…ordinarily I would be adventuring completely on my lonesome, as is may way, as is my want, but today is a little different. Things are a little less solitary this time. Well, that is not strictly true, as I am, indeed, still setting off bedecked in my usual knee-length drawstring underwear and cloth cap with the flip-top peek, but I have a cart accompanying me this time…and a pal to help out. Yes, you did hear me correctly…there is no need to dig deep in the lughole with that 2B pencil… I have a cart that will do my bidding. No such luck copping a ride but I can still send it about its merry way doing bits and bobs for me…fetching and carrying and the like…which will save me soooo much legwork, I can tell you.
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Da da daaaaahhhhhh! *enters stage right, strikes dramatic exploring pose but quickly unstrikes it as trousers fall down and reveal my intentions to the vulgar gaze of the audience…pulls up trousers but realises there is a rip in the rear…shuffles awkwardly back off stage holding a brass clothes horse covering the offending area…*
…So, dear soloist, grasp firmly, with both hands, your flabby undersides as we charge headlong into the deepest, darkest of Chamber Councils in the City of Kings…I also wonder, as one does with such moments of reflection, if they actually do have a Pot in there, will that make it a chamber pot?……
What’s All The Fuss About?
On the back of a ridiculously successful Kickstarter campaign (but also an incredibly well run campaign on a personal level with backers), The City of Kings has been eagerly awaited final fulfilment by some 3,100+ backers and over the last few days and weeks it has finally started landing on many of those doorsteps.
Another run-of-the-mill fantasy adventure game with levelling up characters, beasties and exploring locations for odds and sods, you might think. Agreed, it does have similarities with that theme and genre…but…*advanced spoiler alert* this is no run-of-the-mill anything. Fantasy? Check. Exploration? Check. Character development? Check. Scenario and campaigns? Check. But what sets this apart from pretty much everything else is the big black box absolutely crammed with cleaver mechanics that form a pretty spectacular package. All will be revealed in due course!
Immersion or Subversion?
There is a distinct style of presentation through out this game right from the character standees, to the player dashboards, through to the map tiles and tokens. Now a wholistic art approach maketh not an immersive game but this is only the beginning. There is backstory, adventure and story cards (breaking a campaign into meaningful and manageable chunks for us to bite off) that give flavour text and goals for each step of our journey. There are incidental quests, again with similar attention to detail, that give us distractions and rewards. There is a brilliant random enemy generating mechanic that I will touch upon later and a novel way to address movement and combat. The gameplay equally matches the aesthetic of the game and we are, without fear of contradiction, plunged nostrils first, into a fantasy world filled with awe.
I thought I might be lured in to waffling on at great length about the minute ins and outs of this game but Frank, as part of the campaign, produced numerous videos that go into great detail about the inner workings…so much so it almost makes the rulebook redundant (and also several follow-up how to play videos post campaign) so I wont.
The two features I do want to wax lyrical about are the enemy generation mechanic and the action/combat procedure …and the resource management/levelling up method…oh, that’s three points, two of which are subdivided into two!
So, to these so-called random enemies! At first glance the enemy boards have very nice artwork on them, matching their standee, but are, one might argue, nothing more than a generic banner. Where are the orcs or the trolls or all the other fantasy stereotypes? I hear you bellow with frustration. Stress not my solitary adventurers it is all in hand….
…..at this juncture I recall a debate, nay major complaint during the Kickstarter campaign from some quarters about the lack of specific illustrations for specific races…like every other fantasy game. Firstly it is not like every other game. The enemy need to be thought of on a larger scale than 1:1 skirmish. The banner & enemy board represent a tribe of creatures…some may be named races, others may be more ambiguous. Either way, they are a collective that we must dispatch. Each board has a backstory of their clan and it is from this point on that players ought…no, should use their imagination to create the hypothetical scenario encounter. These boards need to be fairly generic because of the cleaver way they are incorporated into the process of randomly generated enemies, or, as it could be refered to as ‘created into a unique enemy encounter’. This would not be possible if they were too specific in nature. They can be tough little buggers sometimes and there is no “one-hit-wonder” nonesence here. If we are serious about dispatching the unpleasant little fellows, we must don our fur lined brass dear-stalker thinking caps and give strategy a jolly good portion of our attention. Here-in lies the wonderful synergy between characters and offers us that marvelous opportunity, even as a soloist, to draw upon the varied skill sets of all protagonists involved. Playing a single hero would be as trying to clap with one hand or brewing up in a chocolate teapot. Pointless, messy and a resounding disaster. With all that said and done, how are they transformed from a generic board into unique enemies, then?
