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‘The City of Kings’ is an Engrossing Fantasy Epic
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‘The City of Kings’ is an Engrossing Fantasy Epic

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The City of Kings is a marvel. It’s one of those passion projects put out by a one-man band – the virtuoso being Frank West. Frank’s working the kick-drum, harmonica, and guitar to hit us with a poetic take on the fantasy adventure game. The City of Kings is a special kind of song, at once familiar and yet foreign. This is a jig of layers, layers that we will attempt to peel back and examine.

This co-operative release has a number of broad influences. It’s most commonly compared to Vlaada Chvatil’s Mage Knight: the Board Game, due both to its structure in overland adventure to complete an objective, as well as its inherent puzzle-like nature of solving mechanical challenges. This is a design where you’ll hit a wall, perhaps in the form of a marauding band of orcs you can’t quite manage, and you’ll need to look inward upon your character’s skills and abilities to assess the path forward. It’s certainly not an experiential game where you pull an Eminem and lose yourself in the moment, stumbling through narrative beats and finding joy purely in story and transformation.

While those comparisons persist the one striking quality that overshadows them all is how unique this particular blend is. You have huge character sheets with oddball fantasy depictions of a stoic rock-dude, a barbarous Elven queen, and a peculiar bird-person. You have stats like attack and move and others that you’d expect, but you also have tracks to measure the competency of your individual worker allies. These covered wagon tokens move about the tile map to farm, scavenge, and mine resources, resources that will be used to accomplish quests or story goals as well as forge powerful artifacts to boost your heroes.

It is a bit disappointing that the protagonist personalities are not more asymmetrical statistically, but they do grow quite varied in competency over time. As you gain experience your stats will sprout in different directions while you engage the MMO video game influence at the heart of the design. Players will assume the roles of tank, damage dealer, and healer. You will have sub-specialties and differentiators in the form of special abilities, but there’s a great sense of freedom when you sit down in that you can take this character and push them in any direction you’d like.

CoKPlayerBoard

The scale is compelling. These named characters are leaders of their individual groups, the workers representing the people of the solitary holdout in the face of evil – the city of kings. This integration of an efficiency, Euro-style resource mechanism supports the puzzle-y nature of play, but it also provides thematic context for the city itself and its connection to the countryside and particular adventure you’re enacting.

Sessions of play are scenario based as you work your way through a multi-chapter story. Bits of narrative will unfold breathing life into the world and framing your next encounters with color. Often you’ll need to move to a particular location or deliver goods to another. Maybe you will need to destroy a boss rampaging through a village or cut down several enemies despoiling the countryside.

The real challenges of this game are expectations and how you approach it. It’s heavily abstracted compared to some of its peers, which both provides a unique feel as well as an emotional challenge. This abstraction is seen with equipment being rare, items you acquire representing artifacts and powerful heirlooms. They’re benefits exclusively raise your stats and avoid offering special abilities or unique ways to engage play. Exploration and questing are again, very mechanical and distant from perhaps an expected narrative intimacy. The largest leap occurs with the villains of the play.

CoKEnemies

Enemies are procedurally generated from an escalating pre-ordered stack of stat tokens. This means that if you’re struggling against the Gug warband that’s ambushing you on the road in the present, tomorrow’s going to be even worse. Additionally, each adversary receives a number of randomized ability tokens that grant special powers. This collection of numbers and abilities is represented on the map by a banner standee, necessarily placing the burden of visualizing the enemy behind your eyes.

It’s quite possible you find this conceptual villain difficult to formalize. It’s also quite possible you lean into the formless narrative as an opportunity to evoke creativity. Some will hate it. I love it.

This mechanism is very similar to a feature of the unheralded Shadows of Malice. In both designs the opportunity for an endless presence of unique enemies far outweighs any loss in specificity or in exact illustration appearing upon a cardboard standee. It gives City of Kings a roguelike feel as you push forward into the story and unearth challenges that must be overcome and assessed uniquely. The potential for excellence is immense, and it continually hits that potential.

Another divisive yet fascinating element is the way this design harnesses randomization. In a unique twist, the resolution of attacks and healing are deterministic, yet the generation of obstacles is helter-skelter. In addition to enemies, the tiles forming the countryside are randomly placed and must be explored. Quests and equipment are drawn randomly from decks and you must work to adapt and squeeze your plans around their requirements. It never feels capricious as most every situation has a solution within the boundaries of your party composition, but some will require more work than others.

CoKMap

The scenarios themselves are effective. The flavor text and unraveling of narrative helps frame the abstractions with potency. The specific mechanical challenges of each offer a suite of unpredictable encounters. Often, you will find yourself reach a critical point in the adventure and realize you didn’t adapt the proper strategy early enough in the proceedings. Maybe you didn’t realize the third chapter would require you to gather enough lumber to destroy the ecosystem. Or maybe the boss has such a high degree of armor that your failing to buff a character’s attack sufficiently does you in. Sometimes clever play will allow you to overcome these twists. Other times you’ll fail and come back better prepared in the future. Them’s the breaks in the city of royalty.

As an entire package of gorgeous production, phenomenal components, and measured, well-tested gameplay – The City of Kings is a boss. Some may find frustration and vacancy in its abstraction, but those who are up for the mental gymnastics espoused will find splendor and identity. This is a game that manages to offer a breath of fresh air for a stale cave, and I’m ready to fill my lungs.

Have you played The City of Kings? Let us know in the comments!  And be sure to join host Becca Scott on Game the Game every Thursday here on Geek & Sundry to watch the best boardgames played with fantastic guests!

Image Credits: Charlie Theel, City of Games

Editor’s note: A sample of the game was provided by the publisher

In addition to Geek & Sundry, Charlie Theel writes for Ars Technica, Tabletop Gaming, and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. You can find him on Twitter @CharlieTheel

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