Review – Kingdom Builder



Kingdom Builder

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Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino (2011)
Publisher(s): Queen Games
# of Players: 2-4
Play Time: 45 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #395/6.73
Category: Family Game

There was definitely a lot of anticipation for Kingdom Builder, mostly because everyone in the boardgaming world wanted to see how Donald X. Vaccarino was going to follow up on his crazy success from Dominion.  In the months since it’s come out, it’s gotten a rather mixed reception from the gaming community, but it seems to me that most of the negativity is due to misplaced expectations rather than from any issue of the game itself.  Now that I’ve played it a number of times myself and had the chance to solidify my thoughts on it, here’s my relatively final opinion…  
   
Game Basics (click here for complete game rules)

Like all Queen games, the components in Kingdom Builder are top-notch.  And in addition to the high quality of materials in the boards and bits, probably the biggest the hallmark of the game is the sheer variety and replayability built into it by the inclusion of so many modular pieces, many of which aren’t actually used in any one particular play.

There are actually 8 rectangular boards in the box, of which only 4 are used in any one play of the game (5, I suppose, if you count the one you flip over and use as a score track).  The boards are divided into lots of little hexagonal spaces, which are then grouped together by different terrain types.  Every board also includes a Photobucketunique type of location that appears once or twice on it, and onto which 2 cardboard tokens are placed that may be taken by the first 2 players to play a settlement adjacent to it.  These token give players some special ability to place or move settlements on the board in addition to their normal move. 

You also get a deck of 10 Kingdom Builder cards, which (being the “title components” of the game) are very important in that they determine the scoring opportunities of each game.  Once again, only 3 of these cards are used in any one play, which adds a ridiculous range of combinations.  Between the random choosing of boards and Kingdom Builder cards, I think that means there are over 1.2 million possible permutations (but since I’m not totally sure of that number, please feel free to check my math, dear readers)!

You also get a deck of terrain cards and a bunch of little “settlements” (wooden houses) in each of the 4 player colors, which are also quite nifty as well. 

Scoring and Kingdom Builder Cards

As I just said, one of the things you do when setting up the game is to randomly select 3 of the 10 Kingdom Builder cards.  The only ways to score points in the game is through meeting the requirements of these cards (which is variable each game) and through placing settlements adjacent to Castle spaces printed on the boards.

Even in the base game, there is a nice selection of different scoring possibilities on these cards.  Sometimes, you’ll score points for something simple like each settlement adjacent to mountains (Miners) or water (Fishermen), but sometimes it can be a little more complicated like connecting Castles or Location spaces to each other using a string of your own settlements (Merchants).  What’s also pretty neat is that some cards are sort of the opposite of other cards (like the Hermits, which want you to have as many different groups of settlements as you can, and the Citizens, which score for how many settlements you have in your single largest settlement group), which makes it very interesting should they both be included in a particular game.


Image by chaddyboy_2000 on BGG

Game Turn and Placing Settlements      

Actually playing the game is very simple.  On each turn, you basically just draw a terrain card and then place 3 settlements from your supply into that type of terrain.  However, there’s one big complication to how you place your settlements, which is sort of the prime directive of the game: when placing new settlements on the board, you must always place adjacent to another one of your settlements if at all possible. 

So basically, if you draw a desert terrain card on your first turn, you get to place your first settlement on any desert terrain hex anywhere on the board.  But then your second settlement that turn must be adjacent to the first unless there are no empty desert hexes in that same area.  And on the next turn, if you draw a grassland card and there is a grassland space adjacent to one of the desert settlements you placed last time, you must place in a space adjacent to it.

In addition to placing your 3 “mandatory” settlements, you can use any special location tiles collected in previous turns to add or move settlements based on whatever power they give you.  When adding new settlements even through these tiles, you must still follow the prime directive of placing adjacent to your currently existing settlements.  


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Game End

You continue taking turns until one player places their last settlement.  But the current round continues, making sure that every player has the same number of turns.  Each Kingdom Builder card is then assessed for each player, points from connecting to Castles are added, and the player with the most points wins the game!    

What I Think…

Okay, obviously, the variability and replayability of Kingdom Builder is pretty awesome.  It excites me to think that every time I sit down to the game, I’ll face a new and at least slightly different challenge than I ever have before.  Especially when compared to something like Through the Desert (which is mechanically a very similar game), this variety is definitely a factor that makes Kingdom Builder a lot more appealing to me.

