As the title suggests, Cutthroat Kingdom is a highly interactive, conflict-oriented game which pits kingdom against kingdom in a Game-of-Thrones style play to see who gains dominance over the continent of Aurum. Unlike Westeros where folks drop like flies every episode, everyone survives till the end in the game as there is no player elimination. Players win by earning Victory Points through hoarding coin, conquering territories, collecting sets of gems and feast cards. Luckily, the game itself doesn’t span seasons which is required for this level of intrigue. Instead, it can be neatly wrapped up in 16 rounds in our 4 player game, which is approximately 2-2.5 hours.
Cutthroat Kingdoms emulates all these continental conflicts without a map or game board. Instead, cards representing territories are placed on a cloth board in a circular fashion so that each territory touches two adjacent area. It really simplifies game play as the need to move dudes on the map is eliminated. The cloth layout actually feels thematic in a way that ancient maps are drawn on parchments and cloth and laid out on tables during formulation of grand strategies. In any case, each round, players get 4 actions which cover the span of choices. One can seek to conquer territories by placing soldiers and then collecting gems or coin after the conquest. After the initial mad rush to take over empty territories, each occupied territories must now be ousted. To do that, players must take out each soldier card assigned to the territory by the controlling player. There are no dice rolls. If you have a red soldier stationed in a territory, the attacking player must play a red solider card to try and do battle with the stationed soldier. The defending player can play another red soldier from the hands of card to counter. Back and forth this goes until all soldiers are eliminated and the territory is taken over. To recruit more help, players can hire mercenaries or hirelings. Mercenaries also come in different colors and must also fight stationed personnel in a color-coded manner (hey you there red soldier! Don’t fight the blues. It’s always the red man, the reds. You can only fight the other REDS !!). Hirelings on the other hand are almost like heroes. These figures all have special rule breaking powers. Some are really powerful and can single-handedly defend or even take over an entire territory in a single round. Other hirelings can help steal resources, gems, money. One can also pay a measly two coins to resurrect previously dead soldiers from the graveyard. Importantly, this is a negotiation game. So one can enlist the help of others for almost every action taken with promises of wealth and riches in return during combat.
Each territory conquered gains you a bounty of coins or gems. If you manage to defend the territory for the entire round, you again reap the rewards plus a feast card. Feast cards are mainly additional hidden VPs with a twist. More on that later. There are 6 different gem types and collecting a set of gems scores you a cool 25 points. Gem draw from a bag is generally blind but one heavily contested territory allows you to look in the bag and draw gems of your choosing. Gaining coin is also important as they are converted into Victory Points. In all, you want to hold or conquer as many territories as possible and try to hoard wealth. One interesting trade off in the game is to decide how many soldiers you want to station at a Garrison to protect your territory. If you assign many soldiers to an area, it is significantly harder for opponents to take it over and you have a chance to gain the rewards each and every round. However, locking soldiers in one area also makes it harder to be flexible in taking other territories. You start with and end the game with a fixed number of soldiers and cannot reassign soldiers nor can you reinforce them. This means the initial allocation matters. If you over-commit on one area, they can potentially be locked in for a while if no one chooses to attack. This could becoming a problem as a plague could hit, making a low value territory worthless to attack if too well-defended. This decision tree is pretty neat…knowing how much to commit and when. Luckily there are certain powers and event cards that can drastically change the landscape, allowing the possibility for some wiggle room.
Interspersed between conquests are these special events cards that are flipped after each player’s turn. These cards are game changing and relatively chaotic. Plagues and sicknesses can ravage a territory reducing its value or wipe out poorly defended garrisons. Cards can also provide one time boon of BOTH coins and gems for folks with territories. Importantly, a few event cards also trigger key interactive moments in the game such as the Wedding event midway through the game which allows marrying of heirs between kingdoms. This shifts the tone of the game from competitive to semi-cooperative between two kingdoms that are linked by blood. Here, again the designer made a few interesting design choices: An alliance by blood allow players to form a partnership and score points together, totaling all VPs in game end. To counteract this partnership, others can also form similar blood alliances or choose to remain a lone wolf. Clearly, going alone is tough but you have a chance to double your VPs from coins if your surviving heir is not married off or poisoned in the end. This is really not an easy balance. Playing alone means people can either ignore you or gang up on you if in the lead. So, if you are the clear leader, unless it is late in the game or you have an overwhelming lead, you may be forced to form an alliance to protect your lead. It does set up interesting choices but equally game breaking scenarios could happen: what if the top two teams in a 4 player game decide to go for a joint victory? There is nothing to stop such a partnership. The game would be broken in a non-competitive way. I could easily see a 1/4 and 2/3 partnerships happening often. I am not convinced the lone wolf leader is enough to fight an alliance. Sure you get double VPs from coins but an alliance also combines all other sources of VPs including gems and feasts in the end to determine the winner.
