To Court the King – Putting a Pretty Mask on an Ugly Problem…

To Court the King

To Court the King is a Yahtzee-like dice game with a medieval theme.  Players attempt to roll certain combinations of dice to claim different characters, which then give them particular abilities to add dice, reroll dice, or to manipulate the numbers on the dice.  The eventual goal is to roll seven dice of the same number and claim the King.

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.  The more I’ve played, however, my opinion has begun to change, which I’ll discuss more fully later on.

Components and Setup 

To Court the King comes with a set of character cards, 12 nice looking six-sided dice, a cheap “start player” marker, and five player aids: 

  • The character cards are made of thick, sturdy cardboard (which could really be considered tiles, I guess), are decorated with nice artwork, and have some iconography to describe their “cost” and their ability.  These symbols are a little hard to understand in some cases, and I’ve found that most people refer to the player aid card instead until they memorize what the abilities for each character are.
  • The dice are pretty much standard, red plastic dice with rounded corners and white pips (see above).
  • To identify the starting player for each round, there is this cheap, red plastic shield with crossed swords (again, see above).  It doesn’t do much, so it’s adequate but just not really of the same quality as the rest of the components.
  • And finally, there is the player aid that is covered front-and-back with descriptions in plain text (not the silly iconography) of all the different characters, including the combination of dice that must be rolled to claim them and the ability that they grant when used.       

Setup is easy, and mainly just involves laying out the character cards in rows based on their rank.  This is easy to do, because they all have Roman numerals on their backs indicating to which rank they belong.  For less than 5 players, different numbers of each character card are removed to create somewhat of a tight economy on the different abilities. 


Basic Gameplay 

The game is very simple.  Players start by rolling three dice.  Each time they roll, at least one die must be set aside.  The rest are then rerolled, and at least one of them must then be set aside with the first.  This continues until all dice have been set aside.  Players then compare the combination that they rolled with the different requirements for the character cards, and they may choose to claim any one for which they qualify.  You can only take one character each round, and you can’t have more than one of each character.  

The whole point of the game is that then in following turns, you can use these characters to modify the dice that you then roll.  There are essentially three different types of character abilities:

  • Adding Dice – Some characters allow players to start out rolling more dice, while others allow them to bring in active dice of certain values after they roll.
  • Rerolling Dice – Others allow players to reroll a certain number of active dice before one is set aside.
  • Direct Manipulation of Dice –  Many characters enable players to directly change the value showing on dice.  This may be by adding pips, redistributing pips, or simply changing the number to another desired value.

When a character’s ability is used, it is turned sideways and may not be used again that turn. 

Play begins with the starting player and proceeds clockwise around the table until everyone has taken a turn.  Then the starting player token passes counterclockwise and another round begins.  Effectively, this causes the person who went last in a round to take two turns in a row.  I like this mechanic, but it can be a little hard for new players to get their head around.

When a player finally manages to roll seven dice of the same number, they may claim both the King and Queen cards.  Players complete the round in which the King was claimed, and then they begin the last round of play, in which each player gets one chance to take the King (but not the Queen) for themselves.  This is done by beating the roll of the player to last claim the King either by rolling a higher value on the same number of dice or by rolling more dice of a kind (for example, 7 “5’s” would be beaten by either 7 “6’s” or 8 “1’s”).  When it gets around to the original player who claimed the King, they also get one last chance to win him back (if he has been taken), and since the Queen adds one active die of any value, they have a distinct advantage in doing so.  The winner is the person who ends up with the King!     

What I think… 

Like I’ve already said, initially I was very excited about this game.  After a few sessions, I rated it an 8 on the BGG scale and vocally espoused it virtues to most everyone that I play games with.  What I thought was so impressive was that the mechanics of the game allowed players to take charge of the randomness inherent in a dice-based system and turn it into a solid, tactical game.  There are so many choices involved in choosing the characters and how and when to use their abilities that I was convinced that there could be true skill involved in play.

Then I began to see a few cracks in my image of To Court the King.  I noticed that new players were doing pretty much just as well as experienced players.  But still, I said to myself, we’re all pretty new to the game and maybe that player just “got it” faster than most.  But once I was fully comfortable with the rules, I began to see that all of the cool abilities and choices were just window dressing on what is still essentially the same old Yahtzee luck-fest.  

