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Designer Diary: The Making of Kingmaker

by Alan Paull

“Now we are anxious to feed back to the British edition some of the lessons learned. Kingmaker looks to be around long enough to make that worthwhile.” —Andrew McNeil, Games and Puzzles magazine article, #72, Spring 1979

Kingmaker, the classic game of the Wars of the Roses designed by Andrew McNeil, was originally published in the UK in 1974, and again in a more developed form in 1975 in the U.S. It came back over the Atlantic again for its Gibsons’ inauguration in 1983, using substantially the American version. Over the years, Kingmaker not only gained a large following, it also gained a huge number of house rules, options, and variants. After many thousands, probably tens and eventually hundreds of thousands of plays since 1974, the rules, the map, the other components, and the flow of the game came under minute examination. Its passionate advocates and supporters found flaws and supplied their own solutions to problems, real and perceived, some within the context of the original design, some not.

In 2019 I was asked by Gibsons Games to re-develop Kingmaker, which I’ll often refer to below as Kingmaker the Second. It was an immense privilege to be given this opportunity, and I was, and still am, very conscious of my responsibility to Andrew, as the designer of this great game, to maintain his vision, while also providing a worthy successor to past editions for its many and varied audience. I started with Andrew’s quote from 1979, and in a weird way, it’s still relevant today; we’ve learned, I hope, a great many more lessons from this superb game.

Basic Principles of the Re-development

Quoting from my initial notes, my main principle was to “retain the essence of ‘classic Kingmaker'”. This meant that I was neither designing a new game, nor breaking fundamental design elements, nor creating a modernized version of Kingmaker with new 2020s mechanisms. The new version had to provide a similar player experience to the older editions, but with their problems resolved.

My first job was to identify the major problems that I would have to address. To discover these, I reviewed what felt like a library of material. The advantage and disadvantage of the internet and BoardGameGeek in particular is the wealth of readily available information. The main problems were:

:star: Perception of undue length and often stalemates

:star: Problems with interpretation of both the rules and the map

:star: Turtling; for example, “holing up in Calais”

:star: Perceived impact of plague

:star: Alliances, but no alliance victories

:star: Attacks at weak odds, hoping to kill a major noble with a ridiculously powerless one

:star: Sometimes, lack of player agency, owing to “random” events

Where do these roads into London meet? What do the dashed “boundaries” going into London mean? Can you see the little sea border in the Thames?

I considered some elements as sacrosanct, and I accept that, although I consider myself an old grognard and I was a 1970s Kingmaker player, others might have made different choices. I kept the old-style odds-based combat system based on the Event deck. In fact, I’ve retained almost all the old Event deck, with its much-loved “Scrope to Masham” and so on. The Crown deck, too, will be entirely recognizable by players of the older game, even though all the game components have been re-designed visually. Our artist, Mat Edwards, has completely re-designed the board, but the vast majority of the layout of roads and castles remains as in the original, and the major game effects of places — garrisons, troop protections, and road blocking — are the same, though clarified.

All of the problems I’ve listed were issues raised by players (including myself!) over the years. There were more minor points not directly to do with the mechanisms of play; for example, some historical details, including heraldry and castle ownerships, were not accurate. Andrew, a graduate historian and researcher on historical TV programs, would certainly defend a lot of these points of detail by stressing that noble houses had to be combined together to make the game playable, castles represent areas where nobles had holdings, not necessarily definitive castle ownership, and so on.

Nevertheless, I had to try to smooth out gameplay issues such as undue length, turtling, and some aspects of player interaction.

Kingmaker The Second: Prestige

Traditional Kingmaker ends with a single crowned king and all the other Royal pieces dead, or alternatively, with a stalemate or long drawn-out conflict as opposing camps refuse to risk a final engagement. Even simply capturing all the Royal pieces could take an age because of players’ reluctance to risk a siege just to take control of a second or third Royal piece.

An alternative victory condition resolves this issue. At first, I looked to Parliament for the solution, but just as with modern Parliaments, that proved complex and problematic. I wasn’t keen on conditions that involved votes in Parliament for two main reasons. First, it was somewhat ahistorical; it wasn’t really until a couple of centuries later that Parliament became the arbiter of kingship. In the 15th century, Parliament was a means of exercising royal power; its main purpose was to do the monarch’s bidding, even though it was occasionally recalcitrant. Second, with two Houses of Parliament come two complex sets of votes to track, and this adds to housekeeping during play.

Using an approach beloved of Eurogames, I developed a more conventional victory points idea. Thematically, I felt “prestige” was a better term than “victory points”, and I designed them as a very much simplified version of the classic game’s Parliamentary votes: a largish number for control of a royal piece, plus a point for each Office, Archbishop, and City.

During playtesting, I worked out the dynamics of Prestige points in more detail, including points for battles and sieges. As the key here is simplicity, each card that carries Prestige has a Prestige icon or icons on it, so everyone can readily see how many each Faction has, coupled with a Prestige points track for ease of recording. I have also added bonus points for what I term “dominion” over territory (all four cities), religion (lots of Bishops and Archbishops), and government (lots of Offices) to incentivize concentration on these objectives.