The final event card features a feast. During the game, players gain feast cards for every territory they control during the start of their turn. Majority of feast cards have 0-5VPs. There are a few feast cards that are poisoned wine. At the feast, one can give cards to other players in an attempt to poison their opponents heirs. Players exchange cards and have to flip them over to reveal any poisons. If a poison is revealed, the heir dies. To counteract that, players can hoard hirelings to take the hit. Each hireling allows a player to flip a card over and discard if necessary. So if there is poison, presumably your hirelings can take the poison in your stead. A few hirelings are specialized tasters which allow two cards to be flipped instead of one. I find this mechanism really odd and counter-intuitive. The feast event favors a partnership and makes it even stronger because if an heir dies, the lone wolf cannot double his coin VPs. Whereas as a partnership, the heir is married and no longer loses any benefit if poisoned. Sure, you lose 10VP for the loss of the heir card alone, but the hit to a lone wolf is severe and game breaking in a way. Moreover, as a partnership, both players presumably will throw all their combined poison cards at the perceived threat. Unless you are lucky to get a bunch of tasters, there is no way to survive a massive deck of poison cards. If anything, the final feast seem to favor all but lone wolf players which is odd because I feel the lone wolf is the player that needs the most help to fend off the alliance.
In the end, the game is not for me for one major reason: I don’t mind the chaotic card draw as much as I dislike the nature of conflict in the game. In particular, the conflict is aimed at ganging up on the leader. Really, that’s the meat of the game. You hoard wealth but try to pinpoint the leader in order to take him/her down. Critically, you want to convince other people to join in on the attack of the leader in hopes of leap frogging to the top. This aspect of the game turns me off. What it really promotes is sub-optimal play to stay in second place, which really is the best position to be in. If you lag behind the leader by a hair, then when the hammer hits the leader, you can climb over and take top spot. I really don’t like being penalized for playing well (or being lucky, for that matter). This also happens in Euro games, but the mechanisms for handicapping the leader are slightly more subtle and less overt (for example, turn order based on VP track with the leaders starting last). In Cutthroat Kingdoms, there is really no way to hide who the leader is. The wealth and gems are public information and so it is relatively easy to see who is in the lead. The partnerships really exacerbate the situation greatly because it is a mechanism to officially gang up on the leader. Think about it: there is no other purpose of an alliance besides taking down the leader. I think the leader will have a tough time fending off the combined offensive onslaught without forming another alliance.
I rarely get flustered because I lose a game but recently, I realize that what gets me off kilter are games that I lose (or even win) when I don’t have sufficient control over board elements. In essence, I win or lose not because of my decisions but because the game design or the limited decision space makes me lose control of my choices. In other words, I cannot seem to control my own destiny. In Cutthroat Kingdoms that happens a lot. For example, there is an event which allows players to distribute wealth based on negotiations. The easiest is just to exclude the leader, pure and simple. It’s really a no-brainer. If I am not in the lead, that is what I would decide time and again. The leader really has no say in the matter as it is just a majority vote. It feels frustrating. Again, this just rewards the second place player. Also, there are hirelings in the deck that can steal gems from another collection. On itself, I guess it may not be damaging, but as the leader, you will be targeted often if not always to the point that there is really no point to have a complete collection because anyone who has a thief will most certainly try to break it apart. I certainly would. The event cards are also very swingy and can heavily reward or penalize players depending on a particular game state, which is again out of player control. Overall, there are too many of these unpredictable elements in Cutthroat Kingdoms for me to enjoy the game.
I think I am comfortable saying that Cutthroat Kingdom is just not for me. The game probably caters to fans who love this high-conflict, high-luck, extremely opportunistic game play that lives and dies by the turn of a card. I actually think some elements of the game are done really well. The cloth map, elimination of the overhead map, the abstraction of dudes on the map and the length of play are all positives. To be fair, a large part of the game is unstructured negotiations which I think our group doesn’t do very well either. If I were a fan of this genre of play, Cutthroat Kingdoms may actually be a good game. That said, I think I am content pushing around cubes and converting resources using my VP engine.
Initial impressions: Not for me
(Photo credits: Pradyot A.)