Spice It Up: The City of Kings review

Jeremy Howard from Jambalaya Plays Games loves telling the story on Gumbo Live! about how he got into board gaming. He sings the praises of Vlaada Chavtil’s Mage Knight game, his entry into the hobby, every chance he gets. But, I’ve also gotten him to admit that it is very complicated and not an ideal way to break into the hobby.

I’ve never played Mage Knight, in fact, I’ve never really had the desire to play it. By all accounts, it is a much better game as a solo experience, and I’m generally more into playing games with friends. But Jambalaya gushes over the puzzly nature of the game, and I have to admit that I am a little intrigued because it seems adjacent to the kind of games that interest me. I do like games that combine unique characters, a way to upgrade the characters, and good puzzles in the game. A good loot system and some thrilling combat would be lagniappe, if I could find it!

Recently, I heard about a game that might fill that niche called The City of Kings. It was originally a Kickstarter project, but I missed the original campaign. Now, it is available in retail and has expansions that were also successfully funded. In addition, the designer has been supporting the original game with free additional scenarios on the BGG forums.

Does The City of Kings live up to its Kickstarter campaign billing of being a unique fantasy themed puzzle game all about exploring, gathering, trading and customizing your hero to prepare for battle? Are you and your friends (or maybe just you!) looking for an immersive experience that rewards multiple plays?

If so, then Spice It Up with The City of Kings!

The City of Kings, designed by Frank West and published by The City of Games LLC, is a 2018 cooperative RPG style fantasy adventure and exploration game. The game comes with seven built in storylines, as well as additional one shot scenarios. You and up to three of your friends will control god-like heroes who roam the world seeking to defend the Ageless Realms from the threat of the evil Vesh. You have the help of up two “workers”, who can gather resources for you and help you complete quests and purchase equipment to assist you on your journeys.

PRESENTATION:

The City of Kings certainly comes in one impressively thick box! The game comes in a giant, black cardboard box with a pretty nifty logo on the front that melds the artwork with the name of the game. The box slowly slides open (I mean slowly, building the anticipation of what’s inside!) to reveal a pile of components, map tiles, and character sheets.

The publisher graciously sent us a review copy of this game, which included bonus content including two small expansions as well as miniatures to replace the standees for the characters. I believe the retail version, while not having the wooden resources and miniatures, will still impress most gamers.

Inside, players will find hundreds and hundreds of well made cards, depicting the quests, equipment cards, movement, and skill tree enhancements. In addition, the version we had came with a double set of “quick start” trays, that holds all of the bits in an organized fashion for easy set up and take down of the game.

There is a lot of cardboard here, with tokens (or in our case, wood representations) for all of the resources, plus additional tokens for the various problems you will face like frost or fire or hounds or poison gas. There is no need for paper or metal money in this game, as the commodities are all things like linen, wood, ore, and special goods.

Next up, players will find a whole ton of map tiles. The green tiles represent the areas around the City of Kings, the main base for all of your exploration. The red tiles represent the wasteland out beyond the organized area, and usually have tougher monsters or unique resources.

Finally, players will find the rulebooks. Yes, I said it with an “s” because there are multiples in the box. For certain, you should read the “Adventure Begins” rulebook, because this is how one will learn to play the game. The adventure book contains all of the rules on how to play the game, plus the timing and resolution of the enhancements on each turn. But, there is also a reference book separate from that main rule book, and it is very handy since it outlines the special powers of all of the tiny skill tokens for each monster. Does your monster have the “teleport” ability? The rules are not on the token, they are in the book.

And of course, we cannot forget about the dice. The City of Kings is most certainly not an Ameritrash dice-chucking experience. However, there is some luck involved in gathering resources, or scavenging around enemy encampments, or even in trying to kill some of the monsters. We will discuss more in fame play, but even though The City of Kings is billed as a determinative combat system, one could game that system a bit with the use of “luck dice” to add to your attack rolls.

Finally, players will find player sheets, depicting beautiful artwork and information about each of the playable characters. I believe the base game comes with six, but our version came with four more characters with the expansions. In addition to the player sheets, our box also came with plastic overlays to hold all of the cubes that track the upgrades to your character, but I am not sure if this comes in the retail or Kickstarter editions.

Overall, this is a very impressive production. One of the Gumbo krewe rightly pointed out that this is a typical overproduced Kickstarter production, with tons and tons of content included in the box that will generate hours upon hours of game play, likely more than most players will ever see!

GAMEPLAY:

City of Kings is a large box game with player sheets literally covered in stats, and yet, the game is relatively simple to teach. The players will collectively decide if they want to play a “story” or a “scenario.” The stories are simply narrative games that in four to six sessions tell a complete story (and advance the overall plot) about some part of the attack and defense of the world from the evil horde. In my plays, each story has been taking about two to three hours, although there are also bonus sections to each story (called “heroic” and “legendary”) that I have yet to try that would probably add another hour or so to the game play.

