Reviewed by Frank Hamrick
(Queen Games, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, 45-60 minutes; $59.95)
Kingdom Builder grabbed my attention in the pre-Essen reports I read. I’ve always been enchanted with castles, kingdoms, and knights. Add to this exciting prospect that name of designer Donald X. Vaccarino of Dominion fame and I could hardly wait!
Then I heard it was barely more than a filler game! Disappointment. Next I heard that the theme was pasted on – it was an abstract at heart. Double disappointment. I then turned my attention elsewhere – until it released in the States. When I saw the ads of the neat looking board, I had to have it, filler or not.
Now I’m seven games in and I like it more every time I play it. True. It has little to do with building kingdoms! There are “castles,” but no knights. The theme is pasted on. It is an abstract at heart. But it’s growing on me! Why?
First, the game can be taught in a matter of minutes. Set up and pack up are quick. Randomly choose four player boards, and fit them together to form the game board. Place the location tiles on the matching locations on each board (two per location.) Add the four matching summary cards to the matching corners of each board. Shuffle the 10 “scoring cards” and choose three randomly. These three cards will determine end game scoring. Each player chooses a “color” and the 40 settlements (houses) and scoring disc of that color. Choose a first player and give him the first player tile. Shuffle the 25 terrain cards and deal one to each player. You are now ready to play. Set up takes no more than 2 minutes.
Second, it’s a simple “meeples” placement game (except that the “meeples” are little houses, called “settlements”). I love games that are not fiddly; have only one or two simple things to keep up with; yet require interesting decisions. In such games the players don’t have to keep up with a convoluted turn sequence. They are free to concentrate on strategy. This is true of Kingdom Builder. In essence you play a card and place three “settlements” (Settlers of Catan style houses) on the board. That’s it. Simple. The rules comprise only six heavily illustrated pages and can be read in about 20 minutes.
Third, every game of Kingdom Builder plays differently. The game board is always different. Although the game comes with 8 terrain boards that form the game map, only four of the boards are used in any one game. They are drawn randomly and placed randomly together. So even if you did draw the same 4 boards in a succeeding game, they probably won’t be configured in exactly the same way. Each board contains 100 hexes containing grassland, desert, water, mountains, flower fields, canyons, and forests, but the layout of each board is different. The boards differ in terrain layout and each board contains special “location hexes” unique to that board (either a paddock, tavern, farm, harbor, oasis, oracle, tower, or barn). These location sites are a single hex that depicts the type of location it is. I’ll say more about that later. Thus the game map is never the same. Further, there are ten “scoring cards,” but only three are ever used in a single game. Thus, scoring is always a bit different. Finally, the players use a deck of 25 “terrain cards” (5 cards of each of 5 different terrains on the terrain boards: desert, canyon, grass, forest, and flower fields). Players draw a face down terrain card each turn and place their three settlers on terrain of the type of card drawn.
Fourth, the bits are simple and clean. I like the simplicity of the art on the terrain boards, and although nothing is jaw dropping, it’s all adequate and attractive. The cards are of nice quality, as are the terrain boards which are adequately thick and do not warp! The back of each of terrain board contains the end-game scoring track, so at the end of the game you can flip any one board not used and tally the points. As stated above, each board will have one or two location hexes on them and two “castle hexes.” When you “build” (place a settlement) beside either of the location hexes (not the castle hex) you are awarded with a matching “location tile.” These go into your playing area and give you special actions during future turns. Rather than trying to memorize what these actions are, the location tiles utilize a user-friendly pictogram on the reverse side to remind you what it does. In addition, there are 8 thick “summary cards” with the same pictogram that are placed on the corners of the boards used in the game. This is a nice touch and adds to the simplicity of play.
So, how does the game play?
The starting player turns over his location card and places three settlements on the map in matching terrain. The main rule to observe – the settlements must all be placed on terrain matching the card played and they must be placed adjacent to other settlements of the same player if possible. If you cannot place all of your settlements adjacent to previously played settlements of your own, then you may freely choose another area of the map that has the same type of terrain as the card played. Thus, placement of your first settlements will affect future placements. The choice is not quite that simple, however. Your placement must consider numerous scoring possibilities:
1. You must consider the three “scoring cards” drawn during setup. The points that players score at the end will be largely determined by these three cards. Depending on the cards drawn, players will score…
– 1 gold for each horizontal line on which you have built at least one settlement.
