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Subject: Europhile reviews: A great deal of variety but light on strategy. rss

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Adam Porter
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With thanks to BGG user binraix for use of image

This game is a love-it or hate-it affair, with a bit of a roller-coaster history. Following the enormous success of designer Donald X. Vaccarino's previous offering, Dominion, was always going to be difficult for this very different game. In the light of the previous offering, this title felt a little lacking in innovation on release. Wild anticipation led to a rather lack-lustre response on first plays, as Dominion fans realised that this was a very different game and a rather lighter, more family-friendly enterprise at that. The game received a mixed bag of reviews, with some players becoming ardent fans; others deriding the luck-driven aspects of the game. The game gained a welcome, but not entirely necessary, boost with the early release of its first expansion, Nomads, which added a fifth player and increased variation in both powers and scoring criteria. Claiming the 2012 Spiel Des Jahres prize assured Kingdom Builder's place in gaming history (alongside Dominion's 2009 win). I have played this title a lot over the last year, and wanted to share my own thoughts.


With thanks to BGG user Robin for use of image

Very Brief Summary of the Rules

A map is placed on the table, made up from four randomly selected boards. The map shows different terrain types on its hexagonal spaces, and players will place settlements (wooden houses) on these spaces to claim terrain as their own throughout the game. Each board features a number of unique location spaces. By placing next to one of these, a player gains a token giving them a special ability they can use on every turn throughout the rest of the game.

A player's turn involves turning over the top card from the terrain deck and placing three settlements on that type of terrain. The settlements must be placed adjacent to existing settlements wherever possible. The first element of strategy in the game is finding ways to limit available adjacent spaces, so that if you draw a certain category of terrain and find you cannot place one that terrain while remaining adjacent to existing settlements, you can place elsewhere on the map, increasing scoring opportunities.

The special abilities (gained from location spaces) might allow you to place one extra settlement per turn on a particular terrain type; or place one extra settlement on the board edge; or move an existing settlement onto a water space etc. These all offer clever tactical choices.

Scoring occurs at the end of the game, and the criteria vary from one game to another. Three scoring criteria are drawn from a deck before the game begins and all are applied to the game. Examples would be scoring points by placing settlements next to water, or building the largest connected area of settlements, or building the most unconnected areas of settlements etc. The game offers particularly interesting choices when these scoring criteria work against each other. For example, offering points for a large area of connected settlements might be countered by a card offering points for a large number of unconnected settlements. Regardless of the scoring criteria drawn from the deck, you can always score points by placing next to the castle spaces which feature on every board.

The key feature of this game, and the one feature that it has in common with Dominion, is the huge variety of playing experiences offered in the base-game box. This variety is provided in various ways:

1. Placing four different boards (chosen from a selection of eight boards), in different positions and orientations, results in very different maps for each game. A map might feature massive expanses of desert, or many tiny regions. Water and mountains may block off regions from easy access, or they might be few and far between.
2. Different unique location-abilities are available on each map. So, four different abilities will be available in each game. Combining these abilities in different ways creates minor combination-moves which can put you in a powerful position.
3. Three different scoring criteria are drawn (from a deck of ten) for each game.

With all these different variables, the variety of different combinations is massive. Hence the game is almost endlessly replayable.


With thanks to BGG user aspillner for use of image

Components

The components are very good indeed. The unused boards cleverly double as a scoring track for each individual player. The boards are thick and weighty. The houses are standard Euro-game fare, but the colours chosen are not the classic red, blue, yellow, and green. Here we have orange, and beige. The multiple terrain types and the colourful houses make the board look stunning mid-game, and this is complemented by lovely artwork on the cards. No specific period or fantasy setting is defined, but the artwork creates an atmosphere. Thick tiles attach to the edge of the board describing the abilities of the locations featured - these are not necessary, but they are a lovely touch. The box is a large square, equivalent to a Ticket to Ride box, and it really needs to be this size to contain all these components.


With thanks to BGG user Robin for use of image

How well does the theme hold up?

