Do you have the courage to face off against evil? Will you defend your towns and people, or be overcome by monsters? Do you fear the great dragon? Will you build your castles and make great fortunes, or will your towers fall over, burn to the ground, and then sink into the swamp? Who will have the greatest Kingdom of all?
In Reiner Knizia’s Kingdoms, published by Fantasy Flight Games, you may have the chance to find out. As long as you don’t mind a little math.
How It Plays
Kingdoms is a mechanically simple game. Players take turns doing 1 of 3 things: they can either draw and place a random tile on the 5 x 8 grid, place their own secret tile (which they draw and look at at the beginning of the round), or place one of their Castles.
This continues until the grid is fully filled up. Then comes the hook – Each player scores points by adding up each row and column individually, then multiplying that total by the number of Castle Towers that belong to them that are in that row (or column). Players collect coins that represent values 1, 5, 10, 50, and 100, and after 3 rounds of placing, scoring, and clearing the board, the player with the highest total wins.
The catch is that there are tiles with negative points on them and a number of special tiles, in addition to the standard 1- through 6- value tiles. The special tiles do things like increase the Rank (number of towers on a single Castle token) of all adjacent Castles, double the value of all point tiles (both positive and negative) in it’s row and column, or completely nullify all positive-value tiles in the same row and column. (Note that these special tiles generally only affect things when calculating the row and column they are in. For example, the +6 tile that is negated by the dragon in the same row, is still worth +6 when calculating it’s own column).
So, Is it Fun?
You may have noticed that this game is fairly mathy, whether it was my description of how the game plays, or the simple fact that Reiner Knizia’s name is on the box. It’s no secret that Mr. Knizia tends to design games with very simple mechanics and extremely wonky scoring methods to make those mechanics interesting.
This is no exception for sure, and in fact it may even be more mathy than most of his games. Whereas normally you are trying to collect sets of things that score points in peculiar ways putting the main level of mathiness in the scoring round, in this case you are trying to arrange pieces on a board to maximize scoring for yourself and minimize scoring for the other players the whole time, with every piece played affecting and/or being affected by at least 2 sets of scoring tableaus.
So the game starts out at a good pace, but it slows to a crawl as the open spots disappear and the round nears its end. This is a mental game that requires thinking through the addition and multiplication. You’d like to think that you could just play tiles quickly in what seemed to be the best spot, just to make the game clip onward at a faster pace. But you can’t. You can’t play this game without thinking about the best place to put your token, and whether it should be a tile or a castle. You can’t help but start to figure out which tiles are left and what placement would be ideal. You can’t ignore these things because if you do, the game is nothing. If you don’t consider your placement, you’re just rolling dice and saying “whoever rolls the highest wins the game!” only after you roll you have to add and subtract and multiply.
I got this game as another potential quick, abstract game to play with my wife. Unfortunately, while it is abstract, it is far from quick. If you want it to be a meaningful game at all, you’re going to spend some time thinking – and it takes a while, since the strategic value of every location is determined by a series of algebraic functions, and you’re not getting anywhere without deriving the solutions.
And then after each round, you have to add up each row and column, and multiply, taking into account all the special tiles. It takes forever. And you can’t even speed it up with experience because the thing that takes forever is the math. I’m good at math, and I can do addition and multiplication extremely quickly in my head. But it’s still slow.
So, I guess what I’m saying is, this is a game of patience. Despite the small box and simple mechanics, it’s not a fast moving game. It looks and feels like maybe it should take 10 minutes or so, but it takes more like 40 minutes. Is that a flaw? Well, maybe not. Just know what you’re getting into.
Despite the box cover descriptions, this is not a thematic game. No, you don’t actually fight monsters or “build” castles – there’s no collection of resources or tactical combat or really anything but math. You do get the excellent FFG production value, with beautiful art and fantastic plastic castle miniatures. The board is neatly and clearly designed and divided up, with spots to place the tiles and scoring tokens, and a grid that is nicely separated so it’s never confusing what’s in each row and column. The plastic smells a little funny right when you open the game, but that dissipates quickly.
In summary, Kingdoms is an enjoyable game. It’s not as quick as I’d like it to be, but that’s more a matter of preference than an actual flaw. The only real flaw is that the scoring rounds are rather tedious. Otherwise, the game is solid. It’s not broken (although if you get the Dragon as your own secret tile, this is a HUUUUGE advantage – but players who are careful against you still have plenty of chances), and as long as you don’t mind a little thought going into each turn, you should be fine. It’s a little bit like chess in that way, except that instead of looking several moves ahead to determine your current action, you just add up a bunch of numbers. Maybe keep it away from those who suffer from AP already.
It’s got excellent production quality, from the pretty art, the quality board and tokens, and the nice little plastic castles. And like every FFG game, the rulebook includes a few variants to switch things up and get a little more replay value out of the box.
It’s not a terribly high buy-in at $30 and you can get it even cheaper. So if you like abstract games, math, and a patient pace (I say patient because “slow” sounds bad, but it’s really not bad), this game is worth a look. Otherwise, look elsewhere, because Kingdoms is not going to provide glorious battles or even a economic kingdom-building game.