Games walk a fine line – a thin bouncy little tightrope. Finding the right balance between depth, complexity, focus, theme – this is really really hard to do. Sometimes games can be perfect in the execution of their mechanisms, but lack a thematic hook to engage players. Some are dripping in artwork and flavor text, but where’s the game? Luck is always a factor in games, but when does luck go from a providing a sense of mystery and discovery to fomenting chaos and reducing players’ agency? Hell if I know! I’m just a lowly game reviewer. I don’t actually have to do the hard work of making the games, I just play them and complain. Like Benjamin Disraeli once said, “How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct.”
The King’s Armory is a tower defense style game in which a team of heroes protects the gate of, you guessed it, the King’s armory, within which lies some spectacular treasure that the monstrous hordes can’t wait to get their grimy little hands on. Initially launched on Kickstarter in late 2013, the game went through a few fits and starts until finally being produced by the designer’s own publishing company, Gate Keeper Games. For all that, unfortunately, The King’s Armory does not succeed on a variety of levels. This game as it stands today would not be have been published by a major game publisher. The artwork is inconsistent, amateurish and oddly colored. The rulebook is close to incomprehensible. The graphic design needs a complete overhaul. The game mechanisms need to be heavily edited and distilled.
The game consists of a series of waves in which monsters emerge from one side of the map and begin running headlong towards the armory gate on the other side. Impeding the progress of these monsters is, of course, our motley band of heroes. Before each wave begins, players position their heroes on the map, along with folded cardboard archer towers, so as best to intercept said monsters. Players and monsters take turns moving and attacking until all the monsters have been defeated, which ends the wave. Players then collect loot and with it, hire additional forces, build new towers and get new equipment. But naturally as the heroes get stronger, so do the monsters. Each wave has a progressively larger number of monsters and, as there are five levels of monsters, the average difficulty of the monsters keeps increasing too. Play continues like this for 5 to 7 waves. If you kill all the monsters you win. If the monsters kill your entire hero party within a wave or if they knock down the castle gate, then you lose.
As I played, I kept mentally referencing the far more streamlined and focused Castle Panic, one of the best known cooperative tower defense board games currently in print. That game revolves around card play but basically treats hits as automatic. Play the card with the right direction and range, and you hit. In contrast, combat in The King’s Armory is extremely convoluted, and seems determined to adhere to a D&D inspired system with literally dozens of modifiers, critical effects, injury status, flying vs. ground, etc. All of this may sound appealing, but in the end you might have skipped all that, because in a great majority of cases, you just deal the minimum damage of 1. Because for all that extraneous detail, what is sadly lacking here is the frantic feeling of being the last line of defense. The “Castle” part is here, but the “Panic” unfortunately is not.
The King’s Armory presents itself as a tower defense game, but after taking a close look at how the game unfolds, that really isn’t the case. Counterintuitively, it’s really a dungeon-crawl game. However, instead of fending off monsters, collecting loot and leveling up while exploring the depths of a dungeon, you’re doing all that while standing around in the front yard of the castle letting the monsters come to you. There are fun elements to this game, but ultimately this identity crisis causes the game to suffer. For example, consider the new monsters that emerge each wave. A fun part of any game is turning over cards and seeing what you’ll get. Now that might have been fun to turn over big illustrated monster cards with cool looking baddies. But instead, the game gets in its own way and what we’re left with is quarter sized discs that are covered in battle modifiers. Not quite so much fun. Bottom line, the game still has some decisions to make about what it wants to be. Hex based wargame? Tower defense game? Dungeon crawl game? Any of those directions could have potentially worked, but The King’s Armory unfortunately still hasn’t decided.
