The kingdom weathers a period of transition, and the time is ripe for a savvy council member to consolidate their power and make a play for the throne. This is the setup of Royal Adviser, which wants to give you the world, wants to provide an occasion of droll social bonding while running a demanding, skilful contest of numbers and wits.
Not for nothing have games like these, now clustered under the big-tent genre of ‘social deduction’, become rather popular in the past few years. They’re a smart hybrid, difficult to design and playtest thoroughly but immensely satisfying when done just right. Which Royal Adviser, does, mostly. Advisedly.
First, a little background on similar games. In social deduction, the game’s goals and stages are bolstered by secret teams, individual win conditions, betrayal mechanics and a voting system. So there’s that tension between the outward facts of the game and the inward truth: who’s a werewolf, who’s a fascist, who’s the hidden baddie, etc. And the meat of the experience comes from guessing individually & arguing publicly what these social secrets are.
So is Royal Adviser any good? The app itself is easy to use, and the game quite nuanced and fairly well-made. It’s loads better than most similar apps and, but at the same time makes a poor showing when compared to the tabletop giants which preceded it.
That’s putting the horse before the cart, though. Forget how it feels, how does Royal Adviser play? Well, everyone starts with a hidden objective, like raising the happiness or military stat of the kingdom past a certain threshold. Each round is split into a series of small, subtle player actions clustered around a big vote. Most actions are private and hidden, subtly adjusting the kingdom stats or peeking ahead at future voting decisions. So most of the game’s conflict revolves around this subtle game of cat-and-mouse.
Just like in Reigns, the overall status and well-being of the kingdom is divided into Happiness, Military, Wealth and Religion. And also like in Reigns, the decisions made by the adviser are by-and-large stat trade-offs, shifting strength from one area to the next while creating pockets of inequality. But while the voting in public and alliances are encouraged, each court member has a different endgame.
To make this vote possible, the players each have an ‘influence’ stat which quantifies the exact degree they can sway the proceedings. My favorite twist, though, is the very powerful, (sometimes self-destructive), j’accuse option. If you believe another player is acting obviously and has thereby revealed what their ultimate goal is, they can declare what agenda another player has. If the guesser is correct, they take half of the target’s influence. In the reverse case, the opposite happens. Most games don’t have such an open-ended nuclear option, never mind put it so readily in the player’s hands. Scorched earth, baby.
90% of the game is subtle, granular and slow-moving. Alliances are proposed and rejected, manipulations raise and lower stats by a single point. It’s a pass-and-play game, so this pace of play means there’s time for snacks and little side talk. Not much, though, because savvy players need to keep track of pretty much everything going on. The small actions add up to patterns which point to specific player strategies and goals. Unlike, say, Avalon, Resistanceor Werewolf, the game isn’t broken up into teams of goodies and baddies, red vs. blue. Instead, from the get-go everyone is a rogue agent looking out for number one. In a way this sidesteps the greatest drawback of social deduction games: sometimes they become a very specific, very narrow type of puzzle. Hunt for the outlier, cluster around the normies. It becomes a race to construct a maximally coherent logical account, and people’s testimony, the whole social atmosphere just gets ‘mechanized’ as part of the game’s normal decision space.
Royal Adviser, thanks to its free-for-all format, doesn’t fall prey to this at all. It has individual moments of betrayal and confrontation but in general plays more like a long bout of public policy than an extended village (witch) trial. It reminds me of a more complex Candy Chaser: you win by advancing your agenda in a race against the other players but must balance the need for speed against the need for secrecy. The ‘social’ component is side-lined. No shouting matches based on who wiggled their chair or ‘looks suspiciously’ a fun but loaded phrase which has launched many a dispute.
The game is a little too ponderous for its own good, having stripped out too much of the dynamism and discussion the social brings to pass-and-play. It’s not quite Werewolf and not quite Castles of Burgundy and suffers from being betwixt. The influence-ranking is a nice way of qualifying votes, and it can get redistributed to other players through slander and accusations. Still, this is actually a better game than its digital format allows: the fluency of play and turn turnover (yes, really) obscure some of its best moments.
Really well-made from both a gameplay and app-perspective, the actual experience falls a little short. Add to that the fact that there is no play-vs-AI and no real tutorial and the game’s good points start looking a little inconvenient, even downright shabby. It’s a good game for pregaming main events, like before a movie, meal or some other gathering, and it avails itself well of these opportunities, but the limited functionality and longer playtime make it more suited to online or AI play, both of which do not exist in the game’s current form. Taken on its strengths and merits from a design and game hobbyist perspective, Royal Adviser is stellar. The reality is less intriguing, though still worth a try for its divergent take on social deduction & betrayal-style games.