A major addition to the game — I could call it a clarification, really — is that each Crown card and Prestige-carrying card in play has to be awarded or attached to a specific Noble. This simple mechanism means that we could include attractive Royal cards in addition to the Royal pieces, and now you can see from the Royal cards who has which Royal, while also adding up the Prestige points because they’re all displayed in each Faction. As we were playtesting the new Prestige system, I introduced Prestige for major battles and sieges, which puts pressure on players to fight. I defined “major” as having at least one Office-holder on each side, so killing off little Scrope with just ten of his own troops is insufficient; there have to be significant forces on both sides. In addition, the Major Battle or Major Siege card with the Prestige points must be awarded to a participating Noble. If he subsequently dies, his Faction loses that Prestige, which stresses that Prestige is a personal characteristic of a Noble, not an amorphous player Faction one.

Only a Faction’s “best” Royal piece counts for Prestige. For example, if you have the sole King, you get maximum Royal piece points, but an additional Royal piece gives you no more Prestige — but they do operate as a spare! We needed significant playtesting to work out the various awards of Prestige points, particularly for the Royal pieces, and quite what the endgame condition should be. The Chancellor of England started out with 2 Prestige, but this proved to be overpowered as that Office is very powerful in its own right, so I decided that each Office should have 1 Prestige, which makes adding them up much easier. Each City carries 1 Prestige, so some cards that start out with control of a City, such as the Archbishop of York with York, and Constable of the Tower with London, will gain you 2 Prestige. Control of all four Cities grants a bonus of 4 more Prestige. It’s hard to gain control of the four Cities, and for this reason (as well as Andrew’s original decision) I didn’t upgrade Coventry to a City.

I particularly like this picture of Richard III, who has shaved his locks in preparation for donning his helmet and armor

“Turtling in Calais” and similar shenanigans that tend to lead to stalemates or long drawn-out endgames have been resolved by the simple expedient that a Faction cannot gain Prestige for Royal pieces that are not on the mainland of England and Wales. After all, skulking in a foreign court or wandering around at sea does nothing to persuade your potential subjects, especially your most powerful ones on whom you depend, that you can rule the kingdom.

The interplay of Prestige amongst the competing Factions meant that I was able to set specific targets for Prestige victory dependent on the number of players. To avoid a sudden death end, which felt wrong for the concept of prestige, and to increase the height of the game’s climax, if you have sufficient Prestige to win, you have to take the Prestige Victory card and hold that Prestige for a round against all comers.

Alliances

Part of the design of the Prestige system is its implications for alliances. In the traditional game, alliances can be difficult to establish and very unstable because the dynamic of victory is defined as a single Faction having the last surviving Royal, with no official victory for an alliance. With Prestige points, it is possible to prescribe victory for alliances as well as single player victory. Naturally, this required a lot of calculation and testing. Each Prestige Victory card specifies the final conclusion of that work.

For an alliance, only the allied Faction’s “best” Royal counts, not all of them, so this does mean you cannot just add the allied Factions total Prestige values together. However, the game provides alliance markers for tracking each alliance’s joint Prestige, as well as the troop strength of the main allied army.

Alliances are more stable with the Prestige points system, I believe. Although the Prestige target for an alliance is greater than for a single player, the allied Factions not only pool their own Prestige (with the exception noted above), they also pool their ability to gain Dominion bonus Prestige. Whereas an individual Faction might find it difficult to get the extra four points for holding all four Cities, an alliance might do that more easily. In addition, you can only break an alliance at the end of your turn, so your former allies have a chance to react before your next turn. This perception of alliance strength tends to hold allies together a bit more than in the original game.

Kingmaker The Second: The Board, Parliament, Random Death

The Board

Much of the nitty-gritty development work involved minute examination of the original boards and rules. This was necessary to clarify the precise geographical locations of named places and the borders of “squares”, and to smooth out the inconsistent and unclear bits of wording, all of which have led to the need to interpret or re-interpret the meaning of both the boards and the rules in the past.

I could list out 26 map revisions where I have changed the position of places or replaced one castle with another, more historically accurate one. I would just note here what I stated earlier: Andrew had to combine noble houses together to make the game playable, and castles represent areas where nobles had holdings and not necessarily definitive castle ownership. I have tried to be careful to make changes only when they can be defended on historical grounds and where they don’t affect game play. I regret that this still means that many noble families and many strongholds have not been included in the new version. For the board, the most important clarification is probably the road network. In the new version, London and Shrewsbury clearly control the roads in their neighborhoods. Even though the routes around London were in reality more complex than our board suggests, this solution has the merit of simplicity and gives London its historical importance. I’ve also moved Newark so that it sits on the Trent — it’s Newark-on-Trent after all — giving it control of entry into its area by road.

I’ve only introduced one new noble: De Vere, Earl of Oxford, with a new castle at Hedingham near Colchester. The De Vere family were important figures during the period, John de Vere, the 12th Earl being executed in 1462 for high treason as a Lancastrian schemer against Edward IV. The 13th Earl, also John, had a colorful career as a Lancastrian rebel against Edward IV, against whom he fought at Barnet, then as a privateer or pirate, finally after many an unlikely adventure joining up with Henry Tudor. He commanded the vanguard of Henry’s army at Bosworth and was finally restored to his estates and titles when Henry became King. As one of the most powerful houses of the kingdom, the De Vere’s deserve inclusion.

When you look at the Kingmaker the Second game board, you’ll probably notice immediately the purple lines on the map. These mark the boundaries of Regions for the new Regional movement method that replaces the traditional movement of nobles by “moving up to five squares”. This is possibly the most radical departure from Andrew’s original game. The reasons for it were fourfold: counting squares was problematic where the edges and corners weren’t crystal clear; some players always found diagonal movement counter-intuitive, especially if the lines didn’t join up squarely; the opportunities for final destinations were many, varied, and sometimes difficult to see, slowing down the game; and some of the “squares” were very small, too small really for a stack of pieces.

