For Crown And Kingdom? Good things come to those who wait!
For Crown And Kingdom is the first published design from Dave Mansell, an award winning game from 2010 that has taken until now to get a commercial release, but by Rio Grande Games no less. The theme is as light as light can be, but the gist of it is that the king has died without heir and that you, dear player, need to ensure that your influence is strong enough to grab the throne. You achieve this through the careful placement and movement of your different agents across the board until you are accepted throughout the kingdom.
The box and rule book.
Rio Grande is a company with a good reputation in the gaming community and, as you would expect, the components are of decent quality. The artwork, by Kelly McClellan, displays a soft-focus approach, the imagery almost like a cartoonified version of reality. This is a clever move and means that graphically For Crown And Kingdom has broad appeal, as it is neither too cartoony for grizzled veterans nor too gritty and realistic for younger players. Talking of age, the range advised on the box is 14 years and above, but there is little here in terms of depiction or rules depth to suggest that it could not be enjoyed by more adventurous younger players, as long as they do not mind their plans being viciously and gleefully thwarted. So far, so good.
Segments? Get a pizza the action with the playing board!
The main playing board is circular and made up of six double-sided segments. If you think pizza (or are lucky enough to have a takeaway pizza to hand) then you will have a pretty accurate idea of how it looks. On one side the board has one playing area per segment – flip it over and each segment is divided into two. Depending on the number of players For Crown And Kingdom uses single or divided segments, or a combination of the two, so two players get six segments, three players get nine and four players get the full complement of twelve, but in each case the board remains the same size.
The board set up for a three player game.
Once players know which sides they are using the board is laid out at random. This is important, because each segment also has its own power, written around the border on a scroll, which is activated whenever the Scholar lands there. It is also really good to see that each player also gets their own reference card, double sided for different player counts, even though there is only the one small difference. Too many games expect players to pass the well-thumbed rule book around, turn to turn, but providing (and for what I suspect is very little effort) individual reference cards makes things so much easier that it really should be an industry standard by now. These reference cards are clear and easy to understand as well, so it’s two thumbs up here.
Who’s in the Kingdom? Meet the Characters!
The players also receive small cardboard banners (one for each segment of the board), and five tokens; which represent their characters. You will need to attach the stickers to these before you play your first game, but apart from the Knight (who is covered in armour) the two sides are male and female representations of the same character, something it is always good to see in games.
Red player’s reference card and character tokens.
The artwork on the stickers is again cartoony rather than realistic, and although it can sometimes be tricky to work out which character is which when playing, it is clear that the design has been very carefully thought out – the Thief is masked, the Trader is holding a coin, the Scholar has a quill, the Knight is armoured, and the Duke or Duchess is suitably pompous!
Once the board is set up according to the number of players and everybody is equipped with banners, playing pieces and two coins (from a limited supply) then everybody takes turns to place their characters on the board, beginning with the first person to make a trumpet sound and declare themselves the starting player. Decide for yourself whether you are prepared to do this for starting player rights!
From Mancala to Theseus and in between! The dream mechanism?
Strange though it may seem, the core idea for For Crown And Kingdom came to its designer in a dream, and about 50% of that has made it through to the published version. At the heart of the game lies a Mancala mechanism, akin to the type found in modern games such as Finca or Theseus: The Dark Orbit, but originating in the mists of time. Simply put, this dictates that your next move is dictated by the total number of playing pieces in your current area. For example, if you are the only piece there you move along one segment, but if there are four, then you move four segments. This makes it an ideal mechanism for those looking for direct interaction between players. It also happens to be very difficult to plan even a short way ahead, making For Crown And Kingdom a strongly tactical game and about short-term planning rather than strategic long-term ideas.
At the beginning of their turn a player may opt to pay a single Bribe (never more than one) and then must move only one of their pieces clockwise (and the same number of segments as there are characters in their current area, remember) and use its ability where it finishes its move. Each piece has a different ability, making them all useful in different ways, although only the Duke or Duchess can place the banners needed to win the game, and remember that these abilities take place in the segment where the move ends:
- Dukes or Duchesses place banners if their player has more tokens in that segment than all the other players together.
- Merchants gain one coin for each character token in that segment.
- Thieves steal two coins from each other player in that segment (three coins in a two player game).
- Knights imprison a character on that segment, removing them from the board – this is the only optional power.
- Scholars activate the text written on that segment of the game board.
Your scholar activates these powers when they land here.
The bribes, however, are where For Crown And Kingdom really comes to life. They alter the basic rules of the game and cost different amounts which sit nicely in line with how useful they are:
- 1 coin (Dependable Mount) – the character you move this turn travels one space less than required.
- 2 coins (Private Roads) – the character you move this turn will go anti-clockwise.
