There is vast land all around just waiting for someone to come along on horseback, look out over a scenic cliff, and build a kingdom. As far as creative titles go, Kingdom Builder is not going to give you an overwhelming sense of what kind of Kingdom you’re building or why you’re building it. But as the wise people who give out the Spiel des Jahres know, it’s not the name of the game but how it plays that counts.
How It Works
Kingdom Builder is an Area Control game that tasks the players with building up their kingdom to best meet the whims of the citizens. The way the game plays out is determined by a number of randomized elements selected at the beginning of each game. First is the game board which is composed of 4 randomly drawn board sections that are put together. The board sections each have a unique hex layout composed of 7 different terrain types as well as several locations and castles.
Next, a random selection of 3 Kingdom Builder cards that represent the citizens are selected. These cards set the scoring conditions for the game based on what type of people populate your kingdom and how they want it to be built. The Fishermen like to have settlements built next to water, Merchants like to form a line of settlements connecting locations, Hermits like to have small groups of settlements scattered across the board, and so on. The challenge to building a good kingdom is trying to please the 3 selected types in the most effective way possible.
On their turn, a player is required to place 3 settlements on the board with a couple of restrictions limiting where they can place. First, they will have a card that indicates what type of terrain they can build their settlements on. Second, each settlement must be placed next to another settlement if possible. If there isn’t a settlements adjacent to the terrain type then the first settlement may be placed in any hex of that type. After the first one is placed it will generally create adjacency to the terrain type and require the next two to be placed in the same area. At the end of each turn, a new terrain card is drawn providing the restricted terrain type for the next turn.
The locations scattered across the board provide special placement actions if a settlement is built adjacent to it. The actions are indicated by a location tile that has an icon indicating the special power on the back side. These actions may be used either before or after the mandatory placement in any combination. Location actions come in two types, they will either provide an additional build action or allow a settlement to be moved from one hex to another. The other point of interest on the board are castles. They are generally less frequent than locations and instead of providing a special action they give out Gold at the end of the game.
The game end is triggered when one player runs out of settlements and play continues through the last player’s turn, providing an equal number of turns to all players. Once the game is over players score Gold (points) for each castle that they are adjacent to as well as Gold from the three Kingdom Builder cards being used. The winner gets to throw their pretend Gold into the air and bask in their magnificent wealth.
Is This Kingdom Worth Building?
There are two games that I’ve most often seen Kingdom Builder get compared to: Through The Desert and Dominion. I tend to think that both of these comparison are stretching it a little but they can serve to point out some of the strengths of Kingdom Builder so we’ll start off by looking at them.
Through The Desert (review here) is another Area Control/Placement game that has a similar one piece per hex limitation. Both games have an incredibly simple rule set, having you place a set number of pieces onto the board and require you follow adjacency rules. There are key spots on the board to focus on during the game (Oases and Water Tokens in Through The Desert and Locations and Castles in Kingdom Builder). The key spots serve different functionality but help provide places to interact with on the board in both games.
One of the main differences is that Through The Desert starts with a crowded board and requires you to always maintain adjacency during placement. Kingdom Builder on the other hand starts with an empty board and lets the players jump around on the board by using location actions and leveraging terrain adjacency requirements. In Through The Desert, aggressive play and blocking is very important right from the start because there is not much room for expansion. Kingdom Builder on the other hand provides much more room at the beginning and throughout the game so aggressive play is not as up front. In fact, aggressively blocking can actually help other players break terrain adjacency and allow them to be more maneuverable as a result. There is still some tension in racing for important locations and areas of the board that are more opportune for scoring but generally there are many good spots to choose from.
Overall, Kingdom Builder is a less tense game that gives the players lots of freedom to place their settlements in an optimal way to fulfill the scoring cards. It’s not a pure solitaire optimization game though as the players share a board and compete for both location tiles and key scoring spots. The player interaction in blocking forces players to reevaluate their plans as the board fills up and prioritize areas that may become crowded. The random terrain cards keep the game from bogging down by not allowing the players to know exactly where their opponents will be placing.
Even though Kingdom Builder doesn’t share core mechanics with Dominion (review here), I think that the comparison is actually much stronger from a design perspective. This seems pretty obvious when you consider that the games have the same designer. One of the big connections is the variable setup. Generally this means that a lot of the strategy is about adapting to the variable aspects (Kingdom cards in Dominion and Locations/Scoring Cards in Kingdom Builder). This actually puts a lot of emphasis on the start of the game because that is when you are looking at the board layout, the available location actions, and the scoring cards then focusing in on a strategy. However, after you pick a general strategy for the game there are random elements that are brought into play that require tactical decisions. In Dominion this shows up in drawing cards randomly from your deck and in Kingdom Builder it’s present in the terrain card restriction. This serves the purpose of keeping the decisions relatively simple by limiting your options and requiring you to focus mainly on the current turn. This results in keeping the pace of the game quick and largely prevents players from overloading with information due to the random nature of future turns. Much like in Dominion, the variable setup and random factors also result in great replay. With no expansions added there are still a good number of location actions (use 4 of the 8) and scoring cards (use 3 of the 10). This doesn’t quite ensure that you’ll never play a similar game but it does provide enough variety to keep the game fresh between plays.
Even though it has some similarities to those games, Kingdom Builder has a very distinct play experience. The game play is relatively light due in part to the tactical nature of random terrain types but further play will reveal that players have more control and ability to plan than it first appears. The pacing is nicely done as players accumulate location tiles which make turns more elaborate as the game progresses. Some locations are more useful with certain scoring cards in player but they are well balanced and provide for many ways that the players can approach any given game. Some of the most interesting games for me have been when there are seemingly contradictory scoring cards in play and the players have to decide whether to focus more on one of them or try to dabble in both. Scoring at the end of the game makes it tough to tell who is currently winning and leads to a suspenseful game end as you meet the demands of the scoring cards.
The random terrain card restriction can seem frustrating at times and is often brought up as being a downside to the game. However, I believe that not only does it add to the game in a meaningful way by imposing a necessary limitation but the presence of the location actions makes it very manageable. Even though you don’t know which terrain you’re going to get on your next turn, you can still make calculated decisions that will utilize any of the terrain types in a meaningful way. In fact I would point out that I think the game is largely about dealing with this lack of control and attempting to mitigate its effect. You can play risky if you want, hoping for the perfect terrain type to fill in the gaps or jump around with your placement but proper use of locations and limiting terrain adjacency is a very manageable tactic.