One of the things that gamers tell themselves from time to time--a fallacy along the lines of "I really want a super-light adventure game"--is that they'd really, really like a 'fixed' game of Yahtzee. However, when you put that notion through the funhouse mirror perception of a eurogamer designer, the result is generally disaster.
Let's face it. We've for the most part all played Yahztee as a children, and adults too. It's a fun time-waster where we get to chuck some dice, make some poker hands, score some points, and brag when we rack up a high score. But Yahtzee, bless its soul, just isn't perfect. Who hasn't cursed about being screwed over by the order your rolls come out...oh, namely, rolling a Yahtzee two turns after putting down a blank score for it? Who hasn't stubbornly rolled some big dice, to end up with a two pair of 5s and 6s (useless outside of Chance! USELESS!) And last of all, what is Yahtzee but THE epitome of multi-player solitaire?
So it's no surprise then that we've seen some attempts to provide that same dice-rolling experience, but 'balanced' somehow. More flavor added, more chances to influence the outcomes, more chances to affect the other players at the table. Sometimes, we get some decent efforts (say, Dice Town) that have not a snowball's chance of having anywhere near the lasting impact of Yahtzee. And sometimes...we get an overcooked mess like To Court the King.
To Court the King (Rio Grande Games, 2-4 players, $29.99 MSRP) depicts the...uh...attempts to...uh...Court the King, I guess. By the vicious virtue of your dice rolling, of course. Players start the game by having three dice at their disposal every one of their turns. On their turn, they roll these three dice and must keep at least one. So long as they have dice left to throw, they may then re-roll that remainder, keeping at least one each time.
What do they do with these dice? In the middle of the table are stacks of cards, the number of which varying by the number of players. The cards are basically broken down into tiers, starting with the easiest cards to obtain at level 1, and the most difficult at level 5. Each card has a 'requirement' for claiming it, written in completely damnable "language independant" fashion on the bottom of each card. Thankfully, you have a double-sided card that has the actual English wording, telling you exactly what is needed to claim each card. The level 1s are all very simple; the Farmer, for example, requires only a pair to claim. The level 5s, however, are the King and Queen, and to claim them--and end the game--you'll need seven of a kind. Yes, seven, on three starting dice. More on that in a minute.
Once you've claimed a card, you are then granted the special ability of that card on future turns. The Farmer allows you to roll one additional die on your turn. So now, the lightbulb should be going off--in order to win, you're going to have to earn cards that grant you additional dice to roll every turn. But to get those cards, you'll need the manipulative power of other cards. A good example would be the Astronomer, a card that requires two pair to claim, but then allows you to change the value of an active die to match the number on an already set aside die...extremely useful for setting up those multiple dice of the same kind.
There is a catch, of course. The number of each card is limited, based on the number of players. So in a four-player game, there are 3 of each level 1, 3 of each level 2, 2 of each level 3 and 4, and 1 each of level 5. By contrast, in a two-player game there are only 2 of each level 1 and 1 each of all the rest. Once all the cards of a certain type are claimed, no more of those are available. That means that once all the Merchants are gone, it's tough luck for any player still wanting one.
Once the play comes back around to the first player, if no one has claimed the King, then the first player token is passed to the RIGHT, and then play continues. Yes, this is the second game in a few weeks I've played with this mechanic, and it's extremely easy to screw up. Play moves to the left, but the first player marker moves to the RIGHT. I am not really keen on this whole mechanic because it's counterintuitive and easy to screw up, but whatever. It works, I guess, as the last player is at a disadvantage, so getting to go first after that first round definitely helps. It's one of those gamey balancing mechanisms, I'm sure you're familiar with them by now.
The end of the game comes when someone rolls seven of a kind and claims the King. This starts the final round, in which players in turn order attempt to roll their best hand, using all their powers available. Then the King player gets one final stab. The player with the best roll during this final round is declared the victor.
The components for the game are certainly nice enough. The box is small, portable, and sturdy. The 60 character cards are thick, perhaps a little too thick, but as they are not shuffled and merely laid out on the table for claiming during the game, this isn't an issue. You get twelve red dice, and a first player marker that is a little plastic stand up shield with two swords crossed behind it. (This is the extent of the military action you'll be seeing here.)
