Riot is back, and although they haven’t gone anywhere, it’s been hot minute since they surprised the board game world with their excellent first foray: Mechs vs Minions.
Upon reading the rules for Tellstones: King’s Gambit (hereafter named Tellstones), I had the same concerns many of you will have. This game’s main mechanic is memory. Meaning you won’t be able to play this with goldfish, or elephants. But what about you and me?
In my first couple of plays my main focus was coming up with a mnemonic; and this became the game. The winner being the person with the better memory technique. For me this amounted to disengaging from the outside world and allowing my inner voice to repeat sword-hammer-scales as though it were a mantra for inner peace.
This first play was against my board game friends, a competitive setting. Where the goal is not to have fun, but instead win for pride’s sake.
However, even while repeating sword-scales-hammer ad nauseum I could see what Tellstones was capable of. Being able to recreate those big, chips on the table moments from Poker, Skull, or Welcome to the Dungeon. Where your choice is logic based to a point, but chance and emotion take over.
This is in part because memory mechanism makes you play against yourself. You think because you’ve memorised something, your opponent must have too. Making any challenge you make require enough courage to overwrite this pattern of thought. It creates fun low stake pressure, which builds with each turn that passes. Most moves you take increase the difficulty of the sequence of symbols. So that now, instead of memorising scales-sword-hammer, it’s suddenly knight-scales-flag-hammer-sword.
Or is it?
Once you have this thought, you’re guaranteed that your opponent’s next move is going to be a boast. Giving them the opportunity to say they know the sequence of stones, and if they get it correct, they win the game. Fortunately, when faced with this boast you have the agency to either concede a point or to take over the boast. And then win the game if you’re able to name the sequence of stones. Which is easy because it was knight-flag-hammer-scales-sword.
Or was it?
After these first games, I settled on a mnemonic that worked well enough for me to focus on other aspects of the game. Like figuring out when it was better to swap or add new stones to the line. Or when it was time to challenge or boast. This opened up the game for a surprising amount of thought given how little rules involved. By the time I’d finished one game, I’d be eager to play another.
Talking components, this game lives up to the standards Riot created with Mechs vs Minions. They’ve set out to make sure this game stays in your collection for at least a generation, if not more. The seven stones included are T-H-I triple C thick. Great to hold, and better to look at. Alas, there isn’t really anything bespoke to Tellstones in the box, and a cost conscientious board gamer could try this game out with a couple of bottlecaps.
Compared to Mechs vs Minions, Tellstones is a step backwards in scale and theme. It’s an abstract game so you’d expect no theme, but I’m a League of Legends nerd. I love Runeterra; it’s chock-a-block full of exciting characters and abilities. Having access to that library of lore without incorporating more is a waste.
Personally, this game gets a spot in my collection. Some of that is because it’s Riot and they could give me a Poro Poo soft toy and I would take it with a smile. But mostly because it fills a hole: a two-player bluffing game with substance. It has zero rules overhead, it can be played competitively, or more laid back, you can set up and play in 20 minutes, and you can play it anywhere – even in the bedroom after putting your two-year-old son to sleep.
For similar two player games, I’d recommend: Hanamikoji and Fugitive.
Tellstones: King’s Gambit was provided for free, and a massive thanks for Riot for giving me the opportunity to play early.