The King’s Dilemma (concluded)

Folks, I wasn‘t ready. I did not see it coming. I thought I had a pretty good handle on The King’s Dilemma as it reached its final chapters. But then the ending landed and I was left stunned and speechless. I didn‘t think any game would be this ambitious, this confident and bold in what it set out to do. Most of all I didn‘t think a game could pull off what The King‘s Dilemma did.

The ending managed to contextualize all that had come before. It sifted through the many ephemeral moments of the 16 sessions it took us to finish the campaign and created something that belies the limited nature of legacy games. To be clear, The King’s Dilemma does not have a twist ending. There are no sudden reversals or surprises meant to catch you off-guard and have you marvel at the designer’s cleverness. This isn’t a case of Marion Crane taking a fateful shower, or the identity of Keyser Soze or a question of who was or wasn’t actually dead the whole time. There is none of this here.

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Everything or nothing

Instead the ending manages to conclude its main plot and by doing so sheds light on all the elements that have come before. Like the season end montages in The Wire, it makes us appreciate where we started and where we ended up. But more importantly it draws attention to the steps that led us there. It contrasts our lively negotiation full of jokes, laughter and shrewd tactical votes to get what we want, with the fate of this imaginary kingdom, with its fictional people and made-up culture.

This article will include huge spoilers for The King’s Dilemma. Although maybe not in the way you expect. I must warn you in no uncertain terms, that if you haven’t finished your own campaign of The King’s Dilemma to stop reading now. Even if you think, you’re fine with spoilers; that it’s about the journey not the destination… this doesn’t apply here. Once you know certain things about the game, your experience will be diminished in a way that nothing else in the game can compensate for. It will still be fun, but you will regret having missed the opportunity to experience the game’s arc first-hand.

I will give you one piece of advice before you get back to playing the game:

Trust your instincts.

Whatever they may be.

With that out of the way… let’s get back to talking about the game or skip to the paragraphs under the picture to read my spoiler-free conclusion.

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For the vast majority of time you’re playing The King’s Dilemma you will get pulled in two directions at once. There is the game on one side, and the story on the other. The rules will give you objectives to pursue, while your decisions unfold a story that you might want you push into a different direction. This is what is known as ludo-narrative dissonance.

At first glance, this appears to be a lapse in game design. It seems a decision was made to keep the rules small and easy to handle, while merely sprinkling a story lightly on top of it. This is far from unusual in board games, where theme is generally only of secondary concern. Theme is the little splash of color that makes abstract, mechanical rules interaction feel less drab. As experienced players we’re trained to handle these ludo-narrative conflicts with ease. When a rule doesn’t make thematic sense, we adjust the thematic explanation in our head. Or ignore it altogether. After all the rules tell us what to do. And we can’t change the rules, of course! That’d be madness. Heresy, even.

But it’s no coincidence that one of the first decisions you have to make in this game has to do with abolishing slavery in Ankist. The inclusion of slavery in board games has had a very problematic history (and only minimally less difficult present for that matter). The thoughtless and often trivializing inclusion of it into board games is getting called out more often, which is necessary and long overdue. But the voices that want to downplay the negative effects of depicting slavery in a game as a net good, or at least beneficial to players, continue to bark with unearned confidence. Yet here the whole affair gets unceremoniously dropped onto your gaming table.

The inclusion of slavery and the above-the-table conflict it provokes isn’t an oversight, though. The King’s Dilemma isn’t really about indulging the cheap thrills of being a little naughty in a make-belief scenario. Sure it will make us laugh to parrot deeply cynical arguments with a straight face in defense of the most heinous actions. But our vote will ultimately steer the direction of the game towards things being better or worse for Ankist. The choice we make isn’t just about what it says on the card. It’s also about putting the position of the game’s resource trackers above the well-being of the people in Ankist.

Both concepts are technically meaningless. The kingdom of Ankist is a fictional place, filled with fictional people beset by fictional dangers. The resource markers on the board track equally fictional values which will award some players victory points, that are no more real than any other numbers in the game.

In theory this should make these decisions and their outcomes irrelevant to us. In theory this should make these decisions either incredibly simple (Who cares what happens?) or unfathomably hard (How am I supposed to make a decision?). But this isn’t what happens in this or any other game.

Instead we care about victory points and how to get them, because we are invested in winning the game. Because winning does mean something to us. It may be the sense of accomplishment in besting our friends in competition. It may be our personal satisfaction of excelling at a task given to us. It may be the pride in overcoming the challenges that the game’s designers have concocted. Whatever the reasons may be, the one thing they all have in common is that they’re ultimately selfish. No matter how much we like to downplay and deny it, winning a game is a boost to our ego.

So when The King’s Dilemma presents us with these two opposing incentives, our decision is ultimately rooted in something that’s neither abstract nor made-up. It’s a decision to do something that benefits ourselves at the expense of others. The shrewd thing about this game’s design isn’t that it taps into our vanity and pride. Pretty much all competitive game designs do so. It’s not even that it maps our competitive drive onto the selfishness of the houses we play.

