like about War of Kings than there are shortcomings. If you like 4X games, certainly check out War of Kings as it is basically the epitome of this genre.