In November of 2020, frustrated by COVID isolation and inspired by the siren song of Shut Up and Sit Down, I purchased King’s Dilemma as an aspirational motivator and in July of 2021 after vaccines were distributed, I got together with two other dads from my pod and we started to play. We finished our game in January of 2024 and it was one of the greatest gaming experiences of my life.
Since this is a legacy game, I’m going to break this article up into two different sections. The first will be a general one about the game with my vague thoughts and opinions so as not to spoil any of the mysteries and surprises. The second part will be my deeper dive into what happened in our specific game so please, if you think for even a moment that you might one day want to play and have a completely untrammeled experience, stop before the break.
King’s Dilemma essentially allows players to step into the roles of a king’s privy council or Landsraad if you’re feeling Dune-y. The king is not played but instead referred to by the various cards that determine what happens in any given game. At the end of each game, the king has either died or abdicated in favor of a worthy successor who is chosen from the family of the winning player so dynastic control of the realm bounces around but the decisions are made by these noble houses with the king largely ornamental.
The setting for King’s Dilemma is a brand-new low-fantasy realm with a decent amount of history and specificity for the various countries as well as the regions and domains within the main kingdom – . The tone and aesthetic is generic medieval going into Renaissance European with powers split between church, merchants, military, scholars, and the nobles themselves. Each noble house has a very unique history which gives them long-term goals for the players to try to achieve and story-based goals that can be unlocked as the games go on.
In any individual game, the players will be making decisions about the kingdom which will impact five aspects – Defense/Military Strength, Wealth, Morale/Faith, Health, and Knowledge. They have their noble house which (traditionally) they stick with for the entire campaign which has certain goals printed on it. Perhaps they want to make sure that the army does exceedingly well in this game or that the economy is tanked. Achieving these goals can unlock unique special abilities as well as end-game points to determine the winner of the overall legacy game. In addition to these consistent goals, every player will choose how their particular noble wants the kingdom to be run this game and those are determined by cards such as Extremist, Opulent, Moderate, etc. These goals are achieved by moving the various aspects up and down a slider that makes up most of the board. If the army is doing well, you move the tower token up. If wealth is doing poorly, you move the gem token down, etc. At the end of each game, players look where the tokens have ended up and earn points based on what their goals were. They can also get points from amassing personal wealth and power. Whoever has the most points (usually) wins and their dynasty picks the king who will reign in the next game.
Round by round, one player will be the Leader and another (or sometimes the same player) will be Moderator. The Leader draws from the deck of cards that determines what is the current issue facing the kingdom. Perhaps there is demand for an expensive joust, or a merchant wants to be able to import slaves, or scholars request funding an expedition into mysterious desert ruins. The card indicates how the decision might impact the various aspects of the kingdom but it doesn’t say everything so players have to debate, threaten, bribe, and decide how they want to vote. You vote by choosing either Aye, Nay, or Pass. If you vote Aye or Nay you have to back up your vote with power tokens representing your sway and political capital. Voting goes around until with opportunities to keep adding power until finally the vote is called and whichever has the most power behind it wins with the Moderator breaking ties. The spent power all gets dumped into a pool on the board. In addition, whoever invested the most power behind a winning decision becomes the new Leader for the next round. If a player chooses to Pass, they get a little money and then they can either Pass and become Moderator or Pass and scoop up the spent power on the board. Multiple people can pass and split the pool.
However the vote went, the card is flipped over and the Leader reads what impact the decision made on the kingdom which will usually be to slide the aspects up and/or down but can also unlock some of the legacy aspects of the game, namely stickers and envelopes. Stickers represent lasting issues that impact various aspects – a lingering plague harming health, a new academy boosting knowledge, etc and they also are a way that players can earn and lose points. Every sticker gets signed by the Leader who was in charge when it was unlocked and gets credit for either the benefit it imparts or the blame for unleashing the horrors on the kingdom. Stickers accrue over time and can eventually be replaced by newer stickers as the kingdom moves on and changes over time.
Envelopes are where new cards come from and also determine the course of the game. If the council decides to go to war rather than seek peace, then you open the war envelope and the peace one sits unused for the rest of the campaign. In addition to unlocking new decisions for the council to vote on, they can also unlock story and event cards which have unique impacts on the game, sometimes in absolutely astonishing ways that upend the entire balance of things. Some of those will be discussed in the spoilers section.
