Reviewed by Herb Levy
THE KING’S ABBEY (Breaking Games/Brown-Eyed Games, 1 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 90-180 minutes; $59.99)
For most inhabitants of a town in the Middle Ages, the center of life was the church and the jewel of that crown was the abbey. In the vision of first time designer Randy Rathert, King Sivolc wishes to bring his dream of the greatest abbey of all to life and players compete to make the King’s wishes come true by constructing the finest abbey to earn the most prestige points in the aptly titled The King’s Abbey.
All players begin with their own board with room to hold resources, space for constructed buildings and towers as well as an area used for training the clergy and recruiting peasants into the church. They also receive some initial resources (4 coins, 1 wood, 1 grain and 1 stone), 6 tower cards, 15 peasants and dice. In addition, all players receive 2 trade tokens, 1 “tool bag”, 1 “wagon” and are randomly dealt a Crusades card and a “starting” building card which is immediately put on the board and activated by placing a peasant in the upper left hand corner of the card. Buildings offer various advantages throughout the game (as well as prestige points).
The main board is where resources are displayed and building cards can be purchased. The remaining cards of the Crusades deck are placed on their board space there as well. An Event card deck is constructed (consisting of 2 Year of Plenty, 2 Disaster! and 3 Vikings! cards), one event for each of the seven game rounds.
Each round is broken into 12 (!) phases. Although that seems like a lot, a phase can be as simple as “roll the dice”. Provided play aids for all players, detailing the phases and their order, is a great help in keeping the game flowing.
A turn begins by each playing rolling his dice. (Everyone starts with 9; a 10th die may become available later.) Then, an Event card is drawn which may be beneficial (Year of Plenty), harmful (Disaster!) or downright deadly (Vikings!). More on those Vikings later. Once resolved, dice are placed.
Dice represent monks under your command and are used in two separate phases. The first time is in the Abbey phase where they are assigned to bring peasants into the church (using values of 1, 2 and/or 3) or train clergy (values of 4, 5 and/or 6). Up to three dice may be assigned to bring peasants from your reserve onto the board (into the back pew of the church). Up to three dice may be assigned to move your clergy marker from the starting “Postulant” position onward toward different levels (Deacon, Priest, Bishop up to Cardinal) with each level bestowing useful benefits. Once these dice are assigned, players may purchase buildings.
The building card deck is shuffled, divided into 2 approximately equal stacks, with four cards from each stack revealed and available for purchase on a sliding scale of from 1 to 4 coins. Buildings offer a host of benefits (from added defense to reusing a placed die from the previous phase, being able to keep more resources in reserve and more). Up to two buildings may be bought each round starting with the first player and then going back in reverse order (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1). Purchased buildings are placed aside where they remain until actually built and for that, you need resources.
Aside from coins, there are four resources in the game: wood (valued at 2), grain (valued at 3), stone (4) and sand (5). Starting with the first player, a player may place a die and gather a specific resource based on the value of the die and the worth of the resource. For example, a die showing a “6” will gather 3 wood OR 2 grain OR 1 sand (no change is given). If you happen to be the first (or second player, depending on how many are in the game), you may place a second “bonus” die simultaneously to increase the amount of resources gotten. You may also use your tool bag to add ONE pip to a die (turning, for example, a 3 into a 4 so you can get a stone) or your wagon to get one EXTRA resource! (Tool bags may be used once each round but a wagon is “one use only” for the entire game!) Another option here is to place a die on the “initiative” space which assures you will be going first next round and, as compensation for using a die for that purpose, lets you draw a chit which gives you a bonus of some sort (extra resources etc.) With this phase completed, peasants are moved.
As mentioned, peasants begin in the rear pew of the church. Now they may advance using your “peasant movement”. Everyone starts with a peasant movement value of 1 but training your clergy will increase this movement allowance up to 3 and, eventually, up to 6. Peasants move up to pews closer to the front of the church (and the altar) to get “baptized”. Baptized peasants are now eligible to “work” in constructed buildings. (Some buildings require “archers”. These peasants need not be baptized and may be assigned from the church – at a cost of 5 coins.)
It is now that players can use their gathered resources to move bought buildings onto their individual boards. Constructed buildings are worth prestige points (PPs) and are activated by moving baptized workers onto the buildings (a free move). Sometimes, you may still be short of needed resources but you can use your two trade tokens to “trade” between resources (e.g. exchange 4 wood valued at 2 each for 2 stone valued at 4 each). Trade is limited to only twice per round (the tokens flipped to show they are used) but get “reset” the following round. Most buildings need a worker for the special powers of buildings to come into play. But these workers must be fed and grain must be turned in to feed peasants (1 grain for each four peasants on your board). If you have managed to build a dairy or sheep farm, these farms will generate cows or sheep which can also be used for feeding. Now well fed, the populace must combat the Darkness.
