The Last Kingdom is a Netflix series and soon-to-be-movie based on Bernard Cornwell’s long series of books following the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a fictional 9th century warrior who variously fights on both sides of the real wars between King Alfred (and his descendants) and the Danes, a war that would eventually lead to the establishment of a unified English kingdom. And now Gamelyn Games is bringing the series to our gaming tables.
What Is The Last Kingdom Board Game?
The Last Kingdom Board Game is a game for 2-5 players, ages 14 and up, and takes about 30 minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $55 for a copy of the game.
The Last Kingdom was designed by John D. Clair and published by Gamelyn Games, with graphic design by Benjamin Shulman, Peter Wocken, and Jason Washburn. Most of the art consists of photos from the Netflix series.
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The Last Kingdom Components
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality.
Inside the box, you’ll find:
- 1 game board, showing 9th century England
- 1 draw bag
- 5 player screens
- 7 cardboard double-sided action plaques
- 73 cardboard victory point tokens
- 5 cardboard double-sided allegiance markers
- 13 cardboard double-sided allegiance rings
- 5 cardboard double-sided peace tokens
- 40 cardboard action tokens
- 2 cardboard strength markers
- 65 army tokens: 20 Danes and 15 each of West Saxon, Mercian, and Northumbrian
- 1 momentum marker (only used in the 2 player game)
- 1 locked marker (only used in the 2 player game)
- 10 leader mats
- 20 leader cards
- 18 plastic character miniatures
- 40 cardboard affinity markers
- 1 plastic conflict token
- 1 plastic succession token
- 1 plastic invasion token
- 70 cards, half for round 1 and half for round 2
Most of my previous exposure to Gamelyn titles was through their generally excellent Tiny Epic games, so I wasn’t at all surprised by the quality of the components in this title, even at the prototype stage.
The board is very nicely laid out, featuring a large map of England with the rough divisions that existed in the time of Alfred the Great. It also includes spaces for the affinity trackers, card decks, and strength, and features indicators of where to line up the action plaques and armies. These help not only keeping things organized during play, but also make setup a little quicker.
The player screens are provided to keep some of the hidden information more hidden, although in practice we didn’t often find it necessary to really hide the number of action tokens any one player had. (Although my gaming group is decidedly less hyper-competitive than others, so that might be a factor.) The one minor design quibble I had with the game was that the information printed on the screens, which outlines the possible actions on a player’s turn, isn’t really all that readable as the screens lean downward, but as that information isn’t necessarily critical it is really only a very minor issue.
There are a lot of cardboard tokens in the game–around 140 by my count–but they are all very well designed. The victory point tokens are squares of varying sizes in 1, 5, 10 and 50 unit increments.
The action tokens are hexagonal black objects with a dragon that may or may not have specific meaning to the show but certainly invokes the era.
Allegiance in this time was tricky and constantly changing, and was definitely a source of confusion when I played with a group of people who hadn’t watched the show or read the books and who didn’t have a degree in English history. (I should mention here that I check all three of those boxes: I read all of the Cornwell books, have been watching the show since it initially aired in 2015, and I’m anxiously awaiting the movie, Seven Kings Must Die, which will be released on April 15. Plus, my undergraduate degree is in history, with a concentration on medieval England.) While the game recognizes four factions–Dane, West Saxon, Mercia, and Northumbria–those last three are mostly on the same Anglo-Saxon side, at least for game purposes. So the allegiance markers and rings (the former are to keep in your play area to denote your current allegiance, while the latter fit around the base of the character miniatures) are only two-sided: one showing Dane allegiance, and the other, Anglo-Saxon allegiance.
The peace tokens are oversized representations of shields that are placed on the board as conflict in regions end, and the strength markers are used to track the strength of factions in the current region, using the track along the bottom of the board.
The action plaques fit along the top of the board. They’re a bit of an odd shape, something like an arrow, but actually helps in placing and keeping them in the proper order along the top of the board. They are double-sided, with one side for use in 2 player games, and the other in 3-5 player games.
