The Making of Avalon Hill's Kingmaker

By Andrew McNeil

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. Couldn’t the bishops be made to work even harder? So the Archbishop of York, and the two other northern bishops of Durham and Carlisle, were given extra troops to use north of the Trent. This in turn devolves some of the military struggle, since players naturally fall back to such power bases. The North has been neglected in some games, with violence only occasionally flaring when an unlucky Grey or Percy gets ambushed by a tricky Warden of the Northern Marches. Giving power to the bishops has changed this a bit, as well as being in line with the historical model of the age which Kingmaker represented in game form; powerful prelates could put rough and ready armies into the field to counter Scots invasions and raids. Some of the office holders were being made to work harder, too - notably the Chancellor, who would be empowered to summon Parliament in situations where two Kings had been crowned - an admitted stalemate trap in the original version of the game. In the Event pack the 10 ‘Writ’ cards were scrutinised. They had a dual function; requiring to be used before a Parliament could be summoned, forcing the involvement of other factions, and another function of ‘papering the pack’ - providing harmless, non-eventful breathing spaces in the cycle of raids, revolts, plagues, etc. But were they working hard enough? They were given yet another function, as ‘Writs of Commission’, whereby they could be used to substitute a force of equal strength for a noble summoned by raid or revolt to a far-flung part of the kingdom at an inconvenient moment. This mitigated for some nobles the forced separation from their faction’s force which is such an important part of the basic game.

Mick Uhl came up with some suggestions, one of which was to include a simple majority victory column among the battle odds. In the basic game it is sometimes difficult to get a result when two forces are evenly matched, and the suggestion would undoubtedly create more results, and reward aggression. The suggestion meant that there had to be 10 new cards for the Event pack. What should they consist of? Some were obvious enough from the changes already made; there would have to be at least two which made the summoning of Parliament by the Chancellor mandatory. In addition, I suggested three ‘mercenaries go home’ cards, relishing the thought of bully-boy Neville, the Kingmaker, having his force critically cut on the eve of battle because his Burgundian crossbowmen had become home-sick. Patriotically, I regarded the Scots Archers as too trustworthy to do any such thing, and the Saxons as too weak to make any impact if they did down bills and shove off back to Germany and was dismayed to find that Scots can indeed hoof it in the AH game. Other cards suggested themselves because of another major change suggested by AH for the Advanced Game - the expansion of the board to include Ireland and part of the Continent other than Calais with Lieutenant of Ireland and a Captain of Calais to match. This was all rather amusing to me since I’d cut Ireland out some years before. And not only were they putting it back, but they were making the board smaller too. AH also wanted to give extra strength, in the form of a Duke of York and a Duke of Lancaster card and counter, to the holder of the head of the royal houses. I balked at this, and it took a few weeks of transatlantic correspondence before I was persuaded. My problem was this. Kingmaker model allowed for the interaction of two types of piece - royal pieces, who were pawns, with no movement of their own - and noble pieces, the motivated members of the factions with their entourage. The two additions would be neither one nor the other - blue-blooded hybrids. They didn’t seem to fit into the model. They seemed ‘dirty’.

The game designer always has to watch for the trap of the ‘dirty’ solution to his immediate problem - it’s often the first to suggest itself. If he suspects a rule or a concept to be ‘dirty’ he should immediately reject it rather than rework it, and search for a ‘clean’ solution in keeping with his game model. It’s my experience that ‘dirty’ concepts don’t stand cleaning up.

It’s probably worth quoting here from the correspondence with Mick Uhl: "I’m very much against making the royal pieces in any way eqinvalent to nobles - the Beaufort rule aside. Richard of York was not an ordinary noble, and to reduce him or his estates to level of the admittedly powerful Neville, Mowbray or Beaufort is to miss the point of the Wars of the Roses somewhat. Richard was the living reminder of the crime that had been committed fifty years before when Henry VI’s grandfather had usurped the throne of Richard II. The lines of the Mortimers, the Earls of Ulster, the Earl of Cambridge, all flowed into his powerful body. He was a combination of Kennedy and Rockefeller, and he was married to a Vanderbilt." (Cicely Neville).