Now for the cleaver bits.
- Enemy generation: A generic banner and standee represent a clan of evil no-gooders, spreading chaos across the land. This in itself has little bearing on the enemy other than backstory text on the reverse and a health tracker …(although the specific characters and Boss enemies have double-sided boards with one side containing extra abilities to make it more challenging) Below each appearing enemy, we place a statistics bar. These are sequentially numbered and are discarded after an enemy is defeated. The higher the number of enemy defeated, the greater the statistics on the stat bar…and so we have the enemy scaling mechanic. On these information such as enemy health, attack range, damage, regeneration, ability to reflect wounds and so on.
- Enemy Abilities: Green, Amber and Red abilities. Each enemy stat bar and, occasionally, certain locations indicate a coloured ability chit that should be pulled from one of three coloured bags. These range from attack abilities or bonuses to magic abilities and in cease in potency from weak green to strong red. Each ability has a number linked to it which dictates the order in which all abilities are executed. Fireballs can be spat at us, enhanced stabbings of sharp implements to our soft under areas…a whole host of traits and, without limit on each enemy, some only gain in ability as a combat progresses. So with a simple chit pull, randomly generated beasties gain greater variability with personalised abilities…I think I read something in the region of 10,000,000 combinations. That’s just staggering!
- Actions/combat: we have a basic number of tokens or wooden pieces, if you like, to place on certain action spots. The likes of Movement and Interaction with a location (to, let’s say, buy items or take on side quests) are limited to one per round but others such as Heal or Attack have two available slots…but remember these action tokens can/have to be used for our trusty cart (which represents our worker follower) These workers can move, explore and find us resources. So this limited supply of action tokens requires serious consideration to optimise available actions and match them to successfully complete the tasks ahead.
- Character Advancement: I wont go in to any detail here but will say that as the game progresses the group (2, 3 or 4 heroes) gain experience points and in doing so, gain discs that cover spaces on a growing development tree. It is flexible, but as there is a finite number of development discs, choosing the most effective development path is vital. Know what you want and how you are going to get there.. . Certain aspects allow additional movement or range stats, where as others might increase health or are a specific special action unique to a hero. Cards with extensions to the development are always available from the temple. In this way our heroes will develop differently each game, dependant on what development cards are available and in which direction we feel our hero is best suited. For me, this adds not another layer of complexity from a management point of view, but a level of complexity to a characters ability and personality. So, as the narrative unfolds during each game, we can similarly watch our heroes grow in complexity of ability and personality. There becomes a bonding between hero and player and great time and effort can be invested in their welfare.
…yes, clearly more than two points I wanted to discuss.
Wood Chits and Cardboard Bits:
The pictures will speak for themselves but all wooden tokens and card chits, tiles and tokens are sturdy, clearly printed items. The same goes for the playing cards and, although the player boards are only thin card, they function well (a thick board used for something of this size multiplied by six would weigh something akin to a baby blue whale so not practical. I have seen the more upmarket wooden components on the City of Games stand and these too, look to have been manufactured well…just be warned there is going to be a lot of token punching. My game has fourteen sheets of boards and (as someone on Twitter FYI’ed me by pointing out there are eighteen)…perhaps in an upgraded model, but in my base game, there are fourteen.
Meeples and Standees:
- Game & Graphic Design: Frank West
- Artist: Art work- Miguel Michell Da Silva, written work Frank West & Ian O’Reilly
- Game Publisher: City of Games:
- Playtime: Scenarios 45-90 minutes, Stories 90-180 minutes
- Gangs of one: 1-4 players cooperatively
- Age of Consent: 14+
- DOB: 2018 fulfilment (Kickstarter version)
This is a multi-player co-operative game but, and this was really interesting to discuss with Frank, careful consideration was given to solo play. A solo player may operate any number of characters but, and here is the key point, it is important to operate at least two heroes. The way the game is designed, not unlike a puzzle solving exercise, uses the asymmetric skills of different characters to work in unison to overcome potential obstacles/foes. Combat, for instance, is not as simple as everyone duffs up the bad guy, then the bad guy duffs up everyone.
