Brutal Kingdom may not have the same ring to it as the Kingdom of Deheubarth or the Kingdom of Wurttemberg but it does get to the point. Often. And usually in the dark. There’s no room for mercy in this coldly calculating game where being in the wrong place at the wrong time has, appropriately, brutal results. Read on to find out how to survive the Brutal Kingdom, and whether you should pay it a visit.
Brutal Kingdom is something of a micro game+. It comes with 20 cards plus reference stuff and a bunch of tokens, keeping the component list on the higher end of micro but in terms of gameplay it’s certainly punching above its weight. Typically with a roll of coins in its fist. This little game fights dirty. But it’s got smarts too and that’s where you really need to watch out.
Everyone gets a hand of 4 luxuriously illustrated character cards and plays 1 a turn, resolving its text as they do so. The aim is to collect various influence tokens which will be worth points at the end of 4 full rounds. So far, so classic game. Certain characters let you collect one or two influence tokens of a particular type at the end of a round if they are still alive. If they are still alive!
A set of characters are brutal murderers, and each has a pair of potential targets. So the poisoner will slip something into the communal wine to kill either the bishop or the abbot. Poison being the only appropriate way of murdering a toad of the cloth after all.
Wait, aren’t bishops naturally poisonous? I mean to- anyway. The assassin will take out the King or the queen, the furious bear-zerker has a grudge against the Wizard and the Intriguer. What this means is that if you have a target, you need to be very careful about when you play them. You see, the killers can only kill a character that has only just been played. New cards are always played on top of any previous cards you’ve played to form a stack. If a target is on top of a stack, they can be killed. If not then they are safe…ish.
Because you see, in a twist that sees Brutal Kingdom living up to its name, if one of your cards is killed, EVERY card in your stack is killed at the same time. This hilariously hard hitting mechanism defines the entire game. You want to wait to play targets until it’s safe, but the longer you wait the more risk there is and the more tense that round becomes. You will have rounds where you get absolutely nothing. But that doesn’t mean you are out of the running.
In a clever twist, the value of the three types of influence token you are trying to collect, is determined during the game. The number of tokens left in the collective pot of a given type is the value of one of those tokens during final scoring at the end of 4 rounds. So if there are two green candles left, every green token held by a player is worth 2 points. If there are none left, then those tokens are worthless. The most valuable influence is that which nobody else has!
So you want to be getting hold of the more plentiful influence, you want to get a bit of every type to minimise your risk of getting screwed, because everyone else will want to reduce the value of a token type you are heavily invested in. And you do have some control over this. The Saint takes one influence from the pot and gives it to the chapel, effectively a round tracker and a holy finger raised to an opponent or two. But more importantly you get a choice over the cards in your hand.
Each round begins with a short card draft. Rather than a random hand, you choose one to keep from a first pair of cards, passing the other to the player on your left, and then the same again from a second pair of cards. You get some choice over the direction of your turn, you know something about your opponents’ hands, but there’s still enough randomness that you are doing the best you can from the hand you have.
The cards are split into two differently coloured decks, a light deck and a dark deck which makes it easier to track what cards are left. When you’ve handed an opponent a dark card, and they play a different dark card, you know what that final dark card is in their hand. You see, Brutal Kingdom is a game that absolutely rewards memory. Once cards are played, they will eventually disappear into player’s stacks, never to be seen again. You want to know what is out there that could threaten you, and how you can use non-killing cards to greatest effect, swapping with the unknown cards left over from the deal in the centre of the table, or forcing your opponents to.
Two particularly devious characters really bring the memory game to full effect. The executioner, aka Judge Dredd, names a character and if that character is played while the executioner is still on top of a stack, that character is immediately killed. He is the law. It effectively stops a player from using that card for a round, but if you do it in the final round it can be brutally effective. They won’t have any other choice! But you need to remember what’s left.
The other, more subtle fellow, is the intriguer (which is apparently a word) who swaps himself with the highest value card on the table. Quite a neat way of nabbing some generous scoring cards, but most often it is the high value cards that might get killed!
This power also has a subtle opportunity associated with it as the highest valued card also determines who goes first on the next round. Manipulating turn order can be a valuable tool. If you go last on one round, then first on the next, no one can kill your high value scoring character. If you’re going last, you have the maximum opportunity to see targets come up. You can draft a high value card to your left hand opponent if you want to try and help this happen.
Now, Brutal Kingdom isn’t a game where every trick can be pulled on every round but there is a plethora of these clever little tricks to toy with over the course of a game. It gives you a lot of potential flexibility, but constrains you to focussing on the 4 cards you end up with on a given round. It means to get the most out of the game you need to know the cards and their interactions pretty well. Your first game will be the hardest and if I have one real complaint about this game it’s that I don’t enjoy teaching it to new groups. This is a game you should aim to play with the same group of people.
It is also restricted to specifically 3 or 4 players, which is definitely the right thing for the game but makes it that much harder for a regular group to get out. Which is all a bit of a shame because Brutal Kingdom is really quite good! There’s a lot of depth for such a small number of cards, a good amount of planning, and a whole dollop of tension! So while I fear not everyone will easily be able to get the most from this title, if you have a regular group you should definitely give this a look. Just make sure you’re not a target first.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, please consider sharing it with your favourite anthropomorphic animals!