Thursday, 21 March 2013

Kingdom Builder

Plays: 4Px1.

Qwirkle, which I previously wrote about, was the 2011 Spiel des Jahres winner. Kingdom Builder was the winner in 2012. Prior to the SdJ win, gamer interest in Kingdom Builder was probably mostly because of the designer - Donald X Vaccarino, the designer of Dominion.

The Game

Kingdom Builder, in one sentence, is a game of placing huts onto a hex-grid game board to score points. But that would be a rather unfair and overly simplistic statement. Every game is set up randomly, the game board being assembled from four pieces (the game comes with eight such pieces), and three scoring criteria picked (out of ten). So there is much variability, very much like Dominion. On your turn, you place three huts depending on the terrain card you are holding, creating a new domain or expanding your existing domain, and then draw a new terrain card for your next turn. There are seven terrain types on the board, and five can be built on, so the terrain card you draw will be one of these five. You are restricted to build on hexes of this specific terrain type. If you can expand an existing domain (a group of one or more connected huts), you must do so. Else you must start a new domain. You are restricted by the terrain card you draw, but how much that restricts you also depends on how you have been positioning your domains.

There are castles and special locations on the board. Having settlements next to castles at game end gives you points. Building next to locations lets you claim special abilities tokens. There tokens are randomised from game to game. Some are single-use, some can be used once per turn. They do fancy things like allowing you to move huts (normally once placed they stay put till game end), or letting you build extra huts under certain conditions.

The game board is modular, assembled from four pieces. Rivers and mountains are usually off limits for your huts. So are the special locations and castles.

The scoring criteria is the most important aspect determining the nature of a particular game, and how players compete to build their domains. E.g. one scoring criteria is you score 1pt for every row on the game board where you have huts. This encourages you to spread your huts out to many different rows. Another criteria is you score 1pt for every two huts in your largest domain. This encourages you to build one very big domain. Yet another criteria is you gain 4pt for every location or castle connected by your huts. This puts you in a connection game mode. Age of Steam! Some of these criteria pull you in different directions, so you have to decide which ones to pursue.

The game ends when one player exhausts his supply of huts.

The three scoring criteria cards.

The Play

The pace is quite brisk, since your turn is just placing three huts and then drawing a card for your next turn. Since the terrain card restricts where you can build, on your turn you can automatically eliminate all those hexes where you know you can't build on. From the short-term tactics perspective, the game is simple. The tricky part is the long-term planning aspect. When you have the freedom to start a new domain, where do you start it? These decisions are crucial, because they set you up for many future turns. I think the game is about how to position yourself such that in future turns, you will have good moves regardless of what terrain card your draw. You need to keep an eye on the scoring criteria, and also how others are playing. Some criteria require comparing against how well others are doing, so if players get into an arms race, it becomes expensive to everyone, while if no one wants to compete, it becomes a low-hanging fruit. Even for simpler criterias that only measure how well you do, others can block you from building your domains the way you want. You should do the same to them. E.g. blocking their expansion.

The early game is about quickly grabbing the special ability tokens, especially those that help towards achieving the objectives in the scoring criteria cards. In some games the special ability tokens work well with the scoring criteria, but in others they don't. You need to assess the situation and make the most of it.

Chong Sean is probably the most experienced in this game, and won handily, scoring more than double of what I scored. I was either the only new player, or one of two new players, and I came last. I still struggled a bit with how to optimize my moves, and to make my special abilities work towards the scoring criteria. Before I could get a good grasp, the game had ended. It was quick! Or at least it felt quick.

The scoreboard is only used at game end. Every board tile has a scoring track on its back, so you just use one of the unused board tile to do scoring.

The Thoughts

Kingdom Builder has high variability, moves briskly, and presents an interesting challenge of fully utilising the available special abilities and working towards the scoring criteria, while competing with your opponents. There is good player interaction, because of the castles and locations, and also simply because it's a spatial game. The theme is quite thin though. Like Dominion, this game is more about game mechanism than telling a story. "Placing huts on the board to score points" is not inaccurate. I'm still interested to play again, to experience the many possibilities, to learn to better utilise special abilities, and to learn to prioritise the scoring criteria better.

Despite being an SdJ winner, I think Kingdom Builder is slightly beyond the average family. What you do on your turn is simple. The rules are probably manageable, if slightly on the complex side for families. What I think will be challenging in a family setting is the strategies. I don't think the strategies are simple. To hardcore gamers they are not deep. Probably just mid weight. But I'm not sure the average family or casual gamer will fully appreciate the game. I guess it can work for more experienced gaming families or experienced gamers who prefer light- to mid-weight games. However it's definitely not a gateway game. Not something for people who just want to relax, socialise and not think much.

Kingdom Builder is a clever design that is satisfying to play well.

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