Yes, I still agree that there are a few strategic and tactical decisions that must be made each game.  Which character do I take with this roll?  Do I use this ability now or after one more roll?  Do I go for “4’s” or “6’s”?  But as I see it now, most of these are just opportunities to “not make mistakes” rather than ways to actively gain an advantage over your opponents through your skill in the game.  Because it all still comes down to the dumb luck of the dice in the end. 

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I have something in for luck and randomness in games.  The way I see it, luck is pretty vital in most games (check out my blog on Luck and Chaos in Gaming for more information).  But while some randomness keeps a game fresh and interesting, having too much makes it empty and pointless.  I thought I’d make a few comparisons with some other games to help illustrate my point here.

First of all, let’s look at a couple of games that also do a poor job of managing randomness.  Phase 10 is a rummy-style card game where players attempt to win through accomplishing the goals (such as 2 sets of 3, a run of 7, 7 cards of one color, etc.) in each of 10 phases of play.  Once the cards are shuffled, the winner is already determined.  There is no way, even through skill or great tactical play, to improve your situation and change the outcome already prescribed by the cards.  The only impact you can have is through poor play, such as not picking up a card from the discard pile that they need.  Therefore, with a group of experienced players who rarely make mistakes, the result will be completely random.

Second, let’s look at the classic game of Risk.  In this case, there are a lot of chances for players to use strategy and good tactical play in placing and maneuvering their troops, often over a game that takes hours to play.  But once again, even the best and most skillful gameplay can be foiled by plain, dumb luck as the inevitable dice fests of the game commence.                   

To Court the King is very much like both of these games because it also works hard to give the illusion of control, while essentially still being only an exercise in not making mistakes that is ultimately decided by the random factors of the game, regardless of the skill used to play.

On the other hand, two games that are very good at mitigating and even utilizing this random element are Liar’s Dice and Ra.  Both of these also use a random, “luck-based” mechanic at the core of their play.  In Liar’s Dice (which is similar in a lot of ways to poker), the random factor is merely a background for the real skills involved.  You must take the information that you’re given, decide how much to bid, and then present your bid in such a way to be believable to your opponents.  The skills are cognitive (knowing probabilities and estimating odds), psychological (reading your opponents, deciding how to use bids to manipulate them), and social (making a bluff look believable and a good bid look shaky).  Yes, luck still plays a role in who wins, but I find that those who master these skills are the players who consistently come out on top.

Ra is similar in that its randomness (of tile draws) is the stage on which the real game mechanic is set.  What sets it apart is that, unlike To Court the King, the randomness is applied equally to all players.  Everyone starts with essentially the same resources.  The tile draw is the same for everyone.  The Ra tiles will come out at the same point for everyone.  It is only the choices of the players themselves that make a particular slate of tiles better for some than others.  I don’t want to go into too much detail here (check out my review of Ra for that), but ultimately the skills involved in the game, along with a measure of “push-your-luck” gambling, determine the winner.

The Verdict!

Rules: Simple to understand, quick to teach, easy to play.  Suitable even for kids probably as young as 9 or 10. 
Downtime: Not much.  Rounds are quick and most of the time everybody seems to “coach” each other anyway.  
Length: While I’ve had one game with new players go as long as an hour, most games are done in about
30 minutes.
Player Interaction: Very limited.  Pretty much only through claiming all the characters of one kind before someone else has the chance to get one or through stealing the King in the last round.   
Weight: Light Medium.
GamerChris’ Rating: While it is still a very attractive and entertaining filler game, seeing into it’s “true nature” has kind of left me disillusioned with it.  I now give it a 6.

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  1. I’ve never actually played it in person, but from reading the rules and based on a few computer plays, I’d probably rate it between 4.5 and 5. The dice mechanic is identical to TCtK, but Yahtzee’s only real “strategy” is deciding which slot to score for a particular roll, while this game gives you the choice of which character to take as well as how and when to use their abilities. But of course, the inclusion of a really cool theme as well as a much better scoring/win condition in TCtK makes it a lot more interesting than the “number-crunching” you get in Yahtzee.

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