King and Assassins is a tense, tactical duel

A riot has broken out around the castle, and the king’s guards must get the king safely to the castle through the angry citizens—but assassins lurk among the crowd, taking advantage of the situation to strike the vulnerable monarch. This is the premise of Łukasz Woźniak’s 2013 board game, now ported to a digital edition by developers PlaySoft and publisher Asmodee Digital. It’s a very asymmetrical game, almost abstract in its simplicity, and hides more depth than I expected for its price.

King and Assassins’ strength is that each player has a simple goal and simple tools. The King player has to get the King across the board and into a castle space. The Assassin player has to hit the king twice with an assassin’s blade. The king has tools to avoid getting killed and can control the guards clustered around the King and the castle gates. Guards can push citizens back and take their place, kill a revealed assassin, and sometimes use shackles to remove citizens from the board.

The assassins, meanwhile, control the twelve citizens placed across the board, choosing three of them as disguises for the actual killers. The citizens themselves can only move and block the King’s path, but the assassins can reveal themselves and strike to kill a guard or hit the king. How much either player can get done is limited by a pool of action points—the king gets more overall, split between the king himself and the guards, while the assassin is more limited in how much they can shift their units.

The whole game is a tug of war between blocking and bluffing. The king can control areas and move civilians, but must risk their units to do so, and the king himself is very slow. The assassin must use civilians to trick the King about their killers’ positioning, but there’s always a risk that your bluff can get called by an arrest—or worse, leave you out of position for several turns. A revealed assassin is almost always a dead one, but strategy is all about trading.

If an assassin can both kill a guard and strike the king in one turn, that’s a devastating blow that the King player is unlikely to recover from.

It’s a tactical dance that’s best played against other players, though the AI suffices to help you learn and will beat you if you’re not experienced in more abstract tactical games. It's ultimately more a game of positioning and tactical reactions than overall strategy, and my initial reaction was that it lacked depth. However, I found myself seeing games go all kinds of ways the more I played it—some ended quickly as the assassins risked it all in early gambles, while others devolved into tense standoffs around the board exit as remaining citizens clumped up to block the king’s escape.

It’s not the most complex game, and the best strategies are something you can suss out after four or five games, but at its price I don't think it has to be a game you’ll play for a ton of hours. King and Assassins is $6.99 on Steam