The army tokens in the prototype were simple colored squares, but in both the rules and the Kickstarter page, they are shown to be miniatures that seem to resemble some of the pieces from the Lewis chess set. I cannot tell, nor is it stated anywhere, if these will be plastic or wood, but I’m guessing plastic. They are color-coded to match the various affinities, and will definitely add to the table presence of the finished game.
The leader mats are heavy plastic-coated paper, printed in full color, that provide the name, setup information, and abilities of the various leaders players can pick when they start the game. Very helpfully, the mats also provide an image to match the miniature to the leader.
There are ultimately 90 cards in the game: 20 leader cards and 70 cards for game play. The leader cards, 2 per leader, are added to each player’s deck at setup and represent special abilities the leaders have.
The remaining cards are one of the primary mechanics used in the game. They are split into 2 decks of 35 cards each, with many of the round 2 cards being upgraded abilities of the round 1 cards, although there are enough unique cards in each deck to ensure lots of replayability.
Finally, there are the real stand-outs: the miniatures. There’s a highly detailed miniature of each of the 10 leaders, plus 7 additional characters who feature prominently in the series. (One of the leaders is actually a pair of brothers, Erik and Sigefrid, who each have their own miniature.) In the prototype, all of these are 3D printed, which they certainly won’t be in the final game, meaning that the final product will have many more details.
In addition, there are three other miniatures: the conflict token, which is the shape of a sword, the succession token, a fortified city on a hill (presumably Uhtred’s beloved Bebbanburg), and the invasion token, a Viking ship.
How to Play The Last Kingdom Board Game
You can download a copy of the rulebook here.
The goal of the game is to score the most victory points by the end round two. Victory points are primarily scored based on allegiances at the end of conflicts, but there are other ways to score as well.
For a game with this many components, setup is surprising quick and easy. Place the board in the center of the table. Shuffle the action plaques and place them in a random order along the top of the board. Place the strength markers near the track at the bottom of the board.
Each player takes a leader mat. This can be random or by choice, but the rules do suggest that for the first game, you should use Uhtred (he is the star of the show, after all) and Aethelwold in a 2-player game, Uhtred, Alfred and Guthrum for three players, those three and Aethelwold for four players, and those four and Brida for five.
Based on the initiative order printed on the leader mats, the player with the lowest initiative takes the conflict token, and the player with the second-lowest initiative takes the succession token.
All players then take their leader’s miniature, 2 leader cards, 4 matching affinity tokens, and a player screen. They also take an allegiance marker and ring. Their starting allegiance is printed on their leader mat, so they place the marker on the appropriate side and attach the ring to their miniature. Players place their miniature in the starting region and take the correct number of action tokens, both of which are printed on the leader mat.
Unused miniatures are placed to the side of the board. Unused leader cards, affinity tokens, allegiance markers, and player screens can be returned to the box.
Divide the armies by color and place them next to the board in the indicated spots. Then, place armies as indicated into the regions on the board. Place 5 Dane armies and 1 each of the other three in the draw bag, then draw them randomly from the bag and place them on the board as indicated by the question mark icons. Return the bag to the box.
Place the invasion token on its indicated spot on the board, and separate the rest of the tokens into individual piles and place them near the board.
Find and set aside all of the heroes from both decks, which are marked with an icon in the middle left. Remove any hero cards that match leaders being used in the game, and then randomly place three heroes into the round 1 deck and three into the round 2 deck. Shuffle each deck independently and place them face-down into the indicated spots on the board.
The game is played over 2 rounds, which each round divided into three phases.
In the first phase, players draft the cards they’ll use in the round. Each player is dealt 5 cards from the round 1 deck. They look at the five, keep one, and pass the rest to their left. Keep doing this until each player has drafted four cards.
The remaining cards are discarded, and then the players take the four cards they drafted and their leader’s two starting cards for a hand of six.
Then, players must play any cards in their hands that have a lighning bolt icon. These are played face up and any effects are applied immediately. Players keep these cards face up in front of them for the rest of the round, unless the card specifies that it is kept for the rest of the game.