The scenarios are similar in set up, but are just one shots that can be played in roughly in an hour or so. Each one presents a unique puzzle or situation that players will have to work together to defeat. The ones I played were there to simply teach the game rules and flow, but were not that interesting. I would suggest playing only one or two and then moving right to the stories, or sticking with the higher level scenarios for more engaging play.

Now that the style of play has been chosen, players will use the set up card to randomly lay out the tiles. There may even be face up tiles which represent the areas that must be visited during the game to drive the story forward. The set up card for scenarios and stories also detail how the characters will be set up (players may get extra skill points or XP to help balance the situation) as well as how strong the monsters will be.

On each player’s turn, they will activate any monsters that they control, and then take their actions. Each player starts with four action tokens, but can upgrade this to five during the game. The actions are pretty simple: move, attack, heal, interact with tiles, and “special” (usually a special power that a player has on their skill tree).

Players can choose between moving / interacting using either their hero (each one with a unique skill tree) or their workers. The workers are represented by tokens that look like little conesta wagons. Workers are essentially the “meeples” in your typical euro, out there on the tiles to gather resources and explore. They don’t fight, but they can be trapped by monsters or pits on tiles. You will need to efficiently balance your use of the workers versus the more powerful heroes in order to win each stage of the game.

Resource gathering is pretty standard. Workers land on tiles that generate something, like ore or wood, and then roll dice according to their skill to see how much they gather. They could also make too much noise, which means a token gets placed on that tile. Too many tokens equals a new monster on that tile, which traps the worker and usually forces the heroes to attack the monster. Resource gathering is definitely the efficiency part of the game, as gathering the right resources in order to buy more equipment or complete quests is critical to winning the game, but players will have to plot out gathering the right amount and getting it back to the city so that the heroes can spend the resources.

Attacking is a little different from other games. The combat is deterministic, except for the use of optional “luck” dice. If your hero’s attack is higher than the monster’s shield, then your hero will do the attack damage right to the monster.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

The City of Kings is one of those games that will be player specific in terms of experience. I will tell you what I enjoyed about it, and if those elements sound interesting to you, by all means, I recommend you checking this game out.

The first thing I liked right away was the puzzle on your player board about what skills to upgrade in the skill tree. Like any good computer RPG game, The City of Kings comes with a leveling system. As the players collectively gain experience points (points are shared and spent together with all players), the XP track unlocks upgrades to the skill tree as well as additional points to be spent on the individual skills like range, attack, healing, and worker skills. The skill tree itself has a few diabolical tweaks.

You will have to choose between skill tree choices that just add more skill points to your player board (like health or range) which might be really critical to your character, versus adding cool persistent or one time use powers like doing damage to monsters no matter what their shield is, or teleporting around the board, or increasing the ability to heal characters. The skills themselves seem to be thematically tied to the character, but almost all of them are very powerful. In fact, for some scenarios, the skills seem almost mandatory to win.

Players will also have to consider upgrading the skill tree itself. The tree comes with three branches that move up on the player board. One is revealed, but the other two come from cards you can earn as your skills advance. It is always fun looking at the available skill tree enhancements and plotting out what would be a good build for this scenario or this character. Bradly found that the tree skills were kind of disappointing, as he could rarely find a unique skill worth taking over just increasing the stats. It is a fair point, because some of the scenarios and chapters absolutely require you to increase your attack and healing and health right off the bat.

Next up, I liked the fact that you can upgrade your character’s equipment. In almost every game, the equipment shop started with only a few pieces but by the end of the game, I’ve seen tons of equipment come out, usually multiples of each body part. I have never yet bought all of the equipment that comes out; there is always another piece I was eyeing for another purchase.

The monster generation was a big factor in the Kickstarter, at least from what I could tell from the campaign, and while it is sometimes frustrating (more on that later), I can certainly say it was unique and fun to play against. When a monster enters the land, it is assigned an ever increasing base stat bar which lays out how much health and attack and other basic skills it possesses. Add to that are random draws from the “easy”, “medium” and “hard” skill token bags. Here is where the repeatability comes in. Monsters will usually have one to five or six skill tokens, and there are so many types! A monster could have teleport, bouncing right into the primary target character, plus have long lasting effects like poison generation or fire. Each monster is absolutely unique, and strategy for defeating the scenario or story is going to depend in great part on what types of monsters come out.