While Regional movement — i.e., go into any Area in your piece’s current Region or an adjacent one — looks very different at first glance, a careful design of the boundaries results in very similar outcomes compared with five-squares movement. In other words, the number of turns of movement between the vast majority of places hasn’t changed. In addition, there is now a lot of space for the game pieces in each Area because I’ve been able to increase their size as their role is no longer to regulate the detail of movement — just where your pieces start and end. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at how well this change has been received by the vast majority of playtesters.

Parliament

While I do like Andrew’s Parliament system overall with its strong leaning into the power of the King or the Queen Regent, I felt that Writs of Summons cards made the ability to call Parliament rather arbitrary in too many games. Without a Writ, you cannot call Parliament, and getting one relies on the draw of an Event card or occasionally a trade with another player. In playing over the years and playtesting early in the development process, I found that player frustration suggested a revision so that negotiation about Parliament could concentrate on the spoils of the Parliament rather than Writs.

In Kingmaker the Second, there is a “Clamour For Parliament” Event card somewhere in each quarter of the Event deck. Whenever it is drawn, you place it in its space on the board. While this is in play, an eligible Faction (usually with the sole King) can call Parliament in a suitable location. The caller must summon a Noble from a rival Faction to the Parliament (like you used to do with a Writ, but no Writ required). Then, Parliament proceeds as per Andrew’s rules. (Parliamentary voting is included as an optional rule.) Once Parliament has finished and the one round of King’s Peace in its Area has also concluded, you remove the “Clamour For Parliament” card.

This method means that the availability of Parliament to the monarch’s advisers is known within limits, but not entirely predictable. It is less likely that multiple Parliaments will be called in quick succession — though you can stack Clamour cards if needed! — but Parliament is likely to be available to a monarch’s advisers at some point during the game.

Reducing Random Death

The earlier Kingmaker suffered a little from what I have termed “random death syndrome”. These were caused in particular by Plague and by the random KILLED lists when drawing a card for combat results. Andrew acknowledged that death by plague amongst the upper classes in the 15th century was not as common as all that — and while a random crossbow bolt in a siege or a fatal fall from a horse in battle were genuine occurrences, as game mechanisms they lack finesse, especially if several notables are laid low through the same event.

To spare the players some of these calamities, I have toned them down; now, you lose only one Noble (your best one in the affected stack) from a single Event card rather than all of them. If you lose a battle or siege, all your Nobles are still captured by your opponent and can be killed or ransomed. However, if you are unfortunate enough to lose Nobles, via our “Rally to the Cause” rule, you gain one new Crown card for every two such cards removed from play. It is less difficult with this rule, though I would say not necessarily easy, to recover from a heavy defeat, which is in keeping with the history of the Wars.

Which Versions to Put in the Box?

A critical decision that we had to make was what to put in the box. One alternative was to publish just the new version; my working title had been “Revised Kingmaker”, but that was amended to the more evocative Kingmaker The Second, as in “the second Gibsons version”. However, I felt that to do justice to Andrew’s game, we should make it more of a deluxe, everything-within-reason-in-it game. This would enable all players to experience the new streamlined version, but would also allow veteran players to re-play the old games they used to play, though with new artwork and new components, and with, I believe, much more clearly written rules. The game box now contains the new Kingmaker The Second; Classic Kingmaker, which is more-or-less the old basic, traditional Gibsons version; Extended Classic, which is similar to the old Advanced version; plus not only a range of options and variants, but also a new solo challenge, designed by Steve Froud.

For Kingmaker The Second, I designed an introductory set-up with pre-selected Crown cards for each Faction so that new players could just select their designated Crown cards and get started relatively quickly. The purpose of these pre-set Factions was to avoid the difficulty in the traditional game whereby a player or two might get very weak starting positions, whereas someone else might get a very strong starting hand. While you might recover from a poor start, it takes considerable skill, and I wanted to avoid inflicting that on a new player of the game. Once players are comfortable with the new version, they can use the alternative set-up, what I call “controlled random”, whereby you are guaranteed to receive the core of a reasonable Faction, but also a number of randomly dealt cards, so there is more variation in the starting positions without creating either extremely strong or extremely weak Factions. There is also an optional time limit rule.

Kingmaker The Second can be played with 2-5 players. For the two-player version, bearing in mind that there is very little scope for political intrigue with only two players, I have adjusted the game to make it more challenging and more balanced by introducing a non-player Faction that controls some critical roads. Now you can no longer get control of the road network through pure luck of the draw; you must fight for it. In addition, each player draws two Event cards each turn instead of one, thereby increasing the tempo slightly. Readers of the rules may notice that the pace of the Event deck, especially in relation to “Clamour For Parliament” cards, is a key driver of the game’s tempo, so its set-up is slightly adjusted for each player count.

Classic Kingmaker is specifically intended to function as the original Gibsons Games basic game in which victory is achieved through having the last royal piece, alive and crowned (no Prestige Victory). It is for 2-6 players. I canvassed opinion widely on whether to include seven or more players, and in general players agreed with my view that seven or more led to too much downtime and a less enjoyable experience.

