A strange thing happened the other day. I went to the home of Peter Hawes to play board games. Some of you already get the impact of that statement. That’s because those people know Peter Hawes is the designer of Francis Drake, Triassic Terror, Wars of the Roses: Lancaster Vs. York, Royals, and Heads of State.
Peter is a medical doctor, competitive middle distance runner with two Masters Titles, a lover of history, and designs games in his spare time… somehow he has spare time. Peter’s designs provide a Euro feel by being based on points, not always directly confrontational, and more abstract with elements of theme painted on. However, to say themes are "painted on" does not do justice to the research and depth of consideration he provides when developing mechanics that capture the reality of history, yet nor do his games have the same feel as the Amercian thematic games. Most importantly, Peter and I have one major thing in common. We both LOVE area control. I should acknowledge that I am not that good at it, but that doesn’t change how much I love it! Peter has included area control elements in a number of his designs. There is a lot to love about his games and I was eager to go meet Peter and join him in a game. Peter was a gracious host who warmly welcomed me and one of my best mates, Ricky, into his home. He indulged us by playing one of his designs, Heads of State, a game on my “must play" list.
Royals is a redesigned version of Heads of State (HOS). Royals received critical and popular acclaim and was even acquired by Arcane Wonders for their Dice Tower Essentials line. HOS is a much bigger game with some significant differences. The game covers the turbulent 16-18th century in Europe as different families vie for power. You can score points by gaining control of a country, being the first to place nobles across Europe, aim to have a noble in each province and capital of a country, installing one of each kind of noble, or collecting the most of each kind of noble. All this is represented using area control mechanics. Some people might already recognise the similarities with Royals. Yet, as I have already stated, there are some significant differences.
One of the main engines is focussed around the establishing of nobles in provinces by collecting the cards needed to put a noble into power. In Royals, you have Country Cards that indicate the influence you can exert in specific countries on the map. There is a Country Deck that you can draw a card from
either directly off the top randomly, or from the river of face-up cards.
Cards taken from the river are replaced at the end of the turn. You collect the same country and pay the required number for each position of power. For example, a Baron might cost you three cards of a specific country, but a king for that country might cost you 8. This already is a significant difference to its predecessor. In HOS you need collect the cards that provide the exact requirements for a noble to come to power. These cards might include gold, a title, blessing from the church, a castle, troops, or other useful tools for gaining power.
When drafting in the river from Royals it is clear what country you will be contesting. However, as you are collecting attributes of power in HOS drafting from the river might provide some information on which noble you want, but even if your opponent does guess correctly, there is no ability to determine which country you will place your noble. This provides coverage for strategy and gives away less information to your opponents forcing them to pay more attention to the board and the current state of play. As an additional complication, some nobles require exact cards while others can use the Courtesans which act as wild cards.
Courtesan and Revolution Card Pictured
This is a significant difference. In Royals if you want a “wildcard” you can use any two cards to equal the one card you require. Here some nobles such as the King require you provide all original cards, no substitutes. The addition of Courtesans as a dedicated wildcard means players must compete when drafting those cards. The overall impact is a much more deliberate and focused card drafting. Knowing you need more cards for higher nobles, and more specific cards to get the right combination requires that you think strategically by planning several turns ahead, but also act tactically when your plans go awry.
Further to this is the inclusion of a revolution card. Somewhere in the bottom 11 cards is a revolution card. Unlike Royals that simply ended an age when the Country Deck ran out, in HOS you only know somewhere in the bottom 11 cards the turn will end. This creates great tension as players try to decide to draw a card from the top, possibly ending their turn prematurely, or draft from the river ensuring they finish their turn, though not always optimally. It was the case in our game that Ricky would start running probability of who at the table would get another turn, while I opted just for the faith-based method and prayed to the card gods. This was a great way to include “press your luck” into the game where it did not dominate play but added tension to decision making. Players either tried to finish their turn crossing their fingers, or draw directly from the deck in an effort to hasten the scoring phase before anyone could snatch away their advantage. This is a great tension moment.
Just like in Royals you will need to usurp nobles controlled by other players. To do this you will need the Intrigue Cards connected to the country of the Nobel you intend to displace (which is a nice way to say "Murder"). This will slow down your ability to coup a province. In Royals gaining the correct Intrigue Card was simply a matter of drawing from the deck in the hopes of getting your country or using two to act as a wildcard. HOS Intrigue Cards generally only have one country on them limiting your chances of drawing what you want. This can prove frustrating at times, but also made you consider other options to find new ways to secure your desired outcome. During the game, this limiting feature both restricted my access to certain nobles, as much as it protected my King of England from being overthrown. It was a bittersweet experience.
Although you cannot simply use any two intrigue cards as wilds In HOS, there is the inclusion of an Assassin Card. This card can be played to assassinate any noble, except the king where two of these cards are required. Now before you think you can just go bumping off other players nobles, you need to consider the risk an Assassin Card provides.
Each player has three cubes in their player colour. If the Yellow Player uses the Assassin Card against a noble controlled by the Blue Player, the defending Blue Player puts her three cubes into a bag and the aggressive Yellow player puts one of her cubes into the bag. The Yellow player then draws a cube and if it is the blue cube the assassination is successful. If it is a yellow cube the assignation fails. 1 in 4 chance of failure is quite high and on several occasions, these attempts did fail. This created some wonderfully tense situations as the bag was shaken and the cube drawn. I loved these moments.
I play Royals regularly and have even taken it to school and inducted many students into the game with broad appeal. Yet you may have begun to see that HOS is, in my opinion, a more enjoyable game. I will admit there are changes that Royals made that I think are better than HOS. For instance, in Royals you place cubes on a noble portrait when you install a noble on the board. At the end of the game, the player with the most cubes on that portrait scores extra points. In the case of a tie, the portraits split into two and fewer points are scored. Where three or more have the same number of cubes on the portrait that noble does not score. In HOS this exact same thing happens only players draw a card of that noble instead of placing a cube. This is just needlessly cumbersome and requires more resources. I love the Royals way of scoring the nobles as it adds to the area control feel of the game. It is a small change, but a nice one.
Considering how similar HOS is to Royals, and how enjoyable I found it, it begs the question why HOS was not as popular as Royals? Well that is an interesting story that Peter took time to relate to me. The game was set for an Essen release. The publisher booked in time at the Ludo Fact publishing to print a run of games the week before Essen. Once this time is booked it is not refundable and times cannot be moved. The week of the print the publishers tried to get the artwork from the artists. Sadly the artist had experienced personally difficulty and failed to do the work, but did not inform anyone of this until pressed to provide the art. This meant that Peter and the publishers were pushed to do their own artwork using photoshop. The result was less than impressive. This is evident from the game box to the card and tile design. The art design woudl struggle to compete with many Kickstarter games, despite the actual components being good quality. This was clearly a drawback and the game failed to find enough appeal during Essen to get significant recognition. There were a number of other issues that arose, but I might leave those details for a later date. Needless to say, HOS never had its time in the sun and so Peter redesigned it as Royals so he could publish under a different company. There is hope, however, with talk of a reprint that I believe would be richly deserved.
I would recommend playing Heads of State if you get the chance. I certainly remain optimistic that a reprint with good production value might see this game give it the recognition it deserves. In the meantime, I will continue to sing the praises for this under appreciated game.