- 3 coins (Increased Influence) – use any character’s ability immediately. This does not have to be the character you move later in the turn.
- 4 coins (Royal Treatment) – the Duke or Duchess ignores majorites for this turn.
- 0-3 coins (Bail) – return an imprisoned character to a segment where you already have a character. This costs less the more imprisoned characters you have. You can then move any character on the board as your main turn, which can be the one you have just bailed.
After a couple of plays it becomes clear that there are some very powerful combos to be uncovered, and the costings for the bribes feel right, bang in line with how useful they are.
Easy to grasp? Yes, but even the layers have layers!
First time through For Crown And Kingdom feels very light indeed, and the choices wafer thin, but after a couple of plays the more subtle moves become apparent. We romped through our first game in very little time, but by game number five we were sitting there like chess grandmasters, chins resting on our hands, as we pondered our next moves. Game six ended when I used Increased Influence on my Duke to place a banner, then skipped the same Duke three spaces around the board to place my final banner for the win, coming back from 5-4 down. I felt as if I had unlocked a new level of play, and my opponent was devastated.
A game in progress – the red offboard character is imprisoned and needs to be bailed. Purple’s Merchant (bottom left) could move one segment and gain four coins for the next move.
Even some of the stranger Scholar powers, such as moving all your characters to a single segment, can have devastating effects on other players when activated at the right time. As a result of this gentle revelation, For Crown And Kingdom’s more subtle features make the game feel like a measured exploration of something very enticing indeed. Without the bribes there would not be much here at all, but they add an extra level of depth which is enough to make the game interesting but not at all over-complicated.
Does it reign? Or is it plain?
For Crown And Kingdom has slipped onto the release schedules without fanfare, rather like a pretender to a throne, but canny casual gamers would be wise to pay attention to this game and its designer. Mansell’s Smoking Gun, another award winner, is currently slated for release in 2017, and he has other games in the pipeline, so this designer is certainly marking himself out as one to watch. For Crown And Kingdom is possibly too straightforward for gamers who like many moving parts in their games, but it is a clean and efficient design that generates all sorts of interesting decisions and interactions. It could (and probably should) easily slot into a gateway collection alongside games like Carcassonne and Ticket To Ride, and would also appeal to fans of abstracts.
In other words, this is an ideal game for showing new gamers what the Pandora’s Box of gaming looks like on the inside while still being sturdy enough to act as a filler for more seasoned gamers. We have found great pleasure in the two-player version, which hits a genuinely satisfying amount of depth for its length, a decent way short of half an hour. As with so many Mancala-type games however, the more the players the greater the chaos, and with three or four vying for the throne For Crown And Kingdom’s length gets to the 45 minutes stated on the box.
Space, the final frontier! Keep it small…
Regarding For Crown And Kingdom’s length, it helps that this game is preventative rather than reactive when it comes to the banners, meaning that they tend to stay where they are placed. Apart from one section of the board which allows the Scholar to remove a banner, once a player has a marker in place it stays there, so things do not degenerate into a back and forth but progress quickly and inevitably towards a win condition.
This is all you need for a two-player game!
It is worth mentioning that the components for For Crown And Kingdom take up very little table space indeed, another plus for this tidy little game. There is no need for a scoring tracker, so all you need is the board itself and a little space for the players to keep their coins and banners. With only a little planning this could easily be taken around in a bag or large pocket, and it is playable on small surfaces, passing my own “small table” test with flying colours.
Worthy of the crown? Or just another pretender?
In conclusion I would have to say that For Crown And Kingdom does what it does very well indeed. You can teach it in two minutes, be playing in three, and an hour later you’ll be asking for one more game as you realise that you failed to make use of the powers available to you and that next time you’ll maybe be able to sneak the win. You will feel that you can get better from play to play and that there is more to explore, and that is something that appeals very strongly to me. In my recent review of Haleakala I came to the conclusion that it was a very crowded game where no one decision outweighed any other enough to feel that the player was making a real difference. For Crown And Kingdom is at the other extreme – it has a deceptively light veneer, but is very lean and mean, and sits at the back of my mind, nagging at me the way that core games in my collection do.
You will need to manage your expectations coming to this game. It is a half-hour filler, undoubtedly, but unlike so many other games in the same category, there is a genuine sense of your decisions having a real impact upon the immediate outcome. It is neither too heavy nor too light, and the perfect game for the beginning or end of a session, or for luring unsuspecting guests into the world of cardboard. Strangely, the game For Crown And Kingdom brings to mind most for me is Hive, a portable and easily playable abstract with some pretty colours on top that hide a constant and deadly tug-of-war. If that sounds like your kind of thing, you could do worse than try this, and keep an eye out for more from Mansell.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.