For this version, we provide extra Crown and Event cards to swap into or to add to the decks so that the decks are very similar to the earlier game, though I haven’t reversed the subtle adjustments that I made to Raids & Revolts in the Event deck. For example, we recommend that you replace the Kingmaker The Second City and Town cards that have troops with those that have no troops, and take out the new Lord of the Isle of Wight card, replacing it with the old Carisbrooke royal castle card. Classic also uses old-style Writs of Summons instead of the Clamour For Parliament. It includes the complication of Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, as a fourth Lancastrian heir, as in the earlier game, but clarified. You may notice in the Classic rules that I have made decisions about specific ambiguities or gaps in the earlier games’ rules. Of course, if your own house rules disagree with these decisions, you are at liberty to stick with your own ones.

Extended Classic Kingmaker represents the original Gibsons Games “Advanced” game and includes Ireland, the Continent, and Scotland, the Crown cards King’s Pardon, Lieutenant of Ireland, Le Lucas Ship of Whitby, the French and Irish Mercenaries, as well as the special Duke of York and Duke of Lancaster cards. The Event deck has the “Advanced” cards, including Irish Revolts, French Sieges, and the Parliament Must Be Summoned cards. All these cards are explained more fully in the rules than in the earlier game. I should mention the Duke of York/Lancaster special cards in particular. The Duke of York and Duke of Lancaster cards were not well explained in the earlier game. I have implemented these as special “Plantagenet” cards, not normal Crown cards, that are linked directly to the heir of each House, representing extra resources provided by the royal households. They control specific extra castles: Fotheringhay, Ludlow, and Sandal for the Duke of York, Kenilworth for the Duke of Lancaster.

Extended Classic includes the Battle Board sub-system for detailed pitched battles that appeared in the earlier Gibsons’ version, together with the use of dice rolls for the death of Nobles rather than looking at the Event deck. It has a specially designed board for the array of nobles in battles. I also included the Loyalty Table, so there is a chance that the heir to a dead Noble will immediately rejoin the Faction of his father. I hope that players will find Extended Classic to be a fun, if more complicated and longer version of the game.

As Kingmaker has accrued many options and variants over the years, I have included a range of these in the new game. This collection is by no means comprehensive, though I think it includes most of the “officially published” material that seemed to me to work particularly well. I have not included material that I believe unbalances the game too much or provides excessive “take that” opportunities. This undoubtedly means that some players will not find their favorite optional card in the game; space precluded a totally comprehensive inclusion of all house rules and extra cards. However, you will find optional rules for the following: random placement of royal pieces at the start of the game; returning from Parliament directly to home castles; Town fighting; Ambushes; rules for handling Parliament by votes in both Houses, including victory by votes in Parliament; using Writs of Summons as Commissions; re-shuffling decks when Embassy cards are drawn; and a string of additional Event cards in a twenty-card set called “Divisions and Disasters”. This last set is based on cards originally published as an expansion in 1977.

Teamwork!

Although I take responsibility for the re-development, I must also acknowledge the assistance of my brilliant team of rules reviewers and my wider group of playtesters. They have been unstinting in their help, knowledge, skills, and critical commentary. I haven’t space to name them all; however, my review team includes Ralph H. Anderson, our Kickstarter manager from across the pond; Alan Beaumont, who used to rules-wrangle for TM Games back in the day; Steve Froud, who also designed the solo challenge; Mike Oliver, a veteran Kingmaker expert and historical game designer; Greg Sarnecki, designer of Bella Rosarium, a hugely detailed historical game based on Kingmaker; and Justin Thompson, Kingmaker tournament player extraordinaire.

Comments on the whole body of the rules have also been made by Paul Mason, Mike Seely, phyphor, and Ben Clayton, amongst many others. The whole process of re-development from the summer of 2019 to now would have been impossible without them, though of course I accept that any errors are mine, and these good folks will not necessarily agree with all of my decisions. I’ve also been very well supported by the team at Gibsons Games, of course, who have the task of translating my prototype into the fully-functional game that you will see shortly.

In 2019 and very early in 2020, I was able to arrange face-to-face playtesting, both locally here in Cambridgeshire and further afield at Eclectic Games in Reading. (Thanks to Becky and Darrell, who run Eclectic Games.) At this stage, I was experimenting with early (and shaky) versions of the Prestige victory concept, while leaving much of the game as it was. Fortunately, my playtesters are a very tolerant bunch. Then, as you’ll know, everything came to a juddering halt; Covid struck, and the remainder of face-to-face sessions I’d organized had sadly to be cancelled.

I remained determined that a mere global pandemic would not halt this process, even though extensive playtesting was a critical part of the re-development, so online then. Initially, I used Tabletopia because I found it easier (back in early 2020) to create and upload the digital assets there, a system I had already used. Although we did have many successful playtests on Tabletopia, there were a few technical issues, and playing such a large and complex game on this platform was not the best player experience. It proved rather fiddly, and Tabletopia didn’t allow for modifications “on the fly”, though it was free-to-play.

A few months later, I switched to Tabletop Simulator, which proved a little more troublesome for creating the digital version, but was rather better for the players and permitted “on the fly” changes, though it was not free-to-play. I would have to admit that this whole process of digitizing the revised version was very time-consuming and slowed down the development process a great deal, and I am very thankful for the tolerance and understanding shown by the Gibsons team. I am also very grateful to my playtesters for their forbearance and ability to separate out the difficulties of using an online platform interface versus any actual game play difficulties and issues.

