Actual Play: By Order of the Queen

Last weekend I played By Order of the Queen.  A friend of mine backed it on Kickstarter some time ago and it arrived last Thursday.  It was a fun experience!  Eh, ok sure, technically it’s not a role-playing game, it’s a board game.  Whatever, I can talk about what I want 😀

Game Premise – The Queen Needs Heroes!

The game starts with the king’s funeral.  I’m going to assume natural causes (or at least not foul play) but you never know, right?  Anyways, to win the game the players need to complete three orders from the queen.  Each order requires eight success points and you gain points by beating challenges on the required location cards.  However, you can only work on the queen’s order once per round and there are four turns per round.  The rest of the time, the players have to either fight off invading monsters or go on quests.

Whether you’re fighting, questing, or completing orders you need a team of heroes.  You can send up to four heroes from your hand of cards.  Each hero has a type (tank, fighter, range, and healer) and a subset of the six stats, which seem to correspond to the classic strength, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, intelligence and charisma.  Or as we called them: arm, foot, chain, book, mind, and talk.  Each test has a certain requirement, either type or stat, and you roll a number of dice equal to the total number of those requirements you have on the team of heroes.  If you can roll a five or six then you are successful on the test.

At the end of each round, Things Get Worse.  More monsters appear for the next round, any living monsters om-nom down on your peasants, the regions decide if they still want to support the queen’s endeavors, and a few heroes are permanently discarded.  Run out of peasants, regions, or heroes and the game ends!

Game Mechanics – The Nuts and Bolts

The core gameplay revolves around completing the queen’s orders while managing, mitigating, and delaying the other threats.  The game handles the escalation well.  If you don’t clear out all of the monster enemies, they start to stack up.  If you don’t reduce the threat markers, you’ll lose between one and two regions a turn, and up to three heroes a turn.  I didn’t think it ever felt overwhelming, but there was never a point where I felt we had it all under control, either.

The way that the game allowed for two to four players was the most impressive design consideration, in my opinion.  Every round consists of four turns.  Most of the time, someone will take a shot at the queen’s order and then there will either be two monster fights and a quest turn or two quest turns and a monster fight, depending on which has higher priority.  Since quests are linked to the player, with two participants it’s possible to complete a quest in a round if one player uses two actions on it (1-2-1-2).  With three players, one person will get to go twice each round.  Because a round is four turns, that privilege rotates throughout play (1-2-3-1; 2-3-1-2; etc.).  With four players, no one can complete a quest in a single round but multiple players can have quests active at once.

That sort of design decision is subtle but powerful.  Most casual observers look at that and go, “Hmm, cool, so the game can have 2-4 players.”  However, even with some players getting multiple turns the game was extremely balanced.  With fewer players you complete a smaller number of quests more often and with more players you can have a bunch in progress at the same time.  It’s the kind of thing that only works well when you have that goal in mind from the very beginning.

Art and Aesthetics – Cute Doggotaurs!

One of my favorite aspects of the game is the art for the cards, both heroes and monsters.  Every one of them is drawn in a quirky-cute style and utterly gorgeous.  Here are a few examples:

Left to Right: Agnes Stormreach, The Relentless River / Tabidge Sorath, The Bug Juicer / Gruff Brutar, The Subdued / Soliss Moon, The Baroness

 Left to Right: Vivian Carballo, The Backwards Messenger / Petros, The Little Avalance / Cornelius Rimbolt, The First / Atook, Scar of the Swamp

Left to Right: Johan Smythe, The Eagle Shield / Alba Harper, The Silent Striker / Baldric Boomrock, Rebellion's Spark / Bentras Barrodawn, The Committee

Look at those doggotaurs!  Attack badgers!  Crazy bomb hillbillies!  Curvy arms and legs everywhere!

There are probably 15-20 different races and each have three or four different heroes to represent them.  Each hero also has a short, evocative title that hints at the deep lore of the world – or makes you wonder more!  The game also included a coloring book with some short snippets about many of the races and heroes.  That’s how I found out that the doggotaurs are actually called Fentaurs (as in, Fenrir + centaur).  Still don’t care, they’ll always be doggotaurs to me.

