Ah, Kingdomino. When the original game released, I wasn’t sure if I’d like it. It looked so inconsequential, so simple, that I was afraid it would be more of a children’s game than something I could enjoy. Yet it turned into one of my favorites. The simplicity of play and ease of learning, mixed with an interesting turn order mechanism and light strategy, won me over. It remains a favorite.
Alas, I wasn’t quite as enamored with its big sister, Queendomino. That game tried to beef up Kingdomino, but in doing so it took away many of the things I loved about the original. It became too long and bloated for me to really enjoy it, at least in comparison to the original.
And now we have Kingdomino: Duel, a two player-only, dice driven version of the original. Where does this fit into the “-domino” ecosystem? Is it destined to replace the original for me, or go down the same path as the Queen? Let’s find out.
How It Plays
Kingdomino: Duel (hereafter simply Duel) is a roll and write game. Players are rolling dice and using the results to fill in areas of their personal scoresheets. Your scoresheet is a map of your kingdom and you earn points by creating domains (represented by matching, connected icons) populated by dignitaries (represented by crosses drawn within the domain). The player with the most points wins the game.
Duel is played over a series of turns, and each turn consists of four stages. For the first stage, the start player rolls the dice. In the second stage, that same player begins the setup of the “dominoes.” In regular Kingdomino, the dominoes are preprinted tiles. In Duel, you create the dominoes by combining two dice to make a two-ended tile equivalent. The start player chooses one of the four rolled dice, then the other player chooses two dice from those that remain, and the start player takes the last remaining die. Both players now have two dice which they combine to form a single domino that they will add to their kingdom on this turn.
The third stage of the turn is where you fill in your map. You add your “domino” to your map by drawing the two icons shown on your dice onto two empty spaces on your score sheet. The spaces must be side by side; you cannot break your domino apart. The domino you’re adding must either connect to the central castle space on your sheet, or at least one icon must connect orthogonally to a matching icon already on your sheet. You can rotate the domino itself to make it fit, but you cannot rotate the individual dice to change the faces. (Note that the question mark symbol on the die is wild and can become any icon you choose.) If there are any crosses next to the symbols on your dice, add them to your map by crossing off the same number of circles next to the matching icon on your sheet. If you cannot legally connect your domino, you draw nothing on this turn.
In stage four of a turn, you will fill in the wizard’s spellbook which can help you gain special abilities. Each time you add an icon without a cross to your sheet, you get to fill in a square in the spellbook that corresponds to that symbol. (Note that question marks do not count toward using the spellbook.) The first player to fill in all the squares on their side of the spellbook for that ability will be the only one able to use the ability. The other player must mark through the ability to show that they can never use it this game. If there is a tie in completing the squares, the player who rolled the dice this turn takes priority and claims the ability.
Some abilities can be used once in the game and played whenever you wish. These grant the ability to break the rules in some way. For example, you can place your domino without following the connection rules, or you can break your domino apart and use the individual pieces in different places on your map. Two other abilities must be claimed when they are earned. One allows you to choose an icon that will give you three bonus points at the end of the game. Each domain you have with this icon earns the bonus. The other ability allows you to add a cross to to the icon of your choice on your scoresheet.
Speaking of abilities, each player can (once per game) also add one cross to one of the two dice chosen for their turn, even if that die is a question mark. Color in the top of your caste’s roof as a reminder that you’ve done this and cannot do so again.
At the end of the turn, the player who did not roll the dice during the prior turn collects the dice and rolls them. They are now the lead player for this turn. Play continues until the endgame is triggered.
The game ends when either: At least one player fills in the last remaining empty spot on his/her map, or when neither player can place his/her domino this turn. At this point, the game is scored. Each domain on your score sheet (groups of the same icons connected orthogonally) is worth the number of icons it contains multiplied by the number of crosses (dignitaries) present in that domain. If a domain has no crosses within it, it scores nothing. Score each domain individually and then add up the total for all of your domains, plus add in any bonus points if you have the relevant special wizard power. The player with the highest total wins.
The Tale of Goldilocks and the Three Kingdomino’s
I’m going to start with honesty, here. Duel isn’t a bad game. It’s not broken, and it plays fine. However, it just really didn’t excite me. The main reason why is that the original Kingdomino already does most of what Duel does, and it does it better and with more flair than Duel. I just don’t see a need to have both in my collection and as a fan of the original, Kingdomino easily won this battle.
Still, there may be a place in your collection for Duel, or even both, so let’s start with the good things about Duel. First, it’s highly portable. As a dice game, it comes in a small box and, if that’s still too big, you could take the dice and score sheets out and stick them into random holes in your suitcase or purse.
Second, it’s basically the same game as Kingdomino. You’re trying to accomplish the same goal (have terrain/icon types next to each other with crowns/crosses in them to score). There’s an interesting dice drafting mechanism that sort of mimics the turn order selection found in the original. I say “sort of” because the turn order selection in the original is superior in my opinion because it allows for some forward planning strategy, whereas Duel’s alternate player drafting only allows you to plan for this turn. It does, however, keep things fair and interesting by preventing the start player from grabbing all the “best” dice. If you enjoy the original Kingdomino, the gameplay here is similar enough to keep you entertained.
