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Kingmaker Developer's Notes - 1, Basic Principles

This is the first post in a series about Alan Paull's re-development of Andrew McNeil's game Kingmaker for Gibsons Games. Posts: Kingmaker The Second: Prestige, The Board, Parliament, Random Death, What to put in the box?, Teamwork!, Controversies., Scrope to Masham, Stuff we left out.

“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 USA, coming 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. 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 not designing a new game, nor breaking fundamental design elements, nor creating a modernised version of Kingmaker with new 2020s mechanics. 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:

  • Perception of undue length, and often stalemates

  • Problems with interpretation of both the rules and the map

  • Turtling; for example, ‘holing up in Calais’

  • Perceived impact of Plague

  • Alliances, but no alliance victories

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

  • 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 recognisable by players of the older game, even though all the game components have been re-designed visually. Our artist, Mat, 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 mechanics of play; for example, some historical details, including heraldry and castle ownerships, were not accurate. Andrew, a graduate historian and researcher on historical TV programmes, 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.

But, nevertheless, I had to try to smooth out game play issues such as undue length, turtling, and some aspects of player interaction, and my next post will address the solutions to these difficulties.


Kingmaker Kickstarter live between 26 September 2022 and 14 October 2022:

1 Comment

Interesting insight into the process - I am looking forward to reading more


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