Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
Kingdom Builder seems to be a particularly divisive title on BGG. For me, it is comfortably my favourite game of 2011 and has raced past 30 plays in a mere 6 months. Several of my most-trusted geekbuddies enjoy it too, and it looks like the favourite for the Spiel des Jahres. However, many BGGers seem to have found it mediocre or worse, judging by the number of derisive reviews and comments. I want to take a look at what makes the game tick and why it is still working for me after 30 plays. This would have been my entry for the Voice of Experience conetst, if I were not organising it!
My gaming preferences
Over my five years in the hobby, I have developed a good sense of what I like in games and where that differs from the BGG mainstream. I think declaring this perspective upfront will help readers decide whether they are likely to agree with my conclusions or not. I strongly favour elegance over fiddliness, and enjoy games in which the complexity emerges from reasonably simple rules. I think board games (as opposed to card games) should have all players interacting on a shared area, preferably with a strong spatial element, rather than mostly focusing on individual player boards. I am very keen on inter-play variability and games that can continue to offer surprises. Often I find this preference draws me towards games with imperfect information and some randomness, though this must be manageable and not descend into chaos. I like constrained choices, which force me to do the best with what I have, often by managing a hand of cards.
Brief summary of the game
As the follow-up to Donald X Vaccarino's enormously successful Dominion, Kingdom Builder was a hotly awaited release. It shares enough significant features with Dominion to identify a distinctive Vaccarino style, which I will talk more about later. Unlike Dominion, it is a board game. Players take turns to place some of their 40 settlements onto a hex map made up of various terrains, in order to work towards three scoring objectives randomly selected from ten at the start of the game.
The basic mechanism is very simple: the terrain on which you can place settlements each turn is dictated by the draw of a single card, and a player's settlements must be placed adjacent to his existing ones where possible. This single card 'hand' has been the subject of much of the scorn directed at the game and I will address this later.
Variability between plays is provided not only by the randomised scoring cards, but also by the setup of the map. Four boards are chosen from eight, and set up in a 2x2 grid. Each contains one or two locations which offer bonus power tiles when settlements are placed adjacent to them. These tiles provide an ability, unique to each board, that can be used once per turn for the rest of the game. In the base set, they all involve adding an extra settlement or relocating an existing one. This makes the game something of a spatial engine-builder. In early turns it will be important to acquire bonus tiles, while later in the game, play will focus almost entirely on gaining points from the scoring cards.
What a turn feels like
To me, each turn feels like a miniature puzzle. The card you have drawn tells you where your three mandatory settlements must be placed. By the mid-game, you will probably have two or three bonus tiles to use in addition. Given these constraints, you must identify how best to place your settlements by balancing several factors.
1. Immediate rewards, such as placing adjacent to a new location and thus gaining another bonus tile. Some locations, called castles, do not offer a bonus tile, but simply 3VP at the end of the game.
2. Working towards scoring objectives. Aside from the castle locations mentioned above, the only way of scoring VPs is through the three randomly selected scoring cards, which are resolved at the end of the game. Some of these behave like immediate rewards, while some require mid-term or even game-long planning.
3. Managing terrain connectivity. Since you must place adjacent where possible, early in the game it is best to be connected to as few terrain types as possible. This grants flexibility and makes you less dependent on card draw. In the mid-game, it will become impossible to avoid touching all the terrain types. Instead you will switch to maximising connectivity, in order to guarantee that there is something useful to do with any given terrain card.
While some would have you believe that there are no choices in this game because of the single card draw, I find that there are many possible ways of playing each turn, depending on how you prioritise the three factors above. As described, this prioritisation also shifts through the game, which will usually last around 10 turns per player. I suspect that the "no choices" critics have not appreciated the third point, in particular, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Failing to manage connectivity on one turn will restrict your choices on subsequent turns, giving the appearance of an overly prescriptive game.
Scoring card types
This is probably a good time to give a brief breakdown of the scoring cards. I classify them according to a 2x2 matrix. One axis describes whether the goal is related to the specific geographic layout of the terrains or not, while the other describes whether the scoring is linear i.e. a reward for each settlement placed, or non-linear i.e. dependent on completing some kind of multiple settlement structure over time.
| Terrain-dependent | Non-terrain-dependent
Linear | Fishermen | Knights
| Miners | Discoverers
| Workers | Citizens
| | Hermits
Non-linear | Merchants | Lords
| | Farmers
The simplest cards are linear and terrain-dependent. These just give one point for placing adjacent to water (Fishermen), mountains (Miners), and locations (Workers). If these were the three goals in play, the board would effectively become a simple heat map of hexes worth 0, 1, 2 or 3 points and the game a race to occupy the best positions.
The linear non-terrain-dependent goals come in two antagonistic pairs. Knights rewards players for each settlement placed in the horizontal line in which they have most settlements; while Discoverers rewards players for each different horizontal line which they occupy with at least one settlement. Citizens rewards a large contiguous group of settlements, while Hermits rewards each discrete group of settlements.
