Kingmaker (board game)
Cover of the original British version of Kingmaker
|Setup time||10 minutes|
|Playing time||2-6 hours|
|Skill(s) required||diplomacy, alliances and double-dealing|
Kingmaker is a board game created by Andrew McNeil. It was first produced in the UK by PhilMar Ltd. in 1974. The second edition was produced by Avalon Hill in the United States in 1975. This version was somewhat different from the original, as it refined the rules and required less knowledge about England to play. TM Games also released an edition in 1983 that was essentially a re-issue of the Avalon Hill version.
The game is set in the time of the English Wars of the Roses (1455–1487). Two to seven can play. Each player builds and controls a faction of nobles that, through battle, diplomacy and politics, attempts to eliminate other player's factions, and gain control of one or more members of the two rival royal families, the House of Lancaster and the House of York.
The board is a map of 15th century Kingdom of England and nearby lands, with walled cities, towns, castles, and roads. Players begin with a number of cards initially. Players also receive resource cards each turn, which add to the player's faction. There are several different kinds of resource cards:
- A noble, some already titled, such as Neville, Beaufort, or Percy. Most others, like Bourchier or Clifford, are untitled initially.
- A title to bestow on an untitled noble, such as Earl of Essex or Duke of Exeter. Many titles provide troops or town affiliations.
- An office of government to assign to a titled noble, such as Marshal of England, Warden of the Cinque Ports, or Chancellor of England. Offices provide troops, castles, towns—even transport ships in some cases.
- An ecclesiastical office, Archbishop of York or Bishop of Lincoln for example. Some, in the Avalon Hill version, have troops, and all have towns under their control.
- Mercenaries, such as Burgundian crossbowmen, Scots archers, or Saxon foot soldiers.
- Major (walled) towns such as Coventry, or Nottingham.
- Ships, allowing transport quickly by sea and to/from ports and off-shore destinations like Ireland (shown in the Avalon Hill version only), Calais, and the Isle of Man.
Round cardboard pieces with heraldic emblems represent the nobles' current position on the map. The royal heirs are represented by octagonal or square pieces displaying either the red rose (Lancastrian faction) or white rose (Yorkist faction) and their Christian name (Richard, Henry, Margaret, etc.). Each player gets a set of markers with different colors and a feudal badge to denote cities & castles under their control. Square pieces are used for the few ships in the game.
A second set of smaller cards make up the random event deck. Each player draws from this deck at the beginning of their turn. Any player, noble, or royal heir might be affected by a random event card, depending on the conditions it specifies. The effect is not limited to the drawing player. These smaller cards are also used for resolving combat.
Kingmaker involves strategy and conflict conducted on different levels.
The Wars of the Roses involved fighting between factions of nobles. In Kingmaker, each noble has a limited combat strength which is augmented by titles, offices, mercenaries, and certain other cards held in the player's hand. If the player moves nobles to the same space as one or more enemy nobles, they can attack them. A ratio of the strength of the two forces of nobles is tallied, an event card drawn, and the ratio printed on the card determines if victory is achieved. If the force is defeated, all nobles in that force are captured and may be executed or ransomed. Most of the named places on the map have fortifications with significant additional defensive combat strength, but using these can get the player's nobles besieged, with potential loss of all defenders.
Politics is another key aspect of Kingmaker. Parliament existed in 15th century England, and can be summoned under specific circumstances in the game. Unfilled offices and titles are assigned in Parliament, which can result in quite of lot of power changing hands. In Parliament, in the Avalon Hill version, each noble uses their acquired voting strength in the House of Lords and the House of Commons to decide how to assign the spoils. A majority vote is required in both Houses to assign any title or office. Nobles who are weak in combat strength can still be strong in either Lords or Commons votes, and vice versa. Those who control the senior members of the York and Lancaster families or the crowned King (or Queen Regent) gain significant additional voting power as well. Parliaments are not convened often, and much deal-making amongst players can ensue. Erstwhile enemies on the battlefield may come together to distribute valuable offices and titles to bolster their position. In the original version the person calling the Parliament has a more or less free hand in distributing the titles and offices as they choose, there is no democracy and no votes.
The real contest is often a contest of diplomacy. One strong player can be brought down by several weaker players working together, and threats, promises and agreements can be easier ways to get the desired results than by using brute force. Players can trade many types of cards, and agree on future spoils of war or honours awarded. However, no agreement made in the game is binding; supposed allies can change sides at will. The winner in diplomacy--based games is often the player who manages to double-cross the other players just before they double-cross him.
Other games become a contest of two strong players -- typically the ones who control the current head of each Royal House -- while other players do their best to stay in a safe zone (typically an island or a part of the board where they gain extra troops from an Office) and to pick off nobles who come too close.
Besides untrustworthy rival players, the random events deck will often disrupt a player's long-term plans. Certain powerful nobles, officeholders, and even bishops can be called to deal with peasant revolts, incursions by the Scots, piracy and other such random events. Those controlling the King may find themselves dragged to diplomatic meetings in remote (and vulnerable) seaside towns. Combat also has risks, either with bad weather or the chance death of one of the player's nobles. The plague also can negatively affect those who linger in the protection of walled towns and cities.
When nobles die, they eventually re-enter the game when a new head of a noble family assumes their place. This is not true of the royal heirs, who are limited to a few specific historical characters, such as Henry VI, Richard, Duke of York, and Margaret of Anjou. Death by combat, execution or plague slowly reduces their number. The player who ultimately controls the only remaining member of either the York or Lancaster branches of the Plantagenet family wins. In other words, this is when one branch of the family is completely wiped out, and the player controls the only member of the other branch. Often, this person will be the crowned King or Queen of England, but even if not "officially" crowned, they are literally the last one standing. In the original game they had to be crowned to win. In many cases, key royal heirs will be shuttled around the board, captured, recaptured, and then executed for strategic reasons. The period depicted in the game was quite violent. In both the Avalon Hill and original versions, one noble, Beaufort, becomes a Lancastrian heir should all members of that branch die. This helps balance the game as there are three Lancastrians and four Yorkists.