The development and testing of the new version was a methodical process. I absorbed ideas from many sources, including BoardGameGeek, my rules review team in particular, and playtesters in general, as well as concretizing ideas of my own. There was a lot of fundamental work on constructing the new version of both the Crown deck and the Events deck, and particularly the additional cards for pre-set Factions — balancing them sufficiently — and also for the Cities, the Royalty, and the Major Battle/Siege cards. Although I knew that the board would be re-imagined for final production, we produced entirely re-drawn versions of the new board and the Classic board for playtesting. I say “we” because I relied heavily on my wife, Charlie, an expert illustrator and artist in her own right, to help to produce the prototype versions, so they were presentable to my playtesters. She was unstinting in her time and skill doing this detailed work, with the advantage that she’s much quicker than me at using Photoshop and InDesign!

For each new thing, I did a bit of solo testing to make sure that it had a basic viability, then extensive playtesting through a round of 3-6 sessions of online games with various numbers of players — it has to work with 2-5 — and after that, drafting the new section of rules and sending it off to my review group for comment. Where points were contentious, we would have extensive and frank discussions to air our opinions and chase around the issue to make sure that the suggestions were beneficial and met the design requirements. Finally, the decision on whether and how to implement would be mine. Then, more iterations, more ideas, and more checking to make sure that one change didn’t throw up issues with another part of the game’s model. This process was overwhelmingly fun (at least for me!), and the whole team was a pleasure to work with. It helps that I had a good mix of people: some very experienced in the industry, others expert and analytical players, still others good at detail, and everyone prepared to commit their thoughts to the process either verbally or in writing or both.

Playtesting enabled me to come to decisions about the levels of Prestige points for each player count; to experiment with tweaks on movement, combat, and alliances; and to address and check the flow of the game. One key issue was to estimate game length, knowing that online difficulties can distort these estimates. Subsequent face-to-face games, including very helpfully at The Ludoquist board game café in Croydon, have suggested that my estimate of an average of 45 minutes plus 30 minutes per player for Kingmaker The Second is reasonably accurate. We’ve also now successfully playtested the game with as near as possible final components.

Controversies?!

Here I’m going to look at some Kingmaker controversies that have arisen over the years. These will be my own personal views as a result of playing the original games and the development process, and the Kingmaker The Second version reflects these. You may disagree!

Which fortified locations block roads?

“A piece which starts its move in a square which contains a Road, may move along that Road an unlimited distance, provided that the Road is not blocked by a Castle, Royal Castle, or Town on the Road and held by another player.” Ariel rules

“A Noble beginning his move in a square containing any part of a road may travel an unlimited distance along it as long as he doesn’t pass through a town, city or castle on the road (symbol printed over the road) which he or his faction does not control.” original Gibsons rules

The controversies with roads were twofold: “Which fortified locations were on the roads?”, and “Did neutral fortified locations block roads?” It didn’t help that many players didn’t read or didn’t remember the sections of the rules (above), compounded by the fact that the rules changed between the editions.

Out with the old: Ariel Shrewsbury and Tutbury at the top, Gibsons at the bottom

Typical of the first problem were the castle of Tutbury and the towns of Shrewsbury and Oxford. On the Ariel board, Tutbury clearly does not cross the road at all, whereas it does on the Gibsons board. Oxford is similar; it clearly blocks on the Ariel board, but lays over only part of the road on the Gibsons one. Shrewsbury is a well-known problem because the two roads to the east seemingly meet on the way to reaching Shrewsbury, thereby suggesting that the town doesn’t cut the road, but not definitively. There are also various places on both boards where roads might, or might not, touch into an area across a boundary.

With the help of our artists, illustrators, and layout specialists Stewart, Mat, and Diane, we have resolved these geographical issues on the new boards. All the cities now clearly dominate their local road network, as seems proper. Tutbury Castle, formerly owned by Hastings (though incorrect historically), has been removed entirely, thereby resolving that problem, and Hastings’ abode has been shifted to his castle at Ashby, upgraded from an unfortified town to a home castle. Technically, that’s Ashby-de-la-Zouch, but the full length name didn’t fit easily on the map, so it’s shortened to Ashby.

In with the new: Kingmaker II at the top, Classic at the bottom.Note that the Duke of Buckingham now has Stafford Castle rather than Newcastle, Hastings has Ashby rather than Tutbury, and you can just see Talbot’s new Blakemere, and the new South Wingfield for Cromwell. Classic map areas are different from Kingmaker II because you’re counting Areas, and there’s an extra couple of purple lines on the KII map for Regional movement.

The second problem concerned fortified locations on roads that were not owned by any faction. Notice the difference between the two editions’ rules above. In the first, you can move along a road unless a blocking fortified location was held by another player, while in the second, you cannot pass through if your faction doesn’t control it. In the interests of more liberal movement, I have opted for neutrals to let you through in Kingmaker II, but have retained the Gibsons’ edition restriction in Classic. If the location is occupied by a potentially hostile faction, you can still negotiate passage for some present or future consideration — not enforceable of course.

Where do Noble pieces end up when capturing Royal pieces in fortified locations?

“A Royal Piece is controlled by a player when one or more of his Noble Pieces occupies the same Square, Castle, Town or City.” Ariel

“[After a siege] Any victorious Noble may end his turn inside the captured town, city or castle”…”A royal heir is captured by a faction when one or more noble counters of that faction occupies the same open area of a square, town, city or castle as the royal counter at the end of their move. If the royal counter is accompanied by another player’s Noble(s), they must all be defeated by combat in order to make the capture.” Gibsons

This was another piece of the jigsaw not well explained in either version of the rules, and it’s important because of Plague. If your Noble has to end your turn inside a town or city to capture a royal, they (and their new “master”) would be subject to Plague. If not, they can avoid those pesky bacteria. In the absence of a definitive answer, and in the face of corner cases, house rules abounded.

