Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On the fence with To Court the King

To Court the King, by Thomas Lehmann, was a game I was eyeing on BGG for a long time. The two features that attracted me were:

1. Sweet, high-quality art
2. Character roles with abilities

Those features will cause me to consider almost any game. The image that had the biggest draw for me was the Sorcerer with his long white hair and beard, green robe, and high-backed chair. He's holding his staff and poring over a large volume, presumably filled with arcane knowledge. He's sitting in a dark, featureless room with light glowing down from the upper left. Realistic art like this is an immediate draw for me.

I am a fan of character abilities and roles. This is best exemplified in Citadels, by Bruno Faidutti. I think abilities and character stats are a great mechanic for strategy. The workings of unique abilities are just fun to me. To Court the King gives you a line-up of 20 unique characters. These characters all have an advantageous affect on your dice rolling. Using these abilities is where I find enjoyment in the game. You get to use every character's ability once per turn. There's something fun about rolling the dice, then going through your characters and using their abilities one by one to make your final roll increasingly better.

As much as I like this game, I can't bring myself to buy it. Here are the reasons:

1. For what the game is, fairly short and simple, it's not worth the price for me. I can appreciate the high production values, but even Thoughthammer's unbeatable price ($17.97) is too much for me. If the game had more to it than cards and dice, it might be more worth it. As of now, I just can't bring myself to pay the price to own a copy. So I play for free on Brettspielwelt (BSW).

2. Another reason the game isn't worth it for me is something I learned while reading the forums on BGG. Chris Norwood posted an excellent review of the game in which he expressed mixed feelings on the game. He writes:
“Since it was first introduced at our weekly BoardGame Night, To Court the King has been one of our most-played and most-enjoyed games. My initial impression, like most other players I've talked with, was that it provided an interesting way to introduce strategy and control into a dice game, a setting usually dominated by blind luck.”
This is how the game feels when you first learn it. He later goes on to explain that his opinion started to change after more plays. He started noticing that the game had more luck than he had recognized at first.

In response to this review, Joseph Rodenbeck posts what I think was a very good insight, and perhaps the best post in the thread.
“The problem is that the game is solved.

The cards that add dice are way better than the cards that manipulate dice. You really only need one manipulator -- the astronomer. Otherwise, just go for the highest value die-adder that you can get. Thus leaving at least 7 of the cards worthless.

If you don't believe me, just try this strategy against anyone who doesn't use it. Nine times of out ten (unofficial estimate) you'll win.”
After reading this, I tested this theory in my many plays on BSW. I won almost every game unless the luck was just really bad for me, or if the other player followed the same strategy. This bothered me. I don't want to win every time by following a formula. That takes away the fun of using your abilities. After testing this theory, I started to feel like I was only tricking myself into thinking I was strategizing. Was I actually coming up with good uses of my character abilities? Or was I actually strategizing well?

The truth is, there is lots of luck in this game. But having lots of extra dice really improves your chances of winning - a lot. Especially if you get the General.

And yet, I still enjoy the game every time. It is a really fun game despite the fact that it does seem to be solved, in a way. If it was less expensive, I'd probably get it. I also think that, as long as every player knows this theory - lots of die-adders, 1 manipulator - then everyone is on the same page, and then there might be a little more strategy to the game. Or maybe then everyone is doing no more than applying the same strategy in a luck-based dicefest. I don't know.

At the end of the day, I like this game and would play it anytime. It is short, the art is great, the abilities are fun to use. Rolling, adding, and modding tons of dice is just cool. So if you have a copy you want to send me for free, I'd take it. Until then, I'll just keep playing on BSW when I have the time.


Landstander said...

I hate this game for another reason. A players turn can take forever, as they stare at their dice and try to group them. And while they're doing that, you're doing...nothing. I found that it didn't matter what the other players did at all when it came to my turn; I would throw the dice, and THEN decide on what role I was interested in. My last game was my last game, unless somebody really wants to play.

TimothyP said...

Interesting. I've only played in person once using a makeshift version for testing. It was fun enough. Playing on BSW, no one ever seems to take very long. My guess is that experienced players wouldn't take so long. Once you nail a strategy down, you don't have to fumble around. You build up a sort of second nature for the game.

Now that I've played many times, I find that I mentally decide on 2-3 characters that will all benefit me. Then, when I roll, I decide which one is most probable to acquire on that turn.

So, I think that with more play, some of your issues might be solved. I could be wrong though. It's just a thought.

Landstander said...

You're most likely right, but twice bitten, third time find something else to play. I'm reminded that the fun from every game depends on the players - a bad game can be made good by the right players, and the opposite is also true, which was the case for this game.