The wizard powers are the only significant difference. Most roll and writes offer something similar. The special abilities exist to give you a way to break the rules and to slightly mitigate the luck inherent in dice rolling. As each ability can only be used once by only one player, you’re in a bit of a race to unlock them. And they can be very useful. They can allow you to use dice that you ordinarily could not place, and to squeeze out extra scoring opportunities. Moving closer to gaining an ability is a decent reward for those times you get stuck with cross-less dice.
And now for the things I wasn’t overly fond of. (Most of which are simply because, IMO, Duel suffers greatly when compared to the original Kingdomino. If you’ve never played the original, or if you simply prefer the roll and write genre, you may feel differently. Duel is a fine roll and write game. It’s just that in a world where Kingdomino exists, it’s hard to convince me of the need for both.)
First of all, Duel is way more luck dependent than the original Kingdomino. Way more. I mean, you should expect this in a dice game, but there is almost nothing you can do to mitigate the luck. Four dice are rolled and that’s all there is to work with. If nothing comes up that you need, you’re sunk. If there’s one good die in there that you need and it’s not your turn to pick first, you’re sunk. Ideally it all evens out over the game, with both players sharing the pain equally, but we all know that the dice gods sometimes don’t play fair and one player just runs off with all the good stuff. Yep. That sometimes happens in Duel and it feels terrible.
Even gaining the wizard powers is luck dependent. If you’re steadily working toward a power, the other player can still snatch it from you if the dice come out in their favor for a couple of turns. Yes, you can look to see how close they are to getting a power and try to deny them a die during the draft, but if it’s their turn to pick first it’s too bad for you. Plus, dice-denial doesn’t really work here because taking something you don’t really need is too costly to bother. There aren’t always enough chances to gain a scoring cross (see that dice rolling curse again) to waste one. If there’s literally nothing else for you to do then denying a die to the other player is viable. But if you have any way to move yourself forward, you’d better do it.
My second problem is that Duel lacks any kind of forward planning strategy. In the original, the turn order mechanism meant that you could look ahead and try to set yourself up for the next turn, while also maximizing the current turn. There’s none of that in Duel. The dice are rolled and you work with what’s on the table. You can try to leave certain spaces on your sheet open in the hope that something will pan out for future turns, but who knows whether or not the dice gods will be kind. You may just end up with a mess of holes on your sheet that the dice gods never see fit for you to fill. Or you may get the icons you need but none of them ever turn up with crosses, meaning you end the game with a huge domain that scores you nothing. At least in the original you could see which tiles with crowns were coming out for the next turn and try to position yourself to grab one.
Third, Duel is a lot more work than Kingdomino. Part of the pain of this for me is that I do not like to draw. It takes too much time and the neat freak in me hates the resulting ugliness. Checking off a box is fine. But when I have to draw lines and shapes, well, I’d rather not. And there is much drawing in Duel. No, it’s not complicated drawing, but coloring in spaces and drawing lines and boxes in every space isn’t my thing. I also don’t like having to remember to draw the crosses that will allow my domains to score. Kingdomino handled all of this for me. The crowns that enabled me to score were printed on the tiles and were easy to see at game’s end. The terrain was preprinted and lovely, not chicken scratch drawn by a terrible artist. Duel feels like going backward. It feels in many ways like the prototype of what eventually became Kingdomino.
Fourth, I want to talk about the things that were supposed to differentiate this from the original. It’s a two-player only game. Great! I like it when a great game is streamlined for two players. Except… Kingdomino was already a great two player game. In fact, I think it’s best with just two because you use both of your kings which leads to greater strategy and control. Unlike Seven Wonders, Kingdomino didn’t need a two player version to make it work.
Next, Duel is supposed to be quicker, but it’s not really much faster than the original. In some ways, it feels longer thanks to the drawing element. Having to stop and fill in the sheet takes time that the original didn’t require. Since they require basically the same time investment, I’d rather play the original.
Finally, the wizard powers are supposed to offer a new tweak to the original’s gameplay, but I find they don’t add enough to make the game exciting. There’s no real way to strategize your acquisition of the powers, so they just add one more lucky thing to an already lucky game. It’s nice when you get a power, but at the same time it can fee a bit unfair to the other player, particularly if they never get one. The original doesn’t offer any rule-breaking bailouts and is better for it because you are forced to strategize a bit more. I feel like Duel included these powers in exchange for losing the forward thinking of the original. It’s like someone said, “Since you can’t really strategize here, we’ll throw you a bone that might help you clean up the mess made by the luck of the die rolls. You’ll get the feeling of agency without really having any agency at all.”
Here’s the thing: I don’t hate Duel, but I don’t love it, either. For me it’s a take it or leave it game.
But… If Duel existed in a vacuum, I’d probably feel better about it. But because it exists in the same universe as Kingdomino, I can’t really recommend it over the original. The prices of both are within only a few dollars of each other. They both come in small, portable boxes and require almost the same amount of play time. Yes, Duel is a two-player only game, but the original was already a great two player game. The original has the edge in every category from attractiveness of components to strategic gameplay to ease of play. The original is less “work” because you don’t have to draw on a sheet. Duel only offers small tweaks to the basic gameplay and adds in too much un-mitigable luck. Unless you really love roll and writes, the original is the champ.
If you liken the Kingdomino series to the Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Duel would be too little, Queendomino would be too much, and the original Kingdomino would be juuust right. I still recommend the original over the others in the series because it captured the perfect balance of light rules overhead, thinky decisions, quick play time, and lovely aesthetics. The others are fine games, but the original was lightning in a bottle and no amount of futzing with the formula can replicate that.