Enemies have prefered target rules, many cunning abilities and it is as much as the numerous heroes can do to just keep each other healed, positioned out of reach of the enemy and to tactically out manoeuvre their opponent. None of this could be successfully achievable whilst using only one hero. So the soloist has been considered and there is a legitimate reason not to use one character…YOU WILL GET DEADED!
The Real Nitty Gritty:
- Winners and Losers: After a pleasant discussion with Frank at AireconUK 2018 about the game, he mentioned comments some players made about the game being too easy…but then as they progressed and more enemies were added to the map, they complained the enemies were too difficult. Now what that demonstrated to me is that the game is obviously designed in such a way that the more one progresses through a narrative, the more difficult the challenges that emerge become. It also shows that it is imperative during times of less damaging challenges to focus on building resource pools that will enable the compulsory purchases of sword proof socks and other useful pieces of equipment. All this in readiness to negotiate the ever-increasing devilishly cunning beasties. So the game is difficult and would be a pointless exercise if it didn’t challenge us but, with thought, planning and preparation (a big part of the game) at least we can put ourselves in a favourable position to seek glory.
- Rules is Rules is Rules: On the whole the rules are clear, well laid out and an interesting use of the two book system. One book details core mechanics, procedures and systems, the other is more a quick reference book which will be used during most of the game play when clarification of elements such as tile function or descriptions of enemy ability chits. It all works once you work out which bit is in which location. My only gripe…or suggestion would have been the addition of reference numbers so that if something was mentioned in one area of the core rules book, it would be quick to jump to the appropriate part of the quick reference book to continue reading. All that said, Frank has made numerous videos that help explain game play and he is usually pretty good at answering questions for those in difficulty. There is also a Facebook page where the game is discussed at length (noted in the “Something for the weekend, Sir?” Section below)
- Lucky Beggars: There is always a tableau of equipment cards and skill progression cards so, depending on how well resources have been gathered, careful selection/purchases can be made. It is luck of the draw regarding the special abilities of the random enemy encounters but that is the whole point. In exploring this land, we will never know what nasty individual will be lying under each stone we turn over. However, the most noticeable element id an absence of any element of luck in combat. It is obvious what resources both the hero and the opponent has at their disposal, and outcomes are worked out accordingly. So, in summary, luck of the draw for encounters…needed and no luck in combat…just skill vs skill.
- Highs and Lows: Admittedly some enemies have a rather unusual and slightly dark feel to them, but the colour palette used and the style of illustration are far from dark, far from unpleasantly violent and the encounter text, quest text and background details are all upbeat so players should have a very positive experience playing.
- Footsteps All Over Both Sides of My Table: It has to be said that there really is an absolute shed load of components in this game. Dependant on the scenario chosen, we will find ourselves laying out a grid of at least 4×4 land tiles, the city board, the rather large player dashboards, varying decks of cards, enemy tiles and all the standees (these need to be on hand as they feature heavily)…not to mention tokens etc. I have managed to set up within a 1metre x 1metre table space, which as a solo player I am happy with, but other players may feel the need to space out their gaming environment so be warned it does spread.
- Build It Up Just To Tear It All Down: As touched upon above…there are a mind-boggling number of bits in this game, which, if we consider value for money, is superb value, but all that comes at a price other than financial…set up will be demanding. Obviously bagging items up makes set up quicker but there is still the land grid to populate in accordance to scenario specific rules, the various decks to sort, certain enemy requirements/restrictions are called for by the scenario. In addition to all this there are the hero dashboards that will need attention…cubes will need placing on the correct vital statistics and shuch like. All in all, then, we could find ourselves spending a good fifteen minutes or probably much more (familiarity may speed things up but I find myself just looking through the standee art or genning up on the odd rule during setup) Perhaps some may view this as a large time investmen for a quick game but City of Kings really is much more of a campaign adventure demanding much more of our time, and as such, really is worth the setup Time.
