Review: Kingsport Festival24 Apr 2015 0
iNigma's Kingsport Festival advertises itself with the tagline, "Why choose the lesser evil?", which nicely reflects the game. You play as an eschatological cult leader in a Lovecraftian universe, attempting to summon an Elder One to rule the planet with a distinct lack of benevolence. So yes, pretty darn evil. It's also an appropriation of an old joke which doesn't work all that well in this context. The game translates a board game of the same name which itself borrowed very heavily from Kingsburg, a well-regarded Euro. Like the joke, there's very little about the result which is original, and the new expectations created by the digital format create requirements it fails to satisfy.
I am both biased in favor of indies and also particularly aware of the ways my own faults can show in their work. iNigma have built a somewhat cluttered interface which requires a goodly number of extraneous taps, and their localization has some amusing translations, but it's essentially functional. Unfortunately, both networking and AI are difficult, and indies often lack the resources to do them well--Kingsport Festival omits multiplayer entirely and features an AI so rudimentary I doubled its score in my very first game. As a result, however interesting the board game might be, there's simply no way to really explore its strategy with this app. Rather than describe its interface missteps and bugs in depressing detail, I want to think a bit about how the theme is represented by the game's mechanics. I'm particularly interested in what happens when a doomsday cult bent on destroying the world runs out of evil.
The essential steps of a game turn start off with rolling three six-sided dice. These are cleverly used both to allow you to get resources and to determine turn order, with higher rolls offering more productive resource-gathering options offset by later selection. Mechanically, that's kind of neat, and there's an additional tension between adding your dice to get a single batch of resources, or splitting them up over multiple, weaker batches--this tends to be more rewarding overall, but risks having someone else force you to waste a die by choosing the batch you sought. You then spend these resources on durable improvements to your future options, which also provide victory points.
That's all pretty standard euro-game elegance, but when you add the theme, some utterly bizarre circumstances arise. For example, the three major resources are evil, death, and destruction. You spend these to gain a presence in a building in Kingsport, which is what provides the durable benefit. That could sort of make sense--maybe you need to kill some folks in order to get your acolytes hired, or break some things so they need to call in maintenance, or just extort or threaten someone. But then you find yourself really wanting to expand into the cemetery, but you don't have enough evil. At this point, Bobby the priest of Yog-Sothoth apparently just doesn't have the heart to, I don't know, intimidate someone by nailing a dead puppy to their garden gate. He's still committed to ending the world, but he needs to walk some old ladies across the street and pick up litter until he gets another chance to pray. Or maybe you want an inside man at the museum, and you start asking yourself what possible good three units of destruction could be to increasing your influence over a place dedicated to preservation of history.
Another oddity introduced in the transition from Kingsburg to Kingsport is that, rather than all players developing their own provinces, everyone's in the same town. So while you're moving your folks into position to gain the benefits of influence in City Hall, so might several other cults. And when investigators come to town and start shooting up the place, they might well expel the less well-armed clerks, while leaving those with shotguns under their desks unmolested (and vice versa). That strikes me as oddly orderly. I'm also not sure it makes sense thematically for their ever to be an occasion when government functionaries aren't members of an evil cult.
Abstraction from theme is necessary, and it's always going to be possible to note some such amusing consequences. But one virtue a game (or any themed formal system) can have is fidelity at its level of abstraction, and a key method of finding it is asking whether the system's behavior in various circumstances could be more accurate without complicating the rules. Poking at this question reveals more amusing failures of Kingsport Festival than the early Codito-style design or the ennui of playing only against AIs which make you feel like you're hosting a tea party with your stuffed animals. And no tea.