Wednesday, September 07, 2022

“The battle of wits has begun.” – A Review of It’s A Wonderful Kingdom

MAN IN BLACK: All right: where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.
The shortest and easiest way to describe the newest game from publisher La Boite de Jeu and designer Frédéric Guérard is “It’s like their previous hit, It’s a Wonderful World, only with a ‘you cut / I choose’ mechanic in place of drafting.” That’s fair – as far as it goes – but it misses the full flavor and breadth of this two-player game design.

Yes, I know there is a solo mode as well – I promise I’ll get to that in a minute.

Previously On “It’s a Wonderful…”

OK, so a quick recap is in order of the basic mechanics at the heart of both It’s A Wonderful… games. Let’s start with the basic structure of both games:

  • Draft (IaWW)/Choice (IaWK) Phase: Players acquire a set of cards over multiple drafts/choices that are set aside. 
  • Planning Phase: Players choose to add cards to their construction area or discard/”recycle” them for resources to be placed on cards in their construction area.
  • Production Phase: One resource type at a time, players receive resource cubes which they use to complete cards and add them to their tableau.
And we can keep the recap going with some details that are the same for both World and Kingdom:
  • Extra unused resources are collected and 5 can be traded in for 1 Krystallium – the wild resource.
  • Cards provide points, points multipliers by card type, and/or resource production… they also may have bonuses that are received one time when they are built.
  • There is a Supremacy bonus for producing the most of a particular kind of resource.
  • Cards in your construction area can be recycled at any time – but the resource they provide is treated as an unused resource towards trading for Krystallium.
For a more detailed look at It’s A Wonderful World, you can check out Terry Noseworthy’s review of the base game and my review of the expansions – both on the Opinionated Gamers website!

I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

VIZZINI: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet, or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I’m not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

MAN IN BLACK: You’ve made your decision then?

VIZZINI: Not remotely. Because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows. And Australia is entirely peopled with criminals. And criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

MAN IN BLACK: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.
It’s A Wonderful Kingdom definitely twists the basic structure a bit:
  • Different number of resources: There are only four resource types (Materials, Population, Gold, and Exploration) instead of five.
  • Different deck composition: The deck for It’s A Wonderful Kingdom is smaller and only has four types of cards (rather than five). In addition, there are ten Treasure cards in the deck, which are simply recycled for extra resources during the next Planning Phase.
  • Different Supremacy bonus: Instead of Generals or Financiers, producing the most of a resource type either sends a Soldier to your training ground or moves him from your training ground onto your duchy card.
  • Different method of acquiring cards: Rather than a 7 Wonders-style draft (IaWW), It’s A Wonderful Kingdom utilizes a ‘I cut/you choose’ system. 
  • Different ways of varying up gameplay: It’s A Wonderful World has one large box expansion and two smaller campaign expansions; It’s A Wonderful Kingdom comes with three different modules in the base game (plus one more in the Legends version of the game). Each time you play, you must choose a module to add to the system.
As you can probably guess, the most important twist is the way cards are acquired. At the beginning of each of the rounds, the two players each draw a 7 card hand and then add a single Calamity card. Both Offering areas receive a single face-up card and the game begins in earnest.

The first player chooses two of the cards in their hand and places them face-up in the Offering areas – both can go in the same area or in different areas. The second player then chooses one of the two Offering areas and takes all the cards in that area. Now the second player chooses two of their cards to place, followed by the first player choosing and taking cards. The cycle happens four times, using up all the cards in each player’s hand.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Each player has two Trap tokens, which can be used each round to place a single offering card face-down. Since Calamity cards are worth -4 victory points (as well as being useless for building anything), avoiding them is important… but maybe the cards in that particular Offering are worth the pain. Or not. 

My younger son described It’s a Wonderful Kingdom as “similar to Wonderful World but much more brain burn” – and the decisions about which cards to offer and which cards to pick up are at the heart of that ‘brain burn’. 

You’re just stalling now.

VIZZINI: Wait till I get going! Where was I?

MAN IN BLACK: Australia.

VIZZINI: Yes — Australia, and you must have suspected I would have known the powder’s origin, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

MAN IN BLACK: You’re just stalling now.
I know, I know… you want me to tell you exactly what I think after my eight plays of the game. I promise we’ll get there – but there’s some more details to fill in first.

As mentioned above, there are 4 different modules (3 with the base game) that are added to the game. Each game the players choose one of the modules to add.

The good folks at La Boite de Jeu have cleared up one of my first questions over on BGG… you can’t combine the modules because you don’t produce enough Soldier tokens over 4 rounds to power multiple modules. 

Let’s take a (slightly) closer look at each module:

Menaces: There are a number of different sets of cards which replace the Calamity cards of each player – so, for example, you could have Frost Giants and Thieves in the game. Each of these sets has its own special effects:
  • Frost Giants freeze buildings under construction
  • Giant Rats attract Vermin
  • Shadows suck away resources to your opponent’s Alchemy area
  • Thieves keep you from producing certain resources
  • Other Menaces were added in the Legends version of the game
Menaces can be defeated – but the cost of doing that slows down your ability to build. In short, think of this module as a slightly meaner version of the “base” game.

