Friday, March 1, 2013

Kingdom Builder Review

Kingdom Builder was released in 2011 and was designed by Donald X Vaccarino of Dominion fame.  It won a few awards, and has been received by people either quite well, or quite poorly.  Since it came from the same wellspring as Dominion, expectations may have been running a bit high.  That said, I've found it to be a very enjoyable light to medium abstract game.

Rule Summary

Players have 40 wooden houses, and a random board built with modular sections composed of hexes is laid out in front of them.  The board will have random abilities present.  Three random criteria for scoring are selected.  Each player receives one card with a terrain type on it. On their turn they will place 3 of their wooden houses on that terrain type, then draw a new card.  Placement is somewhat restrictive since the houses much be adjacent to other houses of that player, if possible.  If there is no legal adjacent placement, the player may place their houses anywhere on the board, on that terrain type.  That is the most important rule of the game.  Every decision you make will hinge on those adjacencies.

During the game, players will acquire special abilities by placing a house next to them on the board.  The special abilities can be used once per turn before or after the players main action of placing 3 houses.  Once a player runs out of houses, everyone gets an equal number of turns and the game ends.  The players are only scored at the very end of the game, and then the highest score wins.

A time-lapse of Kingdom Builder

How accessible is the game to new players?

The rules are actually quite simple.  Despite the fact that I was giving a rule summary, I think I pretty much covered how the game plays in full.  The only thing that really catches up new players is getting their mind wrapped around the adjacency rule.  It just takes some practice to get used to thinking like that.  I've seen some frustration arise out of experienced players keeping new players honest about their placement.  But in every round of this game I've seen, players will frequently remind one another about various legal adjacent placements they may not have noticed.  Just seems to be in the nature of the game.  It's hard to disperse your attention equally over the entire board and catch all your legal moves all the time.

What could have been done better?

One things new players are slammed by are the shifting scoring conditions.  Since the game lacks static objectives, new players are constantly struggling to catch up to different goals.  Overwhelmingly new players fail at keeping up with the curve.

It's a fascinating effect.  Donald X. Vaccarino's games usually have a lot of variable configurations.  But this is one of the first games I've played where the entire objective of the game is randomly decided.  And it seems to seriously throw off new players.  Just as they get used to playing the game towards one objective, it changes out from under them the next time they play.

I honestly have no clue what could have been done to remedy this.  It is so fundamental to the core gameplay.  The game's longevity would severely suffer for not having this.  But perhaps, to borrow from Donald X. Vaccarino's other game, Dominion, recommended scoring sets could have been included in the game.  Sets which play well together.  Perhaps preset board configurations as well.  So instead of throwing an incredible array of random scoring criteria and random powers at new players, they could get used to two or three sets that play well first.

How does the new player old player match up go?

An experience player has three advantages over a new player.  More experience evaluating which special abilities to get.  More experience evaluating how much freedom house placement costs them.  And lastly, more experience evaluating which scoring rules to prioritize.  And this experience gap is quickly closed.

The scoring at the end, like most European style games, helps new players to not get discouraged.  They may realize they aren't performing as well as other players partway through the game.  But in the meantime, score isn't an emphasis, and they can have a perfectly enjoyable time interacting with the mechanics of the game.

What could have been done better?

I've heard of, but not been a personal witness to, new players being driven away in frustration at the adjacency driven gameplay.  It drives them insane that they box themselves in, and languish in one corner of the board.  Meanwhile they see the more experienced players having their run of things.  And unfortunately, without changing the very nature of the game, I see no fix to this.  I would only suggest that if you fear your players will react in this fashion, play a few practice turns, and then restart.  The first few turns are so important, and it's usually so obvious how you may have messed them up.

I've also heard, though not played enough personally to verify, that drawing the same terrain type for your first two turns renders it impossible to win.  There are numerous variants that attempt to address this problem.  Drawing two cards on your first turn, and then only drawing a new card once they have both been played.  Being able to mulligan if your second card is identical.  Donald X. Vaccarino I believe has comment that if he wanted the game to be played that way, he would have designed it that way.  But whatever makes the players happy.  A round of Kingdom Builder is usually short enough that the experience can remain pleasant even if you know you aren't going to win.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

This game is exceptionally dry.  The theme is light, some say pasted on.  It could just have easily been a pure abstract, although I appreciate the more colorful artwork the theme brings.  I'd say the feelings the game evokes most is a dichotomy between freedom and being restricted.  You spend most of the game trying to get to certain locations.  And there is no better feeling that being able to jump straight to it by clever use of your abilities, carefully managing your adjacencies, or finally getting the right card.  But these moments typically come once, maybe twice a game, with a few exceptions.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

I think more abilities to break the adjacency rule would have gone a great ways towards helping this game.  As it stands, there are only two ways in the base game to accomplish this.  The first is to carefully manage what you are adjacent to, and then get lucky and draw a terrain type you have no adjacency to, allowing you to play anywhere.  The second is to get the Paddock ability which allows you to move a house two spaces in one direction.  When the Paddock is present on the board, it is an ability which always gets mobbed because of its incredible power.

