Holding the Lead: King of the Hill in Combative Board Games


Oath board game box cover

One of the more controversial elements of some of my favorite games is how it’s basically a big “king of the hill” scrum. This is code for saying that there’s a lot of bashing the leader.

Which is a dirty word these days in a lot of gaming circles, but it’s a good thing in my world (and, fortunately, for some of the friends I game with).

More than that, these are games where you have to hold the lead even once you’ve gotten there. This often paints a nearly literal target on your back. It’s not enough to reach the endgame state; you have to hold it for a bit while others, presumably, try to stop you and/or take it for themselves.

This mechanical conceit isn’t entirely unique in games, but it’s somewhat rare. Today, I’m going to look at four games that employ it, how they differ slightly, and what I like or dislike about each.

Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284 AD

The game that inspired this blog post, because I realized the similarities it has to the few mentioned below. In the game, claiming Italy and the emperorship of Rome is incredibly important. And, indeed, to end the game a person needs to end their turn above a certain point threshold while holding the emperor title.

While it’s possible to win the game without being emperor for the longest period or ending the game with the title, it’s a strong indicator of success and the biggest way to gain prestige (i.e. victory) points. And so the king-of-the-hill struggle ensues.

Importantly, I think, even in a multiplayer game, ousting someone from Rome never feels petty. Because in doing so, that player is helping themselves in the largest possible way. They’re also having to devote significant resources to it, even in the best of circumstances.

So it’s not just bashing someone else, but also helping yourself toward endgame goals, and thus feels less vindictive than in some games where an action might be entirely bashing, but without the “help myself” part. You can’t claim that I only attacked you because of a petty vendetta, because the justification for the action is beyond obvious. So, at least in theory, it minimizes the potential for hurt feelings.

Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile

My least favorite of this crop, by a large margin. I have other issues with Oath, but here I’ll be looking at the bash-the-leader and kingmaking mechanics.

Oath has extremely asymmetric win conditions. To the point where, for example, our goals for the session overlap very little. In theory, this can be cool.

The issue, though, isn’t the bashing the leader elements on their own. It’s a problem that Time of Crisis solves for. Oath has big, hefty turns; you only get a handful in many games. But at a certain point in the game a player will have their victory condition and you’ll have to devote your entire turn to preventing them from keeping it, or else you’ll lose the game.

But unlike Time of Crisis, you’re not doing anything “positive” toward your own ends in this time, at least not meaningfully so.

In most sessions of Oath I’ve played, some player has gotten stuck in this sort of loop, where an outsized portion of the game isn’t spent trying to win, but simply preventing another player from winning. And your other opponents may be content to let you stay in this role. Over the course of, say, an hour, it becomes an unsatisfying experience.


Kemet has a couple different editions, but the takeaways below apply to any of them.

Kemet likely features the most combats in a session, even compared to Time of Crisis, a full-on wargame. And once you reach a point threshold, the race is on to bump that player back and/or surpass it yourself.

The ways in which you’ll gain victory points are sufficiently bounded, though, so that it’s nearly impossible to hurt an opponent without helping yourself. The methods by which you’ll do this are pleasantly varied, owing to the game’s various strategies and approaches.

Some VPs are permanent as well, while others are temporary, which also prevents the Munchkin-esque problem of nuking someone back to Square 1 and making them climb all the way back. You can push them back down, but only so far.


My favorite of the bunch, and blends a couple ideas discussed earlier.

There are three possible win conditions, and anyone can achieve one or more of them. This means that you may have different goals than opponents, but not wildly so, since the types of victories possible are bounded and shared.

Ironically, like Oath, you might not overlap with an opponent’s goals and have to stop them from winning. The difference, to me, is threefold.

One, given that all possible win conditions are shared, it’s rare to perform an action that’s only punitive and doesn’t also further your ends in some way.

Second, the turns are quicker, and there’s no guarantee that any one player has the right board position or cards to stop someone, so it becomes more communal rather than sticking someone with the task based on turn order.

Lastly, it’s also rare that you have to devote your entire hand of cards to stopping someone. More frequently, you’ll split your hand between preventing others’ wins and working toward your own. This avoids Oath’s onerous pendulum wherein you find yourself having to work too hard simply stopping others and not feeling a sense of progress.

Also ironically, you could have your position nuked to the point where you’re extremely far from a win condition. Again, though, the mitigating factor is that you’re never far from regaining enough presence and influence to compete for a win. After the initial couple rounds as the board is being expanded and populated with sanctuaries and such, it’s comparatively easy to spread out to a position of some power.

Inis also smartly creates a tiebreaker in the form of the capitol, much like Time of Crisis with Rome/Italy. But it also allows you to ignore this and simply try to achieve more victory conditions. Another player might have a single victory condition and the tiebreaker province, but out on the outskirts, you didn’t waste as many resources fighting over that hill and have two victory conditions, en route to a win.

It’s asymmetric in ways that promote the ability to pivot, rather than narrowing your options by sidling you with a single asymmetric win condition, a la Oath. And it’s because every condition is available to everyone at all times.

That, to me, is how you create opportunities for strategic diversity. There’s more freedom of strategic approach, even while you’re having to keep others in check.


There isn’t a “right/wrong” or “good/bad” with these. Just variances in design and how they interact with personal preferences.

I greatly enjoy three of the games above, so it should be clear that I love bash-the-leader elements in “king of the hill” games.

But, as with anything, execution matters. The details matter. Because these details change the experience considerably.

Enjoy my content and want to read more? Check out my other reviews and game musings!