I would like to start this review by stating that I think Nick Sibicky is a really cool guy. I had the pleasure of meeting this musician turned game designer and immediately thought to myself, “I wonder if this guy would like to have a beer?” He was exciting, exuberant, highly intelligent, gracious and interesting. The more we talked the more I admired him and I have no doubt that he will soon be designing games that will make us all sit up and take notice. King’s Forge gives us a glimpse of this potential, but, in my estimation, does not fulfill it. It comes close, but I am confident that there are better things on the horizon for this young designer.
Do not take this as a rejection of the game. It is actually very well crafted and infused with some novel and enjoyable elements. It is a very fun game, far superior to many, many other titles, but in the end it seems incomplete. The game lacks the balance and engagement required to make it a title that will endure more than a dozen or so plays. It does what it does well enough, but after more than ten plays, I found the rewards that it offered did not adequately compensate for the challenges it presented. In other words, it is a game I wish someone else in my game group owned and which I only played on a few occasions. I enjoy playing it more than I enjoyed owning it.
The game play of King’s Forge is not very complex. However, I would not have known that from my first review of the rulebook. This is not to say the rulebook is poorly written, but it is not clearly written. Each of the steps are described with adequate clarity and helpful illustrations are supplied, but the rulebook does not have a brief summary of the games central actions before the detailed discussion of the game’s components. One is provided mid-way through the rules, but this was too late for me. I would have found the game easier to comprehend had the summary been provided earlier. The rulebook could have also highlighted some of the basic concepts more precisely. For example, the rotation of dice from the forge to supply could have been described with greater clarity. I would not describe these are significant failings, but it did make getting the game to table for the first play a little daunting, at least for me.
The game takes place over several rounds that are made up of two phases, the gathering phase and the crafting phase. During the former phase you use dice within your forge pool in order to obtain more dice or special powers. During the later phase you use dice from a separate supply pool in order either craft weapons or devices or steal weapons or devices crafted by your competitors during that rounds craft phase. The goal of the game is to craft four weapons or devices before the other players.
Each player starts the game with five metal dice (black dice) within their forge. Within the common play area is a deck of eleven gather cards, nine to thirteen craft cards and four dock spaces. Four of the gather cards are revealed along with three of the craft cards, which are sequenced from easiest to make to hardest to make.
At the start of their turn the players either take a gather card or place their dice upon a dock card space. Both the gather cards and the dock spaces have two available action upon them. Only one action can be used on the gather cards (and typically only by the player that draws it) while both of the actions can be taken on the dock space (though only by one player per round). Player will be required to place the appropriate dice in the required quantity in order to trigger the card or spaces effect. Some of these dice will merely be locked up for the turn during which they were used, both other will be surrender to the stock at the end of the round, during the clean-up phase. The player than takes any dice produced by the card and places them in their forge supply.
A new gather card is then revealed (if one was taken) and the next player takes a desired gather action as described above.
This continues until one player passes. This player gets a bonus of either a token that allows them to increase the value of two of the dice rolled during that player’s craft phase by a factor of one or a free metal die. After either all of the craft cards are claimed or all other player’s pass the game proceeds to the crafting phase.
During the crafting phase players roll their pool of supply dice (which are separate from their gather or forge dice) and use them to make one or more of the available good within the crafting tableau. Each crafting card features an item and the cost of production, with the cards that come out later in the game being harder to make than those that appear early in the game. The cost of production is shown in dice of up to four colors and roll values. So, The Battle Ax of Valor (one of the objects that is harder to make) requires: three black dice (metal) one valued at four or higher, one valued a five or higher and one valued at six; one green die (wood) valued at four or higher; one red die (jewels) valued at four or higher and one blue die (magic) valued at four or higher.
Once a craft card is completed a new card comes out and if the player can construct that card, they may. Once the active player has crafted their last weapon or device, play within the crafting phase rotates to the next player who can either craft one of the cards in the crafting tableau (as described above) or steal a card from an opponent by matching that players dice placements (in color and value) plus one. So as long as one die is one value higher a player may steal a preceding player’s crafted card (the dice of the player whose card was stolen goes back to that player’s forge, for use in a later round).
Many card powers and tokens can be used to adjust dice values. So it is conceivable that a value of some of a placer’s dice may exceed six. It is important to note that while adjustments of dice values up to six endure throughout the round, values over six last only until the end of that player’s turn. As a result, players can only do so much in order to protect their crafted weapons or devices from being stolen.
After all of the players have crafted, stolen or passed the players cycle their dice pools. First, all dice that were used to either craft a tool or trigger an effect that requires the consumption of dice are returned to the general supply. The players then move dice from their forge to their supply and dice from their supply and their gather cards to their forge. So players are constantly managing their dice pools so that they retain enough dice on their forge at the end of their gather and craft phases so that they have enough supplies to craft during future rounds.
The players then place their crafted weapons or devices into their claimed stock (claimed craft cards can no longer been stolen) and turn in all of their gather cards. The gather cards are then shuffled and stacked and the top four gather cards are revealed to form the tableau which is available at the outset of the next round. Finally, the first player marker is rotated to the left and a new round commences.
Play continues like this until one player has crafted four items. The current round then proceeds to its end and any players with at least four crafted items compare their craft hands. The player that has crafted the most items wins. However, if two (or more players) have crafted the same number of items then the player that crafted the hardest, i.e. highest valued card, wins the game.
