The Old King’s Crown Preview
The Old King’s Crown has been sending ripples across my radar for a few years now, and with those ripples turning into waves after big showings at conventions like the UK Games Expo, I had big expectations with my preview copy arriving. I tried to temper my enthusiasm, but I needn’t have. The Old King’s Crown is very, very good.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Lucky for us then nobody is wearing the crown at the moment, as the previous king has apparently popped his clogs. Shuffled off this mortal coil. He is an ex-king. Each of you plays one of his heirs, hungry for power, climbing over one another to be the next monarch. In my head I’m picturing the Trial by Stone from The Dark Crystal, but with fewer Skeksis.
The main board represents the regions of the kingdom. Having control of one or more regions at the end of an Autumn phase (rounds are broken into Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter) grants you bonuses which help you get towards your ultimate goal, which is having 15 (20 in a two-player game) Influence Points, thereby claiming the crown.
The majority of what happens in the game is dictated by the cards the players use. A card has a strength value which is used during clash resolution (i.e. who wins control of a region), and typically a power or ability too. Already you might be able to see some similarities between this and other games. The first things that sprang to mind for me were thoughts like “Oh, so it’s a bit like Love Letter / Citadels / Vaalbara”, and those comparisons hold some weight, but there’s a lot more going on under the surface in The Old King’s Crown.
Turn order really matters. The first player has to commit to which Location they’re sending their Herald (the big wooden piece) as a statement of intent. It’s up to the other players to decide if they want to go toe-to-toe in the same location or try their luck elsewhere. It’s a small action, but it feels like there’s so much riding on it. Winning a region where your herald is can net you an influence point in addition to whatever the location gives you. If you contest a region where two or more heralds share a location, the winner gets to steal an influence point from the losers.
In a game where you might only need 15 points to win, a well-placed herald can result in a three-point swing, and that’s before you even take the location’s bonuses into consideration. So right away you’ve got these intriguing mind games. Is that herald there because they’ve got cards you’re never going to beat, or are they just full of bluster, hoping to scare you into contesting somewhere else instead?
Being last in turn order actually has a really good benefit, which is just another string to The Old King’s Crown’s bow. The last player chooses the order in which the three region’s clashes are resolved. It might not seem like that big of a deal, but some of the cards you play can have effects which bolster the strength of cards in adjacent regions. Those cards aren’t much use if the cards in those adjacent regions are revealed before your bolstering card, such is the power of choosing resolution order. There is no such thing as a dead action. Everything you do matters.
Follow your own path
Each of the factions in The Old King’s Crown has its own unique player board and despite sharing some common cards and abilities, is asymmetric. Not to the extent of something like Root (review here) or a COIN game like Cuba Libre (review here), but still with differences. Each has its own set of action tiles at the bottom of its boards, and each has its own site of power at the top of the main board, with new action cards to invest in as the game progresses.
It strikes a nice balance here. I know people who won’t play COIN games because understanding how each of four factions operates and wins is daunting. I find teaching those games difficult for precisely that reason. The Old King’s Crown dials those divergences down to a point where everybody has the same win conditions, and everybody knows how the clashes will be fought, but there are enough differences there to keep things interesting.
It’s funny because as a die-hard Euro game fan, wargames are where I’ll usually stray into confrontational, interactive games. This game feels and looks more like a Euro with its deck construction and player boards, yet it’s unashamedly in-your-face. The mind games are fantastic, and even in our first learning game my group found ourselves goading one another, daring rivals not to add their companies (wooden pieces that add to your strength in a region) to a region to ‘see what happens if you don’t’.
I haven’t even mentioned the Great Road kingdom cards yet, which you can claim and add to your player boards for new actions and abilities. You can claim them from the middle of the table, but if one of your opponents has one that you want, or one you simply want to deny them of because it’s such a pain in the ass to play against, you can outright steal it from them. This isn’t a game you can play head-down. You need to know what’s going on with everybody, all of the time.
No man is an island
It’d be remiss of me to not draw attention to the solo mode in The Old King’s Crown. I was dubious of how well it would work at first, knowing how cutthroat and confrontational the game is. Replicating that feeling in an AI deck of any kind is no small feat. However, with the help of solo specialist Ricky Royal, the solitaire mode is very good.
The opponent – dubbed Simulacrum – plays with a special deck and a ruleset that introduces very little overhead into the game. Regular readers will know there’s a dividing line for me, when running the artificial opponent for a game takes more time and brainpower than taking my own actions, and this one happily sits on the correct side of that fence.
Remarkably, the designers have managed to create a solo opponent which not only leaves you free to play in the same way as you would for the multiplayer game, but also seems to have its own personalities. It’s not like the cards are imbued with the souls of players, but it captures the idea of playing against someone who’s got their own intentions, not just randomly pulling cards and plonking things where fate decides. The Simulacrum’s cards have behavioural traits such as plotting and warmongering, and cards played in different phases combine (or not) in a way which feels natural.
Would I buy The Old King’s Crown just to play solo? For me, maybe not. The table talk and tension built by human beings is what makes the game truly outstanding for me. That said, the solo mode is excellent, and if you’d told me it had come from Morten and his Automa Factory, I’d have believed you in a heartbeat.
I’m so pleased to see The Old King’s Crown get this far. I’ve been bumping into the guys from Eerie Idol games for years now, and the artwork has always caught my attention. The aesthetics and watercolour shades are absolutely gorgeous. We’re really spoiled here in the UK with indie studios at the moment, and the incredible design and art they’re bringing to games. I expect to hear lots of “This is their first game? Really??” once boxes start landing on tables.
Ultimately it’s a glorified bluffing game, but putting it in simple terms like that just highlights how much heavy lifting the word ‘glorified’ is doing. Strategising, adapting, and improvising all play a part. Customising your faction with the Great Road cards. Choosing if and when to invest in your site of power cards. Trying to remember if your rival across the table has already played that low-value card that assassinates your high-value one. Heck, some cards even let you claim other factions’ dead cards from the communal Lost pile and use them against their previous owners.
I had a hard time getting my head around some of the nuances and terms in the rulebook, but as with any preview I write, there’s a caveat that nothing is final, and things like the rulebook won’t be finalised for a while yet. While I don’t know exactly what Patrick and crew over at Leder Games did to help with development, knowing that a) they’ve been involved, and b) Pablo and the Eerie Idol team were sensible enough to involve them, is an indicator of the level of polish and quality you can expect.
With an easy-to-follow ruleset that leaves the majority of your brain free to plot and scheme, The Old King’s Crown is just wonderful. It’s the kind of game that you’d imagine would lead to some ‘kill the king’ when someone races ahead, and to some extent that’s true, but for every ally with a hand on your shoulder, you’d better believe they’re holding a stiletto tip at your ribs too. The Kickstarter goes live on October 24th 2023, and you can sign up to be notified of the launch right here. I suggest you do, I think this game is going to be deservingly huge.
Preview copy provided by Eerie Idol Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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The Old King’s Crown (2023)
Design: Pablo Clark
Publisher: Eerie Idol Games
Art: Pablo Clark
Playing time: 60-90 mins