You’ve probably heard by now that Kingdomino won the 2017 Spiel des Jahres award. (If you don’t know what that is, it’s a very prestigious gaming award for the best game of the year that was also released in Germany.) This cute little tile-layer has you taking on the role of a king exploring new lands for annexation. Think of it like dealing with the zoning department in a metropolis: It is more desirable to connect lands that complement each other (forest against forest, fields against fields, etc.) rather than having a nightclub next to a subdivision. A good king keeps his kingdom neat and orderly so that all may enjoy it.
How It Plays
As the name implies, Kingdomino is a twist on the classic tile-laying game, dominoes. This game takes it up a notch by adding pretty art, castles, a twist on the turn order rules, and different scoring. The goal remains the same, however: Score the most points.
Each player has king meeples (the number depends on the number of players), a castle, and a starting tile. The castle is placed on top of the starting tile at the beginning of the game and placed in front of yourself. This is the humble beginning of your kingdom.
Dominoes (again, determined by the number of players in the game) are placed face up in ascending numerical order in front of the players. To begin the game, all of the king meeples are gathered into one player’s hand (or you can use a bag). One at a time, all players randomly draw a king from the hand and place it on a domino tile of their choice. On this first turn, you may end up placing a king that’s not yours. Think hard about where you want to place your opponent’s piece. Each domino can have only one king.
Once all the kings are placed, new tiles are drawn and placed in ascending numerical order next to the tiles which have the kings on them. Now there are two lines of dominoes, one with kings and one without. Note that some tiles in the game have just scenery, others have scenery plus crowns. Crowns are required for scoring, which I’ll explain in a minute.
The person who has the king on the first domino is the start player. A turn consists of two actions. First, you must add the domino with your king on it to your kingdom. Tiles must be connected so that like terrain connects to like. So a forest must connect to a forest, water to water, etc. The terrain on the starting tile is considered “wild” and any other type of terrain may be played adjacent to it. Note that the starting tile/castle does not have to be in the center of the grid. You can place it wherever you want.
Tiles can only be placed horizontally or vertically. Unlike regular dominoes, the tiles must fit into a 5×5 grid. They can’t sprawl end to end all over the table. If even one piece pokes out of the grid, you cannot place the tile. If you can’t add the domino legally, you must discard it and it will be worth zero points at the end.
After you place your domino, place your king on a new, empty domino in the other line of dominoes. This will be your domino for the next turn.
Players continue until everyone has placed/discarded their dominoes and moved their kings. Then a new line of dominoes is laid out next to the line holding the kings and a new round begins.
The game ends after the last of the dominoes have been played. Some players will be fortunate enough to have crafted a perfect 5×5 square, others might have some holes due to discarded tiles. Regardless, scores are tallied.
Count the number of connected terrain squares and multiply that by the number of crowns that appear in that territory. If there are no crowns, you score no points, no matter how many tiles are touching. So, for example, three forest squares that touch are worth no points. But if there are also two crowns in that territory, you earn six points. The player with the most points wins.
A Worthy Rehash of Dominoes, or Just Hash?
I have fond memories of playing dominoes with my older relatives. I know that many gamers don’t see the appeal of the game, but I find it to be a very Zen-like experience. It’s not difficult and much relies on luck of the draw, but something about it is peaceful. Plus, there ends up being a surprising amount of strategy for such a simple game.
With that background, I wanted to tackle Kingdomino. No, it’s not exactly like dominoes, but if you’re familiar with the original, you can see the inspiration behind the game.
Like it’s elder cousin, Kingdomino is extremely simple to learn and play. All you have to do is play one domino per turn and then choose your tile for the next. That’s it. Even young kids and people who’ve never touched a modern board game can master this.
Scoring is the only thing that may elude them. I had one friend say, “What do you mean my three water tiles aren’t worth anything. They connect, don’t they?” She missed the part about needing crowns in a territory for it to score. Smaller kids may also need some help the first few games counting up their tiles and doing the math. (Even some adults have trouble with this, at first.)
For something so simple, you ‘d think there wouldn’t be much strategy involved. However, like classic dominoes, there is more here than first meets the eye. Yes, the tiles that are available every turn are determined by random draw so you don’t have perfect control. It’s how you use them and set yourself up for the next turn, though, that is the key.
Once you play your current domino, you decide which tile you want to claim for the next turn. Do you want the third tile in the line which will score you lots of points, but which will mean you will have third choice in the following round? Or, do you want the top tile which might not be worth as much, but which will set you up to have first choice in the next round? Or, is it more important to place your king on a tile that you know your opponent wants, thus denying them the points? Of course, since you can’t know which tiles will be available in the subsequent round, everything is a bit of a gamble. You may set yourself up to have first choice, only to have nothing great turn up.
The decisions aren’t complex and this isn’t a brain burner, but it’s more than “grab tile, place tile” with no thought whatsoever. Just like classic dominoes, you have to give some thought not only to the placement of the current domino, but where you might be able to go in the future.
The grid restriction also makes this a bit more challenging (and frustrating) than classic dominoes. In the classic game, the domino line can sprawl all over the table. In Kingdomino, you’ve got to stick to the box configuration. This makes it more challenging than you would think. At some point, you’ll see the perfect domino for you, but it just won’t fit. One end or the other is going to stick out of the box and make for an illegal placement. What do you do? Do you discard it, taking no points and hoping something better comes along later (and that you’re in a position to claim it), or do you place it sub-optimally somewhere else in your grid and hope you can recover later? Hmm…
There are some rule variants that can help add some meat/challenge to the game. You can play best of three for a longer game. You can also award bonus points if the start tile/castle is in the middle of the grid at the end of the game, or if the grid is complete with no discarded dominoes. Play with any or all of these to make the game as challenging as you want.
The variant for two players is the best, in my opinion (since that’s the way we play most often). Instead of working with a 5×5 grid, you can try to complete a 7×7 grid. This makes for a longer, more epic game. Of course, you can still play with the smaller grid and it works just fine. It’s just shorter and doesn’t feel very satisfying.
Either way you play, I think the two player experience is the best. You use both your kings in a two player game, claiming and placing two tiles per turn. Also, you’re choosing turn order for two kings instead of one for the next round. All of this makes for a bit more strategy and control as you weigh what you “have to do” against what you “want to do.”
The game is still good with more players, but you have less control and things get more chaotic. It becomes more a matter of “making do” than planning out your moves. For a family game though, it feels about right and is still fun, especially for people who don’t get excited by a lot of strategy. I simply prefer the two player game.
Just a couple of more notes and then I’m finished. First, the components are excellent. The tiles are thick cardboard with a glossy finish that almost makes them feel like plastic. The publisher could have gone cheap on the tiles, but they did not. These will stand up to some abuse. The castles are nice 3-D standups. Tokens would have done the job but, again, the publisher went with a nicer option. And even with the nice components, the price of the game is still very reasonable.
Second, I find that it’s easy to rope non-gamers into playing this one. For some, all I have to do is show them the cute artwork and they’re on board. For others (particularly some of my older friends), all I have to say is, “It’s kind of like dominoes.” That’s an easy reference point that they understand and once they see the similarities, teaching Kingdomino is a breeze.
I can see why this game won the SDJ. The jury favors simple games which the whole family can play and be competitive. Kingdomino certainly fits the bill. Whether or not it’s too simple for your taste is something only you can decide. However, I can recommend it for anyone looking for a fast filler, a family game, or something that teaches the basics of tile laying. I can also recommend it for fans of old-school dominoes!
iSlaytheDragon.com thanks Blue Orange Games for providing us with a review copy of Kingdomino.