The second phase is the conflict phase. To begin this, the player with the conflict token places it on any region of their choosing. Calculate the initial strength of the factions in that region (1 stength per army, plus 1 strength per leader unless the leader’s mat says otherwise) and set the strength tokens to their appropriate values. Then, the player with the succession token places it in any other region. This marks the region where the next conflict will happen. The player with the third lowest initiative then takes the first turn.
On a player’s turn, they may perform one of several actions. They keep taking turns until everyone passes.
The possible actions:
- Perform a market action. Players may pay the indicated number of action tokens from their supply to “buy” any one of the action plaques and perform its action. That plaque is then moved to the rightmost (most expensive) spot, and all other plaques are moved to the left. Note that a few of the plaques have “passive” actions, meaning that they do not end a player’s turn and the player then may select any other action (including doing this one again).
- Play a card. Players select a card from their hand and play it face-up in front of them, then perform whatever action it indicates. Note that while there is no cost to playing cards, the six cards in player’s hand are all they get for the entire round, which will consist of five conflicts phases, so hand management is critical.
- Move your leader. Players may pay the cost indicated on their leader mat to move their leader to an adjacent region. (Certain cards and action plaques also allow players to move leaders and/or other heroes.)
- Pass. Players may choose to pass their turn. Note that “passive actions” can be performed first, and then you can pass. However, passing does not necessarily take you out of the conflict–if it comes back to you again, and everyone else has not passed, you can choose to take another action.
- Prepare for invasion. Instead of passing, one player may take this action. Unlike regular passing, if they do this, they are out for the rest of this conflict and may not take any other actions. However, they do gain action tokens equal to the number of peace tokens on the board (so this action becomes progressively more attractive in later conflicts) and they get to hold onto the cool ship miniature for the rest of the round (which, perhaps more importantly, also means that they will place the next succession token and decide where the conflict after the next one will happen.)
Once all players have passed, the conflict is resolved. The strength in the region is rechecked (in theory, the strength markers should be adjusted every time the strength changes during the turns, but it’s always good to double-check) and the faction with the higher strength wins.
Each player on the winning faction gains victory points based on their leader’s current affinity with the winning faction. (Various cards and other effects will change your affinity as the game proceeds.) To calculate this, each player selects up to 5 armies and/or heroes in the region (leaders count towards strength, but not points) and multiplies that by the amount indicated on the affinity tracker. Each winning player may select different armies, and heroes are always only controlled by one player, so the calculations might be slightly different even if most (or all) of the players are on the winning side. If a player is the only one on the winning side, they gain an “on your own” bonus of 5 points. Note that victory tokens, whether gained from winning conflicts or any other way, are supposed to be kept hidden behind your player screen.
Players aligned with the losing faction each take 2 action tokens. If they are alone, they get an additional 2 tokens.
It’s important to note that a player’s leader does not need to be in the region to gain the rewards for winning or losing. What matters is your allegiance, not your leader’s physical presence.
Next, you need to disband armies. This is the part where the person in your gaming group who only sort-of listens to the rules is going to get upset, by the way. To disband armies, you first remove one army of whichever force has the most. Then, do that again. If two or more factions are tied for the most armies, remove one of each of their armies. Keep doing this until you have 5 or fewer armies left in the region. Note that heroes and leaders are not affected by this and do not change the calculations.
A peace marker is then placed, appropriate side up, in the region, The conflict marker is moved to the region with the succession marker, and the succession marker is moved by the player who took the “prepare for invasion” action (and who, sadly, has to give up the cool ship) to another region that does not yet have a peace token. If no one prepared for invasion, then the player who passed last gets to place the succession token.
Once the first conflict is resolved, you move immediately into the second conflict. Players once again take turns performing actions until everyone passes (the player to the left of the player who passed last goes first), then the conflict is resolved, victory points or action tokens are gained, the conflict and succession tokens are moved, rinse, repeat. It’s very important to note that there is not another drafting phase between conflicts: you have to manage all five conflicts with just those six cards you started with.
