13 August 2018
A fantasy MMORPG in a box? That’s just crazy enough to work...
When most designers say they’re aiming for an “RPG in a box”, they’re usually referring to a good ol’ fashioned pen-and-paper game, like D&D. But Frank West has attempted something a tad more ambitious within that handy-soundbite remit. The Bristolian designer’s debut, The City of Kings is, believe it or not, an attempt to condense a massively multiplayer online RPG – the genre pioneered by World of Warcraft – into a one- to four-player tabletop experience.
So in West’s co-operative fantasy adventure, you don’t merely hack up monsters and explore lushly rendered, Azeroth-echoing landscapes; you can gather resources, by mining, tree-felling, harvesting or, as you’d expect from any self-respecting MMO, fishing. You can build structures, too, both temporary (like life-preserving barricades) and permanent (in a non-legacy sense). Despite the inspirational provenance, what this gives The City of Kings is less an ‘MMO done analogue’ feel than a strong infusion of Euro sensibility, similar in certain ways to Jamey Stegmaier’s Scythe – only applied to a story-driven, GM-free fantasy RPG rather than a dieselpunk wargame.
While your hero character, selected from a colourful menu of six, can move, explore, attack, heal and pick up quests, the resource collection and construction grunt work are delegated to workers – each player starting with one, and having the option to upgrade to a pair.
Turns are defined by judicious action management, with your four actions necessarily carved up between hero and worker(s). If you want to purchase a piece of armour, you’ll need to send those workers around the land, dodging monsters and rolling custom dice to try and gather resources, which then need to be stashed in the ‘Old Barn’ before they can be traded for gear. When those workers become cornered by a nasty beastie, the hero must go steaming in to deal (and receive) the hurt, combat resolved quickly and without the need for cards or dice; unless you’ve earned any luck dice, which offer a valuable chance to boost your damage.
The worker-control aspect melds neatly with the high-fantasy-quest flavour, but the biggest novelty here is West’s random monster-generation system, which frees the game from goblin/orc/dragon predictability. Every time you flip a ‘creature’ tile, you take a template and war banner of your choice, add in a stat bar (which scales up with each revealed creature) and then blind-draw a set of ability chits from a trio of bags marked ‘easy’, ‘medium’ and ‘hard’. So while your foe remains oddly faceless and nameless – unless it’s a big, scary boss – they will have access to a wide range of possible powers, from Fire Bolt and Knockback to the self-resurrecting Phoenix.
It’s a welcome innovation, another fun little twist on the fantasy standard, and one which, in addition to the random map tile arrangements, keeps the game fresh on replays, even after you’ve completed all its seven stories, plus its 12 quicker-play scenarios. The same goes for the skill tree-based levelling system, which comes with its own randomised element – skill cards – and is fed by a generous stream of XP, meaning you’ll have plenty of opportunity to try out different character configurations.
The only thing missing, really, is an opportunity to carry characters over and turn West’s stories into a proper Gloomhaven-style campaign. But that’s no reason not to applaud this new-to-the-game designer for a gorgeously crafted and thoroughly entertaining implementation of a bold vision.
A high-quality, artful and component-rich product that offers enough new spins on the fantasy-quester to engage even the most orc-weary of veterans.
Designer: Frank West
Artist: Miguel Da Silva
Time: 1-3 hours
This review originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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