The King’s Dilemma is something of an odd beast. But probably not for the reasons you might think. The rulebook itself describes it as an interactive narrative experience, which is technically accurate. In much the same way that it is technically accurate to describe a train as a horseless mechanized carriage on tracks. Whatever fancy label you want to put on it, The King’s Dilemma is first and foremost a game. A negotiation game, in fact. And as is the case with all such games negotiations come with consequences. It is exactly these consequences that allow a narrative to emerge and take hold in your game.
The King’s Dilemma is set in the low fantasy kingdom of Ankist. Players take on the roles of the many powerful and influential lords, ladies, dukes, etc. advising the king on important decisions of his reign. These pivotal decisions that you will consult on, come in form of small story cards that outline a situation and present you with a simple binary choice. Build this tower or not? Send out explorers by ship or not? Pay the religious order to keep the peace or not? None of these have been actual examples from our game, by the way. I made them up as secrecy about what is in store for you is key to the experience. But more on that later.
Obviously, these decisions are incredibly hard to take, if practically nothing depends on them. (Otherwise known as a Diventer.) That’s why, outside of occasionally advancing one of the game’s six storylines, these decisions affect up to two of the five resources that you track on the game board. Resources that can go up or down, depending on what you decide to do. If you choose to spend money on a tower, the treasury will be lowered. Exploring ships may boost Ankist’s knowledge and arts. And so on and so forth. In a design decision that is as elegant as it is effective, you have multiple interests in where those resource markers should be by the time the king’s reign comes to an end. The key word here is multiple.
The most immediate one is your secret agenda card, which doesn’t really distinguish between the markers themselves, only their position on the board. This has the neat effect that, from a purely mechanical point of view, you’re not invested in any one marker moving in a particular direction. Only that they either keep or lose their momentum, depending on where you want them to be at the end of the game. You also have house goals, that need you to see specific markers in certain places, or to have you finish the game with the most money or power. Other agendas are added later to make you want to push specific resource markers up. That’s how you find yourself at odds with some players and in league with others from one game to the next. Or even one decision to the next.
This is where the negotiation aspect of the game shines. If you‘re mainly familiar with the concept from other board games, you are likely to know specific, gamified forms of negotiation. You might know about haggling, like you do in Chinatown, where you push for an imbalanced exchange that benefits you more than your opponent. You may treat negotiation as a form of trade, as you do in Catan, where you give away something you don’t need for something you do need. Or you might know negotiation from games like Diplomacy, where you lie about what you need to manipulate people to your benefit.
The King’s Dilemma gives mere lip service to those approaches. Sure, you can bribe players for their votes. Or you can lie about your intention to vote, so others won’t interfere. But the game is far more interested in creating actual, proper negotiation. That is to say it is about the process of players finding a compromise, pooling their resources and getting things done. This is, of course, only possible if players have something to compromise on. That is to say, prioritizing one of their goals over another depending on the situation at hand. The game manages this in two ways: it gives players a number of valid goals to go for. You are trying to move resource markers into certain parts of the board. You might be after money by letting yourself get bribed, or passing on making a decision. You might also want to focus on fulfilling your house goals to score renown or unlock abilities. So far, so mechanically solid. By allowing players to remain flexible within the many incentives of the game, you’re given room to negotiate.
The other neat trick that King’s Dilemma has up its sleeve, is that it dives into one of the least explored concepts in board game design: utter ignorance. One of the key aspects of playing a board game is that it gives you a sense of control. Your decisions are definitive. Your goals are spelled out for you clearly. The consequences of your actions, although occasionally complicated by randomness or other players’ decisions, are fairly easy to figure out. Knowing what you’re working towards and what’s in store for you, lets players quickly evaluate which decisions are important to their plans and which are not.
The King’s Dilemma on the other hand is hilariously coy about these things. Every game ends with players scoring victory points, that come in two currencies: renown and crave. The rulebook is quite explicit that the latter ones are not necessarily negative. But it is nowhere near explicit about how those points relate to the campaign’s resolution. You have to rely on your own assumptions and vague guesses. Which makes you – as a player – far more willing to compromise during the negotiations. Since you don’t know the exact value of those victory points you’re chasing, compromising one or two of them now, might not damage your standing in any significant way later. As the campaign progresses, the game’s storyline and card iconography gives hints and allusions to what might be waiting for you at the end, so you’re not completely blind-sided when the finale actually lands. Probably. I don’t know… I am about two or three games away from the end by now. And I’m still not entirely sure whose house is currently positioned to be victorious in the end. Or what that victory even looks like. We might know the renown and crave points of each of our houses, but we don’t know that means in game terms.