Once the fifth and final conflict is resolved in round 1, move to phase 3: cleanup. All players gain up to the amount of initial starting tokens indicated on their leader mats. All round 1 cards are discarded from both the play area and players’ hands, except for the 2 leader starting cards and any hero or instant cards that say that they have permanent effects; those remain for round 2. All peace tokens are removed from the board. The conflict token is given to the player who last had the invastion token, the succession token is given to the player on their left, and you’re ready for round 2.
Round 2 plays out just like round 1, with just two exceptions. First, players are dealt 5 cards from the round 2 deck to use in the draft. And second, rather than a cleanup phase, there’s a final scoring phase after the last conflict, but really this is just revealing and adding up your tokens.
The game ends when round 2 is complete. The player with the most victory points wins and becomes the new ruler of England (sorry, Charles). If there’s a tie, the player aligned with the faction that has the most peace tokens on the board after round 2 wins. If still tied, add the total number of affinity levels, and the player with the most of those wins. If there’s still a tie, then the player with the highest initiative wins.
Why You Should Play The Last Kingdom
First, I think it’s safe to say that fans of the Netflix series will definitely enjoy the game. It nicely captures, if at a somewhat abstract level, the over-arching theme of the show (or at least the show’s early seasons; it’s worth noting that the game is definitely built around those early seasons, as evidenced by the inclusion of Alfred). Plus, the photos from the show and the miniatures are sure to make fans happy.
Fans of the books who are not fans of the show (while the books certainly don’t shy away from bloody violence, I have talked to some who find reading about the violence okay but are still turned off by its depiction) will still likely enjoy the game, since it still lets you play as those characters you’ve come to love.
Fans of this period of English history will almost certainly like it as well. There aren’t too many other titles out there that really deal with Alfred and his attempts to push back the Danes and establish the idea of an English nation, so this definitely hits that spot as well.
No one in the group I played with had ever watched the show, and didn’t even know it was based on a series of books. They also had no prior knowledge of this period of English history, other than having heard of Alfred and some vague notion that there was a period of warfare between the Vikings and the native inhabitants of the island. But other than finding some of the names a bit challenging (Aethelflaed, Aelswith, Aethelwold…) and wondering why the Saxons were divided in to three factions that were still fighting on the same side, they all enjoyed it a lot. (Although it might have helped that I was there to tell them those pronounciations and give them some of the backstory, both fictional and real.)
But if I try to separate the fandom from the gameplay and look at the game objectively by itself, it still very much holds up. I’m becoming more and more a fan of games with drafting mechanics, as it provides a counter to the blind luck involved with dealing cards. I also like games that abstract conflict so you aren’t spending a lot of time moving forces around only to get unlucky die rolls. In this game, it’s a very simple matter of adding up the numbers, and then looking at your cards to see if there’s still something you can do or if you need to give that region up and start focusing on the next region. And the designers adding the succession token, so you know exactly what is next, is a great touch.
But it’s not a pure information game, either. There are a lot of strategic and tactical decisions to be made, and there’s always the uncertainty of not knowing what cards your opponents still have in their hands.
The first time I tried playing the game, we got one critical rule wrong: even though this is clearly laid out in the rules, I made the assumption, based on the way somewhat similar games work, that you’d get this hand of cards, play them, resolve the conflict, and then get a new hand. As soon as I realized I’d messed that up, we had to stop the game and start over, but the actual rule is so much more satisfying. You get this extremely limited resource–only 6 cards to manage 5 rounds of conflict. And you might have even fewer, if you draft a lot of those “instant” cards. This makes the draft so much more important than in most other games, and makes figuring out exactly when to play a card, and when to fully commit to a combat, an even bigger decision. Because it is so long between drafts, your very early decisions can have a huge impact on the late game.
That alone makes The Last Kingdom a game that will appeal to a wider strategic gaming audience. And if it happens to then pull them into the show, and then the novels, and maybe even into a history book, so much the better.
For more information or to make a pledge, visit the The Last Kingdom Board Game Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.