For me, the game comes into its own when at least one of the non-linear goals is included, as they reward medium- to long-term planning in a way that the linear goals do not. The terrain-dependent one is Merchants, which gives a large reward for connecting a pair of locations with a chain of houses. The non-terrain dependent ones are Lords and Farmers. Lords makes each of the four boards into a separate sector for area majority scoring, with 12VP awarded for most settlements in a sector and 6VP for runner-up. Farmers pays homage to Knizia by awarding 3VP for each settlement a player has placed on the board on which he has placed fewest.
Bonus tile types
The bonus tiles powers can be broken down into a similar matrix. Again, one of the dimensions is whether or not they are keyed to specific terrains, but the other dimension is whether they allow the addition of an extra settlement or the moving of an existing one.
| Terrain-dependent | Non-terrain-dependent
Addition | Oasis | Tavern
| Farm | Tower
| Oracle |
Movement | Harbour | Paddock
| Barn |
The simplest bonus tiles allow the addition of a single settlement to a specific terrain: Oasis to desert; Farm to grass; Oracle to whichever card was played this turn. Next are those which allow movement to a specific terrain: the Harbour, which is the only way settlements can be located in water; and the Barn, which allows relocation to the terrain of the card played this turn.
Non-terrain-dependent addition tiles allow a straight line of three or more settlements to be extended by one (Tavern) or a settlement to be added to the outer perimeter of the board (Tower). Like the terrain-dependent ones, the settlements placed through these tiles must still follow the adjacency restriction.
Most game-warping in the base set, and the only non-terrain-dependent movement ability, is the Paddock. This is the only power which breaks the adjacency rule, by allowing a settlement to 'hop' two spaces in any direction, including over obstacles such as mountains, water and other players' settlements.
Interaction between goals and powers
It will already be apparent that the interaction between the set of powers available and the set of goals drives much of the inter-play variability of the game. From the start, players must assess which powers should be prioritised for acquisition, given the scoring cards. For a simple example, the Hermits goal (separated settlement groups) is far, far easier to achieve with the Paddock's adjacency-breaking power than without it.
The game ends at the end of the round when one player has exhausted their supply of settlements, so having several addition powers can force a quick game in which you end with more houses on the board than your opponents. This is useful for several of the scoring cards, such as Lords, the area majority goal. However, movement powers offer a surprising amount of flexibility, often more because of where you move the settlements from than where you move them to. In particular, they allow better management of terrain connectivity, by permitting the removal of an unhelpful adjacency prior to placing the three card-driven settlements for the turn.
While some critics have argued that the game boils down to simply identifying the most important scoring card and working towards it, in fact the winner of the game will be determined by efficiency. Where possible, settlements should be placed to work towards several goals simultaneously. While some scoring cards may look more important because they typically give a higher absolute VP score, in fact it is only the differential between players within each scoring card that matters. For example, connecting to four castles when your opponents only managed one gives an absolute score of 12 but a relative gain of 9, while scoring 20 for Discoverers when your opponents managed 18 and 19 is fairly insignificant.
Addressing the biggest complaint
A recurring complaint from critics of the game is that the single card hand robs players of meaningful choices, and dictates an 'obvious' place that they must play each turn. Several variants have been proposed to correct this 'problem', helpfully summarised in the Kingdom Builder FAQ, and often involving either a hand of more than one card or some way of choosing the next card you will draw.
I have already explained that I think this criticism is based on a poor understanding of the vital skill of managing terrain connectivity. But furthermore, I think that these variants fundamentally change the nature of the game into something that the designer did not intend and that is at odds with my personal preferences.
With a single card, each turn is a constrained optimisation problem, or puzzle, as discussed above. You start from the card you have drawn, construct various possibilities and assess them against the three factors of immediate reward, scoring potential and terrain connectivity. Allowing a choice from multiple terrains inverts this exercise. You would have to identify first where you would ideally like to play, and then which card you need in order to achieve this.
As someone who enjoys doing the best with what I have, this does not appeal. I also suspect that it would add an undesirable amount of additional downtime (see below) while players pondered their expanded set of options. In my experience, a single card, in combination with some bonus tiles, still allows for plentiful choice and creativity. Indeed, Russ Williams' clever experiment demonstrated that the "single obvious placement" criticism is erroneous.
Where the criticism may have some validity is with the very first placements of the game. Each player will almost always want to grab a bonus tile on their first turn. The first card drawn will determine which ones you can access, and late in the turn order you can be left with little choice. A string of two or three of the same terrain right at the start can also leave a player feeling stuck in their initial location, but this can usually be countered by choosing your first bonus tile to be one that guarantees access to a second. I have some sympathy for variants that allow extra choice in the first turn, and I try to advise new players when I think they have made a poor initial choice, usually by connecting to too many different terrain types.
