Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. This month’s game is:
Note: I was cooking up a big, three-part feature for the month of March, but it needs a little more time to simmer. In the meantime, enjoy this “Beware the Ides of March” special.
Every summer from my earliest adolescence to the last summer before college, I participated in the Ojai Shakespeare Festival’s Youth Internship program. In addition to learning stagecraft skills like set construction, costuming, makeup, and publicity, the youth players got to stage their own full, matinee production of one of Shakespeare’s plays. As I returned year after year, I ascended the ranks of the Bard’s roles—from the forgettable Fabian in Twelfth Night to fairy king Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, witty Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, and complex Caliban in The Tempest—and engrossed myself in the adult productions of such Shakespeare classics as Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Falstaff. Although I participated in theater outside of the OSF, those summers generated some of the most enduring memories of my adolescence—and inculcated me with a talent for iambic pentameter.
All of which, along with my congenital love for wordplay, shaped me into something of a Shakespeare nerd. Yet I am anything but a purist; I love Baz Luhrmann’s saturated, corrupted, sk8r-punk, indelibly 1990s vision of Romeo + Juliet and the anachronistic pageantry of Julie Taymor’s Titus just as much as I love Kenneth Branagh’s painfully unabridged Hamlet or his deliciously villainous turn as Iago in Oliver Parker’s Othello. Reframing Shakespeare’s stories in various milieux is a longstanding tradition dating back to the Bard himself, who often reworked existing narratives into contemporary(ish) settings and, when he didn’t, gleefully folded in his share of anachronisms. And adaptation is, let’s face it, pretty fun.
That’s why I was open-minded, even excited, when I heard about IDW Games’ Kill Shakespeare, a semi-cooperative strategic board game inspired by a series of comic books created by writers Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, with art by Andy Belanger. I hadn’t and still haven’t read the Kill Shakespeare comics beyond the introductory issue that was included with the board game, but I liked the concept, which recasts Shakespeare’s greatest heroes as radicals fighting the corrupt regime of Richard III. I ignored that IDW, who also published the comic, were newcomers to the board game industry (Kill Shakespeare was their first game, followed up by adaptations of their other properties like Chew, The X-Files, Orphan Black, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). I ignored that the only publicly available ruleset at the time was an hour-long video from a third party. I ignored the warnings, portents, and evils imminent. It was a cool idea, and the game’s co-designers were well respected for the complexity, nuance, and thematic strength of their 2012 debut, Yedo.
And Kill Shakespeare is a good game. For Shakespeare fans, it allows you to play in the world of the Bard’s stories in a way few games have attempted—despite the enduring popularity of the poet of Stratford-upon-Avon, you won’t find many video games taking inspiration from Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet, setting aside sprinkled references in the Final Fantasy series, and Shakespeare-themed board games tend to stick to the writing and staging of the plays, as in Hervé Rigal’s Shakespeare from Ystari Games. For fans of strategy, Kill Shakespeare‘s clever use of a single set of tokens for its eclectic mechanics—which include event mitigation, blind-bidding auctions, and area majority—creates a compelling tension and underscores the need for cooperation in what is, in the end, a competitive game. (Kill Shakespeare is one of those semi-cooperative games in which either a single player wins or all players lose.)
And yet Kill Shakespeare‘s gayness and gilt are all besmirched by some cruddy production decisions, including a too-high MSRP for its corner-cutting manufacturing, confounding iconography, inconsistent coloration and terminology, mirrored numbers, and an errata-plagued, incomplete rulebook. This Tragedy of Errors, possibly exacerbated by the publisher’s inexperience, plagued the game’s sales and critical reception to the point that Kill Shakespeare no longer appears in IDW Games’ catalog, and copies of the once-$60 game are currently available on Amazon for shy of $13. It’s a shame, because if a player can overlook issues such as the influence “cubes” being cheap, dull-colored cardboard squares; the “Wheel of Fate” being printed offset; and the need to look elsewhere for clarity on card iconography and some key rules—David Minken’s Action Cards Summary, Tokens Glossary, and Turn Phases Reference are pretty much indispensable—then Kill Shakespeare is more than worthy of a purchase, especially at its current, depressed price point. Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.
Kill Shakespeare succeeds on two merits: its unique setting and its nuanced gameplay.
Let us make a prologue of the former and proceed in kind. Kill Shakespeare, like the comic series from which it takes its name, is a delightful mash-up, like a Bard-specific League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The wicked King Richard III sits upon the throne, the scheming Lady Macbeth upon his right hand and the treacherous Iago on his left. The sheer foulness of his reign is causing crops to wither and ill omens to stain the heavens. The people’s hope lies in a small group of revolutionaries dubbed the Prodigal rebellion. In order to dethrone King Richard and liberate the Realm of Illyria, the Prodigal rebellion seeks a fabled Wizard-God, William Shakespeare, whose enchanted quill has the power to rewrite history. But the forces of King Richard seek Shakespeare—and his quill—for their own nefarious ends. Meanwhile, a prophecy speaks of the coming of a “Shadow King from lands beyond” who alone is capable of uncovering the Creator’s hiding place, “where fair is foul and foul is fair.”
In the game Kill Shakespeare, players take the roles of members of the Prodigal rebellion—brooding Hamlet, rebellious Juliet, vengeful Othello, pirate Captain Cesario (née Viola), or jocular Falstaff—as they attempt to overthrow King Richard’s influence in the territories that make up Illyria and forestall his search for Shakespeare long enough to find the Bard themselves. In these tasks, they are opposed by Richard and Lady Macbeth’s growing military might and conniving Iago’s unfaithfulness, as well as their own conflicting goals and mistrusts. Being thus benetted round with villainies, the Prodigals have no choice but to work together…to an extent.