Although not as strong as I would have liked, I enjoyed the story line in the stories. Each one I have played so far starts with a simple set up chapter, where players quickly explore the area, perhaps earning a few quests or beating an easy monster or two for XP. Then, each chapter progressively gets harder but the mechanics of each chapter so far have been very thematically tied to the storyline.

Let’s talk about a few of the downsides. For many, these are mirror images of the exact things that I liked about the game, as you will see.

There are a *lot* of little rules to keep up during the game, so if you are not into “fiddly” games, you may want to steer clear. Sure, the replayability of the monsters is off the charts, but the flip side of that variability is that there are dozens and dozens of traits to keep up with, and each one of them may look familiar but are not necessarily intuitive. We had to constantly dive into the supplied guide book to refresh each turn exactly how each of the traits is played. For me, the investment in reading all of those skills was worth it because of the added dimension of the puzzle, but not all of the Krewe agreed with me.

The loot system has a similar “flip side.” Sure, having dozens and dozens of different types of equipment out there is cool, but it is a multi stage process to get the equipment. You first have to find the equipment in the wild, and then earn enough resources to buy it, and then head to a shop or to the town to actually purchase the equipment. And that’s if you have leveled up enough to be able to wear it — everyone can wear equipment for the legs and body, but you have to increase your stats enough to wear the head and arms armor. The loot is very powerful and almost always absolutely necessary to win, and streamlining the loot system into more of a Diablo system might have been more fun for me.

While I love the euro aspect of the resource gathering, and its tie in with the quest system is especially juicy, Bradly pointed out that getting better at harvesting actually means you are more likely to generate monsters quicker and more deadly. This seems backwards from a thematic standpoint. If your workers are more efficient, shouldn’t they be quieter? I guess perhaps thematically it could be argued that workers pulling so much ore or wood piles would attract notice, but it still seems a bit punishing and counter-intuitive.

My biggest gripe though is with the movement system. Heroes are limited to one move per turn, and for me, it seems unnecessarily stilting. There was almost no way to peek around tiles to shoot at monsters, and then dive back to safety, which meant, multiple monsters on the board was almost always a precursor to losing the game. As I played the game more, I realized that there are “hacks” for this. Players can first ensure that they *never* encounter more than one monster on the board at a time (I learned that lesson the hard way in Story 2). Also, some heroes have special skills that can help move characters around (although I have only read about this, and have not done it myself.) But, the frustration in the lack of movement took a while to get over for me.

But overall, I really enjoyed The City of Kings. Sure, the above problems took some getting used to, but I spent hours and hours these past two weeks puzzling each night over how to win the scenario or chapter. I’ve only played The City of Kings solo, but some of the other members of the krewe played this in a group earlier this year. In our discussions, I think we all agreed that this game is best as a solo or very small group session (perhaps two people) controlling multiple characters.

SUMMARY:

Pros:

  • Love, love, love the art on the player boards
  • Rulebook 2.0 appears to be clearer than earlier editions, but more importantly, the designer is active on the BGG forums with any questions
  • Great production — the resource trays are a big hit
  • Standees are just as good as the miniatures
  • I like the deterministic combat, and enjoy the addition of the “luck” dice when I want to play more amerithrashy
  • Storyline is fun to follow
  • Monsters are never the same, and so it does not feel like a slot since you have to read and react every time with new strategies
  • The game is no push over — even at the easy setting, there is a challenge every time you play
  • Skill trees creates some very delicious decisions when it is time to upgrade

Cons:

  • Loot system needs streamlining
  • Lots of fiddly rules to keep track
  • Movement once per turn is frustrating
  • I wish the cubes on the player board did not hide the stats underneath them, but I eventually got used to what the positions were
  • Harvesting is very euro, and seems counter intuitive to get better but worse at the same time
  • This is not Diablo the board game — running into a tile and creating a mob of monsters will kill you dead very quickly

I really enjoyed my plays of The City of Games. It is the kind of game that rewards deeper and deeper dives into the story and game play.  Playing the intro scenarios are really critical to understanding the game flow, but they are *not* representative of the fun you will have playing the stories.

If you enjoy puzzle type games that have a good upgrade system and try hard to provide a thematic experience without going over board on the amerithrashyness, then you should definitely check out The City of Kings. Same applies if you are a solo gamer that does not mind a little bit of fiddlyness in looking at rule books to ensure you are giving the monsters their due (not that they really need it in this game!)  If those features attract you, you will not be disappointed in the production of this game, or the storyline, or ever wonder if this game is replayable.  The content in the box alone will give you tons of hours of game play, plus the designer is constantly adding more and more (mostly free!) content on the BGG forums.

However, if you are looking for a game that replicates the “move here, kill that, grab the loot, level up” sensation from computer games like Diablo, then you might want to consider looking at a game like Sanctum instead.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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