You also get a 12-page rulebook, half of which again explains what is needed to claim each card, and an extended explanation of what each card does.
All in all, a nice little package. I don't know if it's $30 worth of stuff, though. It's cheaper online by about $10 on average, and that's a much more acceptable price.
Look, I thought I was really going to like this one. I'm still a sucker for a quick game of Yahtzee, so having a game of Yahtzee with earnable variable player powers sounded like a really fun time.
Here's the problem, though. Yahtzee is a breezy, superlight, superquick game to play. You can knock out a multi-player game of Yahtzee in less than twenty minutes, tops, and that's if there's some deliberation in how to score certain rolls involved. You pick up the dice, you look at your sheet to see what you need, and you roll. Bing, bang, boom.
To Court the King, while having a lot of seemingly cool things going on for it, is a slog and a real chore to play through. First, there are a lot of character cards. Instead of being able to splay them where all players can see them easily, then end up in this large sort of pyramid shape and take up much more table real estate than you'd expect from a game in such a small box. What this means is that players must then use their little two-sided player cards with their summaries to see what they're rolling, and what they need to be shooting for. Because there are so many characters, there will be constant flipping back and forth to see what's needed. This is not hideously complex or tough to learn, but it slows things down a lot, especially if you game with anyone who is prone to ANY sort off Analysis Paralysis.
Then, after looking back and forth on the card, that player needs to sweep the board and make sure that the card they've set their sights on is still available. Nothing is more frustrating to start rolling for something and then realizing whoops, Steve took the last Nobleman two turns ago. So the whole process is extremely tedious. And that's not even mentioning the optimziation of your characters during your turn. Expect to add even more time as players agonize over when, how, and where to use their character cards for the turn, what to keep, what to bring in, what to change, what to re-roll. It's insane. What should be a faster, fun, dice-chucking affair gets bogged down with ridiculous downtime as other players tend to boring checking and rechecking of cards and conditions. This just isn't how I expect to throw dice and screw with my opponents...by taking three minutes to make it through all my rolling, and then tee-hee, stealing the last Pawn Broker. No, that just doesn't have much of a ring to it, does it?
And that endgame! It sounds like it should be awesome, right? Someone throws down the gauntlet, rolls seven of a kind, claims the King, and declares themselves boss of bosses....come take them down, if you dare. It should be pretty kick-ass to unleash all these powers at the end not on some stale victory point claim but instead to outduel and outmaneuver your opponents. Sadly, it doesn't play out that way. What you're left with is one round of a fairly anti-climactic dice rolling during which the player who took more "adds dice" powers is going to win. It juist doesn't give you that last-man standing feeling you expect, and deflates the entire hour+ proceedings that went before.
Okay, as my Mea Culpa for this review, I did not get a chance to play it two-player. I have a small feeling that the game's negatives go away with two players who have played it enough times to really know the game and would click through quickly. I don't think the final confrontation between two players would be all that interesting, but it isn't exactly the dice-throwing hoot you'd expect it to be anyway, even with more players.
As is, you're left with hampered gameplay thanks to language independance, forcing lots of checking and re-checking back and forth of player reference cards and character stacks. If I never see another shitty set of language-independant hieroglyphics, it will be too soon.
It's a game that on paper looks like it should have a lot of stuff coming together, making for a fun, light, competitive romp. Instead, it's just a trudge from start to finish. Bad design (too many characters, symbols on the cards) coupled with AP-inspiring elements make this one you can safely avoid.
I've vowed to give it another play with two, to see if it makes any difference. Even then, I'm just not sure when I'd want to play this compared to the load of much, much better two-player games I have already.
* Well produced
* Variable character powers
* Slow gameplay for what it is
* Language independance hampers gameplay
* Two-sided reference cards lead to lots of flipping
* Too many characters; several are nearly useless
* Anti-climactic final round
* Seriously, if you want me to roll a Small Straight, please just flippin' say so on the card, thanks
Final Verdict: 1.5 (out of 5.0)