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Cardboard Children: Key To The Kingdom

The Hazard Handbook

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Hello youse.

As I’ve been covering board games for the BBC this past while, for the show videoGaiden (coming online this Thursday, folks), I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about classic games from the past. And hey – sometimes not even true classics. I’ve been thinking a lot about games that have particular quirks or hooks that can embed the game in your mind, even if the whole game experience isn’t upper-level stuff. We’re so spoiled for great games these days that I thought it might be cool to look back at some flawed-but-cool things – games that just have something about them. Games like Waddingtons’ Key to the Kingdom.

KEY TO THE KINGDOM

Key to the Kingdom is an oldie, about adventurers travelling through a volatile and dangerous world, trying to find a magical Key and some other precious relic. It’s a quest game, a roll-and-move quest game for children – it goes way too long, and can be very frustrating in its late stages. But there is something about this game that keeps it sitting tight in my collection.

Quest games are, by their very nature, exciting. They draw a player in, and on, and usually tell quite compelling little stories. There’s Talisman, one of my favourite games of all time, with its massive world full of beauty and richness and sweet chaos. There’s Mage Knight, with its clever mechanics and puzzly feel. There’s Rogue Trooper, with its – well, its absolute fucking coolness. Key to the Kingdom is less than all these games, but it still holds that little bit of magic, that draw that is a search for a mysterious item. And the world of Key to the Kingdom is an attractive one.

The board is beautiful. It’s sprawling and gorgeously illustrated – it looks like the artwork from an early 80s fantasy novel by some guy called P.F. Malzagoria or something. Picture the kind of children’s fantasy novel you might have borrowed from the library on a whim when you were 8 years old and spent a summer’s afternoon reading – Key to the Kingdom looks like that book.

Paths spiral and wind their way around that board, and players move here and there, criss-crossing the board to face hazards. Sorry, Hazards with a capital H. And you can find out about these Hazards in the Hazard Handbook. Land on a space, everybody crowds round the Hazard Handbook to see what you have to do to successfully navigate the hazard. Maybe you need to give food to a monster, or do some kind of die roll task. Maybe you have to close your eyes, roll a die, and guess that number. Look, this all sounds like nonsense. I know. I KNOW. But it’s fun nonsense. It’s level playing field stuff. Silly, fun nonsense. Random, daft fun.

Fail and be flung into a dungeon. Run away from monsters that are too scary. Make flukey die rolls and dance across the precarious rocks without a care in the world. It’s all just fun.

And the board? Well, here’s the thing. And when I say here’s the thing, I mean here is the actual thing that anyone who has played Key to the Kingdom will remember. The board FOLDS and UNFOLDS during gameplay. When an adventurer hits a magic portal space, the whole world transforms and the board opens up, revealing a whole new section of the playspace, with a whole new set of challenges. The board’s state will change regularly throughout the game, with players dashing to make it to portals and whirlpools before the world transforms. It’s – look – it’s easy to be a jaded old gamer these days, but stuff like this is FUN. It remains cool to this day.

Other stuff? Sure – players can land on each other’s spaces and try to steal treasure and – yes – the key. Monsters are silly and the fights are ridiculous. The game offers a lot of daft encounters that will excite young kids and make adults roll their eyes and grab the dice with a smile.

The issue with the game is its length. The random nature of everything, the pure luck of the die rolls, and the theft stuff – all these things extend the game beyond its natural conclusion. It starts to drag. It can be house ruled, as most of these old games can be, to be a shorter experience. So many of these old games have similar failings, even though there are some (like SURVIVE: Escape From Atlantis) that just seemed to get it all right from day one.

I love these old games. I love that period when board games were marketed to kids and had colourful production and big, silly settings. Volcanoes and dinosaurs and sinking islands and haunted houses and fantasy worlds – those were magical games from magical times. And I have a big soft spot for this game, this Key to the Kingdom.

It’s a big, daft mess of a game. But it’s beautiful in places. It is a game with little pockets of wonder that will make kids’ eyes widen. With my critic’s hat on I can say – “Sure, this is a 4/10 game, at best.” But it kinda misses the point, right?

I remember so much about this game right now.

In fact, I wrote this review from memory. Entirely from memory.

So what is a bad game, exactly? And what is a good one? What is a 4/10? And what is a 10?

The fucking board unfolds, and there’s a world underneath there. I loved it. Some of it got stuck inside me, forever.

What is a 4 exactly? What is a 10?

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Robert Florence

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