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Subject: A DOM review of Kingdom Builder... rss

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Eric Martin
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(This review first appeared with pics at my little Death of Monopoly blog: http://deathofmonopoly.blogspot.ca/2012/03/review-of-kingdom....)

Following up Dominion has got to be one helluva tough task. The original "deck-building" card game has spawned a dynamic, exciting, and very different way to play hobby games. Whether or not you like Dominion, it's clear that its impact over the past 4 years has been a monumental game-changer (excuse the pun) unlike anything since Magic: The Gathering. So when that's your debut, expectations are pretty high for the sophomore effort. Cue 4 years later and we get Kingdom Builder from Queen Games, a beautifully produced abstract board game that I argue is clearly inspired by the modularity of Dominion but really lacks that game's originality, depth, and most of its excitement.

Now some will argue that comparing Kingdom Builder to Dominion isn't really fair as the gameplay is so different, one being an abstract network-building Euro and the other a deck-building card game. I would say, however, that the comparison is quite apt not only because they have the same designer but also because the only really original part of KB is clearly inspired by the random Kingdom card setup of Dominion. And sadly for me, this seems to be the only really interesting part of the game as well.

So what do you do in Kingdom Builder? Well, that really depends on the 3 scoring cards you draw at the beginning of the game out of a possible 10. One card, for example, gives points for large contiguous groups of connected settlements and another awards first and second place to players with majorities in quadrants of the board. Some scoring cards encourage spreading out while others invite you to surround certain spaces on the board. The one scoring condition that holds true every game, and hence does not require a card, is that you receive 3 points for every castle you connect to. In each game, there are between 4 and 6 castles so this is nothing to scoff at when high score sometimes can be as low as 40. So in essence this is really a connection game, much like Ticket To Ride or Through The Desert.

The gameplay itself is fairly simple, almost too simple. In fact, the first time I read through the ruleset, my immediate thoughts were, "Is that it?" and I actually avoided the purchase until I'd been swayed by some fairly positive reviews. In short, each player has 40 houses ("settlements") to place on the board to maximize their points according to the 3 scoring cards picked for that game. Every round a player draws a landscape card which designates on which of the 5 types of empty landscape spaces he MUST play 3 of his houses. In addition, if at all possible these new settlements must be played connected to one of that player's previously played settlements. And that's mostly it. But the thing is, it's these two somewhat artificial constraints that require most of the strategy and yet also provide a lot of the aggravation. Let me explain further.

The different blocks of landscape are all large and connected to each other so when you place 3 settlements in the desert, for example, you could decide whether to place at the edge of the desert next to, say, a patch of forest. This will allow you to continue onto that forest if you draw a forest card later. More often, though, you are trying not to connect to that forest region so that if you draw that forest card later and you are forced to play on a forest, you can start anywhere as hopefully there are no empty forest hexes next to your played settlements. Notice how both of these moves depended mightily on that certain card you drew later. But what happens if you played in the desert and then you drew another desert card and had to stay connected and play more houses in the desert. And you had no choice but to play your houses adjacent to the fields which you don't feel like expanding into. Then the next turn you draw a field card and, well, there goes another turn as you are forced to play into the fields. Yeah, lame. There are some turns in this game that almost completely play themselves and usually not in the way you want them to either. Considering you get at most 14 turns in the game (and that's if you play really poorly), wasting 3 or 4 on bad cards draw does not feel good at all.

Not to say there aren't some ways around this. Certain locations on the board when connected to provide an action token which you can use repeatedly to do things like add a settlement to a certain terrain type or move one settlement 2 spaces, the latter being very useful. And like the scoring cards, only 4 of the 8 different action tokens are available every game providing more of that Dominion-style modularity. And sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Clever plays can be made when certain tokens are played before your landscape card allowing you to make a connection your previously couldn't. But this does lead to some major down-time when one player has 5 tokens and a landscape card and is scratching their head trying to optimize their move according to the four different scoring possibilities. Even worse, as in our last game, one player could get a field card then a chasm card on the first couple turns, completely surround the harbour action space, and basically lock everyone else out of the win in the first 5 minutes. Geez, wish we'd drawn either of those cards.....

