I bought Kings and Things* (K&T – the asterisk is part of the game’s title) back around 15 years ago, mostly because it was from Games Workshop, which had brought out other games I enjoyed at the time, like Talisman and DungeonQuest. It isn’t like those games, however. Those are explorer-like RPG-ish games, where you move a character through an environment battling foes and gaining treasure (and, in the case of DungeonQuest, dying, dying, and dying.) K&T is instead a game where you dispatch a variety of critters across a hex-delineated board for ultimate control. In other words, it’s a wargame. But it’s a very light one.
How light? Well, that’s where the asterisk comes in. The various Things that can be recruited include Gypsies, Slime Beasts, Dwarves, Killer Raccoons, Flying Buffalo, Ice Bats, Walking Trees, Sandworms, Eskimos, Elephants…you get the idea. They populate a land made up of hexes of various terrain types: Plains, Mountains, Swamp, Jungle, Forest, Desert, Sea, and Frozen Wastes. Since the board is laid out randomly, it’s not unusual to have a Kadab (the name of this land) like ours, in which Desert is surrounded on three sides by Frozen Waste. All of this is illustrated through very cartoony Tom Wham artwork. So as you can see, there’s not a small amount of silliness in the game.
My copy of the game, being fifteen years old, is a little worn. One corner of the box is damaged, the rules are kind of wrinkled, and I didn’t do the best job adding an asterisk to the Swordsmaster and Marksman, a little manual errata required due to misprinted tiles. It’s seen a lot of wear. But play? Not a bit. I’d never played the thing. A couple of times I’d gotten close, but I’d never even started round one. I decided the time had come and announced to my friends that I was determined to finally play K&T. TJ, Grant, and Mike answered the call, and Friday night this boardgame finally saw play.
I had read the rules in advance, and started to explain them to the others, but we decided that we’d go over the main things and then cover other ground once we got started. As a result, everyone pretty much had a disastrous first round, as not everyone had a good idea of how exploring unowned tiles and combat worked. Our first two rounds or so went by very slowly. However, soon we had most everything figured out and things happened much more quickly.
Combat in the game is pretty slow. Things face each other and then roll a bunch of dice until one side retreats or is destroyed. Since a Thing has to roll under its combat rating to hit, and many of them have combat ratings of 1 or 2, some battles can be pretty tedious.
Also, since there’s a wide variety of Things, and they’re pulled out randomly from a cup, it’s very easy to walk into a hex and get annihilated. One nightmarish hex that Grant wandered into early on stayed unclaimed for the rest of the game, even though it held some pretty good treasure. Nobody wanted to mess with the forces assembled on it.
The goal of Kings and Things* is to be the only person with a Citadel, which you get by building up your Tower into a Keep, then a Castle, and then a Citadel. But since building a Citadel requires not only a Castle but an income of 20 gold, you also have to do some other exploring. Several strategies seemed to be going on. TJ seemed content to stay in a relatively small area, building up his forces and recruiting many Special Characters. Mike was all about building forts, and then went after the income to try and get a Citadel. I was trying to do a lot of exploring while staying away from others to keep a buffer zone between me and them. Whatever Grant’s strategy may have been, it got sidetracked by a series of ridiculously poor dice rolls from which he had a hard time recovering.
Eventually TJ, Mike, and I were racing towards the finish. We all were closing in on the prized 20 income mark. I attacked one of Mike’s tiles successfully, allowing me to both get 20 income and deprive him of the same. TJ’s largely isolationist strategy had made him a powerful foe. The portion in the round came where I could turn my Castle into a Citadel and win the game!
Except…I wouldn’t, necessarily. For you see, there’s a catch. If someone else builds a Citadel as well, then you don’t win. At that point you can only win through conquest. You have to control two Citadels at that point, and the only way to do so is to capture another player’s Citadel. So I would have built one, and then TJ would have, and then we’d have to fight it out from there. By the next round, Mike would have one as well, so there’d be a three-way battle for supremacy. Since TJ and I were on opposite sides of the board, we’d either have to slowly crawl across it towards each other, or we’d have to simply wait for Mike or Grant to build a Citadel and then try and wrest it from them. Mike was close, but Grant wasn’t.
And we’d already been playing for about three hours. No matter how you sliced it, the game was only now starting to get ugly. We were probably looking at at least another hour, probably two, before this would wrap up. And even then it was clear that TJ would probably win, as he was in a much more powerful position than I was. So I declined to build a Citadel, TJ built one, and won the game. I conceded.
Thus we come to the great problem with Kings and Things*. Like the kingdom and forces in the game, the game itself is a confusing collection of things. It can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s silly or serious. On the one hand, it’s got a ton of rules that make it quite intimidating for non-wargamers (though to be fair, the rules ultimately aren’t as bad as they seem at first). But on the other, it’s got far too much randomness and silliness for those who enjoy wargames. On the one hand, it’s light and fun and funny, but on the other hand it takes about four hours to play. Even discounting the extra hour it took us to get the rules down and get into the swing of things, and even if you simply change the victory condition to whoever is the first to build a Citadel, period, you’re still looking at two hours of playing time. In that same amount of time there are tons of better games you could instead play multiple times.
I’m not sure what can be done about K&T. I think it can possibly be revamped into a faster game that’s more satisfying for everyone. But as it is, I think it’s something that is an unfortunate product of its times that has been sidelined by a generation of better, faster games.