Review: Road of Kings30 Jan 2014 0
As a product of ex-38 Studios devs Dancing Sorcerer Games, Road of Kings might seem like a reaction to the ashes its creators are pulling themselves out of. Where 38 Studios imploded as they overspent to create ambitious high-gloss fantasy worlds propped up on tomes of original lore, Road of Kings is a simple offering that emulates the adventure board games of the 1980s like Talisman and (I'm told) Barbarian Prince. It's a memo (with 38 mis-manager Curt Schilling CC'd) reminding us that games don't need Hollywood voice talent and bump-mapping to succeed.
Road of Kings puts you in the boots of a career-minded barbarian in a fantasy free-market libertarian paradise: he who is the first to collect 500 gold pieces can declare himself king. So off we set.
The game world is split into hexes that take a day to traverse. Each day there's a chance to stumble across an encounter where you might recruit allies, fight foes, or luck into some food or gold. At the end of each day, you (and your collected disciples) must eat, and if there aren't enough rations of food to go around, some of your comrades might set off to join a better-catered party.
There's a thin eggshell of story around the gameplay, one that reveals itself in your encounters. There's no big narrative, just glimpses of the life going on outside your barbarian's quest. A town held hostage by raiders here, a village going hungry there. This extended portrait of a future king running errands on behalf of his people hides King Philip of Macedon's lesson about learning to serve before you can rule -- but you can always turn down these quests and go back to searching old ruins for gold. You snooty jerk.
Unstintingly dull combat is the biggest chink in Road of Kings' armour. When you find unfriendly souls in the wilderness, you select a character in your party and a target in the enemy's party, then launch an attack. Presumably your barbarian attacks differently from the sword-wielding mercenary who differs from the spearman... but who knows? The game doesn't break out attacks into different abilities and doesn't show you the underlying dice rolls, and there isn't any sort of equipment or other means of modifying your results (a la Talisman), so the combat wears out its welcome quickly.
Because fights boil down to which side has brought more guys, the most interesting aspect of Road of Kings becomes food management. At the end of each day, you have the option to go hunting to add to your rations, and it quickly becomes apparent that some hexes tend to yield better food results than others. Attention to these details is crucial, because if a character in your party goes hungry for a day there's a chance they'll abandon you, even if they'd joined your troupe after you'd saved their life from a group of raving death cultists not two weeks prior. People have short memories on the Road of Kings.
It's weirdly un-thematic for a game about unlettered barbarian wanderers to revolve around managing your food supplies and trying to maintain an optimal party size (a better title might have been "Road of German Staff Officers") but I found it engrossing to sit and plan my next expedition out from a town, trying to judge which hexes I could detour to in the hope of restocking the mess kit.
Aside from the forgettable combat, Road of Kings is a perfectly pleasant adventure. The art has the rough, pencilled look of a Saturday morning cartoon from overseas, which reinforces the retro 1980s feel. There's a certain amount of replayability as most of your encounters in the wilderness are randomly drawn from a deck, as it were, but the map remains the same every time you play.
Dancing Sorcerer Games' first outing is probably too successful in emulating the classic dice-rollers of yore. Gamers' tastes have largely passed those games by and Road of Kings doesn't bring anything particularly new to the table. But it's a bite-sized epic well-suited to its modern platform; an ideal game to pull out of your pocket in the moments before the bus comes. Maybe Curt Schilling will be driving it.
Road of Kings was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.