My view for Kingmaker II was that nobody likes to be forced to risk the random death of Plague, so my version enables Nobles and Royal pieces to end their owner’s turn outside fortified locations that they moved into or captured in that turn. Bearing in mind that a round or turn represents a very variable duration (weeks or months at least), it seems reasonable to me that a bunch of Nobles could take London, meet and greet the King, and remove him and his entourage away from the capital without having to stay around either for the plague to catch him, or for a rival army to turn up and besiege the city.

On the other hand, I took a stricter interpretation of Andrew’s rules for Classic. Here, the older rules strongly imply that a Noble has to be in the precise location (Square, Castle, Town or City) of the royal in order to capture him or her, and there’s no hint of sleight of hand to move the Noble out once movement or combat has been resolved, so as in Kingmaker II, you must capture a Royal piece by entering a fortified location, but you’re not allowed out at the end of your turn, so must risk Plague or siege. Discussion with a range of players shows that this was a common interpretation, though not the only one.

What the heck does a game “round” mean?

Undefined in the Ariel rules and only briefly in the first Gibsons’, the word “round” becomes important when you gain royals from both houses, or when you’re in an Alliance and cannot move or attack more than once in a “round”. This turned out to be relatively straightforward: we just needed a definition that works.

In fact, it’s even simpler for the “royalty from both houses” difficulty. Here, you must, ahem, remove from play the royals from one house at the end of your next turn (Kingmaker II) or turn after that (Classic).

Alliances are the main messy problem because you can declare an Alliance at any time, and in some options, break it at any time, too. That causes a raft of “gamey” corner cases. The main principle in all of the rules was that you cannot move or attack more than once in a “round”. The problem is when does a round start and when does it finish? Some players ruled that it started when declared, so ended at the same point in the next round. That felt very unsatisfactory because it requires tracking in complex game situations, especially when you might have simultaneous or overlapping or changing alliances.

I don’t believe that Andrew wanted this level of complexity and potential confusion. The Gibsons rules definition is: “When all players have taken their turn a round of play is completed.” Following this guideline, coupled with a defined Starting Player (originally Chancellor or senior Archbishop or Bishop), we have a round as all players having taken a turn, beginning with the Starting Player. This has the benefits of simplicity and clarity, and with a Start Player marker, all players can physically see how a round flows. It might take a little getting used to for players who used a different method in the past, but our playtesting experience has shown that it works well.

An allied Force of five Nobles led by de Vere and Stanley attempts to take London from the Duke of Buckingham and Henry VI. They can attack in either Blue or Pink’s turn in a single round, not both.

Five, six, or seven players?

“…from two to a recommended maximum of 10 or 12.” Ariel 1974

“… from 2 to a recommended maximum of 7 players.” Gibsons 1983

My experience of playing Kingmaker with more than five was a lot of downtime and a lot more chaos. For those reasons, I’ve pegged back the player count of Kingmaker II to five players.

However, acknowledging that many players like playing at higher player counts, I canvassed opinions from a range of players. There was a reasonable consensus (a very strong majority) that more than six was problematic, even if technically feasible, so we decided that we would use a six-player limit for Classic. That also had the by-product of slightly reducing the cost of production because each player has their own set of pieces — a useful innovation — but that was not a factor in this decision.

Ambushes: good or bad?

Kingmaker combat corner cases can cause carnage! In the 1970s, games could get away with random “take that” occurrences that modern games really cannot.

In the original game, a player could attack a rival army with a solitary weak Noble (Scrope being a common example, for some reason) in the hope of killing off a tooled-up powerhouse, such as Mowbray with the Constable of the Tower of London (200 extra troops in the London region) or Neville with the Chamberlain of the County Palatine of Chester (200 extra troops in Wales), simply through them being named on the KILLED list on the combat resolution Event card. This happenstance was somewhat ameliorated by the optional Ambush rule that prevented Scrope from undertaking a full-blown battle, but allowed Scrope’s owner to kill the Noble at the foot of the KILLED list only. I’ve left Ambush as an option, but Kingmaker II simply disqualifies Scrope from attacking at less than 1-4 odds; he’s automatically captured instead. This has the merits of simplicity and reducing the very random bad stuff that can lead to a poorer player experience.

Town and City cards – troops or not? if so, how many?

I made one change stimulated by playtesting and house rules from a variety of play groups. This was the addition of 10 troop strength to Town cards and 20 troop strength to Bristol for Kingmaker II. These additions make Towns like Ipswich and Lancaster of some importance, albeit relatively small, even though they don’t block roads, whereas with no troops, they dwindle to insignificance. I left the troop strength relatively low so that in keeping with Andrew’s original vision, it remains with the Nobles to provide each Faction’s main forces. The other cities — London, Norwich, and York — don’t have troops associated with their City cards because these are subsumed within the troop strengths of the Crown cards that control those Cities. For Classic Kingmaker, you can use replacement cards with no troop strength, though you remain at liberty to use the Kingmaker II versions if you wish.

I haven’t delved into the weeds of making these allocations historically accurate, partly because the historical evidence is difficult to come by or in some cases completely lacking, and also because the numbers raised varied throughout the period and depended on who was asking.

Scrope to Masham: Some Comments on Historicity in Kingmaker

“It’s a model, not a simulation!” Alan Paull (frequently)

The concept of historicity relates to historical authenticity. It’s a twofold concept, covering both the idea of historical accuracy — facts, if you will, rather than myths or fiction — and also how we in the present can really know what happened in the past. Games are often models or systems in that they are components connected together for a purpose. The designer of a game may be attempting to portray some aspects of reality, but models necessarily contain simplifications, sometimes gross simplifications. Games with a purpose of entertainment, rather than as simulations, can get away with divergence from reality; in fact, this is often necessary in order to create a playable and/or marketable game. Put a pin in that idea as I’ll be referring to it throughout this section.

