Review: Kingdom Builder: My Kingdom for a Horse Paddock

A good game of Donald X. Vaccarino’s Kingdom Builder is like a good round of golf. There is a bit of frustration, but, boy, does it feel good when you pull off that one beautifully epic turn. My uncertainty about the game  is that the fun and frustration arise from the exact same mechanics. I want to enjoy this game, and at times I enjoy it a lot. But I often end the game feeling ambivalent about the experience.

What You Get

A game of Kingdom Builder (with Nomads)

A game of Kingdom Builder (with Nomads)

  • 8 fixed terrain boards with a 10×10 arrangement of terrain hexes (The backs double as score tracks)
  • Special ability tiles, each type tied to a single board.
  • Special ability reference plates
  • 9 goal cards that determine the methods of scoring
  • 40 wooden house tokens and 1 wood scoring disk in each of the 4 player colors
  • A deck of terrain cards

As is standard for Queen Games, the component quality is top notch. Nice thick cardboard, and even the box is hefty. But there is a lot of wasted space for how little the game actually contains. The copy I played had an extra orange house, which got hidden in the box after unknowingly using it in a game.

What You Do

Kingdom Builder is about placing houses onto the board in order to earn the most points. But there are restrictions and abilities that control how you place houses, and the ways you earn points vary from game to game.

The game playing field is semi-modular, and players only use four of the boards in each game, arranged randomly. Each quadrant shows regions consisting of hexes in 5 types of terrain, plus mountains and water, in a unique configuration. Each turn, players must place 3 houses on terrain of a single type, dictated by random draw from the deck of terrain cards. Each house must follow the “Adjacency Rule”, that it must be placed adjacent to your previously placed houses if possible. If it is not possible, you may place on that terrain anywhere on the board, allowing you to spread out and settle at non-adjacent locations.

The board also shows “Special Place” and Castle hexes. Castles can get players points, and special places grant extra placement abilities. Each quadrant has a single associated ability type, and there are a limited number available to the first players to place houses next to the corresponding special places. These abilities include various means of moving houses and placing extra houses. The abilities are important because they give you ways to place on more than one terrain type on a turn and give you ways to indirectly or directly break the adjacency rule. However, they may only be used before or after the mandatory three houses, which cannot be interrupted.

Having more placement options gives you more ways to score. Each game uses three goal cards with different ways to earning points, like spreading your houses out, putting them in a line, or placing them near other features. Some work well together, but there are a few combinations that don’t work as well. The base game has nine possible goals, so combined with the modular boards and abilities, there are a number of ways to change up how the game will be played. The game ends when any one player places his last house, with all players getting equal turns.

What I Liked

The game starts simply and builds complexity, and sort of becomes a game of Operation that you build yourself. “Don’t build in that forest or you’ll have to place on that desert later!” The different abilities provide opportunity clever tactical play. It could almost be described as a geographical engine building game, where each play is a balance between scoring and positioning for the next turn. Once you have a few abilities in your toolbox, you can pull off some surprising plays. As I said in the introduction, making a high scoring play is really the highlight of the game.

The modular boards and scoring almost give you multiple games at once, and certainly make the game highly variable and replayable. You might have a game about spreading out near water on all four boards, where you can place extra pieces on grass and desert, and the next game will be about trying to make a long route spanning the board to reach as many castles as possible with multiple ways to move pieces around. With a quick play time, you can probably sneak a game in during a lunch hour or as a filler between games. The interaction is mostly non-aggressive, it’s almost a competitive puzzle-solving game, so it is rarely worth it to make a play just to block someone else. But blocking while making a play that earns you points is more like icing on the cake.

What I Disliked

A lot of the good features of the game are double-edged. Since you only get one card at a time and are forced to place on its terrain, luck of the draw can make or break you. Surprisingly, nearly 50% of the time, you will not see one at least of the 5 terrain cards during your play. You will have to play the same terrain twice in a row over 85% of the time, and 3 times in a over 25%.  (If any readers are good with probability and statistics, please check my numbers.) Though everyone obviously has the same odds of this occurring, it can be very disruptive if it happens to you at the wrong time.

