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Review: Kingsburg (Second Edition)

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Many people retain an affinity for those titles that introduced them to modern board games or were influential during their formative times in the hobby.  Kingsburg (2007) holds one such place in my esteem.  The dice/worker placement design was one of the first Euro games my kids and I played.  Thanks to its simple structure, smart planning and ease of play it is an evergreen in our collection, seeing at least three or four plays a year.  For many gamers and for many titles, that’s a downright blistering pace!  It’s also one of the few games for which I earnestly sought out the expansion, despite my general hesitation for them.  Upon hearing of plans to print a second edition I enthusiastically looked forward to its release.  I disclose all of this up front because, while I will tell you why it’s a good game, you also know that I was already predisposed to digging this snazzy new version.

How To Play

Once upon a time, we reviewed the first edition of Kingsburg.  For more on the particulars of the original base game you can check it out here.  Essentially you are a governor entrusted by the King to administer one of his outlying provinces, developing it into a prosperous economic fief to ward off the realm’s enemies.  In other words, you’re an expendable buffer state.  Thanks, your Highness!  In cultivating your charge you roll dice to vie for the influence of the King’s inner circle.  Unfortunately for the sake of general prosperity, these men and women will only offer their patronage to one governor in a given season.  So muscling in on the right councilors for the material you need takes equal parts planning, timing and good fortune.  Hopefully at the end of each year, you manage to increase your holding’s value while preparing for its defense.  If the enemy overruns your borders, the defeat can prove devastating.  After five years, the governor with the most affluent fiefdom wins and gets promoted to Royal Cupbearer!

Apart from the cosmetic changes in all new illustrations, a slightly redesigned board, revamped components and custom dice, this new edition from Z-Man Games plays exactly the same as the original.  However, it also includes all five of the modules from the separate expansion To Forge a Realm (identical rules, as well), plus a couple of additional ones.  These may be mixed and matched or thrown in all together as your heart desires – or the Queen demands.

Think of the dice as a bag of coins under the table…

The expansion’s first add-on is a new player board which includes two extra rows of buildings.  That makes seven separate avenues to pursue your strategic development.  And if the new variety isn’t enough, a second similarly-bent module includes fourteen additional buildings strips, two identical corresponding to each of the seven rows.  At the start of the game, deal two of these to each player and they may use one, both or neither.  The alternative strips are simply placed over their matching rows on your player board to provide a completely new set of structures with which to experiment.

Two other comparable modules are a pair of card decks.  The Governor cards assign players unique powers or special abilities to inject some asymmetrical elements.  And the Destiny cards are a stack of events, one of which will affect play each year.  These may bode well or ill for all players and shake up the monotony with some challenging and unpredictable story plots.

The main mechanical variation from the To Forge a Realm expansion comes via soldier tokens.  Each player has six of these numbered 0, 1, 1, 2, 3 and 4.  They replace the random die roll that designates a number of troops the King sends to bolster your defenses every Winter.  Instead, players individually choose one of their tokens at the end of each year to augment their armies.  The sixth token never chosen is worth its value in victory points.  So if you’re able to look to your own walls, you can boost your score come game’s end.

I’ll help myself, but thanks your Majesty.

The second edition also includes four official scenarios that were originally free to download from Fantasy Flight Games.  These have a similar impact as the Destiny cards, but apply to the entire game, rather than only one season.

Finally there is a completely new module for the second edition – alternate advisor tokens.  This stack of banner-shaped chits are numbered 1 through 16 and each fits precisely over the list of swag identified beneath its corresponding advisor.  Every year one player draws a random token and places it at its advisor’s locale.  That councilor now provides the new benefits as stated by this alternative token to whoever wishes to seek his/her patronage.  Most of them are not simple changes, but rather clever twists and quite disparate from the norm of the first edition!

“Let me see what else I can offer you…”

It’s Good to be the King’s…Adviser?

The only two nagging foibles with the original Kingsburg was a lack of variety (and by extension replayability) and a session length that lasted a tad too long.  You thought I was going to say bad dice rolls, didn’t you?!  The expansion fixed the first issue and its corollary.  So kudos to Z-Man for tossing it all in together with this reprint…with a couple of bonuses to boot.  The latter flaw remains troublesome for some.  In our experience, we’ve no problems living with it.  That’s because Kingsburg is an eminently approachable design and paces nimbly with plenty to offer.  It is admittedly on the lighter side, so I understand that 90+ minute sessions for 4- and 5-players might be pushing it for some, given its weight class.

But enough of that shortcoming.  This is a reprint.  And reprints are made for very good reasons.  Business reasons.  Publishers know they will sell, so there must be something there.  Something not only solid, but transcending even.  Right?

Games with wooden bits always get reprinted…

While certainly not perfect, Kingsburg hits the mark for ideal family suitability.  Due to its length and tension, it’s not likely that first “gateway game” to inflict upon the unsuspecting, but the design is an excellent “next step” that can nurture new gamers just born into the hobby.  It is also a wonderful introductory title to the worker-placement mechanism.  It’s an ideal choice for mixed groups at a regular meeting night.  And although it may overstay its welcome sooner amongst heavy strategy gamers, even those of that leaning should enjoy rare sessions, especially with friends and family who are more casual players.

Simply put, this is a really slick design, an archetypical modern Euro – a bit ironic given its dicey nature.  Still, the rules are easy to understand, and your appreciation for its beautiful economy only grows with further experience.  I think the reason we aren’t as bothered by its sometimes protractedness is because it runs so smoothly with (almost) no downtime that, by the end, you don’t realize that an hour and a half has gone by.  The dice placement mechanic is extremely intuitive, even with the few ways to modify results.  Players plan their strategies largely simultaneously, which mitigates the unsavory impact of analysis paralysis.  And after all dice are allocated, actions are structured in concrete steps to facilitate quick resolution through to the next season.

