"It's good to be King" - at least, according to Mel Brooks in "History of the World, Part I". But in the good old days of swords and chivalry, sovereignty meant more than just banquets, royal weddings, and pressing the flesh with the simple folk.
King Arthur's job was among the hardest of them all: to unite and bring peace to the warring factions of Britain; uphold and defend the high ideals on which Camelot was founded; conduct high-level diplomacy with faithful knights and archenemies alike; and prove to a dubious public that he truly was the rightful King of all Britain. Not work for the faint of heart. Although Excalibur isn't a game for the weak, since it requires a fair amount of patience, Machiavellian diplomacy, and a good military mind.
The rulebook alone should serve to warn off those garners less comfortable with strategy games. Even though the actual play-mechanic is explained quite simply in several pages, all the clues for winning the game are contained in an enclosed novelette. Here, would-be Once and Future Kings have the chance to hear Merlin's sage advice on subjects ranging from the tax base to honoring faithful knights. Simply put, players who hope to make good their claim of kingship will find the book essential reading.
After a laudable opening sequence - wherein the Lady of the Lake's hand comes out of the water, brandishing the sword Excalibur - the gamer is taken to the throne room at Camelot. Six knights already sit at the Round Table, and more follow during the course of the game. Each knight is identified by a unique shield, while Queen Guenevere is depicted as the crown. The closer each knight (or queen) is to the circular table, the more loyal he supposedly is to Arthur.
While in the throne room, Arthur has the option of giving a gift or honor to an individual, selecting knights to accompany him on campaign, or banishing those he feels are on the verge of treason. (Needless to say, this should only be used in dire circumstances.) Arthur's popularity with his own people depends upon many factors, including how his army has been faring, how sensitive he is to each knight's personality (some like being honored, while others prefer cold cash), and who says what to whom.
By moving the crown (symbolizing Arthur) up the hall, the King enters his treasury. Here is displayed the wealth of the Kingdom. Arthur can raise or lower taxes, hire armies, check on his prestige factor (if it's too low, he's likely to be attacked. The higher his prestige, the more likely that other kings will offer tithes for protection), and hear whatever news there is. A strategic map of the country also indicates Arthur's friends (pink), enemies (blue), and neutral territories (green).
The third room is Merlin's laboratory. Here, the young King can ask the mighty sorcerer to send a plague or pestilence against a strong enemy, change the opinion of another king, or see into a rival's personal affairs. The latter includes a survey of the other King's cash, armies, prestige, knight followers, and opinions about other lords. Merlin's powers are not unlimited, though. He often has to rest after casting a series of spells, and he won't reappear until his powers have been restored.
When a rival king leads an army against Camelot, Arthur's crown flashes a warning. When the army arrives, a formal challenge will be issued, and the king can either fight or wait. The invaders will pillage the town if left alone.
If Arthur fights, he and his knights are transported to the battlefield. Peasants always kill a number of invaders before the battle proper. Before the action begins, garners set the positions their knights will move to, and can spy on the strength of individual opponents. Then, a push of the "Start" button starts the armies toward each other. When they meet, they come out bashing. Although Arthur can adjust each knight's position during battle, if the tide turns against Camelot, 'knights might turn, and flee. When panicked, a knight's shield turns a checkerboard pattern, and he won't respond to any directions. If too many knights turn tail, Arthur can retreat.
A lost battle demoralizes the knights, while a victory wins prestige. Prestige brings tithes from petty kings in exchange for protection, but first Arthur must visit the castle in question to set his fees. The son of Pendragon doesn't have to wait for enemies to attack; he might want to lead his armies against a king on enemy territory.
All in all, Excalibur is a grand effort. Its wargame-style graphics (mostly symbols, with some words) are colorful and easily understood, while the game itself is playable again and again. Garners will definitely find truth in the words, "Heavy lies the head that . wears the crown."