Balance

On the other hand, the dark side of such variety is the need for balance between the different options.  I’m not sure that I’ve even played with all of the different Kingdom Builder cards yet, so I can’t really speak to the relative balance of the points they offer, but I’ve definitely come across some power inequality with the location tiles.

The Harbor, for instance, is the only way in the game to get settlements onto water hexes.  Especially with something like the Merchants or Knights in play, which make you want to build continuous lines on the board, it’s incredibly powerful.  And more than that, for some odd reason, they only included one Harbor location and 2 tiles for it on the board (rather than the usual 2 locations and 4 tiles).  I assume that they knew it was powerful and wanted to limit how many were available, but in reality, what it means is that the two people who get a Harbor have a distinct advantage over other players.  It would have been better to have the standard 2 locations or, as I heard mentioned somewhere in the blog/podisphere, have just one location with 4 tiles on it (to prevent one player from getting more than one of them). 


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And in addition to actual balance issues between the location tiles, even well-balanced tiles will be more or less useful depending on the Kingdom Builder cards in play.  And, since the most logical first move for most players is to place next to a location tile they want, being able to pick up the best one for that game is often heavily dependent on the luck of turn order and the terrain card you draw.  Once again, it’s very easy to have a very inequitable situation from the get-go, which isn’t much fun for anyone. 

Random Draw

This takes us to the thing that’s gotten one particular reviewer‘s panties all in a wad recently: the random draw of the terrain cards governing most of your settlement placement.  This is, of course, the core of the game, so I’m going to take a little time to unpack the implications of this mechanic.

First, the purpose of having a random draw is, I presume, mostly a matter of game weight and length.  Clearly, Kingdom Builder is supposed to be a family-/light-weight game, and limiting the choices on each turn to a few options rather than being totally wide open helps to keep it more manageable and prevent analysis paralysis (which is a big danger in a game like this, since sometimes I find myself agonizing over “perfect” placement even with all of these restrictions). And since the game pretty consistently finishes up just over 30 minutes for us, I’d say it works pretty well.  


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Contrary to some opinion, however, this random draw does not remove all real decisions from the game.  You may have to make more subtle choices, and it may be more difficult to achieve your goals than if you had free reign, but I don’t really think this is a bad thing.  Little things like taking into consideration which and how many other terrain types are next to your placement becomes a big deal.  And while you may really want a particular location tile, jumping into an expansive block of that terrain type to do so may not be good for you in the long run.  There is definitely a learning curve to the game, and there are real skills to learn and employ to make the best of your random card draw each turn.

This, of course, also means that the game is almost totally tactical.  You pretty much have to take what you’re given each turn and use it to the best of your ability.  And while I do miss the chance to develop and explore different strategies in the game, I think that having this be limited is very appropriate for the nature of the game as it’s intended to be.  But that also doesn’t mean that Kingdom Builder is completely devoid of strategy, however.  You still have to have at least a rough plan for how you’re going to achieve the conditions of the scoring cards, and some actually do require a good deal of planning throughout the game.   
     

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Is Kingdom Builder, then, more about skill or luck?  It’s hard to say, of course, but my gut feeling is that, for most of the game anyway, skill is more important.  Having more options on your turn is usually due to the strength of your choices on previous turns.  And most every time I’ve played, I’ve felt the ability from turn to turn to be able to build on what I had done before and work towards my goals, which wouldn’t really be possible if the game were mostly about luck.

However, luck does play a rather huge and perhaps inordinate role in the first two turns of the game.  In at least 2 of the games I’ve played, I drew the same terrain card on both turn 1 and 2, and basically, this just sucks.  You usually lose the opportunity to place next to 2 location spaces early on, and even worse, may end up placing settlements next to even more terrain types, which will limit your later moves even more.  So while I’m very happy with the luck/skill balance in most of the game, it needs a little something to help it get through the first 2 turns…


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The Variant I Won’t Play Without

There are a number of variants out there to help deal with some of the luck in Kingdom Builder.  Probably the simplest is just to let players have a hand of cards rather than drawing a single card on each turn.  And you know what, if that sounds good to you and your group, go for it.  However, I don’t really think that something that “drastic” (if you consider holding 2 or 3 cards in your hand to be drastic) is really even necessary.  A friend of mine (Sceadeau, pictured above on the left, if you really want to know who) came up with a very simple way to mitigate the luck of the first and second turn and help eliminate the dreaded same-terrain draw on the 1st and 2nd turn.  

