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  • Andrew Davidson

King’s Dilemma: Real-Life Politics in a Medieval Fantasy Setting

Why argue, yell, and debate about real-life politics when you can argue, yell, and debate fake politics with your friends? Enter The King’s Dilemma. Published in 2019 by Horrible Guild Games, The King’s Dilemma is, without a doubt, an incredibly unique experience any serious gamer can gift their grubby little hands. One part Legacy, one part diplomacy, part negotiation, and one part social deduction; shake well. Serve over the cold hearts of your comrades.


With a current rating of 8.1 on BGG (boardgamegeek.com), it is—without a doubt—a formidable contender in contrast to the countless, endless numbers of diplomacy-style (loads of player interaction) games flooding the market.


The King’s Dilemma is a branching narrative-driven campaign game where stories and actions carry through into future games. All-in-all, there’s no telling how many games one group may or may not get out of the campaign. At the time of this writing, my group has completed thirteen games with one final narrative branch left open. However, I have heard rumors in the East of some groups having 15+ plays before reaching the narrative conclusion. Either way, to take The King’s Dilemma seriously, players should be ready to swim in the deep end for a long while.

In The King’s Dilemma, players take the role of an esteemed house within the fantasy kingdom of Ankist. Each faction comes with a backstory; also, unique objectives, and narrative achievements for players to work towards over the campaign duration. Also, at the onset of each game, players are given ten coins and eight power tokens and draft one unique game-end scoring card.


Mechanically speaking, The King’s Dilemma is rather simple. Too simple, some say. The game implements an auction system without any magical twists. But what the gameplay lacks in hardcore rules and synergetic card play it makes up for roleplaying, negotiation, and backstabbing. Players represent their houses on a council of advisors to the King. Each round, a narrative card is read to the players proposing an ethical dilemma. Does your house vote yes? Vote no? Abstain? The narrative cards are the crux of the game. For example, here is one card from the game:


The court is in turmoil… the King has been kidnapped! The crime had been claimed by an Asher. He demands that we free his son from the gallows and give them a hefty sum of money before he releases the King. Off the books, the Royal Treasure points out that there are many heirs to the King, while money can’t be created for free between the sheets. Do we pay the Ransom?


Now, everyone debates.


As previously stated, choices made within the narrative have drastic consequences. Furthermore, even more importantly, the effects are dark—and they linger. In The King’s Dilemma, players deal with riots, illegal brothels, magical books, starvation of indigenous people, murdering tribes due to misunderstandings, using scientific experiments on prisoners, and creating banished magic to bolster your troops and impose imperialism. Bottom line: You’re going to get into some serious shit. In fact, a lot of the issues presented within The King’s Dilemma are ubiquitous in the history of the world.


At the end of the day, players attempt to move markers on the board to reflect their particular game end scoring parameters. Careful! Each time a marker moves, the kingdom’s stability moves along with it. A session of The King’s Dilemma can end in two ways: Either the King grows old and dies, or he abdicates (if the kingdom becomes too unstable).


I am going to skip to the end and say that I enjoy The King’s Dilemma. As previously mentioned, it is quite a unique experience to drag your friends and family through because at some point you WILL be forced to get your hands dirty.


However, having said that, The King’s Dilemma has—in my opinion—a grapefruit-sized flaw in the way the game is structured. The game begs for players to take it seriously. It offers a rich narrative and is heavy on the theme. Unfortunately, the experience is soiled by the almighty metagame. I have lost track of how many times I verbalized to the group that thematically, according to my faction, I should vote yes on freeing the captured slaves; however, according to my game-end scoring card, I want our kingdom’s influence marker to go up as it yields potential points!


Do you play for the story or the points?


And therein lies the fundamental problem with The King’s Dilemma: the metagame. The narrative, the theme, the fate of the kingdom, take a back seat to the fact that I need the money tracker to be the highest on the track at the end of the game, or else I won’t get any points! Many times I found myself voting against what I want to do within the story to obtain points and stay formidable.

In summation, as I have already stated, I do find The King’s Dilemma to be a great experience. I have enjoyed our thirteen games so far; but, after a handful of gameplays, the metagame casts a large shadow over the thematic, autonymous roleplaying experience the game is trying to give its players.

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