Advisors: Each player is dealt two Advisor cards and chooses one to keep and immediately place in their tableau. Ten Advisor cards replace the ten Treasure cards in the main deck before the game starts. For a certain number of Soldier tokens, an Advisor in your tableau can be activated to gain some sort of special power – and it is acceptable to do it multiple times during a game if you have enough Soldiers.

This is probably the most straightforward of the modules – and along with Quests (coming next) would be my suggestion for your first game.

Quests: An over-sized Quest card is chosen that has four tasks on it – these are special powers that each player can do one time each. (Markers are provided to note which tasks a player has completed.) The final task is required in order to win the game. 

Like I noted above, this is not a bad module for your first game… though you’ll need to pay close attention to acquiring and constructing cards that give you enough Soldiers to fulfill the final task.

The Legends version of the game provides additional Advisors and Quests.

Conquest: Using an additional map (there are six of them on three double-sided pieces), players recruit and move army figures in order to claim territories. Those territories provide resources and other in-game benefits… as well as points at the end of the game. Recruitment and movement is powered by Soldier tokens.

This module is only found in the Legends version of the game… I’d likely suggest this as the last module you try since it adds an additional complication to the game.

You’ve given everything away.

VIZZINI: You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you? You’ve beaten my giant, which means you’re exceptionally strong. So, you could have put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But, you’ve also bested my Spaniard which means you must have studied. And in studying, you must have learned that man is mortal so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

MAN IN BLACK: [nervously] You’re trying to trick me into giving away something — it won’t work —

VIZZINI: [triumphant] It has worked — you’ve given everything away — I know where the poison is.
It’s A Wonderful Kingdom is designed specifically for head-to-head play… and for solo play. Each module has instructions for how to modify it for solo play in addition to the changes to the base game

Eight cards from the top of the deck are mixed with 4 Calamity cards… this Danger deck is set to the side. Then each Offering area is filled with two cards from the face-up Development deck. The solo player chooses one of the two sets of cards, then adds a face down card from the Danger deck to the Offering they did not choose and two new cards face-up from the Development deck to the empty area. 

Instead of Trap tokens, the solo player has two Spy tokens – one of which is active (face-up) to begin the game. By spending the Spy token (flipping it over), the solo player can examine a face-down card. At the end of the round, one of the spent Spy tokens is re-activated. 

I’ve tried each of the modules as a solo player – and each of them offers interesting challenges. As with It’s A Wonderful World, solo scores are rated on threshold scores for Bronze, Silver, and Gold… which does a nice job of telling you how accomplished you were. 

Then make your choice.

MAN IN BLACK: Then make your choice.

VIZZINI: I will. And I choose [stops suddenly and points at something behind the Man in Black] what in the world can that be?

MAN IN BLACK: [Turns, looks] What? Where? I don’t see anything.

VIZZINI quickly switches the goblets while the MAN IN BLACK has his head turned.

VIZZINI: Oh, well, I-I could have sworn I saw something. No matter.

The MAN IN BLACK turns to face him again. VIZZINI starts to laugh.

MAN IN BLACK: What’s so funny?

VIZZINI: I’ll tell you in a minute. First, let’s drink — me from my glass, and you from yours.
Let’s be honest – the first play of It’s A Wonderful Kingdom was pretty rough. Both my son and I were trying to figure out how best to use the Trap tokens, how to preserve the cards we wanted, and how to fulfill the quest. In the end, he did a much better job of scoring points than I did and also managed to squeak out enough Soldiers to fulfill the final task. Moreover, we were working through our expectations that it would be a lot like Wonderful World. (He and I have played 25+ games of the original game with 2 or 3 players.)

Subsequent plays have revealed something interesting – this is a game with its own rhythm and feel. While it shares the same basic mechanics with It’s A Wonderful World, the structure of how you acquire cards and the push/pull of the different modules make for a very different experience.

And one worth pursuing. 

I will note that there’s been some discussion over on the ‘Geek of how to restore more straight drafting to the game… which, on one hand, I understand, and yet I think that multiple plays are going to reveal fabulous bits of double-think and clever play that don’t need for the two games to work in the same way.

I can heartily recommend this for both solo and folks looking for a think-y two-player game that finishes in 30-45 minutes (depending on how long it takes you to decide which cards to offer). 

And because it seems unfair to start quoting one of the greatest scenes on film without finishing it, here’s every Risk player’s favorite passage.
MAN IN BLACK: You guessed wrong.

VIZZINI: [roaring with laughter] You only think I guessed wrong… [louder now] …that’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned. Ha-ha, you fool.

The MAN IN BLACK sits silently.

VIZZINI: You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” But only slightly less well known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!Ahahahaha, ahahahaha, ahahaha–

In case you’re wondering, the extensive quotes are from one of the best films ever made, THE PRINCESS BRIDE. If you haven’t seen it, you should go remedy that this evening (if not sooner).

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

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