The central conceit of Kingmaker is a great example of how historical accuracy is not the be-all and end-all of a historical game. Andrew’s idea was that royal figures didn’t have agency in the period. While this might have been true of Henry VI, acknowledged by most as a “weak” king and experiencing bouts of madness, and possibly also of Edward of Westminster, a minor for most of the period and dying when he was only 17, it could not be said of those powerful figures Richard, Duke of York, and his three sons, nor was Margaret of Anjou any form of cypher. But as a game mechanism, it works brilliantly. We as players are factions of leading nobles literally leading around the royalty for our own ends.

There are many aspects of the reality of the Wars of the Roses (not in itself a term coined until the 19th century) that have been amended in the interests of game play by Andrew McNeil, the team of developers at Avalon Hill, and myself more recently. It might be a neat little history project to ferret them out, but I’m not going to do that here. I just want to mention a few critical features of the game that make it work as an entertainment, but that a simulation style of game might want to address — ignoring the major conceit already described.

The road from Shrewsbury to York

There was no medieval or early modern road from Shrewsbury to York. There isn’t even a simple current route there. A look at the map explains why: it would go through the Peak District at the southern end of the Pennines, a range of mountains with relatively few major roads even now. Okay, now there is the M62 and a few others relying on modern road engineering, but you get the point about the 15th century.

However, for the game, it really helps to provide players with two routes from London to York, and via a relatively few stops, you can control that fictional part of the network. To be fair, the eastern route from London to York is not an unreasonable representation, following the old Roman roads of Watling Street, the Fosse Way, and Ermine Street, if I recall correctly, though it really should go through both Nottingham and Lincoln — but there are problems with early modern roads in that definitive evidence of their routes is often lacking, while in game terms, more locations on them means more blocking, which isn’t necessarily what we want, so we compromise.

Kingmaker noble houses

Andrew McNeil stated explicitly that unconnected or cadet branches of some families (for example, Grey and Neville) had to be merged, and some families had to be left out, including “arrivist” families such as the Woodvilles. Also, some families had to give up their titles to enable the creation of Title cards for award to other nobles during the game. Exact holdings of castles were sacrificed in order to reduce their number and to attempt to provide for “foci of power” rather than territories.

“Scrope to Masham”, the famous quote from an Event card, is a Kingmaker thing. I wanted to keep it despite potential difficulties with the Scrope families. I needed to respect Andrew’s decision to have the Scropes in the Masham area as a broad center of their power base, but I also wanted to be reasonably historically accurate, so I did a bit of research on Masham.

It turned out to be quite interesting. While Bolton was, arguably, more important (and I wouldn’t gainsay anyone who mentions that!), there was definitely a castle or castellated manor at Masham from the early 14th century, though it was variously called Clifton or Masham. There are very few records of the original structure anywhere because it was demolished in 1806 and built over with another one. This kind of eradication was, I’m sure, quite frequent and leaves considerable gaps in the records because a researcher is then very reliant on written records with no past pictorial or archaeological evidence. It’s quite possible that an old local history, parish record, or memoir mentions it, but this type of source is unlikely to have been digitized, so from the internet’s point of view it doesn’t exist. Besides, I’m a game designer/developer, not an academic historian.

However, “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”. I didn’t add Bolton Castle or use it to replace Masham because it’s a bit far from the road to control it (though, of course, the road is by no means historically accurate). “Scrope” the noble card was explicitly (from Andrew’s notes) an amalgam and doesn’t represent just the Masham branch, so it feels quite proper to me to retain Scrope at Masham.

These radical adjustments might horrify a designer of a simulation as they distort the reality and the detail of many local and regional situations, but they work for Kingmaker, which continues to retain its theme and sufficient historical authenticity to create a great player experience. I hope this brief excursion into the method I used to arrive at my decisions gives some insight into this part of the development process.

Stuff We Left Out

As a postscript in the interests of historicity, I wanted to mention some of the bits that Kingmaker leaves out. There are very few women and very few non-elite decision-makers in Kingmaker. This is not to say that these people were not important in the 14th century. It’s worth pointing out that women then still made up about 50% of the people, and their lives and experiences were just as relevant and important as those of the men and are deserving of historical study and inclusion in thematic games. Only rarely — for example, Margaret of Anjou — were they recorded as important figures politically, and Kingmaker focuses on the actions of the male elites.

I would also point out that one of the most significant figures of either sex in this period was Margaret Beaufort (see image below), mother of Henry Tudor. Without the determination and force of character of Margaret Beaufort, it’s unlikely there would have been a Tudor dynasty at all, and this is worthy of wider recognition.

Margaret Beaufort, Portrait, 16th century. From Wikimedia Commons, provenance unknown

There are non-elite people in Kingmaker for they make up the retinues, levies, mercenaries, and hangers-on of the nobles’ armies. There’s little detail of what they do, other than moving from place to place and fighting battles and sieges. We’ve left out the details of logistics and how these armies were raised, marched, and fought, and importantly how these armies affected local populations. Again, that type of game would be more simulation than we wanted with Kingmaker.

