I have never been a huge fan of Chess. I dabbled a little at school, occasionally swapped my usual haunt of the library for the Chess Club when I wanted a change of scenery (I was never one to go outside – imagine!). Once I was convinced to attend a local competition where I was knocked out in the first round by a 6-year-old… I was 14. While I’m well aware of the rules and a couple of openings are stuck inside my head to this day, Chess has never really been a go to game for me. My eye, however, has occasionally been caught by some of the variants that make their way into the nerdy world of games – not to say that Chess players aren’t nerds; they’re just an entirely different class of them – as they sometimes offer something more than just the pure game so beloved by many that drives me to tears.
And so when Saar Shai, the mind behind Kickstarter darling The Agents, gave me a shout to see if I’d be interested in checking out King Down… well, who am I to say no? I thought his first big hit had some great ideas and I was intrigued to see how he’d change a centuries-old classic to appeal to the modern gaming audience. If you take a look at the crowdfunding campaign that’s running now and surpassed its $50,000 goal on the first day, you’ll see one of the reasons: a metric crapton of minis. Thankfully, he’s thought that it may be an idea to actually include a game in there as well as a LOT of plastic, and it’s really not bad at all. In fact, I’d say it’s downright entertaining.
King Down is actually being pitched as ‘The Prequel To Chess’ – a rather bold statement considering its creator is a relatively new designer – and while it certainly feels very familiar when playing, there’s enough of a difference to consider it something that can stand on its own. The first major switch is that the game is planned to play with up to four people, though at the moment only the rules for two are available. Rather than use just the board and pieces, each player also has to handle a deck of cards that bestow special abilities upon your side, and there’s no taking the King to win; instead, this is a race to score eight victory points. These can be gained by taking (and keeping) opponents’ pieces and occupying the four central squares of the board, called The Capitol in a very Hunger Games style.
All pieces bar the King have been renamed (though I’ll use the standard names here) and there are also five extra piece types that have been introduced; Beast only moves around the board when it can Take, while Bow attacks enemy pieces from a distance. Bash is sacrificed when it Takes, Block is invincible and Cog… well… that’s not been revealed yet. The pieces look very lovely indeed, just like the standard ones that can be used for a regular game of Chess.
Players begin with a smaller amount of pieces, none of which are actually on the board. To bring them into play – or indeed do anything in the game – you’ll need to spend Action Points, and each turn sees you start with four. There’s a range of basic actions that you’ll be using most of the time: Call (4AP) brings a piece of your choice into play on your home row, and Move (2AP) allows you to move your piece like you would in a normal game of Chess; Bishops on the diagonals, Pawns one forward, that kind of thing. You can’t take anything using that Action though – that requires a Take action costing 3AP, basically an amped up Move. Finally, you can Draw a card from your deck for 1AP.
Those cards, as mentioned before, give you special powers and abilities that also require the spending of Action Points. They’re split into two types, Calling Cards and Spells. Calling Cards are specifically targeted at certain pieces to either bring them onto the board cheaper than a standard Call or boost their abilities if they’re in play. Spells allow you to do all manner of oddities, from stealing back already taken pieces, moving to any position on the board or even saving a piece from danger and returning it to your stock. No matter they type, each card has a cost printed on it and remains in play until the beginning of your next turn as some have lasting effects.
King Down has proven an interesting little game to play. I think that a lot of the focus in the campaign is going to be on the admittedly lovely miniatures, but the game does deserve time in the spotlight as well. Chess has been boiled in a pan with a shot of Eurogame Sauce and has turned into something that even I can enjoy. Rather than a stilted affair that is dependent on knowing countless openings and how to react to them, learning the rundowns of thousands, perhaps millions, of previously played games, King Down presents the basic rules that pretty much everyone is aware of and puts the choices in your hands. Do you start with your King in the far left corner, then aim to surround it with other, more powerful pieces? Perhaps you’d think it better to race to the Capitol and take over the spaces you’ll find there? Or should you take a super aggressive tack and attempt to steal as many opposition pieces as you can? King Down has given Chess something I’ve always found sorely lacking – choice.
Now, instead of reacting to your enemies’ moves, you have options on your side. Yes, in Chess you may have an optimal move that you should pretty much always do, but with King Down there’s an awful lot of things to do, all of which can be seen as viable. Where many variants have been rather dry, this one is far more appealing to someone like me who has a love of modern board games. Yes, there’s a danger of Analysis Paralysis creeping in with King Down, especially with players who may have forgotten the basics, but this is definitely something that I’d have a part of my collection, whereas I’d happily never have played Chess again for the rest of my days.
King Down was designed by Saar Shai and plays between two and four people, with games taking around 30-60 minutes. Currently on Kickstarter, you can pledge for a set for $80 (which will come with ALL the minis). The campaign ends on october 13 with the game scheduled for delivery in March 2015. Thanks to Saar for the advance look at the cards!