One of the beauties of Kingmaker is that a player who is dealt a weak hand at the start of the game is not necessarily doomed to lose, unlike in games such as Risk; the random events and the improvement of the original 'hand' with cards at the end of each turn can easily tip the balance of power. Surviving as a weak player requires a mixture of strategy and luck. A key strategy is to examine the board carefully; a noble can move five 'squares' per turn (more with roads, less through forests) but squares are delimited either by a grid pattern or by major rivers which means some are oddly shaped. There can be great schadenfreude in having the vulnerable Archbishop of York find a route to get from York to Preston in five squares, where he can board a ship to safety, while powerful Mowbray in his castle one square to the east is unable to catch up and force a battle.
Although the Avalon Hill printing of this game puts a limit on the number of players that may take part, no such limit was mentioned in the original Ariel (UK) printing and the game can accommodate more than the suggested maximum. The recommended maximum number of players in the revised edition published by TM Games was 7.
The game can benefit from 'in house' rule variations. One such variation is that a late arriving player or observer who suddenly wants to play can be "dealt in" simply by dealing cards face up from the draw pile until a noble is found, at which time the new player has a noble and a hand of cards and may begin play. Another is to play with the noble cards face up but all their allocated cards (title, office, etc) face down; this creates uncertainty over who (if anyone) controls the key towns and troop bonuses and allows 'spoofing' where a noble looks powerful because he has several cards, but none of those cards grant any troop bonus. A third is to permit 'suicide attacks' where a cardless noble attacks a stack of enemy nobles, hoping to draw a battle card that kills one or more of the enemies. This tactic becomes popular at the end of the game when the Noble card deck is empty, for if the suicide attacker fails to in his objective, he himself will (probably) die and his card will be returned to the Noble pack -- to be immediately re-drawn by the attacking player at the end of his/her turn. It falls to the stronger player to find a way to avoid cycles of such attacks by the same noble. The tactic may be unrealistic but it gives the weak one more way to harass and maybe overcome the strong.
Look and feel
The game components are striking, full of feudal images of heraldry and parchment, and the places, people and terms all use actual mediaeval English. This is done without detracting from playability; in fact, the colorful and striking heraldic emblems are used just as they were designed, making identification easier than reading names. There can be some difficulty with some of the names of places and families, where non-British players (especially) may be unsure of the pronunciation. There have also been shifts in spelling and pronunciation since the 15th century. The Scrope family, for example, is referenced in Shakespeare's Henry V with the spelling 'Scroop,' which is likely the correct pronunciation for the era.
The game makes no attempt at reproducing the historical chain of events which occurred in the Wars of the Roses; the players are free to do as they see fit, which is likely to be quite different each time Kingmaker is played. The role of the royal heirs in the game, as mere pawns in the Machiavellian plots of the noble families, reflects the roles of some but not all of the real heirs. The relationship could be viewed as the Royal Heir running the faction they travel with rather than the reverse. Actual holdings of land and titles of different nobles has been broken down and simplified in many cases. However, reflecting the common view of that time, where few really cared which royal house had the more "rightful" claim, there was as much fighting within the houses as between them. Loyalty might change as the wind blows and a ruthless climb to power was often rewarded by betrayal and a cataclysmic downfall. This is faithfully reproduced in Kingmaker.
Some details are changed from historical fact to improve playability. Henry Tudor is not present in the game (see Beaufort Family for details), and the Beaufort noble piece becomes the Heir to the Lancastrian claim only if all Lancastrian heirs are killed. Some titles are removed from the nobles that historically held them. For game balance, the troop strengths are modified for different nobles, and the strongest noble (Percy) is forced to start the game in the far north, a long way from the main action, even though in real life the family held additional castles further south. However, all castles, towns, cities and other locations are given their correct names with one exception: the castle known as Masham in the game is actually Castle Bolton, owned by Lord Scrope of Masham (and owned by his descendants to this day). In the very first version of the game, there was also a typo: the board displayed "Ravenser" instead of "Ravenscar" in East Yorkshire.
In Simon Foxall's book "Mapping England"  there is a map/board described as a "Historical Version by the Black Prussian"; this appears to be a modification of the Avalon Hill version which increases the degree of historical accuracy in the nobles included, their strengths and the places shown.
Kingmaker is a computer version of the game, produced by Avalon Hill in 1994, which reproduces the look and play of the board game almost exactly, allowing the player to compete with up to five computer controlled factions. The major change from the board game is the addition of a battle interface where the player can control his or her army in combat, but it is very simplistic and the option to resolve battles by the original method remains. The game is no longer produced but can be found for download.
Kingmaker won the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Professional Game of 1975. Greg Stafford said "A game's quality is measured by two things: fun and replayability. Kingmaker ranks way high in both. It is not perfect, but its strengths more than make up for its weaknesses. The game is fun because it's a multi-player political wargame that is largely abstract, thus lacking a lot of the fussy detail required of a true historical simulation."
- Foxall, S. "Mapping England" (2008), Black Dog Publishing Ltd, London
- "Charles S. Roberts Award Winners (1975)". Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design. Archived from the original on 2007-11-05. Retrieved 2007-10-29.
- Stafford, Greg (2007). "Kingmaker". In Lowder, James. Hobby Games: The 100 Best. Green Ronin Publishing. pp. 164–167. ISBN 978-1-932442-96-0.