It doesn't hold up well, and the game essentially plays as an abstract exercise. You are placing trails of counters across a map. There is no thematic justification for it. The abilities don't make much sense and the names on the scoring criteria are also pretty irrelevant - why do you score points for fishermen? Or shepherds? Or whatever other arbitrary group the game throws at you? Sometimes the game feels like a train game, as the scoring criteria demand that you link locations with a line of settlements. Other times it feels like area control, as you try and build up a majority in one of the regions on the board. However, as noted above, the lovely artwork does invoke an atmosphere, and in a game this light, that is enough for me.

Complexity

This game is very simple. It is aided by the fact that the rules-explainer only has to describe the rules relevant to that particular game, so that means explaining four location abilities and three scoring criteria. It doesn't take long to set up (if you have a sensible storage system worked out for all those little location tokens), so you can get into the game very quickly. The strategies are not deep, and new players, even non-gamers, will spot different approaches quickly. This is a game you can play with your family, but it does have interesting choices for gamers too.

The Luck factor

The biggest criticism which has been repeatedly aimed at the game on BGG is that many turns are carried out on auto-pilot. The combined limitations of playing on the terrain dictated by a card-draw, and having to place adjacent to existing settlements means you will sometimes have no choice over where your settlements can go. Many variants are discussed on BGG to overcome this. A good player can certainly lose this game due to bad luck, and if that is unacceptable to you this is not a game that you will enjoy.

Further, a player can find themselves trapped from the very start of the game, due to drawing the same terrain type over and over, or from a bad choice of initial placement. This can be intensely frustrating, especially for a new player, and I have seen players refuse to play again after their first game. For a game to lose players in this manner is a real shame, particularly since repeated plays will show that these are only occasional occurrences, and with a little practice those risky initial placements can be managed to a degree by clever placement.

Ultimately, the game is short; the game is light. It is not deep strategy, and it needs to be considered as the family-friendly light-gamer's title that it is. Alongside Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride,Takenoko, and others of that ilk, this game has a lot going for it.


With thanks to BGG user aspillner for use of image

Number of players

The game scales well from 2-4 players (5 with the expansion), but it is a very different experience with different player counts. The two player game is quite a gentle, quiet puzzle. You don't come into contact much with the other player and opportunities for blocking are few and far between. The four player game, by contrast, is often about vying for space and control of regions, with opportunities for blocking and limiting opponent's options.

Will my non-gamer partner enjoy it?

This was one of the first games my girlfriend and I played together, and we played it a lot (and enjoyed it). For several months we would frequently play this and Dominion as our favoured two-player games. However, after playing with larger player counts, we found that the two games diverged. Kingdom Builder suddenly seemed less of a game in its two-player incarnation, and we stopped playing it as a couple. I can't remember when my last two player game of this was, but I am more inclined to play with 3, 4, or 5 (with the expansion) now. As such, Kingdom Builder no longer works for us as a couple's game. As a side-note, Dominion is now favoured with two, and we tend to avoid larger player-counts.

In conclusion, I think Kingdom Builder has a limited lifespan as a two-player game, although it is fun. You should have no problem attracting a non-gamer partner to play it though. Aside from anything else, it looks fantastic!


With thanks to BGG user Chris Norwood for use of image

What other games is it like?

In the review so far, I have likened the game to Ticket to Ride, because of its train-like network of counters placed on a map, and light game-play. Lighter again are the network building games, Transamerica and TransEuropa.

I have also mentioned Carcassonne. Although the games work very differently, they have a similar weight to them, in terms of rules complexity and duration. Through The Desert is often listed as similar to Kingdom Builder, but I have not played that title.

If you enjoy Kingdom Builder and fancy a step up in complexity, I would suggest trying Java (if you can get your hands on it). This features a map made up of a hexagonal grid, different terrain types and scoring according to location and majorities. It is a very different game to Kingdom Builder, but feels like a deeper, more strategic entry in the same genre.

For a game with an enormous number of variables, and hence comparable replayability to Kingdom Builder, the same designer's Dominion is an excellent game (with even more possible permutations).

About the designer:

Donald X Vaccarino is an American game designer, most notable for his break-through hit, Dominion which invented a whole new genre of game (deck-building), and spawned a glut of "inspired-by", "reworked-from", and "ripped-off" titles. This brilliant game is known for its massive replayability, a feature incorporated into Vaccarino's next big title, Kingdom Builder. Dominion won the prestigious Spiel Des Jahres award in 2009, and Kingdom Builder won it in 2012. Dominion has been followed by a stream of high-quality expansions, but Vaccarino's other games have not achieved the same degree of praise and attention as his two flagship titles. Nefarious, Infiltration, and most recently Gauntlet of Fools, have all been modestly successful.