The same amount of love and care went into the location cards as well.  Though they don’t have unique images, they each have their own stories.  Every location card is broken into three sections: the initial test and two secondary tests, depending on whether or not you were successful at the first one.  The first challenge sets the stage for what is happening and the follow-up descriptions provide context for the outcome after a success or failure.  There’s just enough imagery to make it clear what’s going on and it’s easy to create a small narrative based on the die rolls.  Each one could be a complete story hook in a traditional role-playing game – which is crazy because there are 100 of them!

Actual Gameplay – Putting It All Together

So, how did our game go?  Well, actually we lost.  We read one of the rules wrong (not a wording problem, a comprehension one.  Oops!) and ended up discarding too many heroes.  At first we thought that we would lose too many regions and that would be the end of the game, but halfway through we came up with a good strategy for protecting that resource.  We got all the way down to a single region left and held onto it as tight as we could.  The last half of the game our success balanced on a knife-edge.

Even though we lost, we still got to see a lot of the game.  We probably went through more than half of the turn events, a good number of locations, and almost all of the monster deck.  On the last turn, the game ended with only the heroes in our hand, two monster cards, and seven of the eight necessary successes on the last queen’s order.  We had also fought both of our nemesis bosses – tougher monsters that lock progress on the queen’s order and require coordination to beat.

Looking back, there are a few things I think we would do differently:

  • Focus on the region confidence.  We finished with almost no region confidence and lots and lots of peasants.  We probably could have let the monsters have a few snacks if it meant saving our confidence tokens.
  • Discard heroes more intelligently.  If you use heroes that have your guild icon then you get a small bonus.  We arbitrarily discarded heroes at first, but if you protect your guild heroes until the end then you can use that bonus more and more often.
  • Do more quests!  We didn’t do many quests at the beginning of the game.  We later found out that completing quests, even though they take a couple of turns, is the key to keeping the threat markers down.  Well, assuming you succeed that is.

The game should be much easier the next time we play.  That goes doubly so if we don’t read the instructions wrong!  Fortunately, the game designers included optional rules to tweak the difficulty.  I’m looking forward to trying them out.

Final Thoughts

Overall impression: A top-notch amazing game.  Cute and charming, layers of strategy, with the right level of challenge.

The resource management, monster control, and mission completion remind me a little of the XCOM board game, if you’ve played it.  Only, you know, without the timer and the screaming and the stress.  If you don’t manage your threats properly then you’ll find yourself quickly overrun.  Even with proper attention you are just slowing the inevitable, so you need to make sure to pay attention to the main goal of the game: the queen’s order (it’s in the name!).

As far as the mechanics go, I particularly enjoyed the challenge of building a strong team of heroes.  Each hero has a specific set of strengths and you want to prioritize using heroes from your own guild when possible.  There’s also a neat card passing between players that takes place at the end of the round to ensure that everyone can contribute equally.

There was a completely unexpected aspect of the game, for me at least.  Throughout the game, the heroes in play cycle as part of the mechanics.  After a mission, all of the participating heroes get discarded and eventually they are shuffled back into the deck.  Over time though, more and more heroes are permanently removed from play, either by monsters or through the threat levels.  As the game goes on your start to recognize certain heroes that come back to your hand – and it’s a little sad when a familiar hero ends up in the graveyard.  Partway through we found ourselves saying goodbye to some of our favorites.

It’s like going to down to the adventurer tavern and seeing newly vacant seats alongside the old friendly faces.  “Where’s Vivian?” you’d say.  “Where’s Gruff Brutar?”  No one answers but the way they avert their gaze tells you all you need to know.  There’s more than a bit of melancholy to it.  It feels like each playthrough will end up with a slightly different narrative.  Different heroes, different sacrifices, different survivors.  We cheered when a favorite card made it through to the next round and we worked hard to keep them all the way to the finish line.

I think that’s where the majority of the replay value comes in for me.  Strategic gameplay and good balance ensures that By Order of the Queen will still challenge you even after you’ve mastered it.  But you can never be sure how the story turns out until you play through it.  Even if you save the kingdom, will the friends you’ve made along the way still be there at the end?