But let’s acknowledge it briefly now with an illustration of what it meant to be on the receiving end of an early modern army on the march. I should note that I’ve not made a particular study of the brief example I’m using; it has features similar to many of the armies’ operations in the Wars of the Roses.

On 30 December 1460, the Lancastrian army of the Duke of Somerset and Margaret of Anjou ambushed and destroyed Richard, Duke of York’s army at the Battle of Wakefield, and many Yorkist notables and many more unknown soldiers were killed in the battle or executed shortly afterwards. Then, as Wikipedia states: “The northern Lancastrian army which had been victorious at Wakefield was reinforced by Scots and borderers eager for plunder, and marched south.” In February 1461, the Lancastrian army reached Hertfordshire and beat Warwick’s army at the Second Battle of St Albans, leaving London vulnerable, but despite some pretty desperate negotiations, the city of London refused the northerners entry, and Margaret’s army retreated north, eventually to lose decisively at Towton. Such is the bald narrative.

But what does this all mean for the non-elite folks of the Midlands and the South East of England? These, after all, were the vast majority of people affected, and only a miniscule proportion of the people were the nobles, like Somerset and Warwick, that we focus on.

The Lancastrian army marching south was about 15,000 strong, though whether that’s their combat strength or their total numbers including up to a third or so camp followers of various types, I don’t know. They were relying on foraging for food supplies as all armies of the period did, but also on “plunder” — that is, pillaging for valuables and other goods to enrich themselves — and it was for the promise of plunder that many of the “Scots and borderers” had joined Margaret’s army in the first place.

In the 14th century, armies didn’t have the relatively sophisticated bureaucracies, supply depots, and magazines that were developed by the 18th century. They were generally reliant on foraging for supplies from the local area, either through organized forced levies of food and other supplies, usually used in friendly regions, sometimes paid, but very often not, or through robbing the local people by the use of extreme violence, primarily using mounted troops. Here, we’re going to look briefly at what these terms — foraging, plundering, pillaging — actually mean.

Food supplies were held by the local populace in towns, villages, and other smaller settlements. Foraging in friendly towns could be organized (via “requisitioning”) as towns definitely did not want to be occupied by troops, friendly or otherwise, so they would pay off a local army by “voluntarily” providing food — or providing money in lieu. Foraging in smaller settlements generally meant requisitioning of the peasants’ grain and frequently plundering (stealing with violence) of any other goods they had for good measure. Local populations threatened by armies quickly became good at hiding their food, goods, and chattels, even from so-called “friendly” armies.

Food supplies were generally available in the required quantities for an army at or after harvest, which took place in the months of May to August, depending on the crop, particularly July and August for wheat. It was grain that was the most important crop and the most important foodstuff for an army on the march in this period, with fodder for horses and other livestock a close second. The local peasants would harvest and store their grain, gradually consuming it during the months after harvest, and ideally having a store of grain left before the next sowing either in the autumn for a winter crop, or in March for a summer crop — but the Battle of Wakefield happened at the end of December and Second St Albans was in February the following year, so the Lancastrians were indulging in a winter campaign when logistical problems were at their most intense. An army marching in late January and February needs to forage for supplies from peasants who have already consumed at least half of their grain, more than that if they have also sown in the autumn, so the yield from foraging would have been less than during summer or autumn.

We know that the northerners viewed the southern lands as enemy territory and were intent on plunder, in addition to foraging, and there would be no amelioration of the violent effects that might happen on friendly territory. In fact, the time of year pretty much required this type of relatively extreme action, or the army would starve. It also had to keep moving because otherwise it would quickly eat the local area out of food.

An army foraged and plundered by sending out troops, usually mounted men, in a ten mile or so radius along its route of march. Typically, settlements along the route were pillaged of everything moveable in terms of food and goods, then burnt. People who were caught would be tortured so that they would reveal the location of any hidden food or other goods, then killed. Women of any age would be raped, then killed. Towns without adequate defenses would be taken, their populations massacred, then the town burnt. Often, this would happen despite the orders of those in command because the troops considered it their right to obtain booty; after all, that’s what they had joined up for. The area the army moved through ended up devastated and sometimes depopulated.

In the example in question, towns such as Grantham and Stamford were pillaged, and a swathe of destruction marked the army’s passage. It was so damaging that walled Coventry, a Lancastrian center, refused them entry, and this all-consuming “plague of locusts”, as described by one chronicler, came to be hated on all sides despite its military victories. After defeat at Second St Albans, the Yorkist leaders fled or went into hiding, and the prize of rich and well-provisioned London seemed open to Margaret and Somerset, but despite this and after some wavering caused by Lancastrian sympathizers, London’s citizenry shut their gates. This was not simply the act of a supposedly Yorkist city — many were quite prepared to open the city to the rightful king, Henry VI (released from Warwick’s clutches at the Second Battle of St Albans) — but was the determination of a populace terrified by the approach of a victorious, vengeful, and undisciplined army of pillagers. It’s worth noting in the back of your mind what your own siege of London might have meant in practice at the time.

I hope this post might encourage some readers to look more widely at the history of this period. It’s not all heraldry, intrigue, and dastardly deeds!

For some very readable overviews of the Wars of the Roses, I recommend The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones, and The Brothers York by Thomas Penn. For Margaret Beaufort, Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis is excellent. For some very good scholarly publications on some of the battles of the Wars of the Roses, see Mike Ingram’s books on Northampton and Bosworth, and Graham Evans’ book on Edgcote. For more on foraging and logistics before the age of railways, and much, much more, I recommend Bret Devereaux’ blog “A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry”, specifically this article.

Alan Paull

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