Darkness is the term used in the game to symbolize the threats faced by those living in medieval times: famine, depression, attacks from outsiders and the like. The game’s Darkness level begins at 3 and, each round, rises by one (although the first two rounds, the Darkness level stays at 3). The power of Darkness is thwarted by having a defense level equal to or greater than the Darkness level of the round. Everyone starts with a defense of 1 and may increase that level in a variety of ways including building an altar (+1 to defense), building a wall (+1), building one or more of the six towers that all players start the game with, training clergy and constructing certain buildings. Failure to turn back the Darkness results in a loss of peasants and prestige.
After the Darkness has been resolved, players collect income (1 coin per peasant on their board) and, finally, resolve Crusades.
As mentioned, all players begin with a Crusades card. All Crusades cards have room for dice (from 2 to 5) and one or two peasants. During the Abbey phase, players may assign dice of the same number to a Crusades card instead. If filling ALL spaces on that card, they will receive their rewards now. Rewards include a certain number of prestige points and additional perks including more resources and upward movement on clergy training. Because it may be difficult to fulfill the dice requirement of a card on a single turn (you can take multiple rounds to finish a Crusades card), it may be a good idea to recruit a fellow player to share in the “glory” by committing one of THEIR peasants to your card as well as one or more of their dice. What they get for their assistance is something that players must decide for themselves. If prestige points are shared, then those points are immediately added to the scoring track when the Crusades are resolved. Otherwise, completed Crusades are placed aside and their PP totals revealed at the end of the game. Players may also buy one Crusades card from the deck (sight unseen) for 1 coin. But Crusades unfinished when the game ends count as NEGATIVES. And, speaking of negatives, what about those Vikings?
In the deck of seven Event cards, there are always three Vikings and these are resolved differently than the other events (which are read and done). When the Vikings appear, the player going last rolls dice equal to the number of players and the dice are placed on the Vikings card from highest number to lowest. Now, the FIRST player MUST place one of his dice on the card that matches the high number OR lose 1 peasant. The first player may continue to place more dice (getting +1 prestige) or pass. If passing, and there are more Viking dice, the next player can place a matching die (and get +1 prestige) or lose a peasant and 1 prestige. Once everyone passes, the dice played against the Vikings are checked. If there are as many players’ dice as Vikings dice on the card, the players have repulsed the Viking attack and the player contributing the most dice to the defense gets a bonus of 3 prestige points. But if there are more Vikings dice than players’, the attack is successful and EVERY player LOSES 1 built building or tower! Nothing built? Then you lose ALL coins AND resources!
With the round completed, all played dice (except for those still committed to an unresolved Crusade) are collected, new building cards revealed (with any remaining cards “sliding down” to fill in any gaps) and we do it all over again. At the end of the seventh round, scores are totaled.
To the ongoing prestige charted on the scoring track, players now reveal all of their completed Crusades cards and add those PPs to their total. (This “reveal” is a way to keep players in suspense as to how is really ahead in the game but I have sat at the table with players who have amazing, photographic, memories meaning they know exactly who is holding what so this device may not always work.) Any sheep (worth 2) and cows (worth 3) are added as well. Some buildings will convert remaining coins and resources to PPs too. Then, the values of any buildings left unbuilt and unfinished Crusades are deducted from scores. The player with the final, highest, total wins!
The whole dynamic of The King’s Abbey is a wonderful interaction of worker placement, resource gathering and a bit of management skill (limited resource conversion with those trade tokens, for example) Going first is an advantage which is addressed by having the second, third and other players begin with more prestige points, a simple solution that works. The use of dice is quite clever too. In most games, high rolls are essential; in others, low rolls are key. In The King’s Abbey, both high AND low rolls offer something beneficial but YOU have to decide how to use them to best advantage.
The game also makes excellent use of some tried and true game mechanisms that have appeared in some of the best strategy games of the last few decades such as constructing buildings on your individual board (Puerto Rico), resource gathering via dice values (Stone Age), different phase assignments for your limited supply of workers (Viticulture) and more. But The King’s Abbey is not some cobbled together rehash. Just the opposite. The disparate elements in the game are expertly woven together, like a spectacular medieval tapestry, evoking a rich sense of theme along with its brilliant game design. The lush earth tones of the artwork of Anna Talanova enhance the atmosphere as well. The last time we saw a game so expertly mesh together such an array of mechanisms was the very successful and highly regarded Lords of Waterdeep.
With so much going on, expect the game to fall into the three hour range. That may be a too heavy time investment for some but, amazingly, time flies; you are completely engrossed in the game. This can be attributed to the balance between individual play (bringing your board to life, deciding how to manipulate resources to achieve your short and long range goals) and player interaction (competing for resources and buildings, negotiations to share the glory and prestige of Crusades and fending off Vikings).
Creating a successful board game is not an easy task. The marketplace is littered with ambitious but failed attempts. But, every once in a while, something appears that makes you take notice. In terms of graphic appeal and design excellence, The King’s Abbey, created by first time designer Randy Rathert (which makes it all the more impressive), is such a game, a first rate strategy game fit for a king. – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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Spring 2016 GA Report Articles