History as game: Kingmaker

With everyone stuck inside, my partner and I decided to haul out the boardgames last night. And we settled on Kingmaker. Haven’t heard of it? Well, let me tell you a story or two that ties the game into history.

Contemporary depiction of Henry IV

Back in the 15th century, the kingdom of England had two different branches of the Plantagenet dynasty contending for the throne: the Lancastrians and the Yorkists. Back in 1399, the Lancastrian leader, Henry of Bolingbroke, had deposed King Richard II, and taken the throne for himself as Henry IV. But the House of Lancaster was not the senior branch of the Plantagenet family, even after Richard II was eliminated. By the middle of the 15th century, the senior line was headed up by Richard, Duke of York. And the Lancastrian king by that time was Henry VI, whose reign began in 1422, and who was incompetent, making him a ripe target for being overthrown.

An ambitious nobleman, Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, decided to back Richard of York in asserting the Yorkist claim to the throne. Other nobles lined up on one side or another. And the result was 30 years of warfare, from 1455 to 1485, as Lancastrians and Yorkists fought each other for the throne and for their own private ends. This spawned four Shakespeare plays, incidentally, the three parts of Henry VI, and the play Richard III.

The game board

A good historical wargame not only allows you to “play” at a war, it gives you insights into what made the war develop the way it did. So a game ultimately needs a historical theory about the war, if it’s at all serious about presenting history.

Kingmaker‘s theory is that the war was really about conflict among the nobles. In its interpretation, the members of the two royal families were really little more than pawns in the hands of ambitious nobles.

So you play the leader of a noble faction. Your military and political forces are comprised of nobles who strive to attract other nobles to their faction, while accumulating titles and government offices that give them additional power. You need a royal claimant to ultimately claim power, but they are puppets in the hands of factions.

The Kingmaker himself, who was as much a schemer as warrior

Is this a realistic view of the Wars of the Roses? It’s oversimplified. Yes, the Kingmaker himself, the Earl of Warwick, did help lead the Yorkists to victory in the early 1460s, and then temporarily toppled them in 1470-71. One cannot doubt that having powerful nobles behind them did strongly affect the fortunes of the Lancastrian and Yorkist claimants. Yet it doesn’t take into account the personalities of the royal claimants. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Edward IV recovering from his disastrous loss of the throne in 1470 to retake it in 1471. And many other factors that shaped the war are taken as given, or not part of the game’s design. That fortified places were often easily conquered is taken as a given, while the distribution of population across England does not factor into the game at all, though it was a significant part of the war’s history.

Still, it’s a fun game. You can learn a bit of English geography and history from it. And it can be played by 2 to 12 people (or even more) in one evening.

Kingmaker was originally devised by Andrew McNeil back in 1974. That British edition is the one I have. The game was sold to Avalon Hill, which revised it and put out a new edition in 1975. But the game’s been out of print for several years, which is a pity. There was an MS-DOS version of the game at one point. I don’t recommend it, as I found some flaws in it, including fleets that disappeared off the map! Let us hope someone brings this game back soon!

14 thoughts on “History as game: Kingmaker

    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      You have given me MY laugh for the day.

      The game was invented there in the U.K., and was an award winner. Unfortunately, the U.S. company that bought it later became a subsidiary of Hasbro, which doesn’t have much interest in it.

      As for the portrait of Warwick? Commissioned for a 1797 edition of Hume’s history of England. I expect that explains its romanticized depiction.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. crispina kemp

        He looks like a cross between a Greek and a Hindu god.
        An apparantly marketed in 1976… I remember the games I was playing in 1976 through to 1983, and they didn’t include more than… oops, the occasional 3 players and definitely no board

        Liked by 1 person

  1. MythRider

    Way back when I was younger, my friends and I used to stay up all night playing Risk. A board game to conquer the world. First time I play was with two male friends who were really playing against each other and paid little attention to what I was doing.
    I took advantage and to their surprise, I became empress for the night.
    I like to play board games, but the friends I have today are not interested. Oh well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      It’s been unfortunate. The coronavirus has also rearranged my schedule. However, since I’m teaching some new material online starting later this month, there should be more posts coming.


      1. Brian Bixby Post author

        Thank you. Have to admit that living out there in the countryside as you do looks awfully attractive. But we’re managing. Three grocery stores within walking distance. And a tulip is popping its head out.
        And may you and yours get through this as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. benthamfish

    I am currently working with Gibsons’ Games on re-developing Andrew’s Kingmaker game. The intention is to re-create the ‘classic’ Kingmaker, while making it easier to understand and smoother to play.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      Glad to hear it. Went over and took a look at your blog posts on the subject. It would be nice to see interest in the game again. And with some of the geographical references better explained for a U.S. audience!



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