Sunday, December 14, 2014

The making of Kingmaker

This is a fascinating glimpse into the making of one of my favorite games, Avalon Hill's classic game of the Wars of the Roses, Kingmaker:
KINGMAKER, the board game for adults based on the political and military activity of the English Wars of the Roses, comes on the market in the autumn of 1974. Copies of the game reach the United States by the end of the year, and by the following summer, with the first edition of the rulebook and a bad review in Games & Puzzles behind it, the game s becoming a cult in some circles. Sufficient numbers of the game appear at Origins 1, America’s leading wargame convention, to prompt SPI, America’s leading wargame publishers, to start importing the game in quantity. Now Avalon Hill steps in. British manufacturers Philmar receive a characteristically scruffy letter from Baltimore. But the content is what counts. Avalon Hill like Kingmaker, they want to manufacture it under licence... now read on...

The Avalon Hill Company has a 20-year old reputation in Britain for producing wargames of quality. (Afrika Korps, Battle of the Bulge, Anzio). The enthusiastic offer from the American company to produce Kingmaker was a dream come true - like rolling a double six on the first throw! Not only did their interest assure a far wider audience for the game, but because they were manufacturing from scratch there was an immediate opportunity to put into effect the main rule changes and modifications which had either been suggested or had made themselves apparent in the first year of the game’s existence. Furthermore, these changes could be made with the help of a game design team whose experience and reputation could justifiably be regarded as among the best in the world.

So began four to five months of transatlantic correspondence in which the game was pulled apart and rebuilt - a process which is worth describing in some detail for the light it throws both on Kingmaker, for those who are familiar with the game, and on the ‘playtesting’ side of the game design in general, for those who may be developing their own games.

I had been fortunate in making contact with Don Turnbull at the time he was running the first postal Kingmaker game. It is a measure of Don’s ability and perception that he had started postal Kingmaker, something I had thought impossible, on the basis of the first rulebook. He was the ideal person to work with on the UK end of the game’s redevelopment.

The Avalon Hill developer was to be Mick Uhl, who we supposed would be overseen by veteran AH designer Don Greenwood. In earlier correspondence, and more recent meetings, Don and I discussed those ambiguities which still remained after the reworking of the rulebook. We had also examined every suggestion which had come from other players in the course of the previous 18 months. Most important of these was undoubtedly the rule on Parliament suggested by Charles Vasey, who is now the editor of the successful fanzine Perfidious Albion.

In basic Kingmaker, Parliament is the means by which a player who controls the King consolidates and strengthens his faction. The player summoning Parliament may dispose of titles and offices which have become available through the death of nobles in the preceding rounds, or which were above the permitted holding of living nobles. Since the titles and offices convey extra strength in troops, ships and castles, a Parliament held after a large number of eventful rounds of play could drastically alter the balance of play. A weak king could become strong immediately. Furthermore, since Parliament could only, under normal conditions, be held when there was only one crowned claimant to the throne, they tended to be rare, twice-a-game events.

Vasey wanted to make Parliament a chance for diplomacy and hard bargaining. Each noble was given a number of votes (seats) in both the Lords and the Commons. Then the proposed allocation of each title or office was voted on, first by the Commons and then by the Lords. The bargaining and diplomacy came in because few players were likely to be strong in both Houses. So players with minimal troop strength could hold the balance in Parliament, benefiting as they received a title or office as the price of their support.

Other refinements were added. The award of Bishops can only be voted on in the Lords, the secular Commons doesn’t get a look in. Charles Vasey’s Parliament suggestion highlights an important aspect of game design in general - the work contribution’ of a game’s units - or how much a unit puts into a game. In basic Kingmaker, towns and bishops didn’t seem to "work" very hard. A player might use a town he held as refuge once or twice in a game. It might serve to block road movement. A bishop might never be used as refuge. Vasey’s Parliament maximised the contribution of both towns and bishops by giving them another level to function on. Parliament itself was also "working harder".

Fascinated by the value of the ‘work test’, I began to apply it to other units and areas in the game.
It also serves to illuminate the process by which Avalon Hill games came to enter their catalog; there wasn't actually a small office of supergeniuses designing all of these games from scratch, as I had sort of imagined as a boy. Trivia question: what is the direct connection between the book published by the youngest male published author in the world and Kingmaker?



Anonymous Patrick Baker December 14, 2014 6:56 AM  

"Kingmaker" was one of the first board games I ever played, and like crack, it soon lead me on to Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader. Many a Sunday afternoon in a college dorm-room were spent beheading Plantagent royals, or trying to run down the Beauforts. A small note, Mick Uhl's name was used on a leader's piece in ASL.

Anonymous VD December 14, 2014 7:33 AM  

A small note, Mick Uhl's name was used on a leader's piece in ASL.

Cpl Uhl, if I recall correctly. German, either 8-0 or 8-1.

Blogger Cataline Sergius December 14, 2014 7:43 AM  

My belated congratulations to your son. A rather impressive achievement at six.

Will, "This and Last Season’s Excursions" be offered by Castillia or are the rights still tied up?

Anonymous Vox Popoli December 14, 2014 7:46 AM  

"Kingmaker" was one of the first board games I ever played, and like crack, it soon lead me on to Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader. Many a Sunday afternoon in a college dorm-room were spent beheading Plantagent royals, or trying to run down the Beauforts. A small note, Mick Uhl's name was used on a leader's piece in ASL.

