When it comes to dividing the “casual” board gamer from the “serious” (some might suggest “elitist”) gamer, the dividing line is usually clear: dice and the lack thereof. Dice are essentially the embodiment of blind, uncontrollable luck. While very few games are completely devoid of the element of luck, many of the best do as much as they can to make its impact minimal and thus maximize strategy.
This doesn’t make games that heavily rely on dice un-fun, however. Consider the classic game of Yahtzee, which is essentially just a series of poker hands played with dice. As you play Yahtzee, you are completely at the mercy of luck every time you roll; the most you can do is reduce the impact by making accurate assessment of the odds of rolling what you need/want. Failing that, you have to make the strategic decision of where to place your (possibly sub-optimal) roll on the scoresheet. There isn’t a whole lot of control to be found in Yahtzee, and yet it has endured as a family favorite for decades.
To Court the King takes many of the elements found in Yahtzee and gives you an additional degree of control over your fate. The ultimate object of TCtK is to roll (at least) seven-of-a-kind and win the attention of the King; the catch is that you begin with the ability to roll only three dice. In order to work your way up to the King, you first need to win the influence of lesser members of the court and work your way up the social ladder.
The members of the court are represented by illustrated cards not unlike those found in a collectible card game like Magic: the Gathering. Each card has two symbols on it: the combination (or in some cases, total) of dice needed to recruit the character, and the effect the character allows you to employ once per turn. These effects include giving you an additional die (or two) to roll initially, rerolling one or more dice without counting against you, adding a die of a specific value, or modifying (if not outright fixing) the values of rolled dice. Each time you roll, you must set at least one die in reserve before rerolling; other than that restriction, you can reroll as often as your total of dice allows. You can also only recruit a given character once, with the exception of the Fool, who is the “Chance” result of this game and can be recruited with any result, allowing you to reroll a single die; if you are unfortunate enough to recruit him the second time, he turns into the Charlatan, who instead allows you to roll an additional die. The final wrinkle is that there are a limited number of each character available, depending on the number of players; characters obviously become increasingly rare as you move up the hierarchy.
The combined result is a fast-paced series of rolls, using your assembled host of characters to claw your way up to capture the King’s attention with a magnificent seven-of-a-kind. The first player to accomplish this automatically earns the right to use the Queen (who lets you add one die of any value) and triggers the Final Round. Each player, in turn, gets one more chance to out-do the current “top roll”. For example, if the Final Round was initated with a roll of seven fours, the next player would need to roll either seven fives, seven sixes, or eight (or more) of anything; this continues down the line, with each player trying to best the current high roll, ending with the player controlling the Queen. Whoever has the highest roll after his last chance wins both control of the King and the game.
Even with the characters’ various abilities, the game is still dominated by luck. As soon as someone has access to seven dice, the threat of the Final Round being initiated becomes very real. If you don’t have enough dice to compete when that time comes, you effectively get eliminated right away without a final chance, which can be disheartening.
One of the nice benefits of being so heavily reliant on luck is that anyone can win with the right series of rolls, which makes games like To Court the King perfect for families and other casual gaming groups. There is no reading required, and very little actual math (unlike Yahtzee), so anyone old enough to not default to putting the dice in his/her mouth should be able to play successfully. To Court the King isn’t going to win any awards, but it will win over anyone who enjoys a quick game that anyone can play.
Images courtesy of BoardGameGeek.com