Basically, on the first turn of the game, you draw 2 terrain cards  and choose one of them to play for your initial placement.  Then, you can choose to either keep the 2nd card and use it on your next turn (giving you a bit more choice to help start the game), or you can discard it and draw as normal from then on (in case you drew two of the same type, or a second type that was right next to your first placement).  After the 2nd turn, you play as per the normal rules, and hopefully, with this little extra boost on the first two turns, you’ll be in a position to deal with future card draws regardless of what type they are.  


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The Verdict!

I like Kingdom Builder quite a bit.  It’s not something that would be my main event for an evening, but it’s interesting and dynamic enough that I’d probably pull it out before a number of other filler/”gateway” games.  And for actual couples and/or families, it’s weight and limited direct conflict makes it a really nice choice. 

Rules: Very simple core rules, with the location tiles bringing in a nice element of variation and complexity.
Theme: Totally irrelevant.  But the game looks good, at least.
Downtime: Very little, since turns are so simple.
Player Interaction: Almost none in a 2-player game, but the board can get a little tight with some blocking opportunities in a 4-player game.
Length: 30-45 minutes, which is perfectly appropriate for the weight
GamerChris’ Rating: 7.5 (on the BGG 10-point scale)


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10 Comments


  1. Chris, Thanks for sharing this. I didn’t realize or may not have heard Sceadeau say to draw two and then either keep one (after you have played the initial card) or draw a new one on your next turn. I kind of like that myself. I’ll have to see if we can try that the next time I am in a game of it at Hypermind.


  2. Excellent review Chris. I’ve been playing a house rule that if your second card matches your first you can discard and replace it. But I like Sceadeau’s variant as it opens up the first turn choices too. I’ll try that next time.

    I agree that the harbour can be powerful, but you have to bear in mind that it only lets you move an existing settlement, not add an extra one. That can be a significant downside if scoring cards like Lords or Citizens are out.

    Also, Knights doesn’t require your row of settlements to be continuous, just all on the same horizontal line. So you don’t need Harbour to do really well out of it.

  3. Sceadeau

    Yeah, it’s a very simple variant that front loads a bit of the strategy and thinking. It doesn’t really alter the game in a significant way other than increasing strategic decisions in the opening turn.

  4. Chris Norwood

    Thanks!

    I don’t know about there being a big downside with the Harbor.  You almost always have some extra settlements lying around that can be moved for little or no penalty, and moving them wouldn’t necessarily remove them from an area used by the Lords/Citizens.  And even though the Knight doesn’t require continuous strings of settlements, you gain access to more spaces on most rows and have more exclusivity to water-heavy rows where no one (or only one other) player could interfere with you.


  5. I agree you can usually find one to move. But if another player is putting 4 or 5 houses down every turn and you’re only putting down 3, they’re going to end the game while you still have lots of unplaced settlements. That’ll make it a lot easier for them on a number of the scoring cards.

    Fair points about the Knight.


  6. Thanks for the thorough review. I’ve been watching this for a while and have seen the mixed reviews so I’ve been on the fence.

    However, since we mostly play as a family, this sounds like the ideal balance of luck and strategy. We like light games and my wife doesn’t like games that are too strategic – she like the luck in games to give everyone better odds.

    So this will head back up in my wish list.

  7. Chris Norwood

    You’re right, of course.  But while most other location tiles to drop more settlements on the board will still be available to you if you want to pick them up, 2 of the 4 people in a full game will have absolutely no shot at getting the Harbor.  That’s my real problem with it.    

  8. Chris Norwood

    Very cool.  I think that most of the criticism it’s drawn is from people who are expecting some sort of relatively heavy gamer’s game, and that’s just not at all what Kingdom Builder is about. 


  9. Yeah, I think that’s a bit odd too. Would be interested to know what DXV’s rationale for only having 2 of certain bonus tiles was.


  10. Great review for a great, newly-discovered game. Cherilyn and I are enjoying the heck out of this one, and although we haven’t been hit with a lot of first and second-turn disparities, I definitely want to try the variant the next time we play.

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