A quick note about the Nomads expansion

I have reviewed the expansion previously - follow this link: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/845716/europhile-reviews-mor...

Brief extract from review: "The expansion allows a fifth player without changing the initial four-board set-up. There are four new boards each with a new location/ability available. In addition, each board has a number of "Nomads" spaces which give a one-off ability which is more powerful than those from the standard locations. The new scoring criteria introduce scoring during your turn, so score-boards are now needed throughout. It adds a lot of variety to a game which has become one of my most-played, without over-complicating or adding to the game's duration. The interaction is increased due to new abilites/scoring, and adding more players is a nice touch."

Positives:

- It all looks great.
- Excellent variety and replayability.
- Mild interaction is never very aggressive.
- Light strategy easily picked up by newcomers.
- Simple to teach and learn.
- Good opportunities for expansion.
- Short playing time means games where you are short on luck don't drag on.

Negatives:

- Bad luck can ruin turn after turn.
- Little interaction might be an issue for some players.
- Expensive for what is essentially a short, light game.
- Little true depth for long-term strategy fans.
- Sometimes the game forces you into auto-pilot.

Is it a keeper?

It is as good a game as I have seen in the so called "Gateway" category. Simple to pick up and play for non-gamers and families, but with real choices for gamers. It works well as a shortish filler for gaming events, and scales well with different player counts. Plus it all looks lovely. I am still a frequent player after many months, so will be hanging on to this one.

See my other reviews at http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/146115/europhile-reviews-a...
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Martin G
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Bravo! Excellent, balanced review.
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Yours Truly,
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There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no. Somehow we missed it. Well, we'll know better next time.
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Great review!

My biggest disagreement with you though would be:
Quote:
How well does the theme hold up?

It doesn't hold up well, and the game essentially plays as an abstract exercise. You are placing trails of counters across a map. There is no thematic justification for it. The abilities don't make much sense and the names on the scoring criteria are also pretty irrelevant - why do you score points for fishermen? Or shepherds? Or whatever other arbitrary group the game throws at you?


While, yes, it is a light theme, I definitely see more theme-mechanism integration than you.
I see the 3 scoring cards as the type of citizens you have. Then, your job as "kingdom builder" is to build a kingdom that is optimized for them.

You ask why you'd score points for fisherman?
Well, if you put them next to the water, they score points, because then they can fish. Stick 'em on a landlocked hex and how can they fish?

Miners? They'll only mine in the mountains.
Merchants create trade-routes between cities, like the spice trade routes of yore.
Hermits like to be alone.

Not all of the scoring cards have such an intuitive link, but some definitely do, so I'd submit that the theme holds up a bit more than you give it credit for.
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Adam Porter
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JohnnyDollar wrote:
Great review!

My biggest disagreement with you though would be:
Quote:
How well does the theme hold up?

It doesn't hold up well, and the game essentially plays as an abstract exercise. You are placing trails of counters across a map. There is no thematic justification for it. The abilities don't make much sense and the names on the scoring criteria are also pretty irrelevant - why do you score points for fishermen? Or shepherds? Or whatever other arbitrary group the game throws at you?


While, yes, it is a light theme, I definitely see more theme-mechanism integration than you.
I see the 3 scoring cards as the type of citizens you have. Then, your job as "kingdom builder" is to build a kingdom that is optimized for them.

You ask why you'd score points for fisherman?
Well, if you put them next to the water, they score points, because then they can fish. Stick 'em on a landlocked hex and how can they fish?

Miners? They'll only mine in the mountains.
Merchants create trade-routes between cities, like the spice trade routes of yore.
Hermits like to be alone.

Not all of the scoring cards have such an intuitive link, but some definitely do, so I'd submit that the theme holds up a bit more than you give it credit for.


I do agree that some of the cards and location-abilities are appropriately named, as are the cards in Dominion, and that this brings a low level of theme into the game. But it feels like a stretch to assume that a burgeoning civilisation will be entirely made up of hermits etc.