There were other lessons in the peculiarities of English history and culture: "You have inadvertantly dropped into a transatlantic pitfall either a ‘member of the House of Lancaster’ or ‘a Lancastrian’ not a Lancaster - that was a WW2 bomber. So also with York, a post-war transport."

And, discussing the possibility of ‘ambushes’: "Go easy on letting Richard and other royals being victims in ambush. What actually happened when they were captured was a) they were taunted and executed when their opponents were of the opposite dynasty, as at Wakefield and Tewkesbury, or b) they were pardoned among much open weeping’.

Don Turubull, too, was worried about how AH were treating the royals: "If a battle was fought, the nobles entering into the fray would be sure to put their precious royal captives well to the rear with the cooks and the boys who sweep out the horse-dung..."

Don’s help was invaluable. Through his postal game and its commentary he had already shown that he had entered the ‘world’ of Kingmaker, with its bullying nobles, butts of malmsey, treacherous princes, and cowardly prelates - the Late Middle Ages caricatured and writ large without deviating from the essential historical truth - the balance between game and simulation which was so important to me. He applied the same standards to the AH remake, remaining loyal to the game, and at the same time throwing in jokes and asides which sometimes left the Americans slightly puzzled. Don and I would weave stories around every rule interpretation until one or the other was convinced. Should ships, for example, be able to move without a noble actually on board? No, said Don, who would give the orders? Aah, I said, my mind full of the technicolour epics of my youth, there is a frightened but loyal page of Percy’s clutching a bag of gold pieces, who rides through the night to confront the villainous sea-captain, and who tells him, "There’s more where that came from..."

Thousands of words passed across the Atlantic in the course of the correspondence with Avalon Hill. The resulting game is, I think, a fine example of the value of communication and dialogue in game development. The recreation of Kingmaker was satisfying to both parties. The Americans of Avalon Hill were guided into a complex structure of the game and the historical period which it represented. I remember cautioning Mick Uhl about reading too many histories of the period lest he end up believing that it was impossible to make a game of the Wars of the Roses! We were able to put into practice everything that had been learnt about the game after its publication. Generous over the amount of space allowed in the rulebook, Avalon Hill allowed me to write a detailed historical note as well as the usual Designer’s Notes. There is even a biography of the real noble families which feature in Kingmaker. Slow at first to appreciate that ‘the Brits’ did know what they were doing, they even changed the format of the Noble cards at my instigation, and where Don and I disagreed, gave fair hearing before settling for one interpretation or another.

The game has been successful in the United States. The readers of SPI’s Strategy and Tactics and Moves, gave the game high ratings and readers of The General, AH’s magazine, place it in the top third of the ‘Reader Buyer’s Guide’. All illustrative of the fact that a British game can find a place in the home of gaming, with many of its idiosyncracies intact.

Avalon Hill have kept up interest in the game by producing a set of variant Event Cards adding uncertainties which are the spice of the game to its afficionados. Among them is the Royal Death Card which could prove particularly vexing to a player who had grabbed the young Prince of Wales at the start of the game and was waiting while other players hacked themselves to pieces. And a further imaginative stroke from AH, they provide the purchaser of these extension packs with a number of blank cards, backed with the same card design, so that players can add their own variants to the Event pack.

Perhaps the strangest effect of the Avalon Hill adoption of Kingmaker is that the inventor is no longer fluent in his own game. But this is not to say that Kingmaker has become a Frankenstein monster, but more like a child that has spent a few years abroad and has come back with a foreign accent and habits. What is apparent from playing it is that we now have a game which remains fun, but which has less of the wild reverses of fortune that caused hilarity among some players, but upset purists. There is more power distributed more evenly, and this inevitably gives more players a chance of making their mark during the game. The death of King Henry at the beginning of the game can raise the Chancellor to a position of power whatsoever strength the controllers of the leading Yorkist and Lancastrian possess. Now we are anxious to feed back to the British edition some of the lessons learned. Kingmaker looks to be around long enough to make that worthwhile.

Reprinted from Games & Puzzles No.72 (Spring 1979)


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