The Realm of Illyria, as portrayed in the game, is a map of Great Britain, mirrored and rotated 90 degrees. Its major territories are the settings of some of Shakespeare’s most memorable works, united in a common landmass in spite of their eclectic names. To be honest, it’s kind of an arbitrary mess. The Forest of Arden (As You Like It) occupies roughly the same position as Scotland, which is fitting considering it is, in the game, Lady Macbeth’s seat of power, but the real Forest of Arden was in Warwickshire in the West Midlands of England. Delphos (The Winter’s Tale) corresponds to Northern England, even though in the play it is an island. Messaline (Twelfth Night) maps to Wales; it’s rather odd that this Messaline is within Illyria, whereas in the play, Viola and Sebastian arrive from Messaline to Illyria by sea. Cawdor (Macbeth) should be in Scotland, but here it occupies the English Midlands. Bohemia (The Winter’s Tale again) replaces the South West; at least it is surrounded by water, as in the play, unlike the landlocked actual. Maentua (mentioned in both Romeo & Juliet and Two Gentlemen of Verona) is both the East and South East, while Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace) is kinda sorta where London should be, even though the real Stratford-upon-Avon is, again, in Warwickshire. The Isle of Man has been redubbed the Isle of Prospero (The Tempest).
All right, let’s forget the map. We’re here for the stories, and Kill Shakespeare has all the intrigue, backstabbing, familial drama, power-jostling, mistaken identity, and ludicrous plot devices you’d expect from a Shakespearean tale. As with any reimagining, a lot of the fun comes from seeing the new but somehow inevitable direction that the characters have taken. Thus, jaded Juliet, no longer a victim of youthful passion, has forsworn all love and become the hardened leader of the resistance, cutting a very Joan of Arc figure in her armor. She’s also, somewhere along the way, fallen in love with conflicted Hamlet, man of the people, who is tormented by the possibility of bringing his dad back to life. Viola is a straight-up pirate, Othello is a cynical sword-for-hire, and Falstaff is…still a drunken lout. These characters’ special abilities reinforce their personalities; smooth-talking Falstaff, for example, wins all ties in the game, while Othello’s mere presence in a region can turn the tide of battle. But they each have a weakness, too; aquaphobic Falstaff can’t travel by water, Othello is heavily penalized for any interaction with Iago, and Hamlet can’t get near Richard III, who is convinced the Danish prince is the prophesied Shadow King.
Apart from brief character bios, much of the flavor of the setting comes from the Quest and Event cards. They paint a world a-bustle with Shakespearean personages and portents of the fugitive god Shakespeare. They hint at clandestine missions undertaken and perils encountered in the name of revolution by the incorrigible Sir Toby Belch, seductive Bawd, impish wood sprite Puck, or a confused and pissed-off Romeo.
Of course, to twist the words of Hamlet, the play’s the thing, especially if the only Puck you know is the one in hockey. On the intricacies of play, I’ll hold my tongue; Kill Shakespeare is a complex game, and I don’t want to risk sounding like that old bore Polonius. “Roll not the dice in Phase 1, but throw them in Phase 3.”
I do want to touch on Kill Shakespeare‘s most defining feature: the way it values its heroes’ time. Not the players’ time; this is a two- or three-hour game. But time itself is a commodity to be spent and traded. Each of Kill Shakespeare‘s six rounds is divided into a number of more-or-less discrete phases, which are themselves subdivided into innumerable steps in the same way a heart-sick, languishing lover doth divide a minute into thousandths and those thousandths into smaller parts.
Time is the glue that holds these disparate activities together. Well, the rules call them “bidding tokens,” a set of ten tokens showing values from zero to five, but what they represent is time, and time is precious. These tokens are put to diverse ends: averting the worst effects of events cards; bidding on resources like troops, property deeds, and purloined movement orders; manipulating the Wheel of Fate (more rightly called the Wheel of Fortune if that name didn’t conjure images of Alex Trebek); restoring the Prodigals’ flagging energy after it is spent moving from one region to another; or held back as time required to complete certain quests. Because these tokens are not replenished until the end of the round, players must carefully weigh the costs of each action, whether ’tis nobler in the mind et cetera.
The limited nature of the bidding tokens makes a fitting bedfellow for Kill Shakespeare’s semi-cooperative base, creating constant tension over how these tokens should be spent: selfishly to gain an advantage, or self-sacrificingly to aid in a communal effort. Events require a hefty contribution of bidding tokens to overcome, with paltry reward for participation—two points for the player who contributed the most, none for anybody else—and these contributions are made secretly. Far more profitable to save your tokens for energy, quests, or the competitive bid. Even with the quests, however, there is a point at which completing them becomes a joint effort, as players are allowed to trade resources or move each other into place to achieve the requisite conditions. The question becomes, if I give you the troops required to rescue Lysander and Demetrius, thus preventing King Richard from advancing in the search for Shakespeare, what do I get? As with many semi-cooperative games, Kill Shakespeare is at its best when the players behave as Iagos, speaking honeyed words into each other’s ears while sharpening the knife behind their backs. Some events even encourage treachery by giving advantage to a specific Prodigal, if not averted, while harming the others.
Even though its boards are rotten and its curtains frayed, Kill Shakespeare puts on a hell of a show. Shakespeare nerds and strategy game nerds alike—two houses, both alike in dignity, to which I can claim kinship—will find plenty to applaud.