– 12 gold for the player who builds the most settlements on each of the four map boards (called sectors). 6 points go to the player who has the second most settlers on each of the 4 sectors.
– 1 gold for every 2 of your own settlements in your largest settlement group (settlements that touch each other form a ‘group’ or ‘area.’)
– 2 gold for each of your own settlements built on the horizontal line with the most of your own settlements.
– 1 gold for each of your own separate settlements (houses), and 1 for each separate settlement area.
– 4 gold for each location hex and/or castle hex linked contiguously by your own settlements to other locations and/or castle hexes.
– 3 gold for each of your own settlements in the sector that contains the fewest of your own settlements.
– 1 gold for each of your own settlements built adjacent to one or more water hexes.
– 1 gold for each of your own settlements built adjacent to a location or castle hex
– 1 gold for each of your own settlements built adjacent to one or more mountain hexes. (Players may never build on mountains).
2. In addition, players will score 3 points for every castle hex they touch with one or more of their settlements.
3. Location Tiles. A player may collect one of the two location tiles on a location hex as soon as he builds next to it. These tiles give bonus special actions during all future turns.
4. The Adjacent Rule. The key rule in the game is the “adjacent” rule. No matter which terrain card I play, if I have a settlement already in that terrain type, or if I have a settlement in a different terrain type that adjoins the terrain on the card I’m playing, then I must place adjacent to the previously placed settlement.
5. Extra Actions. If a player has drawn one or more location tiles in previous turns, he may play them during his turn by flipping the tile over and taking it’s special action. Depending on the tile flipped, the bonus actions will allow the player to either place additional settlements on the board, or move his settlements already on the board. These actions can be critical to victory. The eight actions (depending on the location tile played) are as follows:
– Paddock. Allows a player to move one of his settlements already on the map by “jumping” it two spaces in a straight line. In this case he could jump a mountain, water, his own, or another player’s settlement.
– Oracle. Allows a player to build one settlement on a hex of the same terrain type as the terrain card played this turn. (Build adjacent if possible.)
– Farm – Allows a player to build one settlement on a grass hex (build adjacent if possible).
– Oasis – Allows a player to build one settlement on a desert hex (build adjacent if possible).
– Tower – Allows a player to build one settlement at the edge of the game board on any of the five types of terrain (build adjacent if possible).
– Tavern – Allows a player to build at one end of a line of at least 3 of your own settlements (horizontally or diagonally).
– Barn – Allows a player to move on of their existing settlements to a hex of the same terrain type as the card played (build adjacent if possible).
– Harbor – Allows a player to build on water(!) (build adjacent if possible).
Player turns go quickly. Since you draw a new terrain card at the end of your turn you can plan your next move during other players’ turns. This minimizes analysis paralysis and helps speed the game. The game ends when a player places his last settlement on the board. If this is the “Start” player, all other players will get one last turn. If it is another player, all those players between this player and the Start player will get one last turn. Scores are then tallied by using the scoring track on the back of one of the unused terrain boards. Players first score three points for every “Castle” hex they touch on the board. Then, each of the three “scoring cards” is scored for each player. Highest score wins.
There are a few things some player might not like. Kingdom Builder is not a heavy game. I would put it slightly above Ticket to Ride. It does have a strong random element as you are constrained by the cards you draw. However, that can be mitigated with smart placement and capturing location tiles. It is fairly abstract. If you’re looking for theme, you won’t find it here and it only plays 2-4 players (but we’ve played it with 5 using glass beads). But I’m a player who does like it. I’ve stated the reasons above. Let me add a few more.
1. It’s not a brain burner! When I want simple, yet not mindless, Kingdom Builder fits the bill.
2. It’s a “heavy” filler! I generally don’t like fillers as they are just too light for me. But this one has some meat on its bones, yet can be played in 30 minutes (40 at the most) with experienced players.
3. It works with my family. I don’t have a “gaming” family. If they play at all, it has to be quick and light. But Kingdom Builder adds a bit more juice and because it is fairly short I can get them to play it.
4. It plays well with only 2 players.
Kingdom Builder is a keeper for me.
Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.
Winter 2012 GA Report Articles