So why is Dominion such a success whilst Kingdom Builder just falls kind of flat? Both games start with a very simple base game and build upon it using a subset of rules possibilities. Out of that modularity comes the interest in the game. The big difference is that base game of Dominion is unique, exciting, and very different and the cards there tweak that formula in very different ways. Kingdom Builder is not unique and really not that interesting. Flip a card, play houses on that type of space, remain connected if possible. The variety introduced by the actions usually does little more than let you play another house and the scoring opportunities are in general rather dull ("score for majority", "make the biggest connected group", "connect locations together on the board"). All of these goals have been done before many times, and I daresay better in most cases, so randomly combining a few of them doesn't really add that much tension.

In addition, unlike Dominion which is a fairly balanced game (yes, it really is, everyone can buy the exact same cards), KB is totally unbalanced and rather luck-driven by the landscape cards. One only has to go to the BGG threads to see how some players have tried to fix this aspect of the game. When you have a strategy but you have to waste turns ignoring it and just playing what the card tells you to, there is something seriously wrong.

Finally, and I think this is the biggest issue with Kingdom Builder, Dominion provides rewarding moments throughout its play-time. Every time you draw and cleverly chain together enough cards to purchase a Province in Dominion, it's that emotional payoff, that reason to continue. Other much better connection games have these mid-game rewards, too, like Ticket To Ride when you connect two cities to finish a ticket or Through The Desert when you surround a group of point chips and pick them up immediately. The problem with KB is that all of the scoring occurs at the end of the game no matter what scoring cards you're playing with so the most interesting part of the game for me is the last two minutes when we tally it all up. Too bad we played for 45 minutes to an hour just to get there.

I'm surprised that something this light and luck-driven has been released by Queen Games who in the past few years have released some of my favourite games. I kind of feel like they saw the runaway success of Dominion and its and decided to just accept the next thing from him to come along. Not to say that others couldn't enjoy this game, as it's not awful or unplayable. I mean, there is definitely a following online of people have house-ruled this game to shit trying to make it more strategic. But I'm kind of stubborn about house rules as I treat games like I do art, movies, and music. I want to experience a game exactly as the designer and company intended me to experience it, good or bad. And even if one is able to fix the random "you win, you don't" aspect of the landscape card draw, I just don't find the game all that interesting. I think the next time I'm in the mood for a good connection game, I'll just go back to Knizia's classic Through The Desert which is a helluva lot more fun.

I probably should have just listened to my gut when I first read the rule-set. Ah well, you live, you learn.
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Michael Snedeker

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By using any of the "card playing" variants posted, this game does come alive. As written, it does have too much luck "as is". But with the variety of different ways to play cards, it can be a great game. Not sure why this one card issue never came up during play-testing...
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Russ Williams
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I've become fond of my luckless variant: each turn you simply choose 1 of the 5 types of terrain.
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Pater Absurdus
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board_games_reno wrote:
By using any of the "card playing" variants posted, this game does come alive. As written, it does have too much luck "as is". But with the variety of different ways to play cards, it can be a great game. Not sure why this one card issue never came up during play-testing...


I like the game but think that it needs some official variants and/or expansions for it to compete with other games I have.

I believe that Donald had intended for the special locations to have been randomly selected for each board but that was nixed by Queen in order to make it more family friendly. I think that would have helped a lot to add variability.

I need to try this but a variant where you can choose between a face up card or a random draw could be pretty interesting. Something along these lines was mentioned by another player but I have yet to try it.
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Kathy Sheets
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I truly think personal preference dictates whether you like one game over another. Dominion was a complete wash out with my husband, adult son and me. I could barely get them to play several games so that I felt we had truly evaluated it before we traded it away. So I was very reluctant to purchase KB but finally caved after much research.

It has definitely been my most successful buy ever! We had more than 40 plays in the first 3 weeks we had it. And we continue to play it nearly daily, often playing best out of 3 tournaments. The only 'variant' we employ is that, if desired, you may redraw on your second turn if you happen to get the same terrain type as you had on your first draw.

I understand your point about scoring, but it just means, to us, that you have to stay on top of what you and your opponents are doing in order to win. The more plays we have, the more strategy has been revealed to us and very rarely do we feel that we can't get around the luck of the draw.
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Matt Loscutoff
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"When you have a strategy but you have to waste turns ignoring it and just playing what the card tells you to, there is something seriously wrong."

