Updated: Oct 24
At first glance, you might be tempted to write this game off as merely a religious re-skin of Pandemic. Certainly the core mechanics are very similar to Matt Leacock's classic, making it very easy to pick up, but Lance Hill's Kings of Israel brings plenty of fresh features to make it a strong addition to the co-operative genre.
You will almost certainly recognise the core mechanics of the game: 2-4 players (prophets, trying to turn the nation of Israel back to God) take turns spending four actions to travel around the board (Israel, with plenty of historical accuracy) putting out fires (in this case, removing black cubes of rebelliousness) and trying to achieve a goal (build 7-9 altars) before things spiral out of control or time runs out.
There are also some major differences. In most co-ops, each player’s turn ends with bad stuff happening but in Kings of Israel each player takes their turn for the round and then the in-between things happen all in one go. Then, in addition to the standard random spreading of bad cubes, there are event cards that come out between rounds. These actually start off beneficial to the prophets, providing ‘Blessings’ that grant small special abilities or powerful single-use effects. Later on, ‘Sin and Punishment’ cards wreak devastating setbacks and, occasionally, herald ‘foretold events’ that the players must prepare for in order to minimise the impact of potential disasters. These add to the thematic depth of the game, as well as ensuring that players are kept on their toes with plenty of twists and turns.
The publisher, Funhill Games, could have just included a small handful of these cards and released more in an expansion, as seems to be popular these days, but instead they've created 30 of each: enough that even after ten or more plays there are still cards I haven’t seen. The variable player abilities are also numerous: most co-ops offer 5 or 6 roles to choose from, but this has 9 available. Art is by Tim Baron, Matthew Ebisch, James Lyle, Kaysha Siemens and Adam Stoak, and every card is illustrated in a style that fits well with the tone of the game.
Another additional feature to note is the resource dynamic. Given how many games revolve around resources, it’s surprising that there aren’t more co-ops with them because it’s exciting trying to gather the necessary stone, wood and gold to create your altars, and deciding whether to use your grain and cattle to boost your travel speed (a very neat idea for a rule) or save it for making a powerful Sacrifice action. Also, it means that no action is wasted, because you can always use spare actions to draw more resource cards.
A more subtle difference from Pandemic is the way ‘outbreaking’ works: when a third cube is added to a location, it doesn’t outbreak straight away but a Golden Calf idol is placed there in addition to the cube. Don’t be fooled by the cute yellow cow animeeple – this is very bad news for the players! Idols must be destroyed quickly, because whenever sin cubes spread to a location with an idol, they spread to all the neighbouring locations. And once an idol is present, it’s not enough to just remove a cube from the location: the idol must be smashed and the sin cubes also dealt with, leading to tricky decisions over which to prioritise when time is short.
This is a co-op game with ebbs and flows, close calls and catastrophes, team decisions and individual choices, and great replayability thanks to the abundance of event cards that shape the narrative and the challenges to be overcome. There's even a 'false prophet' expert mode expansion built in to further ramp up the difficulty!
Kings of Israel is a thoroughly enjoyable and well presented game that I won’t tire of for a long time. It may well be my new favourite non-legacy co-operative game! It’s worth noting that there's also an app version that's extremely well implemented.
(Review by Matt Young)