- Designer: Lance Hill
- Artists: Tim Baron, Matthew Ebisch, James Lyle, Kaysha Siemens, Adam Stoak
- Release Year: 2014
- Mechanics: Cooperative, Set Collection, Hand Management
A copy of Kings of Israel was provided by the publisher for review purposes
There’s a knee-jerk reaction that happens every time someone mentions that a piece of media is ‘Christian’. Memories of kitschy messages layered on sub-par productions, fictionalized idyllic stories that lean too heavily into prosperity for the good guys and a lack of danger or consequences is generally what comes to my mind. Some people have complex and traumatic experiences with the church or religion, and will refuse to engage with that media, because no one likes trying to be bombarded with propaganda, especially if they’ve already rejected the message a dozen times.
I am of the Christian faith, but I generally rebel against the media that caters to my religion. It always feels lacking, more of trying to push an agenda or message, rather than focusing on good story for the sake of art. But when the opportunity arose to get my hands on a couple of Christian themed board games, my curiosity was piqued. Are board games subject to the same criticisms that I have for other Christian medias? Read on to find out
How to Play
Kings of Israel is a cooperative game set in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of its kings up until Israel’s destruction by Assyria. Players represent a line of prophets that are trying to stem the influx of sin and dismantle the golden idols, while also trying to build enough altars to win the game.
A round of Kings of Israel has four phases. The King’s Godliness phase will either bestow a blessing on the players, or a punishment, depending on if the current sitting king is good or evil. After dealing with the event for the round, the Sin Increases phase has players revealing location cards, and distributing black sin cubes. Should a location receive a third sin cube, they also erect a golden idol. If players ever need to put out a sin cube, or an idol, but there are none in the supply, they lose the game. After the sin has been distributed, the Prophet’s Work phase begins. Each player gets four actions. They may move, remove sin or idols, draw resource cards, build an altar, make a sacrifice at an altar, or give resources to another player. Once all players have taken a turn, the End of Round Phase has the starting player card passed clockwise, and the timeline token moves to the next king in chronological order. If the timeline token hits the bottom of the track, Assyria invades and destroys Israel, resulting in a loss for the prophets.
The only way the players can win is if they manage to erect altars. 7 in a 2 player game, 8 in a 3 player game, and 9 in a four player game. There is also a 7 game campaign in the back of the book if you want to challenge yourself to walking up that scaling difficulty ladder.
“Biblical Pandemic” is how I described Kings of Israel when inviting people to come play. The similarities are obvious, there’s plague cubes spreading across the map (although Kings of Israel only features one colour of cubes), and players have 4 actions on their turn where they are trying to move and clear the cubes from the board. What separates Kings of Israel from Pandemic is the resource cards, and how players win. Instead of drawing two cards at the end of your turn like you do in Pandemic, Kings of Israel has you spending your actions to draw cards. Players need to decide if they want to draw cards to the resources they need, or focus their time in clearing sin cubes and dismantling the idols. The former is the path to victory, but ignoring the latter will result in a loss for the prophets.
Kings of Israel is fast to get started, and quick to play. All the decks of cards get shuffled and are ready to roll, no need to separate out cards to ensure an even distribution. This means it’s both quick and random. In my most recent game, I drew a card that had me reshuffle the discard and put it all back on top with only 4 cards in the discard pile, putting each of those locations in danger of getting an idol almost immediately. With a bit of luck and some great blessings, we found it not too difficult to get out of tough situations, making the randomness feel fair.
Beyond the set-up for the decks, each round is quick too. You draw and deal with the blessing or punishment, draw location cards to spread sin, then each player does 4 actions. After all players have taken a turn, the first player card is passed to the left, and you do it all again. As with most cooperative games, if you have players who prefer to discuss every possible option, the game can drag on too long. The rule book says for an “easy mode”, players can play with their cards on the table, but there are no restrictions on communication on what’s in your hand. I’m hard-pressed to figure out why you wouldn’t just play with open hands anyway, as you could just ask “anyone got gold?” each round. Playing with the cards face up on the table just removes a small memory aspect from the game.
The goal of the game is to build altars. To build an altar you need to play a gold, a wood, and a stone card from your hand. There are only 6 of each of those cards in the resource deck, meaning you’ll need to get through the entire resource deck at least once in order to win the game. This lead to players taking their entire turn to just draw cards, milling the deck, trying to run the deck out, so we can reshuffle and get the resources we need from the discard pile into our hands. This is doubly painful when the punishment cards destroy build altars, or force you to discard one of the necessary resources from your hand. I don’t particularly like it when the boring play is the smart play. Sure, you can distract yourself to clear some cubes that may cause a problem next round, but if you don’t mill that deck, you can’t build all the altars, and you’ll lose anyway. Thankfully, that’s not often the case and may only come up as you get down to the final handful of turns.
Let’s talk re-playability. There are about 14 full rounds in the game. During that time you’ll draw 4 or 5 blessing cards, and between 10 and 15 sin and punishment cards. Some blessing cards are permanent buffs that can really alter how you approach the puzzle, and the order that the punishment cards can cascade pain upon your game. Add into this 9 ability cards, and I’d argue that the variability in Kings of Israel is fairly high, even though the goal is always the same. Each game will feel different and have you using different tactics to keep the forces of sin at bay, which is something I’m looking forward to.
Now is where I come back around to the theme. I really appreciate that Kings of Israel doesn’t proselytize. At no point does it beat you over the head with scripture, or force the virtues of the church down your throat. The flavour text on every card does contain a relevant verse from the bible, but it’s incredibly small and serves to enhance the theme. I also enjoy that the game doesn’t turn God into a vending machine, doling out blessings and prosperity at every turn. Instead, it shows both sides, his blessings and his wrath. The prophets aren’t universally loved and granted unrealistic divine protection, but are persecuted. To me, this more accurately reflects my experience with the bible, having read it cover to cover a few times. There’s a lot of violence and wrath in that book that seems to be skipped over during Sunday morning sermons and in most Christian media. It’s plain to me that designer Lance Hill has done his homework and handled the theme very respectfully.
As I said before, Kings of Israel is Biblical Pandemic. That phrase alone will tell you enough if you should seek it out or not. I’m looking forward to the next time I have my friends of faith over, as I have no doubt this game will be a hit with them. I think I would have been even more enthusiastic had I played it back in 2014 before the other Pandemic spin-off games Fall of Rome and Rising Tide came out. Kings of Israel is quick and easy to play, making it a great game to play with any collection of people, whether it be you and your kids, or a youth group. Funhill Games also produced some Bible studies if you want to teach more about the Kings, locations, or prophets that are featured in Kings of Israel.