For those of you who are avid listeners of, or even simply tolerate the Polyhedron Collider podcast, you’ll know that I’m a bit of a fan of hefty Euros. Dice are something that I see as an addition to a game that I can plan a strategy around rather than something that forms a core mechanic. Jon and Steve feel differently on this matter. Or to put it another way, they’re both wrong and need to go to their rooms and think about what they’ve been doing with their lives. If you let him, “Dice Chucker” Tudor would have a vat of the damn things in any game he could lay his hands on, much to my consternation as I would throw those filthy polyhedrons in the fire given half the chance, which is somewhat ironic given our website name.
I mention the infernal cubes of chance as they play a part in a game we were taken through recently, City of Kings by Frank West. So obviously I’m the natural choice to review a game with dice in it. Thankfully, whilst dice are a part of the game, they’re not the only mechanic and their use is purely down to your own choice. If they had been a key part, I might have been telling you in my own unique style that City of Kings was about as appealing as a moonlit walk with Myra Hindley.
Thankfully, I am more than happy to say that City of Kings is actually pretty damn good. There, I said it. I don’t even feel dirty. Well, no more than usual. Frank was good enough to take me and the rest of the motley “Polygon Colander” crew (nice to see we left an impression on him) through the game at Airecon. Approaching the game, it’s very visually striking. The artwork is fantastic and it’s obviously got a lot going on. Frank had partially set the game up as we sat down, assuring us that he’d not spend ages telling us the rules and how to play, we’d just learn it as we went along. He then proceeded to spend ages telling us half the rules and what each of the counters was for. Nice one Frank.
To be fair, it’s a good thing he did – City of Kings isn’t what you’d call light, but then, it is RPG-inspired. I say that deliberately as it’s not a full blown RPG, but does have a few elements from things like D&D. When confronted by the array of bits on the table and the sizeable character sheet, Steve looked visibly worried. But then, he is somewhat “risk averse” whereas I tickle the scrotum of jeopardy with a glint in my eye. Each character (Hero) has their own character sheet with stats, upgrades and the usual affair of upgradable items as you’d expect, though each is unique to that character. Commonalities are things like attack, health and such like. Skills is where things get interesting, but I will return to the character sheet.
The idea behind the City of Kings is that in the recent past, boobs were launched skywards and a war broke out. The culmination of this large scale tiff was that the only remaining city (the titular City of Kings) is the last bastion against the bad guys and it is from here the game is based. Our heroes must venture into the wilderness and complete quests to raise morale, faith, hope and whatever else Worf banged on about when Picard wasn’t around. The completion of quests is a twofold endeavour – Heroes must beat up the bad guys and workers must gather resources to allow their heroes to buy better gear with which to beat up stronger monsters. Each Hero has their own workers and they’re controlled from the Character board. Players get four actions which they can split however they like between worker and Hero before play passes to the next member of the party.
The game world itself is comprised of a series of tiles, green or red (and perhaps more, Frank did say there’s a lot in the game and we’re only seeing a small amount, which is good to hear so there’s tons of content). The map is randomly generated but once it’s uncovered, you can plan together about how to tackle what’s just been found. The tiles are arranged outwards from the city (green first) and exploration is required before you can do much. When I enquired what happened about the red tiles I was told simply that “they are bad”. Given the green ones weren’t exactly a picnic on a summer’s day, we steered clear of them. Well, Steve and I did. Jon “Monster Magnet” Cage seemed rather too keen to explore and we had no choke chain available.
I got a good feeling of a dungeon crawler from City of Kings. I’m going to have to justify that statement as it’s definitely not a dungeon crawler. There aren’t millions of miniatures (in fact, it’s all standees which look great and keep the costs down) and the tiles don’t have grids on. What gives me the feeling of a crawler is the exploration aspect of the game. Explore a tile, turn it over, discover that your endeavour perhaps wasn’t the best idea in the world and then spawn a bad guy. Or a quest. Or a lake full of salmon. The pseudo-randomness keeps the game exciting, even if you spawn another monster to add to the ever-growing deluge.
Beating things up, like most RPGs, is the way to level up your Hero. Defeated enemies provide XP and at certain points on the XP track you get to level up (everyone levels up together) which brings either stat improvements, skill upgrades or both. You have complete free rein over what you level up so each character will probably be different, as it should be. Part of your character stats includes “luck” which you can use to swing the tide of battle by adding the results of a die roll to your previously wholly deterministic score. Pile more points into luck and you’ll be accused of being more jammy than a particularly well-filled pack of Jammy Dodgers as you fling a multitude of plastic cubes across the table.
You can also upgrade your workers’ abilities so they can charge around the wilderness at speed, do more work or carry more stuff. You can even unlock another worker if you get far enough. Workers perform actions using dice – roll a custom D6 and you retrieve the given number of resource that a given tile provides. The downside is that you can instead attract attention instead of harvesting; doing that one too many times and you’re in deeper poo than the workers of a water treatment facility.
The Co-operative element of the game really comes into its own as you negotiate the map as each monster has individual skills, semi-randomly generated when they spawn, so you never get the same game twice – so there’s a lot replayability. The monsters’ toughness ramps up quickly so you’ll probably find you’ll do what we did – hide in the corner sucking our thumbs until we’d got enough XP and kit to take them on without too much of a beating. Lose a character and the city loses hope. Lose too much (and there’s not much to start with) it’s game over.
Another good thing is the structure of the objectives. The game is supplied with seven stories, each of which is built up of nine chapters. You don’t have to play an entire story, you can just pick a couple of chapters which allows you to scale the game length and size to suit you, which is a great feature. We set up a 3-chapter game and in 90 minutes, we got through two chapters, with the 3rd being started. This included learning so you can probably rattle through something similar sized in an hour or less. You could even generate an entire saga if you wished for those of you with a crippling fear of sunshine and the outdoors.
There’s an awful lot to City of Kings and to be frank (ha ha), there’s not a lot I can find wrong with it from this short, but enjoyable playthrough. Despite the quite daunting amount of stuff that confronted us when we sat down, the game flows really well, it’s quite straightforward once you play a couple of rounds and you can rattle through a round in a few minutes. The open table discussion was fun and it’s easy to plan the many different options presented. Although even then you can’t always stop your team member from gallivanting into the woods to discover yet another monster. “Oh, this one sets off fireballs as well as reflects damage? Great, thanks Jon.”
On this occasion, curiosity may not have killed the Jon, but his team members might have.
This Kickstarter preview is based on a prototype version of the game, played with the publisher at Airecon; the final product may look, play or smell different to that used in this preview.