I think this game is atmospheric, rather than thematic. I've put together a six-point scale to try and illustrate what I mean by that.

(I should say, in stating that something is lacking in theme, I am not criticising the game. Many of my favourites lack theme, and many of my least favourite games are deeply thematic.)

Six point scale of Theme and Abstraction

Abstract:

1. Components and actions are not named. The game has no setting.
e.g. Mancala, Scrabble, Dixit

2. Components/actions are named or illustrated, but this has no relation to their abilities and activities within the game. The game may have a setting.
e.g. Chess, Go, Poker, The Climbers

Atmospheric:

3. Components/actions are named or illustrated, and this has some relation to their abilities and activities within the game. The game may have a setting.
e.g. Kingdom Builder, Dominion, Braggart, The Castles of Burgundy

4. Components/actions are named or illustrated, and this is directly related to their abilities and activities within the game. The game has a setting. Mechanics of gameplay are favoured over theme, and the game features major logical inconsistencies with the theme.
e.g. Drum Roll, Glen More, Mr Jack, Takenoko

Thematic:

5. Components/actions are named or illustrated, and this is directly related to their abilities and activities within the game. The game has a setting. Mechanics of gameplay and theme are equally important. In playing the game, the players create a story. The game features minor logical inconsistencies with the theme.
e.g. Agricola, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, King of Tokyo, Power Grid, Small World

6. Components/actions are named or illustrated, and this is directly related to their abilities and activities within the game. The game has a setting. Theme is favoured over mechanics of gameplay. In playing the game, the players create a story. The game features few logical inconsistencies with the theme, and to all intents and purposes, is a simulation.
e.g. Mansions of Madness, Blood Bowl, D-Day Dice, Mice and Mystics, X-Wing, Super Dungeon Explore
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Russ Williams
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A minor comment:
Adam78 wrote:
The unused boards cleverly double as a scoring track for each individual player.

I've never seen anyone use individual score tracks like that. I've always seen a single score track used, with all players marking on the single score track. Having scoring tracks for each individual player would use a lot more table space.

FWIW, the rules say "Now each player calculates the amount of gold they have earned and records their total on the gold score track."

Not that it makes any real difference in computing the result. We could just as well use paper and pencil.
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Adam Porter
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russ wrote:
A minor comment:
Adam78 wrote:
The unused boards cleverly double as a scoring track for each individual player.

I've never seen anyone use individual score tracks like that. I've always seen a single score track used, with all players marking on the single score track. Having scoring tracks for each individual player would use a lot more table space.

FWIW, the rules say "Now each player calculates the amount of gold they have earned and records their total on the gold score track."

Not that it makes any real difference in computing the result. We could just as well use paper and pencil.


Ha! I'd never thought of doing it on one board - not that it makes much difference if your table is big enough. There have been times that I've looked at a players score and thought "Really? How have you got that much?" Not suggesting that any players I play with would cheat, but a shared scoring chart does mean everyone is going to be much more aware of how their opponents are doing!
 
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Russ Williams
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Adam78 wrote:
Ha! I'd never thought of doing it on one board - not that it makes much difference if your table is big enough. There have been times that I've looked at a players score and thought "Really? How have you got that much?" Not suggesting that any players I play with would cheat, but a shared scoring chart does mean everyone is going to be much more aware of how their opponents are doing!

In most games with end-of-game scoring (i.e. not just Kingdom Builder), we compute the scores together. Not from fear that someone's cheating, but just because humans make mistakes and multiple eyes catch errors more easily. It also seems more social/pleasing to do it together.
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Martin G
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Yeah, we do it all together too, one category at a time. And if there's one like Miners or Fishermen we usually do it by picking up the houses off the board to count them (after scoring all the other categories!)
 
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Matt N

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Good review. I do think that strategy has a bigger role than you give it credit, depending heavily on what cards are out. If you score 4 points per connected city, that's a big incentive to plan ahead. There's also manipulating your powers so you don't get screwed by the early double land draw. (A triple land draw probably does screw you, but that's less than 1/25 of the time and can sometimes work.)

Put another way, it's better to start in the six tile area than the twenty tile area for strategic reasons.
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