King of Tokyo
2-6. Never play with 2, best with 6
Richard Garfield (Magic: The Gathering, Robo Rally, Treasure Hunter)
Iello (Biblios, Welcome to the Dungeon, Sea of Clouds)
Dice Rolling, Push Your Luck
Yahtzee with Superpowers
I expect that Richard Garfield will always be best known for creating Magic: The Gathering, yet he has proven himself to be a capable board game designer time and time again. King of Tokyo is perhaps the best example of this; created in 2011, I consider this to be a modern classic. For years it has been found in mass market stores such as Target, long before the modern board game renaissance that has made retailers interested in carrying contemporary products. It is a family weight game that scales well from three to six players; it is also short enough that it begs for a replay as soon as the first game is over, and resetting the game is quick and easy. I consistently hear this game ranked on “must-play” and “best gateway” game lists and I concur with those assessments – this is a remarkably elegant game that offers fun, excitement and confrontation in a half-hour session.
King of Tokyo uses the increasingly popular Yahtzee reroll mechanic (perhaps it started the trend) where players can twice choose which dice to keep and which to reroll. Each of the six dice have the same anatomy. Three faces contain the numbers one, two and three; collecting a triplet of any number will reward points equal to that number i.e. three one’s is one point, three three’s is three points; any additional numbers of the same value score one additional point. The die can also produce energy, which is used for activating and purchasing power cards. Claws will attack players dealing them damage, while hearts can heal damage received in previous turns. Choosing what to keep and what to reroll is critical in this game, as turns can be wasted in pursuit of something better that never arrives.
There are two paths to victory: points acquisition and defeating all opponents. Players will win while they have twenty or more victory points or all other players have lost their health, which starts at ten. While I have heard some gamers complain that King of Tokyo is “victory point Solitaire,” I have found this to not be the case. In fact, I would estimate that out of many games played, the split is very close to 50/50 as to how the game ends. Ignoring either option can make you lose, as I have seen players killed just short of the requisite twenty points and players who continually attack/heal lose to the one player who focused on points. The game is incredibly well balanced in this regard.
The core of the game is Yahtzee, which is easy to explain, yet the nuances of King of Tokyo are where the game really begins to shine. Three energy cards are available for purchase, with each card having its own cost and ability. Some cards will simply trade energy for points, providing a nice end game boost. However, several of the Keep cards, which remain in play until forcefully removed, provide wide-ranging and very enjoyable benefits. Your monsters can gain fire breathing to expand their attacks, shrink-rays to reduce your opponent’s dice, poison spit to continually damage opponents and a myriad of other abilities taken right out of a B-List horror movie. Players can also expend two energy cubes on their turn to flush the energy cards, either increasing their chances of obtaining something favorable or denying a specific card to their opponent.
Tokyo is a special location which provides strategic advantages and disadvantages to anyone bold enough (or forced to) enter. Under the current second edition rules, the first player is forced to enter Tokyo at the end of their turn; unless otherwise specified, players can only leave Tokyo when they take damage and the attacking player takes their place. Any time you enter Tokyo, you get one victory point and will receive two points if you start your turn in Tokyo. So why would you leave? Players inside of Tokyo attack everyone outside, while players outside attack everyone inside; additionally, you cannot use hearts to heal (power cards can still heal you, but they are rare) while inside of Tokyo. Therefore, if you stay too long, you will suffer a lot of damage, possibly even dying. Yet avoiding Tokyo can starve you of victory points and your ability to force your opponents to waste dice on healing. However, if you focus too much on slowing others and not enough on healing yourself or acquiring points, you may never catch up … this makes each decision to stay or leave Tokyo an agonizing one, since you may stay one turn only to take three or four more damage the very next. I once died after one turn because, two turns from gaining my start of turn VP, I took four damage, then six damage on the last turn before mine.
There is excitement in every roll since not every die face provides value in every situation. The number faces will only provide value in a set (assuming power cards do not provide other benefits), so rolling for that final three can yield the satisfaction of obtaining it or the frustration of walking away with nothing. There will be times you want to deal as much damage as you possibly can; there are an equal number of times when you desperately want to roll anything but claws, particularly hearts for healing. Finally, there will be high cost power cards that you’ll want to obtain so you will roll hoping for energy. After the first few turns, players will be hoping for specific outcomes, and King of Tokyo has great fun delivering (and failing to deliver) on those expectations.
For me personally, King of Tokyo is unique in that it is the rare game that I find best with its highest player count; it is one of my first thoughts when I have six players for a game. With five or six players, there is a second Tokyo location that is opened and the rules for Tokyo as far as attacking apply to both – they do not attack each other. Therefore, an unofficial alliance is formed between the two occupants, as it benefits them both to remain, since it is one less person on the outside attacking them both, making it easier to remain. Inevitably, one person will abandon the other, or perhaps both will leave, leaving one player to absorb the damage from five other players. The game takes on a much more extreme adversarial feeling, where it is very much a kill-or-be-killed mentality. If you do not take out a player while you can, they can come back with a vengeance, and I love that level of player of interaction.
King of Tokyo has another unique quirk with respect to player count – I will never play this with two players; the game just doesn’t seem very interesting under this configuration and would start slowly. However, when there are only two players remaining, it becomes a fascinating math problem, one with a great deal of damage/healing thrashing where neither player makes progress. By whittling the game down to two players, instead of starting with two, the survivors have pursued both strategies over the course of the game and have evolved with various powers. There will be at different health and victory point levels and I find it fascinating that I love to see the one-vs-one scenario, just not at the beginning. Usually, a player with more victory points can use Tokyo as an advantage to win a points race – can they survive just long enough to acquire enough points (without healing) before their opponent depletes their health? King of Tokyo has some fantastic, exciting finishes to a game and they add to its charm.
Unlike most of the other 10x10 challenge games, King of Tokyo is very much a reactionary game instead of upfront planning. This is an essential aspect of its accessibility and why it appeals to so many people – you can simply roll dice and have the group talk about the implications of keeping/rerolling specific dice. This makes the game much more winnable for new players and cements King of Tokyo as a great gateway game. Under the SPREAD system, it is certainly Short, it is Public and has no hidden information, it is certainly Reasonable to win, Exciting and very Accessible (the game goes on sale quite often). Teaching the interactions between various cards can be a challenge, since it is often unclear and the rulebook itself has gone through multiple revisions for its clarifying text, but the core of the game – the Yahtzee mechanic – is very Demoable. King of Tokyo may not be in my top ten favorites, but it is nevertheless a true classic, a consistent performer and a great introduction for modern gaming. The game is exactly what it sets out to be – a lightweight, family level game: nothing more, nothing less.