Review: Kings of Israel (board game)

Overwhelmed by hordes of invading nations – and a series of corrupt kings – the fate of Israel is balanced on a knife’s edge! The Northern Kingdom’s only hope is that a band of prophets can cleanse it of evil and idolatry before the wrath of God does so – permanently.
Kings of Israel is a cooperative game that places two to four players in the role of prophets struggling to save their nation from threats both internal and external. Do you have what it takes to overcome the forces of evil?  Or will you let Israel succumb to its own destruction? – Description of Kings of Israel by Funhill Games

Typically at The Biblical Review, I write books reviews; however, when I came across the board game Kings of Israel, I couldn’t resist writing a review. So, in what follows, I’ll briefly describe rules and goal. Subsequently, I’ll comment on features which I enjoyed, found confusing, and found concerning. On the basis of the preceding, I will suggest that, though a fun and somewhat enjoyable game, it should not be used for any teaching purposes.KingsOfIsrael

Game Play

Kings of Israel (2-4 players) is framed in the time period of the ancient Kingdom of Israel (c. 1050 – 721 BCE). At the beginning and throughout the game, Sin Cubes and Idols are placed on the map. Players win by building a certain number of Altars (depends on number of players). If a Sin Cube or Idol needs to be placed on the board and there are no more, the players lose.

At the beginning of the game, each player receives an ability card, such as Merchant, allowing a player to hold up to eight Resource Cards, or Determined, allowing a player to remove Sin Cubes or Idols after building an altar. After distributing sin on the locations of the map based on cards drawn and receiving a few Resource Cards, the rounds of game play begin. Each round is defined by the reign of a particular king. While Saul, Ish-Bosheth, David, Solomon, and Jehu are considered good kings, the rest are bad kings.

So, if if the king is good, players draw a Blessing Card; however, if the king is bad, players draw a Sin & Punishment Card. Next, the number of Location Cards equal to the number of players are drawn. Players place a Sin Cube onto each location drawn. Third, players take turns moving with four actions: move prophet, preach to Israelite (remove Sin Cubes), destroy an Idol (appears after three Sin Cubes appears at one site), acquire resources, build an altar (where sacrifices can be made in order to clear Sin Cubes at surrounding sites), or give resources to another play. Each player in the round takes four actions. At the end of the round, the Timeline Marker moves down and the next round begins.

Though there are far more nuances in the rules, this is, more or less, the basic game play. In what follows, I’ll further define aspects of the game and provide commentary.

The Good

Overall, Kings of Israel is fun. Because all players must work together, tensions can run high as players try to figure out the most effective strategy for building Altars and ridding the game board of Sin Cubes and Idols. Unsurprisingly, as I played this game with family members, they were forced to address how they communicate with each other when tensions and stakes are extremely high (this is sort of a joke, though they did get into a really heated discussion).

Additionally, the game is remarkably similar to Pandemic, if not essentially the same. The only difference is that whereas in Pandemic players fight disease, in Kings of Israel players fight sin. I put this in the “Good” category mainly because, at least for folks who play Pandemic, it is a very easy learning curve.

The Confusing

When we first played, the instructions were incredibly confusing, seemingly haphazardly put together. In retrospect, the instruction booklet is organized by the four phases for each game round (King’s Godliness Phase; Sin Increase Phase; Prophets Work Phase; and End of Round Phase). As such, this may be a problem of formatting the text, as all of the headings look exactly the same and show no clear distinctions.

Additionally, the instruction booklet is generally imprecise. So, figuring out how to set-up and play was particularly difficult.

The Concerning

Admittedly, I was interested in this game for pedagogical purposes, wondering how I could use boards games on ancient Israel and Judah to more effectively teach in a classroom. Prior to playing, I hoped that Kings of Israel would do its best to capture notions of sin, altars, and prophets as evident in the Hebrew Bible, things which I am concerned with as an academic. That said, while the game is fun, Kings of Israel has the potential to continue asserting imprecise and inaccurate perceptions of sin, altars, prophets, and the Hebrew Bible overall.

First, the game presents prophets as eliminating sin via altars. Both historically and within the Hebrew Bible, this is not accurate. Priests, and possibly kings, would have been the primary agents in building altars and performing sacrificial rituals. As such, conflating the social actions of prophets and priests muddles the historical and textual reality. Of course, occasionally prophets make sacrifices, as is one of the goals in this game. In any case, this game still flattens the historical and textual reality.

Second, for attaining an rudimentary understanding kings in ancient Israel, the game is misguiding. In terms of the textual representation of kings, the game is off-base to a degree. In light of First and Second Samuel, neither Saul, David, or Solomon ended their kingly careers very well, though they did start off on a good foot. As such, it is questionable why the game creators chose to make Saul, Ish-Bosheth, David, and Solomon the “good” kings. My concern is that kids and adults playing this game will transpose the presentation of kingship in Kings of Israel onto their readings of biblical texts, resulting in the distortion of texts like First and Second Samuel.

Third, though I previously mentioned this in “The Good,” Kings of Israel is essentially made in the image of Pandemic. Though less concerning than a nuisance, the creators could have should have developed the game in ways that would more clearly distinguish it from Pandemic.

Final Thoughts

Kings of Israel is an enjoyable game, especially with people who are competitive. As such, I recommend the game. At the same time, due to the representation of the Biblical texts and the social functions of prophets, I would avoid using Kings of Israel for any teaching purposes. The only case where it may be advantageous is in a course or class about the reception of Biblical texts in the modern world. Undoubtedly, playing Kings of Israel to identify modern reception of Biblical texts and ideas, continuities, discontinuities, and transformations, would be a productive exercise. Thus, at base, while the game is enjoyable for its own sake apart from its representation of texts or history, its distance from textual, biblical representations make it pedagogically only valuable for investigating reception history.

NOTE: My wife commenting on the artwork: “All the prophets are super ripped, old men. And their hair flies up like Jimmy Neutron. And fire can burn behind them and they are not scorched.”

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Funhill Games for providing a free copy of this game in exchange for my honest opinion(s).