Cardboard Children: Key To The Kingdom

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 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?


  1. Sin Vega says:

    Oh man. This was the only board game I ever had with an 8 sided die. The actual game was probably quite dull, mostly stuff like “roll a 4 or 6 or give up your rope to pass”, but the board was lovely and some of the monsters were really colourful. Great stuff for a kid, I loved it.

    • monkeytommo says:

      I remember this game as well! Loved it.

      Another one from around the same time that I’ve been trying to remember the name of had a very scantily clad man on the front of it.. One player would be the dungeon master and set traps and stuff (at least I think that’s how it worked!). Anyone remember what it was called??

  2. atowncalledbastard says:

    Well it would be pretty remiss of me not to spam our playthrough of this, wouldn’t it? Check out our 1337 KTTK strats, featuring a whole load of forgetting to move the big black evil sorcerer dude.

    link to

    The game itself: I definitely wouldn’t want to break it out regularly. Most of the joy comes, as Rab says, from the beautiful crazy of it – and the lack of joy from the time-consuming randomness.

    Still a fun one to play infrequently, and marvel at all that colour and imagination.

  3. hurrakan says:

    I still have this game in quite good condition. I actually played it quite recently with the family – it was great fun! Didn’t go on too long – certainly nowhere near as long as Talisman. But playing Key to the Kingdom made me want to play Talisman heh.

  4. James G says:

    Loved this game growing up. I think the dragging you mentioned towards the end was ameliorated by the mad dash to try and steal treasure as soon as you realised that someone had the key.

  5. Stense says:

    My brother and I used to love this game when we were kids. I went scouring ebay a few years back to get a copy for my brother’s kids. It proved to be rather popular with them too, especially when I read all the monster card out in an old-crone type voice (which also knackered my voice out but it was worth it).

  6. noom says:

    Also had and loved this game as a kid. Must be said though, all I really remember was the folding board thing. Blew my tiny mind, that did. Was there also a bastard in a spiky helmet? Am I imagining that?

    • Sin Vega says:

      There was, the demon king or something like that. A tall black piece (the player pieces were mostly shades of grey/blue/green I think), and if I remember rightly, whenever you rolled the dice you had to put him on a specific spot on the board marked with that number. If he landed on you, off to a dungeon.

      • Maritz says:

        I’ll remember that piece forever, since we took the game to a friend’s house once and that bad guy got chewed by their dog. I was massively upset at the time.

  7. malkav11 says:

    I definitely used to love this game as a kid. It was the only fantasy-themed game I had and while I was more excited by HeroQuest (which I never owned and rarely had an opportunity to play), it was still a draw, particularly with the board unfolding mechanic. I doubt it would hold up at all, but that’s true of a lot of stuff from my childhood. (In retrospect, for example, Piers Anthony was a real weirdo.)

  8. Villephox says:

    My family bought this game for my cousin’s birthday. I couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10. We absolutely loved this game to death, and even though we haven’t played it in about twenty years or so, my brother and I still talk about it. I keep wanting to buy it, but I’ve never found it for a price that I can justify spending.

  9. santouryuu says:

    “What is a 4 exactly?What is a 10?”
    speaking as someone who’s currently discovering that there’s no point to objective ratings to entertainment/artistic products,i agree with this sentiment.sure,you may develop your(own) criteria of what makes a game/movie/book good,but i think eventually it all comes down to how much will it stick with you.
    but then,that’s the thing with board games.i imagine that your memory of the board game will be affected by other factors,like who you played it with.
    but eventually,i think if you are able to remember a game as so magical after so long,it deserves more a 10 than 4

  10. wdeezy says:

    I actually had to go ahead and create a profile just for this – this post got tagged as ‘Carboard’ Children. If we could correct that typo, my mild OCD (and handy bookmark to “”) would thank you.

  11. trn says:

    Don’t forget the cantankerous gnome ;)

    Unfortunately a few years back I lost my encounter cards. I still have the rest of the game, but no longer know what to do if I hit the snake pit (waft a torch at them, wasn’t it?)

  12. djim says:

    Love this game. I’ve had it since i was a kid (the greek version) and we still play it occasionally. Of course everything but the map is in a terrible condition. We used to create encounters of our own and add them in the game. Of course, mechanically it is a bit of a mess but it is still playable and the memories… I just wish it gets republished at some point.

  13. NathanH says:

    Argh, now I really want to play this again. I remember that it didn’t really work particularly well as a game, but was really cool because of i) the transforming board ii) the way that arbitrary items worked against different things felt more like being in Knightmare than playing a RPG-lite like say Heroquest where for every enemy you basically just roll dice in the same way and iii) that there were some areas of the board we just didn’t explore very often so when someone decided to it was ooooooooooh exciting!