The Paddock

Ideas off the top of my head could have been one time use spots or powers which allow you to place anywhere.  Perhaps spots on the board which have a good amount of space between them, but are considered adjacent for placement purposes.  They could be represented by cave networks, or docks along rivers, or magic portals.  Perhaps this would have made the game slightly more chaotic.  But I think the trade off would have been worth it.  Especially since, near as I can tell, this game is pushed as a family friendly intro game.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Overall I'd have to say most of the strategy in Kingdom Builder happens up front.  The rest of the game is tactical.  It's similar to Dominion in this way.  You assess the board, the scoring goals, the abilities that are out, and you formulate what your major goals are.  You pretty much have to set yourself towards these goals in the first few turns.  Generally your first placement will put you next to a special ability, which will form the crux of your strategy.
For example, the aforementioned Paddock ability is pivotal in spreading out.  Several of the scoring rules require a player to spread out, rewarding separate groups of houses, or having lots of houses in every quadrant of the game map.  Other scoring criteria reward having lots of houses across a single latitude, or having a house in every latitude.  The special ability that lets you play an extra house on the edge of the map would be extremely important for those goals.  Some of the scoring rules would just reward getting more houses on the map than anyone else, so you would pursue any ability that let you do that.
But like I said, all these are strategies you would need to initiate early.  Preferably in the first two turns.  Because after that, other players, and the adjacency rule, begin to quickly get in your way.  It's possible to shift course, but I'd say strictly impossible to completely change your strategy.  It is likely best to keep doing what you started, and attempt to incorporate elements of other scoring strategies into it.
As for the tactical options, the game has plenty.  I feel the tactical side of this game is much richer than the strategic side.  On your turn, you will be burning your brain trying to figure out how to manipulate your standard house placement and your special abilities to score the most points possible, block your opponents, and consider your adjacencies for future turns.

What could have been done better?

One potential problem is that some scoring criteria are clearly superior than others.  And it's not necessarily that the harder ones score you more points either.  Many times the core scoring criteria is obvious to all people playing, the rest of the scoring criteria are an afterthought.  
You see this in Dominion occasionally, with certain cards dominating the round.  But the best games of Dominion are the ones where we see different hopefully optimal strategies, and compete to see which one wins.  I would have liked to see rounds of Kingdom Builder turn out similarly.  However it seems that more often than not, a single scoring criteria dominates each round.  I think just better balancing of the scoring criteria could have helped.  And as I mentioned before, suggesting some properly balanced board and scoring configurations may have helped as well.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

The most common factors a player weighs against one another is managing their adjacencies   You are constantly deciding if grabbing certain abilities, or pursuing certain scoring opportunities is worth the chance of being hopeless restricted to the areas you already inhabit.  Especially in the beginning of the game.  Proper use of your abilities is also encouraged.  Many turns have occurred where I have held off using my abilities entirely because they would cause the game to end quickly than I want, or I would lose freedom on future turns.
I would believe the quality of the dilemmas is very sufficient, since the most thinky, AP prone member of my group absolutely loves this game.  Generally if a game satisfies his need for thought provoking, it is of a sufficient quality.  Probably not enough proof for everyone.  But it's enough for me.

What could have been done better?

I think the constant dichotomy between freedom or going for points and being restricted is sufficiently explored in this game.  I certainly don't think adding a third consideration to the game would add anything.  A thought that does jump out at me is having terrain cards with two different types of terrain.  But I'm not sure this would actually improve the game.  It would open up your options, but it would also water down the consequences of your actions.  I really cannot think of anything that would enrich the direction the game has chosen to go.

Physical component design and limitations?

Being an international, multilingual game, Kingdom Builder uses symbols to describe all the special abilities.  Many of them are rather obvious.  Although a few things in the symbology could have been designed better.

For example, on the terrain cards for canyons and desert, the background artwork is quite similar.  Numerous times people have confused these two cards because they look primarily at the background artwork and not the small hex representing the terrain type on the card.

Left: Desert.  Right: Canyon 

The other issue is that the symbol for moving a house, and the symbol for placing a house is very similar.  Placing a house is represented by a curved arrow that arcs upwards before landing.  Moving a house is a straight arrow.  Most people just see an arrow.  Perhaps a plus sign would have been better for placing a house?

Left: A movement ability.  Right: A placement ability.

Aside from that, it pretty much follows my personal aesthetic for components.  Substantial wooden components when all you need is a marker, and printed cardboard components when you need the pieces to convey some unique information.  

A comparison of the misaligned board with the properly aligned board.

My copy of the game had slightly misaligned printing of the map sections, but I'm of the understanding this has been addressed in more recent printings.  I haven't seen it in the expansion either.  Everything is easily organized and fits well back into the box.  Generally there just wasn't much to mess up here on the production side.

Long term prospects?

As it stands, I'm quite satisfied with this game.  It is my light abstract of choice.  Ingenious used to be my go to light abstract, but the variable set up helps keep this game interesting for me.  It's not a game I think about playing all the time, like Commands & Colors is.  But every time me and my friends want to play something light hearted and relatively non-confrontational, we go to Kingdom Builder.  As it stands, no game I know of, and no game I see coming out in the future, I see dethroning Kingdom Builder from this spot.


  1. The tower (build on the edge) and the ship (move to water) also allow you to break the adjacency rule sometimes.

  2. FYI your text changes format half way through, great review though.
    Totally agree with you on the dry theme part, the game feels very abstract

    1. Thanks for the heads up. I think I fixed it. I combined what had been a two part article into one, and I think blogger did weird things in the transition.

  3. The caves expansion does what you suggest to break the adjacency.