Me, Myself and I:
I was always aware of the level of commitment and enthusiasm Frank has had for this project but it can never be a certainty that this will always materialise into a product that exudes the same when sat on our very own table…which ever side we sit. I admit to some anxious anticipation but when the beast finally arrived, and even though I had seen the game on stands at game conventions, I never really comprehended just how many components were in the game (it is not that this is a component heavy game with a gazillion fiddly parts and a million pieces that need to be monitored. There are just plenty of each element to give that added variability eg enemy statistic bars…there are thirty odd for the basic monsters in a two player game…a similar number with adjusted stats for three player games and, as you may have guessed the trend, another shed full for the four player game. It just goes to show the level of detail explored in designing the game, to offer us such wide variety for not just the game its self, in its progressively increasing difficulty but for the increasing number of participants)
For myself, I found it was me that played most…and we all found the game procedure to be a relatively simple affair, with the game steps nicely illustrated on player boards. I, as a cheapskate, opted for the base level, so all my resources and various components were card chits rather than shaped wooded tokens, but they certainly served purpose and I much prefer standees rather than minis for this sort of game, too. I may have mentioned this for Dead of Winter and Legends of Andor. But before I digress too far, this simple gameplay does not lead to a boring experience. There are difficult logistic decisions to make, tactical strike decisions and opportunities to quest, upgrade and immerse ourselves in this world that it is a most enjoyable gaming experience. Challenging, it is, but relaxing too, in that it is not a brain-melter just to achieve the basic gameplay. Having a campaign style mode, divided into stories that are sub-divided into chapters make the beast a bitesize dose that we can manage with ease…and if, like me, you are fortunate enough to have a space that a game may be left out, then the campaign can be completed over a number of small sessions without loss of continuity.
Just for the random enemy generation alone, this would sneak in a decent 1d8 roll, but as it is, The City of Kings levels up to a BSoMT 1d8 die roll of (8.5)…well it is fantasy after all so why not bend the laws of die role probability?
***I have played several more tense, nerveracking TCoK games since writing this original piece and I have to say, even after repeating the early stories, it never seems to get old…. and d’you know, it is soooooo tricky…… and the beasties can be ridiculously powerful…. This really does require great strategic positioning and some ludicrous teamwork from the heroes. The game is so much more than quick questing and hack-slashing beasties affair and as a soloist, obviously we are the master of our team, but even so, time after time lengthy discussions arise as to which course of action will be most beneficial (certainly between me, myself and I) . I will point out that even when you think you are in a safe position, pull a Teleport ability on a 25 health creature with FireBolts and a strong attack…well, this could lead to a short session if the City loses hope in your heroes. If you haven’t got it yet, GET IT. Obviously spend wisely, but…GET IT!**
I had my eye on some tasty gear at the market stall…there was a rickety but useful wooden Orc Head-Beater that I thought I could put to good use and could deffo use the Helm of Sir Prickles…but what was left when I finally got the rusted padlock of my antique codpiece safe?
…Madame Boulaire’s Small Clothes and some Tasteless boots… a pair of red knickers and some wooden boots! What bloody use will they be against OKOl the psycho-assassin penguin?
…and me only in my Wednesday strides!
Foot Notes: (and words about feet)
Frank is currently running a new campaign where reprints of the original can be backed along with new Heros, New adventures, new Bosses and new Side Quests. In addition sets of miniatures are also going to be available for the heroes. My personal preference for this game lies with the hero standees. The artwork is great on them and they fit in with all the other components in the game but, and I am sure there are a gazillion players out there, this element should appeal to those who adore miniatures. The mockups look very good and as the quality of components from the original game are so high, I suspect so too will the miniatures be.
The City of Kings: Ancient Allies and Vadoran Gardens on @Kickstarter
Something For The Weekend, Sir?
City of Kings on Twitter:
City of Kings website:
City of Kings Facebook Page
Frank’s how to play City of kings
Frank Unboxes City of Kings
Rolling Solo Rules Overview
Rahdo Runs Through