What is your destiny? At least this year…?

The dice and their inherent randomness, while seemingly untoward for a modern German design, maintains its place as the title’s central conceit without hijacking game play, if you can imagine such a feat.  They certainly influence how and when you implement your strategy, but it rarely derails it.  Okay, unless you’re just really really unlucky!  Nevertheless, there are some elements that provide enough agency to control your game.  First, although better rolls tend to net you more swag, there are still a variety of advisors that offer comparable benefits, so you can aim for resources with different dice values.  Also, there are a few building and advisor benefits that allow you to manipulate dice or even re-roll poor results.  To further mitigate bad luck, there are a couple of places each year that provide aid to the player performing the worst.  To balance those two “catch-up” mechanisms, there is another that rewards the most developed players.  So, while there is indeed a bit of the unknown, Kingsburg brilliantly tosses in that randomness while still chiefly favoring player control and forward planning.

The design nicely balances that strategic propensity with a manageable scope.  There are a variety of buildings to choose from without overwhelming anyone.  They are tangibly arranged on your individual mat in five or seven rows comprising four improvements each.  You can build in any row you wish, but only from left to right – so you cannot purchase a better building until constructing its predecessor.  Each row emphasizes different benefits so that you may focus in one area, but only at the expense of ignoring other potential needs.  However, if you try to balance development too evenly you’ll likely fall behind in points.  The array of choices and the rigid structure of the base game won’t provide the burn as in heavier Euros.  But it is rich enough for a rewarding experience.  The expansion only enhances the depth and opens up new options to enjoy, and still won’t engulf new or casual players.

Do you have a permit to build that?

Aside from their graceful accessibility, the dice placement and resource collection create an appropriate level of tension and agnst.  You never have enough time to gather all that you need to build everything you want.  This constraint leaves you “sitting at the edge of your seat” for many production rolls, hoping for that optimal combination to land an advisor.  Even if your result proves favorable, you often have to wait impatiently hoping no one else steals that councilor first!  Since aggregate dice values determine turn order each season, rounds can vary wildly, as can your chances to nab a targeted advisor.  If those values are markedly skewed, competition may not be so robust.  But if close – as is often the case – you may wish you had rolled even one less just to go first!  In any event, the turn order and placement mechanic is generally well-balanced.  And it still provides opportunity to “steal” advisors if you decide to inject some spite.  Because why wouldn’t you?  For strategic purposes, of course!

The base game’s dodgiest element is the year-end invasion.  At first glance, it doesn’t seem too amiss.  You’re aware of the enemy’s possible strength, which increases progressively in succeeding years.  So you can plan your defense accordingly.  Focusing on your military, however, diverts resources from more point-producing endeavors.  That tempts players to rely on the King’s help – a random die roll.  That in turn often exacts a severe price.  While you are rewarded for defeating these invaders, the penalty for losing is almost always far worse.  So you absolutely must spend resources for defense.  The expansion’s soldier tokens offer a much more strategic and calculated option.  You still must invest in your defense, but the complete uncertainty is at least alleviated.

We all have a role to play…

One question you may have – and I’ve waited until now to address it in hopes you’d read through the rest of the review to get here – is, “Do I need this second edition if I already own the base game and its original expansion?”  Well, no game is necessary, of course.  But to answer that question, “Nope.”  If you own both of the firsts, the alternative advisor tiles are probably not worth the price of an entire new game, unless you have no worries about disposable income and you can’t live without the new art.  The only differences with Z-Man’s reprint are cosmetic.  The dice are really nice, but again, not worth the price alone.  And the artwork’s beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.  I appreciate the illustrative work of both, myself, but anecdotally I’ve heard the majority of people favor the original.

If Kingsburg has been on your wishlist for many years, then rejoice!  It’s here again, at last!  If you only owned the base game and could never acquire the out-of-print expansion, then the investment into this revamped edition is likely long overdue.  And if you really love the game and have played your old copy until it’s dog-eared and worn, then here’s a chance to enjoy one of your favorites refreshed and anew.  So, yes, this new printing is certainly intended for those who wish to replace their old battered copies, never acquired the expansion or have craved it as a long sought after grail game.  The artwork and components modifications aren’t enticing enough on their own.

My, what fancy dice you have!

Kingsburg may not sustain serious hardcore hobby gamers over the long term, but it is a crisp and smart design that keeps game play flowing smoothly.  It deftly balances strategy and randomness with alternating dice placement and a few ways to modify results.  There is also a quasi open-endedness that doesn’t pigeonhole players and allows them opportunity to tweak moves when things don’t go quite as planned.  It creates just the right amount of tension and interaction.  The result is an experience that provides a pleasant introduction to the hobby beyond gateway titles – especially Euros, deeper strategy and worker placement – while providing lots of nourishment to grow into the design and experiment with the many facets it has to offer.  Such are all the reasons Kingsburg has been revisited.

 

Z-Man Games provided a copy of Kingsburg (Second Edition) for this review.

5 Pips Out of 6

  • Rating 9.5
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 10
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Summary

PROS
Intuitive and interactive
Smooth introductory worker placement
Dice allocation process creates appropriate tension
Not a sandbox game, but doesn’t railroad players’ strategies
Expansions add much needed variety and depth

CONS
Even with expansion modules, can be repetitive
Will prove a tad long for some
Not really interesting for only two players

9.5 Excellent

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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