Notwithstanding to implied tone of my introduction, I enjoyed this game. The components are very nice. While I have heard some complain about the shape of the undersized dice used in the game, I did not have this problem. All of the dice in my version of the game were well manufactured and balanced. The card art is also very appealing. The lines are clean, the color palate consistent and pleasing to the eye, the images evocative. While I find that the tuck boxes are redundant (there is really no reason to keep the dice sorted) they are well constructed and durable. The card stock is fine and the matte finish makes them easy to read, even from across the table. Moreover, the iconography is clear and the card text is adequately sized and the fonts are legible. This is a lovely game to look at. (Note: Everyone will want to be the bat. Just resolve yourself to that and choose to be the savage fighting dolphin.)
As I stated at the outset, it involves some novel elements that intrigued and pleased me. In particular I thought the multiple ways in which the dice could be used made for interesting choices. In fact, I thought the gather phase of the game was a complete pleasure. I enjoyed using different spaces in order to either obtain more resources or maximize my role potentials. I enjoyed the fact that the game comes with a number of gather cards and only four of them will be used in every game. I enjoyed how each gather card could be used in different ways. I enjoyed that occasionally players will be required to essentially discard a large number of dice in order to obtain the game’s rarest elements, jewels and magic. I enjoyed the tactics involved in deciding when to cut your gather phase short so that you will have enough dice within your supply pool to craft. I enjoyed the process of obtaining a specific card to block an opponent. There is no doubt that the gather phase is the game’s best crafted and engaging element.
And then came the crafting phase. Before I start, I want to clarify, I have played this game many, many times, with many different players. While every iteration of the game did not descend into the frustration that taints my view, many did. Put simply, the crafting phase is too hard. Now, I am fine with a difficult game. I actually knock a game far more quickly if the game is too easy. But difficulty that cannot be managed or adequately mitigated is a problem.
During the crafting phase, dice rolls are essential and in most instances high roles are required. Of course there are many ways that players can ensure high roles. Increase your supply dice pool size, obtain special powers, or obtain tokens that let you adjust your die values upward. However, in a four player version of this game, obtaining enough of these abilities in order to sufficiently reduce the luck factor is hard, if not impossible.
You see later in the game, many of the weapons or devices you will be able to craft require a number of red or blue die and obtaining these resources is very costly. Fine, having a rare element is an appropriate game feature. However, even after I became very adapt a optimizing my actions during the gather phase I was able to obtain three or four blue dice, at the most. Of course, there are tradeoffs in this, namely a smaller pool of metal, or wood, or jewelry dice. Moreover, it is difficult to cycle all of these dice into your supply pool at one time, and often the results that must be rolled for these or other dice are quite high. So if you are able to get the right dice into your supply pool and trigger a number of actions that let you increase your rolls, the probably of making a roll that yields you nothing remains very high. And then, you have to spend a turn (unless the astronomer, a card that lets you roll almost all of your dice during the crafting phase, is in play and available to you) getting your store of dice from your forge to your supply. If this happens several times later in a game, the frustration level can get very high.
This is compounded by the fact that the margins of victory in this game are pretty thin. If you are playing with competent competitors everyone will gain craft cards, within a turn or two of each other. As a result, the race to the fourth craft card (and victory) often comes down to a single player’s lucky roll. In the end, while your choices can keep you in the game, whether you win the game very often relies upon luck.
What frustrates me most about this is that it is a problem that my instincts tell me could have been fixed. Far be it for me to propose alternatives, but there must be some modest alternative design choices that would give this game a better payoff. And I say this as someone that has won this game a number of times. In other words, these are not just sour grapes. (Moreover, I am not very good at most games. I have made my peace with that. I am not going to downgrade a game because I am bad at it. If that were my tendency I would probably hate some of my highest rated games, some of which I HAVE NEVER WON!) (Note: I need to lie down for a minute.)
King’s Forge flirts with being a great game, it truly does. It has interesting interaction, through action denial and the ability to steal crafted weapons. If scales nicely as the game goes on so that players can take actions that produce early intermittent success. It handles two as well as it handles four players. It has good variability across multiple plays by way of the interchange of available gather and crafting cards. It has some fun wild card options like the cemetery die that causes all did of a certain result to be removed from active play. But where it matters the most, namely making victory feel like it is earned, it falls down. And for that reason, while I enjoy this game, I would advise most people to carefully weigh out whether they want to add it to their collection. This is not to say that it is a game to avoid, but it is not an “insta-buy”. Do your due diligence, watch some game play videos and consider this review (both in its praise and its critiques) before making a final buying decision.
Every time I have played this game, the end game came down to one player (in some instances two) obtaining their fourth craft object while every other player had three craft objects of their own. For some this would be evidence of solely this game’s balance, and it is. However, the final result often arose out of one player being able to make roles that others could not. As noted above, this sometimes made for an unrewarding final game result.
The components of this game are remarkable, the game comes with an anvil figure that marks the first player. This component is solid and well crafted and is an example of the care and detail that went into making this an appealing and tactile game experience. From the art to the card stock, everything about this game’s construction screams quality.
My favorite part of the game was the gather phase. I very much enjoyed using new cards to increase my inventory of crafting materials and crafting options. Furthermore, the tactics involved in selecting actions was interesting and engaging. Sometimes deciding what actions to take and when was central to either maximizing your powers or block an opponent out from taking an optimal action. Additionally, the fact that only a certain number of gather cards were used in each game, increased its variability.
Tuck boxes. Anyone who is familiar with Game Salute knows that they love to use tuck boxes and while these tuck boxes were of high quality and easy to use, they did not fit into the game box very well and seemed somewhat superfluous.
Because of randomness, the craft cards which are used during a specific game will vary wildly. This makes the challenge of a specific game also vary wildly. I found that the games that were the most satisfying for me were those in which there was an even mix of easy and hard cards. I have taken to house ruling the game so that half of the cards were drawn from the easier craft cards and half of the cards were drawn from the harder craft cards.
The aforementioned review derives from a copy of the reviewed game which was provided by the publisher, free of charge.