Abilities can help mitigate the effect of bad draws somewhat, but the random terrain card plays the largest part. On top of this, the start of the game is somewhat a race to the special abilities, so bad draws early can prevent you from being able to mitigate future bad draws. While good luck doesn’t guarantee a win, bad draws can result in a sort of “runaway loser” behavior. It does help that the game only lasts 30-40 minutes, so you don’t have to sit around for too long if you get stuck in a bad position. Having a way to mitigate some of the draws might improve this aspect. In general, with only about 10 turns per game, the statistics of drawing cards usually outweighs your ability to mitigate them.

While the modular board and selection of goals adds variety to the game, there isn’t as much as you might like. After a few games, you will start to see the same boards in the same orientations. Some of the simpler goals are basically interchangeable. And some goals have a lot of synergy, while others are directly opposed, so you feel like you have fewer options. Occasionally, this leads to the last turns being anticlimactic, if the best scoring spots have been taken. But to address some of this, there are several expansions already that add more boards and goals for scoring, bring a balance to the abilities, and provide some interesting new mechanics, which should improve replayability.

There is limited interaction on another player’s turn, and although this time can theoretically be used to plan your turn, your plan can easily be spoiled by the player in front of you. My group plays a friendly conversational version where we talk it out and help each other, which gives you something to think about on someone else’s turn. But if you play with analysis paralysis prone players you might sit for a while between turns. This highlights the puzzle nature of the game again, because you really need to work out the options to get the most out of each turn.

Conclusions

Like Donald X Vaccarino’s other wildly successful game Dominion, the interplay of the mechanics is the focus of Kingdom Builder, and the theme is more incidental. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Kingdom Builder ends up feeling a bit dry because of it.

Kingdom Builder manages to feel a bit like Dominion, in the way choices are made turn to turn, so it’s no surprise this game won some major prizes. But Kingdom Builder feels like it ought to have the same potential, but ends up feeling more limited. Overall, the game seems to fall just short of the epic promised by the game box.

There are a lot of good ideas in play, but some of the mechanics are double-edged. Part of the fun is not knowing what you’ll be able to do in 5 minutes, and taking advantage of the mechanics to make a good tactical play. The game basically gives you a fresh puzzle every turn. But where the game struggles is that the puzzles aren’t guaranteed to be fair. Though you can work to mitigate the luck, I’m never quite sure if I’ve won or lost because of how I played, or because of what cards I drew.

I think my friends summed Kingdom Builder well by describing it as a Chinese Buffet game. I’m excited to start playing, grabbing a variety of abilities and goals.  I like it when I’m playing it. But by the end, I don’t want to immediately play again. It’s a good game, but it doesn’t feel satisfying.  I think it works well as a light, quick game, and especially as a good family game. I just wish that all of the game elements in this kingdom built up to a little more.


 

Two Scoring Goal Cards with a Vast Kingdom in the Background

Two Scoring Goal Cards with a Vast Kingdom Reaching of into the Distance

Bonus: Kingdom Builders: Nomads Expansion Mini-Review

We also played with the first Kingdom Builder expansion, Nomads. This gives 4 extra boards and abilities, and 3 extra scoring goal cards. The new goals score points throughout the game, instead of just at the end, providing a lot of interesting options for changing up gameplay. And most importantly, Nomads adds the ability for a 5th player.

The biggest change to gameplay is the addition of Nomad spaces on the new boards, which provide very powerful one-time use abilities. These add even more variation and interesting options for play, but my feelings are mixed. They seem to contribute a lot early on by adding opportunities to get abilities, mitigating luck at the start.

But I’m also concerned that they make the initial rounds even more luck based, if you are lucky enough to obtain a few Nomads abilities, you might be able to leap ahead. The Nomads abilities also help to speed up the game more by adding more ways to add pieces to the board, decreasing the number of turns, which again increases the luck factor. The added goals are welcome, but seemed (in our limited plays) to be slightly biased towards players later in the turn order.

Overall, the Nomads expansion is a good way to mix up the boards and gameplay if you’re ready for more than the base set. It doesn’t dramatically change the way the game is played, either for better or worse, but it gives a lot of new options for how to play.

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