Yes - with your strategy.
Incorporate all game factors into your tactics & strategy.
There are no 'random card draws' in Dominion?
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Eric Martin
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I knew people would pick on this line of my review. But I seriously think this is a flaw. I have wasted turn after turn playing into the exact same region I was already in due to lame card draws. If I start in a desert and only draw desert cards for three turns in a row (which has happened) I have no choice but to continue playing there. SO lame. This has nothing to do with long-term strategy or rolling with the punches by being prepared for anything. It's random ugly luck.

No matter how many regions you set yourself up for, if you can't reach a useful location hex early on due to card draws, you're out. In 3 of the 5 games I've played, I felt half my turns were completely futile due to the luck of the draw.

And yes, there are random card draws in Dominion. But the strategy lies completely in how buy and build your deck. I feel when I play Dominion that I have complete control of how things turn out, even if it doesn't occur in exactly the order I want it to. No matter what card I buy, I know it will eventually turn up. In KB, I found that you set yourself up completely for certain card draws and a lot of the time they never happen.

I think that when I know that I've lost an hour-long game in the first five minutes and there was nothing I could do anything about it due to the card draw, then that sucks and it means they game was not play-tested thoroughly enough.

But hey, if you like it, I gotta copy I'll gladly sell you.
 
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P. oeppel
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e9martin wrote:
Even worse, as in our last game, one player could get a field card then a chasm card on the first couple turns, completely surround the harbour action space, and basically lock everyone else out of the win in the first 5 minutes. Geez, wish we'd drawn either of those cards.....



I don't get why harbour=win and no harbour=loss. Care to explain?

*puzzled*
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Kathy Sheets
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e9martin wrote:
I knew people would pick on this line of my review. But I seriously think this is a flaw. I have wasted turn after turn playing into the exact same region I was already in due to lame card draws. If I start in a desert and only draw desert cards for three turns in a row (which has happened) I have no choice but to continue playing there. SO lame. This has nothing to do with long-term strategy or rolling with the punches by being prepared for anything. It's random ugly luck.

No matter how many regions you set yourself up for, if you can't reach a useful location hex early on due to card draws, you're out. In 3 of the 5 games I've played, I felt half my turns were completely futile due to the luck of the draw.

And yes, there are random card draws in Dominion. But the strategy lies completely in how buy and build your deck. I feel when I play Dominion that I have complete control of how things turn out, even if it doesn't occur in exactly the order I want it to. No matter what card I buy, I know it will eventually turn up. In KB, I found that you set yourself up completely for certain card draws and a lot of the time they never happen.

I think that when I know that I've lost an hour-long game in the first five minutes and there was nothing I could do anything about it due to the card draw, then that sucks and it means they game was not play-tested thoroughly enough.

But hey, if you like it, I gotta copy I'll gladly sell you.


A lot of the strategy involves setting yourself up for limited plays in one region and limited or focused connections to other terrains. You have to really manage your exposure and that's where the fun is. You can still get stuck but it's not so frequent once you realize the importance of managing exposure and often your own fault if you do get stuck like that.

That said, you still don't have to like the game. It's just that it seems to me from reading your review that you are blaming the game for your own mistakes and those mistakes came about from your not understanding the game since you haven't given it enough plays. That's what I suspect is the cause of me and my family not liking Dominion. I don't think we played it enough to develop the intense interest that many people have right off the bat but that doesn't make it a bad game, just not one for us. I think that's what's happening with you and KB, but it's not the game--it's you, which is fine.

And I already have it, but I'm sure someone will take your copy off your hands. I didn't have any trouble getting rid of Dominion.
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Eric Martin
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pinoeppel wrote:
e9martin wrote:
Even worse, as in our last game, one player could get a field card then a chasm card on the first couple turns, completely surround the harbour action space, and basically lock everyone else out of the win in the first 5 minutes. Geez, wish we'd drawn either of those cards.....



I don't get why harbour=win and no harbour=loss. Care to explain?

*puzzled*


Hmmmm, I can't remember the exact setup. I think the game required connections of different locations - 4 points each - and looking at the bard structure at the beginning, it was clear we'd have to cross a lot of water to do that. The game went sour as soon the harbour was surrounded and the person who did managed to beat us all by a good 20-30 points.

