King of the Castle presents an immersive party game themed around medieval political intrigue
All hail the Queen
King of the Castle
Mar 2, 2023
King of the Castle is a player-led medieval fantasy narrative masquerading as a political party game with its host-and-audience interaction scheme, easy-to-use interface and design, and high level of player autonomy. The story of each game follows the political machinations of a newly-crowned monarch and their political advisors — composed of chiefs and nobles from the various territories under the crown’s rule — as they scheme against one another to gain ultimate control of the kingdom.
Gameplay is split between the monarch (the host) and the nobles (the audience), all of whom serve collectively as counsel to the monarch and effectively puppet their every decision. Each session pulls three nobles from a set of five: the Barons of the March, the Chiefs of the North, the Counts of the East, the Grandees of the South, and the Patricians of the Coast. The audience is then split into these three chosen factions. From this comes the two-tier voting system that is central to the game’s mechanics: each “noble” (audience member) from a given domain would vote from a set of choices that respond to some given event, and the majority response would become that territory’s vote on the council. The decisions of the crown as such rest on the council’s overall majority vote, influenced by the laws that the monarch would set for that particular voting session. King of the Castle has mechanical parallels to the 2016 strategy game Reigns, as different elements of the kingdom such as its treasury, stability, military, faith, etc. must be kept in balance to ensure the dynasty’s survival.
The monarch’s aim is to acquire an heir and fulfill their chosen ambition from a preset list, ranging from global domination and dictatorial rule to economic prosperity and kingdom-wide peace. As the game progresses and the various nobles advance in their schemes or take up arms in open rebellion against the crown, these abstract goals are replaced by more tangible ones, such as gaining the status of sainthood. The various factions, meanwhile, each attempt to disrupt the monarch’s ambitions and advance their own.
My session of King of the Castle was composed of myself as the host and Queen (though other players have the ability to set their chosen monarch’s gender preferences as he/him or they/them, and similarly with the nobles) with three friends as the Chief of the North, Count of the East, and Patrician of the Coast. Each friend roleplayed as the noble of their respective dominion (and if there were more friends along for the ride, they would play as separate nobles from a given dominion) and chose one of three schemes that their faction would attempt to fulfill in their ploy to replace the Queen. The North chose to incite Ragnarok to overthrow the crown by force, the East chose to offer the Queen immortality — as the Counts just had to be literal vampires — in exchange for the crown, and the Coast chose to lead a conspiracy to deplete the crown’s treasury.
As the in-game years progressed, the Queen and her council were involved in various events that affected each dominion (such as famine in the North, religious crusades in the East, and “werebeast” raids in the Coast) as well as events that affected multiple dominions (i.e. border disputes between the North and the East). The various events affected the delicate balance of the kingdom in different ways, such as decimating the Coast’s farming due to the werebeast raids or skyrocketing the East’s trade with the anachronistic invention of the photographic camera.
Towards the game’s end, defiance in the various dominions had risen so much that the North and the Coast decided to rebel against the crown, triggering a civil war event against the Queen and the East. Because of the preceding incidents in years past, the East with its weak military and struggling economy (due to the crusades and a completely separate war against a sorcerer) was put in the very unfortunate position of having to join forces with the Queen against the rebelling nobles or risk annihilation. After a year of war and months under siege, the rebels inevitably won due to the East’s defection, an uncontrollable pox outbreak, and deliberate river contamination that forced a revolt of the city. The Queen was beheaded, her treacherous half-sister from the Coast was placed as the new puppet monarch, and the Patricians of the Coast emerged victorious as the leaders of a ravaged kingdom.
Our session of King of the Castle was brutal, a three-hour-long session that had me engaged the entire time. Constant backstabbing marked each passing in-game season. The North was selected as the Queen’s honor guard and became tied to the Queen by marriage, but stagnated politically due to crown-influenced voting sessions that always ended poorly for them. The East practically doomed the crown by defecting to the rebels. And, the North was given full control of disputed silver mines by the crown only for its ownership to be snatched up by the East and later exploited by the Coast with the Queen’s support.
King of the Castle is not a party game, as shown by the amount of narrative depth and gameplay potential it has hidden in its simple voting-based mechanics. The game’s design makes it more of an immersive roleplaying experience (like a visual novel with a nonlinear player-guided narrative) than a proper party game, and that’s where the crux of the game’s most significant elements lies. The interweaving of party-based gameplay and complex storytelling makes the game act more like Dungeons & Dragons than The Jackbox Party Pack, and I find that alignment quite welcome.
Each of the dominion’s potential storylines, the randomly triggered events, and the level of long-term effects is great enough that emergent gameplay is pretty much a guarantee. Alongside bug fixes and content updates, a focus on adding considerable amounts of narrative depth and nonlinearity — especially with further developing in-game structures for interweaving storylines and interplay between different events — is a must to make King of the Castle a truly great roleplaying experience.
Events that took place at the beginning of the game had reverberating effects on the ending which (while a simple and seemingly trivial finer point for an already-engaging game) only made the experience that much more immersive. One notable example during my session: the Queen chose the North as her honor guard at the start of her reign, significantly boosting its military and allowing for its unimpeded call to rebellion and siege of the castle at the end of the game. When the rebelling Coast hired an assassin to eliminate the Queen, she called for her Northern honor guard to rush to her aid during the attempt on her life — only to remain alone with her would-be killer in her bedchamber as the honor guard’s true allegiances were made known. (Luckily, she survived to see her own execution later on in the war, but the near-successful attempt on her life shook the castle’s political stability enough to let it fall to the rebellion’s siege.)
The voting system feels both well designed in some regards and poorly balanced in others. The system is best designed for multiples of three nobles, as having more or fewer nobles in one dominion than others unbalances voting sessions. The Queen is overall not that useful during small-party voting sessions, with only a limited set of policies that she can enact to influence each session. When two of the three dominions rebel, the sole “loyalist” dominion has full control of the council’s votes and thus the Queen’s decisions, making her influence near-useless in these moments.
There is so much more that can’t be covered in just 1500 words, such as the potential to war against other countries and the nigh-infinite possible storylines the players together can create in each three-to-five hour long session. (A very interesting mechanic is the ability to continue the same storyline with the new — or the same, depending on the outcome of the session — monarch, adding an extra Reigns-like flavor to the mix.)
In all regards, King of the Castle is a near-perfect game. Its specific blend of Reigns and Dungeons & Dragons works surprisingly well and makes for a really immersive roleplaying experience; I struggle to give it anything other than a perfect score.
King of the Castle is available on PC for $4.99. Players must own the game to play as the monarch but may access sessions as nobles via https://kotc.app. This review was written using a PC game code provided to The Tech by the game’s publisher.