The King is Dead, Second Edition Board Game Review


The King is Dead, 2nd Edition board game box cover

Year Published: 2020

Players: 2-4

Playing Time: 30-45 Minutes

In The King is Dead, Second Edition, you’ll be vying for control over a handful of Scottish, Welsh and English regions in an attempt to be the next monarch. However, your goals and how you accomplish them can change throughout the game. You’re not necessarily beholden to a particular faction at the start. You’ll each have a hand of cards that correspond to various actions, like placing, moving, or replacing influence cubes on the game board, or altering the order in which regions will be contested.

In a 4-player game, you will be forming teams of two, trying to get one from the partnership onto the throne. Every other player count is everyone for themselves.

You also have eight actions. And that’s it. Each of these possible actions are mirrored in your opponents’ hands (although there’s a variant mode with some card variance), but how you actualize those eight actions is the key. Each can be impotent or crucial depending on the timing.

Hand management is a mechanical term that is thrown around a lot in board games. But how often do you find yourself truly deliberating over the tiniest details of your hand of cards?

The King is Dead is a game where hand management is more or less the entire game. Yes, the cards correspond to actions, which translate to the shifting power struggles on the game’s magnificently compact yet beautiful board. But the game’s true action is in the cards.

For redundancy, you only get to play each of your card actions once. Then that’s it. If you play all eight of your actions in the first half of the game, you will sit out the second half, powerless as the remaining conflicts play themselves out.

So each action becomes a momentous choice. This is the first of several things the game does right.

Group Meta and Pacing

This is a positive review, so the only nits I’ll be picking will be appropriately small, or they’ll have counter-arguments. Let’s look at a couple of them, shall we?

In my example above, wherein a player has literally nothing to do for the game’s second half, isn’t this a bad thing in game design? In this case, no, at least not usually. For one, the game is over quickly. That second half might only be 10-15 minutes of play.

Second, the downtime isn’t baked into the design by default. You have to create it through your decisions. If you blow all your power early, you have only yourself to blame.

Table Meta & Problems Arising From It
Group meta is a potential problem (or boon) in any game. Here, though, there are a few potential pitfalls. I’ve struggled mightily to see a route to producing multiple ties, which triggers the alternate endgame condition of the French invading.

This should be a viable tactic for a player who surveys the table after a few conflicts and determines that they can’t win via the traditional “coronation” endgame condition. But if there are, say, two others fighting for coronation, it’s their 16 actions vs. your 8. As a result, we’ve seen those last 10-15 minutes go by occasionally with one player seeing no significant chance to win.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and the game is again short, but it’s a minor issue I’ve noticed. I heavily suspect it’s due to table dynamics, and should be more viable than what it seems. But I don’t play games in theory. I play in reality. So to get tautological for a second, if it’s an issue in play, it’s an issue in play.

Player Count and Game Modes

The 4P game here is a 2v2 team game, which means we have multiple game modes! The 2P game is closer to the free-for-all 3P game, but a few additional rules accompany it.

This is rare in games, but also interesting to me. I won’t say there’s a better or worse, since this game is solid at any player count, but I personally lean toward the 4P experience for one important reason.

Three players doesn’t seem like a ton, but it can be easy to feel like anything you do will inevitably be reversed or negated by the action cards of an opponent. There are ways to mitigate this, of course, but there’s only so much control you can exert over your fate.

In the team game, your side’s actions effectively balloon to 16. And your partner will presumably not be trying to undermine your efforts. This creates a play area that, while still chaotic at times, allows for more long-term tactical thinking and coordination. You technically can’t talk shop with your partner during play (though the designer has said waving this rule for new players is fine), but you can still send messages and plans to them via your actions, and they can do the same.

It creates a literal dialogue, but told through the game’s mechanisms instead of words. This is good stuff, and the type of thing some designers only dream of accomplishing.

Components & Artwork

I’m not a component and artwork junky, but credit where it’s due: this is a gorgeous game. The cards and board are magnificent. And it’s made all the more appealing because it chose to be understated in its use of wooden cubes instead of miniatures, which would have been meaningless here. The entire package is good, with nothing feeling extraneous or distracting.

I doubt a game can be both opulent and minimalist, but The King is Dead attempts to evoke both feelings.

Oblique Area Control

In another review (for War of Whispers (WoW)) I talked about oblique strategies in games, and how I enjoyed them. Like WoW, which came well after the earlier versions of The King is Dead, you’re fighting over territory, but you aren’t beholden to one particular faction. Rather, you can pivot toward allegiance with a particular faction, then manipulate the board to try to help them. But an opponent may be doing the same.

There’s less hidden information in The King is Dead, so some of WoW’s intrigue is missing. But it’s a much tighter experience here, and a variety of strategies will always be available to you even with so few actions.

These sorts of games also force me to think about strategy differently than I’m used to, which I always appreciate. Traditional area control is more immediately discernible. But here, you’ll probably play once or twice and will still be sussing out how to form coherent strategies, let alone execute them.

It’s not that it’s a complex game (it’s not), but that it will bend your thinking slightly from its standard path. This is excellent, for the record. Tigris & Euphrates—another oblique area control classic—engenders the same feeling in me, of never quite knowing what tactic will be best, but having ample tools to try to figure it out. It’s a great feeling for a game to create.

The Austerity of Tight Design

Not long ago, my friends and I were playing a “classic” board game with a single page of rules and one of my friends joked “remember when games were simple?” We all laughed, because it’s true.

The King is Dead has more than a page of rules, but it feels austere among its more modern peers.

Increasingly, I appreciate this uncluttered design philosophy. Perhaps some of my love is due to fatigue at learning so many other complicated games. “X is good because Y is bad” is problematic from a reviewing perspective. Yet I can’t help but admire games that get out of their own way, and at least some of that admiration is due to having played far too many complicated games.

You get the sense with many such games that they have what they need for their core experience, and nothing else.

Outside of the optional variant cards (which aren’t my favorite), I get the same feeling playing The King is Dead 2e. If you want complicated rules systems, they’re not here. A shared decision space with a limited number of critical actions is here, though, and that works for me.

Scope and Satisfaction in Board Games

Shortly after I purchased this game, No Pun Included named it their (co)game of 2020 (yes, this is me and my “I liked it before it was cool” cred… 🙂 ). I was a bit shocked by them naming it their game of the year, though. Not because it’s not an excellent game (it is), but because with a group who knows how to play, it’s only a step above some fillers in terms of game length and complexity.

In our rankings and estimations of games, we often trend toward the gaudy and expansive, sometimes to our detriment, and a friend recently reminded me that the “best” games are often those that deliver a satisfying experience in a short timeframe, and that’s what makes them more valuable than the longer stuff.

The “satisfaction to time” ratio of The King is Dead is probably as high as anything in my collection. I frankly don’t get as excited about it as I do for some of my absolute favorites. But I also rarely see some of those other titles at the table, whereas it’s really easy to insert The King is Dead as an end-of-night game or palette cleanser between longer games, and it will still manage to engage everyone in play.

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