Unsurprisingly, with the confusion over exactly what this game wants to be, theming is a bit of a problem in The King’s Armory. There’s really not a whole lot going on mechanically in this game, so it’s unfortunate that the theme doesn’t holds together as much as it could have. Where The King’s Armory went way overboard with tables and keywords and injury status and complex damage calculations, not nearly enough attention was paid to keeping the game thematic. Why do I have to hire archers (who no doubt live in the castle) to protect the walls of their own armory? Isn’t this an all hands on deck sort of situation? Why can’t I dump boiling oil onto the orcs busily whacking their swords at my gate? I have no earthly idea why the monsters are only able to run down the path. I suppose I can understand why the monsters are coming from just one direction (maybe they’re coming from an evil castle just over the hillside?) although it’s kind of a mystery to me why we would build a path towards that direction. Maybe next time we construct a castle we won’t build a path going right up to it and that way we’ll be safe! Or perhaps instead of shooting the monsters we could just get our road builders to create a detour and send them running off a cliff.
I also found it somewhat odd that monsters who make it all the way to the armory gate deal their full attack damage it, even if they are sitting on 1 HP remaining and basically mortally wounded. Seemed like with all the added complexity to battle, most of which seems fairly inconsequential, this would have been a nice thematic touch. Also, monsters are compelled to attack heroes if they’re in range, even if they could’ve targeted the gate. Attack and movement priority was complicated and convoluted and ultimately unthematic. Again, seems to make more sense to have a horde of monsters hell bent on destroying the gate, and single-mindedly pursuing their goal rather than pointlessly engaging nearby combatants. But I digress.
The rule book for this game is an extremely hard slog. I have read a lot of rulebooks in my life and this one is nearly incomprehensible on your first pass. For example, a major point of strategy in the game is “Tanking,” which is when a player-controlled character stops a monster’s movement, is mentioned almost 20 times in the rulebook before finally being explained on page 17. Too often with Kickstarter games, designers forget that when I open the box at my house ready to play, all I have is the rulebook, no one is there to teach me the game. As a tip to new designers and publishers, a good way to see if your rulebook is passing muster is to simply hand someone the rulebook and see what happens. There are just so many effects and modifiers, icons and status, immunities and abilities that it seemed like every time I flipped over a monster, it was back to the rulebook to hunt for an answer.
In some sense, it’s difficult to write a review of this game because it feels almost incomplete. This is essentially a prototype of a game that really could have used the input of an experienced editor or publisher. There are some fun moments here, but ultimately there is nothing particularly unique about how the gameplay proceeds. Perhaps a re-theme would have done this effort some good. Not only is fantasy a relatively tired theme, but the bar is pretty high when it comes to artwork and the overall look of the game. Perhaps these comparisons are unfair, but in a competitive market for games they are bound to arise and the components and artwork largely do not measure up. Maybe if the theme was trying to keep up with cakes on a conveyor belt like that famous episode of “I Love Lucy”, that would have focused the action a little more, let to some tightened mechanisms and would offer some explanation of why the heroes can run around on the gameboard but the monsters are compelled to follow the road.
There were a few things I liked in the game – I liked how you could hire helpers (even though it didn’t make much sense thematically) and add them to your team, and I liked how you could build towers (although if I can build a tower, why can’t I build a barrier across the roadway…just sayin…). It was definitely fun to position archers on the towers and blast away at the hapless monsters below. Perhaps the thing that most impressed me about the design was how easy it was to add and drop players mid-game. Since each wave plays out on its own, and the monsters for each wave spawn according to the current number of players, you could conceivably play the first two waves solo, next two with 3 players and the last three waves with 7 players. Perfect for when you’re waiting for your gaming group to arrive. It’s a cool way to handle player count and I wish more games did that. I also loved the wide variety of different characters available in The King’s Armory. The worldwide community of boardgamers is a very diverse group so I’m very glad to see that Gate Keeper Games is dedicated to greater inclusion and broadening representation in boardgames.
The King’s Armory
Designed By: John Wrot
Published By: Gate Keeper Games
Ages: 14 and up
Time: 120-180 Minutes
Mechanics: Dice rolling, player powers