And Kathy, I appreciate that you love this game. I think it's simple and easy to explain which makes it nice to introduce to people. I did play it 5 times and after every time I kept thinking, "maybe it's just this setup of cards and I need to try it again". Most of the games I own that I really love only ever get 2 or 3 plays (I buy WAY too many games). Kingdom Builder got a fair chance in my books and most of my friends are also happy to see it go away. I think 5 good plays is usually enough to write a fair review, 1 or 2 and I'd totally disagree.

I will say that I like KB a little more than the Settlers of Catan with which I have similar issues. You try to set yourself up for the best spots and hope beyond hope that luck will be with you. But in the end it comes down to a die roll or a card flip.
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Stefaan Henderickx
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If you start on a desert region that is so big that it forces you to play in the same region when you draw 2 more deserts, you played poorly. Don't blame the game.

If you start the game with a strategy and want to play it without adjusting it to your draws, you play poorly. If you like to play like this (nothing wrong with that), play another game, this game is about playing flexible.

Your point about the harbor is pointless: every game is different, in some setups it may be important (but do not forget: you have to place adjacent also on water), in some setups I do not care about harbor. If it was important and he claimed it, he played well, up to you to counter him with 1 of the 4 scoring methods. Anyway for us it's only a 15 minute game, if someone wins with a big move, challenge him for another round.
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Kathy Sheets
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stefaan wrote:
Anyway for us it's only a 15 minute game, if someone wins with a big move, challenge him for another round.


Yes, and for us this is often a best out of three competition.
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Alan Kwan
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e9martin wrote:
I think the game required connections of different locations - 4 points each - and looking at the board structure at the beginning, it was clear we'd have to cross a lot of water to do that. The game went sour as soon the harbour was surrounded and the person who did managed to beat us all by a good 20-30 points.


The harbor is very handy when the Merchant is in play, but it is not absolutely required. In any case, even if he doesn't lock out the harbor, there are only two harbor tiles, so in a 4-player game two of the players will have to do without.

20-30 is a very big margin. Having the harbor might make the difference of 2 or 3 more connected places, for a 8-12 points difference, so it seems that the other players had played poorly (or unluckily) in other ways too.

Are you sure you get the rules correctly? For the Merchant you score for every castle/location which is connected with any other; you don't have to connect up a huge settlement area in order to score for them all. For example you can connect three and then connect two somewhere else in order to score for five; you don't have to connect the two groups.

Quote:
I will say that I like KB a little more than the Settlers of Catan with which I have similar issues. You try to set yourself up for the best spots and hope beyond hope that luck will be with you. But in the end it comes down to a die roll or a card flip.


1. Kingdom Builder is a lot shorter than Settlers.
2. The chance of bad luck in Kingdom Builder (getting so bad cards that one can't do anything useful) is lower then that in Settlers (not rolling enough resources to build).
 
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Eric Martin
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stefaan wrote:
If you start on a desert region that is so big that it forces you to play in the same region when you draw 2 more deserts, you played poorly. Don't blame the game.

If you start the game with a strategy and want to play it without adjusting it to your draws, you play poorly. If you like to play like this (nothing wrong with that), play another game, this game is about playing flexible.

Your point about the harbor is pointless: every game is different, in some setups it may be important (but do not forget: you have to place adjacent also on water), in some setups I do not care about harbor. If it was important and he claimed it, he played well, up to you to counter him with 1 of the 4 scoring methods. Anyway for us it's only a 15 minute game, if someone wins with a big move, challenge him for another round.


Right, right, whatever. We can argue all you want about how dumb a player I am and how I just can't figure out the "complex" strategy. Whatever. It's a game of mitigating risk and I've played lots of those. If I wanted something serious I'd play a game like In The Year of The Dragon which would be far more interesting. If I wanted a game of connection, like I said I'd choose something far more superior and luck-less like Through The Desert.

In the end, if you'd read my original post thoroughly, I find the game boring. Boring. It's dull and unoriginal but relatively harmless. And most of the people I've played it with feel the same way.

And I wish for the life of me I knew people who could play this game in 15 minutes. Every round I've played takes close to an hour. Way too long.
 
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Adam Dittmer
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If it takes an hour to play the game, I can see how it would be boring. We played the first two games after we got it in less than an hour. I respectfully disagree with basically everything said in this review. The replayability is very high and the room for strategy is very great. It is setup for the occasional gamer and the hardcore alike. Sure, it is not as complex as something like Agricola, but it is extremely successful for what it is.
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