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.
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.
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.
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!