Once all the impacts of the vote has been determined, players check to see if the king’s death or abdication has been triggered and if not, play continues with the Leader drawing the next card. If either enough cards have been drawn that the king dies or if the balance of the kingdom gets pulled in too high or low a direction and the king abdicates then the game is over, players score their points, and determine the winner. Based on who won and how the game ended, end-game points are also scored and various noble house goals can be checked to show legacy progress.
King’s Dilemma is a truly fantastic game for a number of reasons that I want to get into before going into some of the specifics of our game. First off, it blends strategy, storytelling, and roleplaying in a deft way. You can feel yourself being torn in certain decisions because the mechanics of the game pull you in one direction but the desire to see what happens if you vote a certain way can pull you in another. Every decision feels weighty and important and knowing that what you decide could still be impacting you for the rest of the campaign gives those decisions a real heft. The setting, the play-styles of the different noble houses, and the goal cards also lend themselves to roleplaying. Perhaps in the last game you were a goody-two shoes trying to keep the kingdom from falling apart but this game you’re a sinister Mordred who wants to watch it all burn. The arguments and debates can lead to quick alliances or grudges as you bring up terrible decisions made by the player four games ago. That leads to the amazing way this game plays with memory. Because every individual game is a new generation, the haziness of why things were decided makes sense in-fiction because it wasn’t your current noble who made those decisions, it was their grandfather or great-grandmother. That slight distancing is so freeing as far as being able to just play in this world and feel the richness as the story unfolds.
I absolutely recommend this game. We played with just three of us which was about all our schedule allowed but if I hadn’t already pre-ordered the sequel Queen’s Dilemma, I’d seriously consider buying a fresh copy to try to play with four or more players and try out different noble houses because to see what all else this game has to offer. 10/10 game. Finishing the campaign was as satisfying as ending a long-running RPG campaign. I hope you’ll look it up and consider trying it with your crew.
Seriously, walk away right now if you think you might ever want to play this game with a black and open mind.
Okay, for the rest of you all let me start by saying that I am not good at this game and lost it about as hard as you can lose. If you look at the scoring sheet above, you will see I consistently came in last or in the middle and by the end of the campaign I was so thoroughly defeated that not only was my current noble killed but my family was hunted down and wiped out. It was brutal and unforgiving and I loved it.
I did not know what to expect from the tone of King’s Dilemma and was unprepared for just how dark it got early on and how things got worse from there. Now, in fairness to me, we actually had a somewhat cheerful start to our game with a decision made to unite two kingdoms in marriage and so things were pretty chipper and lovey-dovey although that was plagued by all sorts of decisions about how religiously tolerant our kingdom would be or rather, wouldn’t be. Already I was starting to see dynamics form among the three of us playing that would be present right until the very end.
I was playing a house obsessed with knowledge and pushing the boundaries of understanding, Jack was a belligerent house that got rewarded for going against the majority decision, and Jon was house moneybags. As we played, while we might have made decisions based on the goal cards we drew, that underlying dynamic was always at work. Jack would vote for aggression, I would try to bankrupt the country to fund bizarre expeditions and research, and Jon… Jon discovered the power of passing to the point that his seeming inactivity became a running gag but in truth, it was a powerful tactic and Jon won the game handily a number of times.
After the blissful early game of love and tolerance, we soon got slammed with plague, wars, more plague, and eventually were living in fear from a cabal of psychic terrorists. We discovered a love of jousting and exploring islands but we also didn’t understand the central bank minigame which possibly contributed to our kingdom’s financial woes. Right towards the end, we got lamentably drunk and couldn’t navigate our way out of labyrinth which cursed the royal bloodline but actually that was what Jack wanted all along so maybe I should have watched more carefully who was pouring the drinks.
In the endgame, we were all faced with the decision to either try and protect the king and the status quo or let it all burn to the ground. I stood by the king, Jack joined the traitors, and Jon… Jon raided the treasury and gleefully watched us destroy ourselves. Well, more accurately, he watched Jack destroy me and my bloodline. It was pitch perfect. We went out of the game the same way we had gone into it. I cannot recommend it enough and I cannot wait until Queen’s Dilemma arrives and we get to jump back into this bonkers, delightful game series.