Friday, July 17, 2009

Board Game Review - King of Siam

I don't try to hide the fact that I write Drake's Flames to get free games. I also don't try to hide the fact that it works pretty damned well (though I sometimes forget to mention that I had to write an awful lot of reviews before it started working at all). But I'm not always forthcoming about how much work it is to get free games. You might think I just sit here, jot down a few thoughts three nights a week, and sit back and collect games. But I'm here to tell you, getting free stuff is hard work. I have to write to game companies all the time, copying links, quoting traffic numbers, trying to sound professional when I'm really just a boob with a keyboard and internet access. Sometimes I'm up until three in the morning sending out review requests for everything from Small World to Duck Dealer.

All that work makes me appreciate it so much more when publishers find me, instead of the other way around. I got King of Siam when the creator of the game asked me to write about it. Not only is it really nice to get free stuff without having to work for it, but it goes right to my head and makes me feel all important. What it does not do, however, is get me to say nice things about your game. For that, you have to actually have a good game.

Happily for Histogames (and for me, since I now own the game), King of Siam is a pretty damned cool game. I'm always a little nervous when I get games from really small publishers, because I once got a game where you have to stab people for prison drugs. But King of Siam is very professionally produced, which a nice linen board and decent art and some rules that are flat-out awesome.

King of Siam is basically a historical recreation of the power struggle in Siam that resulted in it maintaining independence in the face of British colonialism. There were three major factions vying for control of the country, and to complicate the whole thing, if the troubles got out of hand, the British might be marching in any minute. So they had to do all this vicious bickering and infighting, and keep a united face to the British aggressors. It's kind of like when you hate that bitch from accounting, and throw away her print jobs any time you can get away with it, but smile at her and wave whenever you get stuck in a meeting with her. You don't want your boss to know you're feuding, but man, would it be great to push her down a flight of stairs.

To recreate this struggle, you'll have a map of Siam divided into eight provinces. Each one starts with four different, essentially random followers, but as the game progresses, the number of followers in any particular province will rise and fall. You go in turn, fighting for each province, but here's the kicker - if you can't agree on which group wins a region, the British get all pushy and just march right in. If the British take half of Siam, you can go ahead and kiss the rest goodbye.

In order to help guide this internal strife, you'll each have a set of eight cards. They are the only cards you get the whole game, and you can't take an action without one of the eight cards, which means that during any given game, you get to do eight things, and then you're done. Weird, huh?

But it TOTALLY works. In fact, King of Siam delivers the feeling of long-range political scheming like no other game that comes to mind (though I admit to expending very little energy searching my memory). You have to plan ahead to the end of the game before you ever play your first card. You can't waste all your moves early, or you're at the mercy of the pack, but you also can't let your opponents decide every power struggle, or you won't be able to compete any more. Is it worth it to let the British take this region, or do you really need it to go to the Malays because they like you best? Or maybe you force the region to go to the Lao, even though you don't have the controlling interest there, because five turns from now, it will make it impossible for anyone to stop you from giving the Royalists their fourth region.

When I say you have to plan ahead, I'm not even remotely joking. You have to keep track of about twenty things at the same time. You have to know which regions will have power struggles soon, which opponents have the most of each faction, how close the British are to seizing power, and all the while, you have to keep track of the balance of power in every spot on the board. The mental gymnastics you'll need to keep your head in this game would make Mary Lou Retton need a Valium.

The fact that you only get eight actions in the game also forces you to plan your moves. You'll want to basically pick a play and run with it - change your strategy halfway through the game, and you're virtually doomed to fail. On the other hand, if your opening strategy sucks, and you aren't flexible enough to tweak it, you're also completely hosed. In some ways, King of Siam requires more forethought than chess. Plus it's way more fun!

The art for King of Siam might look a little bland at first glance, but looking further at the board reveals a gorgeous and accurate map of the area. The factions tokens look a bit dull, but they are wonderfully representative. The graphics on the cards may not have the kind of flashy graphics you get in a Fantasy Flight game, but they are absolutely perfect for telling you what the cards are for. This is a virtually seamless marriage of form and function whose true beauty comes in how wonderfully it all works.

King of Siam is not a good game for people who don't want to spend a lot of effort on thinking. This is not a simple dice game - in fact, there's no luck to be had anywhere. You can't count on the dice to bail you out if you misplay. A good player will beat a bad player every single time, and that can get really tiresome for people with a low tolerance for taking an ass whoopin'. But if you like to really tax your mind, and if you can track a dozen changing variables at a time, you'll probably love playing King of Siam.


No luck
Cool historic theme
Rules are easy to master - but the game isn't
Excellent if you love to make your brain sweat

Horrible if you don't love to exercise your brain
Components are not as gorgeous as some gamers like - but they're perfect for this

Games this small don't wind up at Dogstar Games, but Boards & Bits has a decent price on it:

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