It’s this level of uncertainty that allows actual negotiation to take place at the table. Whereas a game like Sidereal Confluence tries to recreate this by making it incredibly challenging to compute the actual value of a trade as you play, The King’s Dilemma simply relies on a slow and vague drip of hints and allusions to what its numerical endgame will be like. This is a solution that is so ingeniously elegant, that it should make other game designers envious.
But this isn’t only a negotiation game with smart, effective mechanics. The King’s Dilemma calls itself a narrative experience and it’s a narrative that is both well integrated and well written. A feat, that shouldn’t be underestimated as until now only Betrayal Legacy had managed to pull it off. But whereas that game tragically failed to communicate the value of memory to its players, The King’s Dilemma has the fallout of individual decisions cling to individual houses for an indeterminate amount of (play)time. Sometimes they last for only two or three games. Sometimes they last for eight sessions or even longer. The game remembers and reminds you of the things you’ve done.
But it’s a memory that isn’t based on mechanics you’ve used, but on the actual decisions you’ve experienced. They are the consequences players were talking about, even if they were primarily interested in their mechanical application. While we may talk about wanting more food for the poor, or protecting the sanctity of the people’s faith; what we want to see is the food marker go up further, or the morale marker not to drop. Yet the game’s stickers that come as consequence of some of those decisions, will have your name on it. The people will remember that you voted against their interest, or unleashed the terrors of knowledge onto them. The game’s design cleverly makes theme and player decisions overlap to blur the line, and make it feel “thematic”.
Whether intentional or not, this merging of player action and story consequences paints the political dealings you engage in as a somewhat cynical take on real life political decision-making. You – in the role of effectively the world’s leading politicians – pay lip service to the actual issues, but are instead only interested in their consequences according to your secret, personal agenda. Sometimes this means that you gain the support of the people, sometimes you’re the bad guy. This leads to you getting public agendas, encouraging you to avoid certain developments on the resource board. But eventually another item in the news cycle will make the people forget what your house has done, and you can return to pursue your personal ambitions fully. Occasionally, you might feel like the events taking place in the kingdom should follow a certain path, i.e. push one of the six storylines you will explore in the game in one direction or another. As the game nears its end, and your personal ambitions may have been fulfilled, you find yourself suddenly invested in the fate of Ankist as a whole.
It’s a development that some more role-playing minded players find themselves in right from the first session. Grim situations that immediately evoke a response from the players, regardless of their effect on the board markers and the personal goals. This tension in what you want personally, and what you are supposed to want mechanically, can seem disorienting at first. But it is arguably part of the cynical and grim tone that personal beliefs (“slavery is an evil”) may have to be dismissed as irrelevant for winning the game (“but allowing it would let me score more points”). The familiarity of these narrative themes, tropes and stances shouldn’t take away from the fact, that it’s an immense achievement that such things manage to emerge organically from the game. And you don’t even need the designer to explain things to you in a lengthy blog post first.
One of the most noteworthy things about The King’s Dilemma is that I find myself still a little salty over decisions the group has made. It’s the ones I opposed on principle and not on mechanical advantage, that still linger in my mind. Sometimes I would ignore my agenda card, or house goals, to side with the consequence I wanted to see, not the one that would pay out. There’s something tragicomic about those moments, when fiction and reality seem to touch, that I’ve yet to experience in any other game.
While I would still argue that The King’s Dilemma is a negotiation game first, it’s the story that we create and experience through play, that makes it so memorable and remarkable. The tone of the story is, admittedly, not really to my tastes with its penchant for the grim and dark. But this is easily forgotten when faced with an experience that is so rich and engaging, and a design that is bold and striking without succumbing to rules bloat.
I could go on for another 2000 words, diving into the nitty-gritty of the carefully arranged elements of the game. But I have a kingdom to return to that needs its fate steered by the rich and powerful.