There are many kinds of love in the world. Perhaps none stranger than a man’s love for cardboard. Can an inanimate object really inspire love? Good heavens no! Even I would draw the line at that, but when the discussion is about a sweet little board game named Kingdom Builder, my emotions run high. Is there a chance that this review will be biased, you ask? Most certainly not! I retort in a tone reserved for the times when asked if I took the last biscuit in the tin.*
Designer Donald X Vaccarino really set the bar high when he created Dominion, the game that introduced the world to the concept of deck-building. Mr V’s follow up is Kingdom Builder, a game that asks you to carve out a territory in just over 30 minutes. Unlike Dominion, it has a board and rather than a fat deck of cards, offers just one card to ponder. Where the two show a common heritage, is in offering millions of different starting setups.
In my experience, Queen Games produce games with high quality components and Kingdom Builder is no exception. It comes with 8 hex boards, 28 location tiles, 160 wooden settlements, score markers, terrain cards and Kingdom Builder cards. The boards are heavy and cut to slot together, making a 2*2 square play area.
Going for gold
Players are competing to earn the most gold, for which read points. The points are gained by building towards the goals set by the chosen Kingdom cards. See some of the example goals in the picture below.
Five steps are going to see you set up and playing:
- Pick four of the boards and put them together in any combination. This is the land you will be conquering.
- Place the special powers tiles that will be used onto the board.
- Draw three Kingdom Builder cards at random. These define the goals of the game.
- Grab your settlements.
- Shuffle the terrain cards and draw one each.
The boards have five playable terrains; Fields, Desert, Forest, Canyons and Flowers and two that are unplayable; water and mountains. The terrain card you have drawn will be one of those shown above. On your turn, you place three settlements onto the terrain of your card and draw a new one ready for the next turn. That is the game; card – settlements – card – settlements. Or that would be the game, (barely a game you might think), were it not for the carrot and stick.
The stick is adjacency. Whenever you build into a terrain type, you have to build next to your own settlements where possible. In the worst case you could find yourself settling a large forest for a few turns and not scoring well. Adjacency is a pair of lead boots spoiling your afternoon stroll. It hampers you, but careful placement will be rewarded. Get your opening moves right and the options open up in the rest of the game.
The carrot is the location tiles which add once per turn powers. These allow settlements to be moved or added in a number of different ways. They are used either before or after you place your settlements. The powers challenge you to be creative, to combine them together and time their use to get around the restrictions of the adjacency rule and the terrain draw.
Play carries on until one player exhausts their supply of forty settlements. Each goal is scored with extra points for settling next to a city.
Playing with Three
Kingdom Builder plays 2-4. As the number of players increases, scoring gets harder and blocking more important. Playing with three is super-fine, but four is more of a challenge.
Nomads, the first expansion, adds a red fifth player for an even tighter game. How does a major game get released without a red player set? Goodness only knows.
How easy is it to teach the game?
Kingdom Builder should be easy to teach. “Pick a terrain card, play three settlements to that terrain type, no you need to play adjacent, no ad-ja-cent”. OK, once you have worked out what adjacent means, playing is fine. There are a couple of fiddly rules, (for example a fisherman can’t score when he is in the water), but that is about it.
Where the work comes, is in explaining how to work the system to your advantage. Making sure the very first placement of the game doesn’t limit options and making best use of the powers.
Can complexity be scaled?
Some cherry picking of the objectives is worth considering. Merchants, Explorers, Workers and Miners all offer a straightforward induction.
Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?
I have tried two handicapping methods, a points lead for my son and allowing him to take two turns before anyone else. A points lead didn’t really cut the mustard, (incidentally, what doesn’t cut the mustard? Was it a hard substance in the past, like a spicy diamond?) It felt like a copout.. The extra turns option was much better and allowed everyone to feel genuinely competitive.
How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?
Scoring takes place at the end, so a midpoint grump fest is not likely. Having said that, there has been unhappiness when scoring takes place because of the realisation, as each Kingdom card is scored, that you are going to fall short.
Beyond the game
We’ve worked through the maths behind the number of possible combinations and made our heads hurt.
What do I think?
So far on my gaming journey I have uncovered very few games that I actively dislike, but as I play more, I recognise what will set me humming like a tuning fork. Games that do this will have tiles and offer a puzzle. I think it’s the building aspect that appeals. To that end, Suburbia, Alhambra, Carcassonne and Dominion, (which is building of a sort), all count as firm favourites.
Kingdom Builder is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite game. When I play, there might as well be a neon sign above my head saying, “Building a diminutive empire and loving it.” It is a dry game and as close to abstract as you can get without being abstract, but not every game has to have dragon miniatures.
There is a real elegance to the design that says, “Here’s a scenario, some simple rules and a few tools. Now go and play”. You might even call it a sandbox game. So what are the 1.7 million variations going to offer you this time? Perhaps the landscape will have a river running through it, an island or a lovely area of flowers. The Kingdom Card targets could offer great synergy, or be at odds with each other, and then there are the selection of action tokens teasing you to extract the most out of their limited gifts.
Does drawing a single terrain card bring unwelcome randomness into the game? I don’t think so. The game is built around it and working with what you are given is part of the challenge. If the worst comes to the worst, the game is over in less than 45 minutes and you can play again.
I’m going out on a limb here, (one that many people would gladly cut off if only to stop me talking about this game), I think Kingdom Builder is a future classic. A game that will be hailed as a great, long after some of its contemporaries have been forgotten.
*I did, sorry.