This year at Gen Con I was lucky enough to have the absolute pleasure of demoing The King’s Dilemma (designed by Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva, and distributed by Luma for Horrible Games). I generally tend to be wary of “legacy” games due to a history of never finishing them, however as soon as the narration began this game grabbed me and refused to let go. Beneath the depiction of a face-palming king and some odd, low-art components exists a rich voting game of interactive narrative world-building and political schemes. I will say, The King’s Dilemma was a true “stand-out title” of everything I saw, demoed, or played at Gen Con this year.
Happily, the Gen Con demo we ran was entirely spoiler-free, acting as a sort of prequel and thus supplanting the actual first scenario in the game. Now, having watched this single, six-envelope prequel session play out countless times with often entirely different endings and events, I was left ravenous to dive into the branching story lines sealed behind 75 (or more?) envelopes contained in the box. Needless to say not only was I utterly impressed with the world and storytelling therein, but the simple yet highly interactive mechanisms. I’d mention the depth of the moral dilemmas is often presented in the consequences of the player’s choices in just this little teaser alone.
Players represent individual noble houses in a unique, low-fantasy medieval world. Representing the government’s central body, players vote on the outcomes of difficult choices that arise in the various possible plot arcs. Each house has their own agendas they wish to fulfil, be it to earn one of the two types of points called “Prestige” and “Crave” as well as unlocking various house-specific achievements to then earn new abilities and rewards in the long run. A session plays out through Machiavellian machinations in order to achieve each player’s drafted goal for this game. Each player has a house-themed screen to hide their money and power tokens. These power tokens are core to the game play as they represent the power and influence a house may invest during voting. As an example, here’s a spoiler-free typical scenario:
“In recent days along the trash-riddled streets of the central city, propaganda has been posted – propaganda which decries the council for their recent actions. After three days of such postings city guards have now discovered the rabble-rousing origins trace back to a local orphanage. Do we send in the guard to arrest those responsible? “
Players then see the outcome of their discussion represented on the central track. Each of the five markers represents an aspect of the world’s current state: Power, Wealth, Public Opinion, Food, and Knowledge. Consider the above example: we know we are going to lose public opinion for having the local guard raid an orphanage, but we will have displayed that we will not tolerate such divisive slander from the peasants, which gains us power. Or we can vote against raiding the orphanage (choosing to lose power), but gaining a positive sticker (yes, sticker – remember, this is a legacy game!). However, either way, until the scenario plays out we don’t know how far these actions will actually move the markers.
At the start of the game each player will have a drafted Agenda, indicating where the markers will ideally be at the end of the game in order to score them the most points. Using their Shield tokens and starting with the first player, each player votes on the Aye or Nay cards, to bid on the outcome. Whoever invests the most will reap the repercussions for good or ill of the passing decision. Players may also abstain from voting by passing (passing on voting earns them money and an opportunity to gain more shield tokens for future votes. There is also a tie-break marker, in the form of a hammer, which can be gained through passing). But ultimately, underneath this simple system lies a rich tapestry governed by coin – money scores points at the end of the game, and it can freely exchanged to manipulate others into your favour.
Let’s go back to our simple example: imagine our players pass a vote of Aye and raid the orphanage – we flip the card over and see the outcome:
“During the raid, panic ensued. The storming of the doors by the local guard caused the children to flee. In the chaos a lantern was knocked over, setting a pile of the posters ablaze. Fifteen innocent children were trampled by the guard. The onlookers watch in abject horror as the bodies of children are dragged from the burning orphanage. Moments later the owner of the orphanage is publically executed for treason.”
In this case our popularity drops a whopping three points, and if this token was already negative it would gain momentum and drop even further. But hey! We scored one power – people fear us now. Perhaps this also had an unexpected consequence in the form of opening a new envelope. The player who was ultimately responsible for sending in the guard now has to crack open the new envelope, sign a card, deal with its effect and read out the progress our actions have just taken along this wild journey. This in turn serves as an interesting deck-building mechanism: these cards, based on our actions, are now shuffled into the deck of Dilemmas for subsequent rounds and future sessions.
In a nutshell, this rich world-building is incredibly engaging, particularly when it’s driven by the players’ interactions, negotiations, power-plays and secret schemes. Each choice could potentially not just effect the current session but also have long-term consequences on the world itself in terms of stickers being placed, new rules, things unlocked, envelopes being opened, and so on. The legacy aspect of this game is strong, I get a sense of real scale of a larger immersive world to come.
All and all I cannot wait to see how my story unfolds, knowing how different and unique it will be from anyone else’s. I am extremely eager to maybe not… you know accidentally burn down an orphanage in the future…
PSA: No orphans fictional or real were hurt in the gameplay during the spoiler free demo nor in the production of this Daily Worker Placement Article. Any resemblance of incidents real or fake in the actual game play I haven’t seen are purely coincidental and completely spoiler free.