Recently, Thames & Kosmos began doing its own distribution of the KOSMOS brand in the U.S., and a key piece to this initiative is the well-known KOSMOS two-player series. They’ve republished the famous Lost Cities, as well as Kahuna and Tally Ho!, and they are also making The Rose King widely available in the U.S. for the first time ever. Designed by Dirk Henn (Shogun, Alhambra), the game feels very much in line with the rest of series, presenting a card-driven chess-match of sorts. But does it stack up against the KOSMOS legacy, or should it have never seen the light of day in the States? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:
Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?
Components: There are very few components to this game – a small deck of cards, a bunch of small cardboard tokens, and really, that’s it. However, everything looks very nice and elegant (though that could also be taken to be mean “a bit plain”), and the price is super competitive ($19.99 MSRP). Not much to say here – I like the very plain, slick look; it does a good job evoking the rather abstract nature of the game in a way that still looks cool. And all of the pieces are of very good quality.
Accessibility: You can easily have a game going in minutes. Each player is dealt a hand of five cards and you either play a card or draw a card as your turn. Playing a card moves the central token in one of the eight standard directions (orthogonal and diagonal) exactly 1, 2, or 3 spaces, and you claim the resulting spot on the board. You can’t land on an occupied space, except that four times in the game, you can land on an opponent’s space and claim it as your own. The game ends when the tokens are gone or nobody can move. The goal is to score points by having large connected regions of your color. That’s it!
Depth: The KOSMOS two-player line has always been a series about balancing a fair dose of luck with interesting strategy in a short playtime. The Rose King gets the balance just right. There is certainly luck in the card draw, but since both hands are face-up, you can anticipate both when you and your opponent are about to have useless hands, and you can also cleverly force your opponent into situations where none of their cards are useful, so they are forced to draw a card (or even skip their turn, if their hand is full), allowing you to essentially take several turns in a row. The interaction of the cards with the board space is both simple and brilliant, allowing for tons of tactics as well as long-term strategy. This game would be a perfect game to study in a game studies or game theory course – it’s profoundly deep despite being so simple, with just enough luck to make it interesting and not a simple counting exercise.
Theme: Presumably, this game is about two knights of the rose, fighting, or something. There’s also a king? I don’t know. It’s white versus red on a chess board of sorts. Despite being a full-blown abstract, I appreciate what the veneer of a theme accomplishes here. It makes the game look very nice and gives it more life than it would have otherwise without it. I like the faded map under the board spaces, and the crowns and swords on the cards. You should know going in this is basically an abstract, so you can gripe about the lack of theme, or be thankful for the nice touches given by what little theme it has. I’ll go with the latter.
Fun: The Rose King feels very much a relic of the games of a few decades ago (it was originally published in 1997), but I see that as a good thing here. It’s simple, yet deep, without any unnecessary chrome. Many of the more popular games these days involve deep social interaction or heavy production values like miniatures – you won’t find any of that in The Rose King. What you will find is an incredibly fun, quick, two-player abstract with a perfect mix of luck and skill, strategy and tactics.
The Rose King is all the best things about the simple, clever two-player games that KOSMOS is known for. This one definitely holds up, almost 20 years later.
4 out of 5