Having first seen the cover for Brutal Kingdom, this reviewer was a bit taken aback. There’s a vulture pulling a dagger from a cloak with nefarious purpose in mind. Gamers entering this world may ask: “Is the image appropriate?”
In this small card game, each player uses characters to outwit and gather more influence than opponents. To facilitate this endeavor, sometimes murder is necessary. At the end, only the most conniving creatures will win.
Brutal Kingdom is a card drafting, deduction, and take-that style of game. It plays equally well at 3 or 4 players (the only counts it supports) and takes 30-45 minutes to play.
With each round of play, every player will receive four cards, two light colored and two dark colored. The light colored cards are dealt first. Each player keeps one and passes the other to their left. Then the dark colored cards are delivered the same way, this time passing to the right. Doing this ensures that each player knows one of the cards of their neighbors.
A game turn goes quickly, with each player playing a single card. On each of the 20 cards is a numerical rank, a title, influence icons, and a description of what the card does. When a card is played, any instructions on the card take effect, including the possible elimination of other characters who are currently in front of other players.
After every player has played a single card, the ranks of each card are compared and the first player switches to the player with the highest rank. Each successive card from a player’s hand is played on top of previous cards, thereby changing which card the player currently has in play.
Players will end the round by playing their entire hand. When that happens, any still living characters in a player’s stack receive tokens from the center of the play area for eliminating characters or from the indicated colored icons on their cards.
After four hands have been played, the game ends. The point value of each token is equal to the number of that token remaining in the center of the play area. This means that if too many of a certain color are taken, they are worth less overall than when the game started. After the point tally, the player with the most points wins.
From reading the above description, gamers expecting a simple straightforward play style will be brutally (sorry) mistaken. This is a mean, deadly game. Players will be constantly double checking the available cards on the table and triple checking their memories of which cards players have. Knowing (or educatedly guessing) which cards are still available to be played is a skill that will allow players to master play.
This elegant, small, and seductive play style will keep players guessing and builds good tension at the table on every turn. More than one player in playtesting has been tripped up by playing a card to assume the elimination of another character will occur, only to have their own card covered because they were forced to play a new card due to the first player rules. Calculating that sequence of operations is an additional key to victory.
One of the most subjective areas of consideration is the game art. The use of anthropomorphic characters can either be humorous and attractive or highly distracting and unusual for such a mature, cutthroat game. The art stereotypes different animals into Disney-esque roles (the king is a lion) and while the execution is intricate and gorgeous, it may not engage certain players.
The other aspect of the game which requires consideration is the need for tactical memory. Some players enjoy the memory element in games, and some don’t. In Brutal Kingdom, the need for memorizing information lasts just as long as four turns, so it’s not overly demanding, but it can cost players a significant number of points if they make a mistake.
The question from the introduction asks: “Is a vulture drawing a dagger from a cloak pocket the appropriate image for this game?” The answer is overwhelmingly “Yes”. Players who make comparisons to Love Letter are doing Brutal Kingdoms a disservice. It has a much higher level of strategy and requires adaptation of tactics throughout play. This isn’t just a more complex game, Brutal Kingdoms is a different beast (sorry) altogether that delivers heavy-filler play. And that’s very welcome at this reviewer’s table.
Final Score: 4 Stars – A anthropomorphic smorgasbord hides a gem of deduction and cutthroat tactics.
• Required memory skills