The smart and insightful design decision is that The King’s Dilemma adds consequences to our competitiveness. In The King’s Dilemma winning actually comes at a cost. That cost is the story that unfolds on your table. It is the fate of the entire kingdom of Ankist and its people. When I wrote about the game before, I mentioned how uneasy I felt about the grim and dark tone of the setting. How its events seemed to revel in the nastiness it portrayed. But I underestimated the designers. The game’s darkness has a purpose. It is supposed to be uncomfortable. It is supposed to make you feel at least a little awkward for allowing it to happen. The question then becomes how dire will you let things get, before you try to put an end to it.

While there are no plot twists or game-changing surprises in the game, The King’s Dilemma does stack the deck against us as experienced board gamers. If you know games, some things become self-evidently true. You play to win and you only win by doggedly pursuing the objectives you’re presented with. You squeeze every possible benefit out of the rules. Holding back – for whatever reason – is patently absurd. Only unfettered ambition is rewarded with victory points and by extension with victory. Some fundamentalists will even argue that not pushing for objectives with everything you can, cheapens the experience of playing the game at all. There is no victory in indulging your little fantasies of what player pieces, tokens and markers on the board represent. Only victory points are tangible and real. There is only proving you’re the best or falling by the wayside.

The orthodoxy of this extremist position ultimately works against us. It makes it too easy to overlook the many ways in which the game repeatedly implores us to care. Whether it’s the increasingly grim depiction of violence, social decay and human suffering or even fourth-wall-breaks to argue on behalf of the people of Ankist. Surely, this is just for show? The story outcome of our politicking and haggling didn’t actually affect us, so why should we care? Sure, we knew we could act “morally” within the game, and “do the right thing”, but so what? That’s not how games work! We’re not responsible for what we do, it’s the rules that tell us how to act. We’re just playing roles. We’re just doing it for a laugh.

The narrative arc of The King’s Dilemma makes us experience an argument that might otherwise be too esoteric to understand: abstraction inhibits our empathy. Everything that happens in the game is, for lack of a better word, fiction. One part is a story and the other is numbers. By siding with the numbers, siding with the abstracted situation we can quell our reflex to care. We resolve the ludo-narrative dissonance by choosing to ignore the part that makes us uncomfortable.

Until, maybe, we can’t. Until all the decisions we’ve made to benefit ourselves have pushed past the kind of story we can stomach. That is when we make the kind of decision The King’s Dilemma is actually about. It’s the decision to abandon the selfish quest for validation through victory. It’s the decision to sacrifice personal ambition even when there is no promise of reward for doing so.

That is why not knowing what lies ahead is so essential to fully experience The King’s Dilemma. You can’t know if your small sacrifice will be worth anything, that’s what makes it meaningful. That is why the climactic final battle introduces player elimination. The losing side will be wiped out. You know this going in. It factors into your last decisions in the game. As does the amount of victory points you will score for choosing certain actions.

In our game, I chose to remain neutral and survive no matter what. Conceding the ground to the more ambitious and power-hungry players who ultimately steered Ankist towards apocalypse. One of whom ended up ruling over the ruins of what once was a kingdom rich in culture and history. The epilogue was so bleak and dire, that the table acknowledged that we’ve obviously reached the downer, depressing ending of the game. Which ultimately made the winning player’s victory feel ashen and bitter.

The King’s Dilemma did exactly what it said it would do all along. It showed us how our ambition and selfishness led to the downfall of this world.

On a story level, The King’s Dilemma is arguably an allegory for modern politics. Petty personal grudges and special interest drive the kingdom towards ruin for all but the most powerful. It speaks to the kind of horrified powerlessness we feel today as we watch elections get gamed and manipulated, lies get weaponized, the climate catastrophe accelerated for fear of losing out on profit and the poor and vulnerable get trampled upon because somebody somewhere thought they could make a quick buck, gain favor or even leave their mark on history. The King’s Dilemma shows us what happens when the ruling class abdicates their responsibility by making us complicit in doing the same to Ankist.

On a player level, The King’s Dilemma delves into ideas of what it means to make an ethically charged decision without knowing the outcome. Not just as a core mechanism, but as an overall theme of the story, and ultimately its finale. It asks us if we would do the right thing, even if there is no thanks or reward for it. Even if it might mean we lose everything? Would we stick to what is right, even when it doesn’t seem to matter? When there’s nobody watching, when there’s nobody taking us to task for it, when the magic circle guarantees that our actions will have no repercussions, would we still choose to do the right thing? Or will we instead opt for the option that is most convenient?

On a ludological level, The King’s Dilemma asks us to question why we care about the things we care about in a game. Why does winning matter so much to us? What is it about winning a game that puts everything else we can experience in a game into second place? The game explicitly offers us another path. Its ludo-narrative dissonance is about two distinct play objectives colliding with one another. What does it take for us to abandon our pursuit of being declared the winner?

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It’s safe to read from here on out

I can’t help myself but call The King’s Dilemma art. It‘s not a word I use lightly or often, when I talk about games. Sure there have been many games that sincerely talked about serious and meaningful topics. But those had educational aspirations in the widest sense. They meant to lead you through a specific perspective on its subject.

The King’s Dilemma on the other hand makes use of the medium and its unique qualities. It makes players participate in constructing its own argument. It hones in on how and why we play games. It gives us decisions to make with which we gradually put together the game’s thematic statement. A statement about itself, about the world around us and about ourselves.

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