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?