Anonymous jack December 14, 2014 7:54 AM  

Ender published at 6? Wow! The acorn falls not far from the tree.
I'm no gamer but am fascinated by these glimpses into the gaming universe. And, the arrogant and ignorant think high end games; any computer or board games, are dull, uninspired and put out by low IQ morons. And, any illusions of complacency by the gaming world should have been put to rest by Gamergate. It will be interesting to see just how such future attacks, if any, onto the gamers will evolve.
Those attacking gamers made a major strategic mistake; gamers game and striking back is just another game to the gamers. Although, I suggest the gamer juices were riding high as they sought retribution.

Blogger Rantor December 14, 2014 8:04 AM  

I remember Kingmaker fondly, I played it with my friends several time for a few years, until they were absorbed into D&D. I enjoyed Kingmaker a lot, was never as into D&D, although sometimes I would join D&D for a couple hours as a non-player character to liven things up.

Blogger Franz Lionheart December 14, 2014 8:51 AM  

How and where to purchase and more importantly how to start getting into it? Instead of board game version, is there an Ilk-approved computer based version?

Anonymous VD December 14, 2014 9:17 AM  

Will, "This and Last Season’s Excursions" be offered by Castillia or are the rights still tied up?

We still have a few things to sort out, but yes, in three languages. Sometime in the spring, I think.

Blogger Tim December 14, 2014 9:28 AM  

I remember Kingmaker, one of the first Avalon Hill titles I played.
An interesting note, when I was working in England in the early 90's, I toured Warwick Castle one weekend. Guess what wargame they carried in the gift shop there? None other than Kingmaker, with a nice little history that Warwick was the Kingmaker.

Anonymous VD December 14, 2014 9:48 AM  

Guess what wargame they carried in the gift shop there? None other than Kingmaker, with a nice little history that Warwick was the Kingmaker.

That's cool. Sadly, by the time we toured the castle a decade later, it was no longer on offer there.

Blogger Herb Nowell December 14, 2014 10:31 AM  

Kingmaker was my second wargame, after Avalon Hill's original Starship Troopers board game. I was taught both one weekend in 1977 by my uncle. By the end of the year I had my first AH and first SPI games (Starship Troopers and Star Force respectively), a couple more games by each company, and Holmes D&D as well as Gamma World.

It's still a great game. I'm surprised it hasn't come back in a deluxe format that we see modern hobby board games. Kingmaker was the one wargame my parents would play and I suspect it would appear to people who like Catan or Dominion but aren't interested in hex and chit style wargames.

Blogger Sean Carnegie December 14, 2014 1:07 PM  

Kingmaker was one I had picked up in HS after Diplomacy and AdCiv. The PC version isn't too bad and you can find it as abandonware for DosBox. I loved it, people I played AH games with didn't so it didn't get much time.

Trying to find folks around here to teach me ASL is really difficult. If one wanted to learn the game properly without FtF interaction, what's the best way?

Anonymous Ridip December 14, 2014 1:27 PM  

While only tangentially related, so many things seem to be loosely based on the War of the Roses. What's a good book on the subject?

Anonymous Sheila December 14, 2014 2:10 PM  

Sean Carnegie - please explain to this technical midget how to get "abandonware from DosBox." Will it work on a new, windows 8 desktop? I'd like to see if my 15 year old would enjoy it - he's about maxed out on playing "Rome."

Blogger Michael Maier December 14, 2014 6:51 PM  

Selenoth-based strategy game.

Someone get on this, now.

Anonymous Quartermaster December 14, 2014 8:47 PM  

I loved AH games. Played Blitzkieg, Panzerblitz, among others. Used to make it an all nighter every other Friday while I was in Engineering School. Later got a couple SPI games, Global War, and Sinai. Both were pretty good games.

Quit playing simply because I couldn't find people interested in playing anymore.

Funny aside. AH used to have an order form that would fold into an envelope so it could be mailed in. If it wasn't folded properly, they'd return the order and your money. The form was a test. If you couldn't get that right, you didn't have the grey matter needed to play the games.

Blogger MidKnight December 15, 2014 12:59 AM  

Never played Kingmaker.

My intro to gaming, even before discovering D&D and then Traveller in middle school, was spotting a copy of Starship Troopers in the Quantico Exchange.

I then got introduced to Africa Korps, and Dune. Then Panzerblitz. Then Starlet Battles.

I'm delving back into these games - having already started by re-acquiring Starlet Battles - and would love to find a copy if there's a current edition.

Blogger JCclimber December 15, 2014 1:51 AM  

I'm going to guess that the characters in the book are named after some of the nobles in Kingmaker? Because they are different publishers....or perhaps the publisher was an opponent in a bygone era in a game of Kingmaker?

Blogger MidKnight December 15, 2014 12:44 PM  

Crud. Damn auto-correct.

Wasn't looking at what I was typing and "StarFLEET" was auto-corrected to "starlet".

@ Quartermaster

I hear ya on finding people to play against. Found a decent gaming group even if it is mostly Pathfinder and euro-isn/hobbyist games, with a mix of minis and board tactical. We do break out Starship Troopers / etc. every once in a while, and a couple guys get into rounds of ASL

Anonymous Patrick Baker December 15, 2014 2:20 PM  

The British LT Baker piece was my favorite of ASL, my pal, Carl Hoffman, wore out the Cpt. Hoffman piece. It was kid of Avalon Hill to include those named peices just for us. :)

Anonymous Anonymous April 02, 2015 12:21 PM  

Dear Kingmaker Fans, we want to stage another postal session of KINGMAKER after having run those back in 1984 and 1989. However, we Need a file which allows to Reprint a black and White copy of the game map. Does anyone have such a map or know where we can get it ? Regards Konrad Dolata from Germany You can reach me under BKDOLATA@ARCOR.DE

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