The unique selling point
Having explained why I see the most common complaint about the game as a feature not a bug, I will turn to what I regard as the game's USP.
In a recent interview, Vaccarino gave this interesting quote:
I think of games as having three main pieces: mechanics, flavor, and data. And usually I make them in that order. The mechanics are, you know, what you do, the main part of it anyway. Flavor is the theme. And then data is just the information in the game. For example in Puerto Rico the mechanic is “pick an action, we all do it, it’s better for you.” There are other mechanics but they are secondary. The flavor is plantations in the New World, and then the data is, you have a certain amount of money and corn and indigo and colonists and so on, you have a certain set of plantations and quarries and buildings, and pairings of colonies with buildings.I had previously broken down games mainly in terms of mechanics and dynamics. Mechanics are the explicit rules of the game, while dynamics describes the emergent gameplay that arises from these rules. I would have considered Vaccarino’s ‘data’ to be a subset of the mechanics of a game.
However, it is a hallmark of Vaccarino’s games in particular that the distinction between mechanics and data is very clear. The mechanics of Dominion are as simple as ABC, but the heart of the game comes from data injected on the cards. Similarly, Kingdom Builder has a simple mechanical framework that allows for large variability in both the goals of the game (scoring cards) and the tools used to achieve them (bonus tiles). For example, a game with only addition bonus tiles feels very different from one with lots of movement tiles, just as traditional abstract games are often divided into games of placement and games of movement.
What I find most remarkable about Kingdom Builder is that the data introduced into the game doesn’t just introduce new mechanics, but also new dynamics. With the Lords card in play, there is a vying interaction between players that is not present without it. With Merchants in play, suddenly blocking other players’ connections becomes hugely important.
You can choose a set of linear, terrain-based goals and race to the key positions. You can choose a set of non-terrain-based goals and use the map as the background for a weird abstract dance of settlements. You can combine the two and have to strike a balance between short-term gratification and long-term planning. It’s almost like the game system is a machine for mixing and matching mechanics and dynamics to generate new games or simulate the feel of existing ones.
I find this variability delightful, and I enjoy looking back at the board at the end of the game and reflecting on how the morphology of settlements that has emerged over the course of the game has been driven by the goals in play.
All that said, there are a few minor drawbacks to the game that stop it being a perfect 10 for me. One is downtime. I generally prefer games with many short turns, or with turns in which all players are active. In the mid-game, once players have several bonus tiles, turns can become quite lengthy and there is nothing for other players to do during them.
Relatedly, the game is not generally high on interaction, although this does vary between the scoring cards, as mentioned above. On the plus side, the relative lack of interaction means the game scales well from 2-4 players, though I suspect the 5th player allowed by the first expansion would exacerbate the downtime problem to an unbearable level.
Finally, much like Dominion, the game is highly abstracted. The generic medievalism is used almost purely as a setting, with some weak connections to the mechanics and none to the dynamics. This is not a problem for me, as a Euro-phile and die-hard Knizia fan, but some will be put off by it.
Comparisons to other games
A couple of games are commonly brought up as comparisons, so I will briefly share my thoughts on those.
Inevitably, Vaccarino’s subsequent games are going to be compared to his breakthrough hit Dominion. I’ve already mentioned a few similarities that identify a DXV style, the clearest being the separation between data and mechanics. Important parts of how the game works are chosen from a larger set at the start of each game, allowing a huge number of possible combinations. Thus in both games, initial board assessment is important, to work out which strategies to pursue. Both games also have an engine-building arc, with early turns focusing on acquiring powers and later ones switching to a scoring focus.
Where Kingdom Builder succeeds over Dominion for me (comparing base sets only) is that the game isn’t so entirely focused on the board assessment. Once a strategy is chosen in Dominion, how to play your cards each turn becomes auto-pilot. In Kingdom Builder, I find that later turns still retain the puzzle-like aspect described earlier. This means that in Dominion, it can feel like there is a disconnect between the part where you get to be clever (initial board assessment) and the final outcome. Kingdom Builder provides opportunities to feel clever and creative on each turn.
Unlike Dominion, Kingdom Builder is not really about combos. One reason I tired of base Dominion was that it seemed that there were only a handful of really game-changing cards and most cards in a given set were ignored once the killer combo was identified. If you want to win Kingdom Builder, it’s impossible to ignore any of the scoring cards.
I also find the variability in the Kingdom Builder scoring cards more radical than that of the Dominion cards. A game of (base) Dominion gives you different tools but the same goal of filling your deck with point cards by the end of the game. Kingdom Builder allows the goals and dynamics to be altered too, as I described above.
Finally, the downtime, interaction and theme complaints about Kingdom Builder could equally be levelled at Dominion too.
Through the Desert
The other oft-cited game is Knizia’s Through the Desert. On a surface level, this seems apt. Both games have players placing pieces on a hex grid in order to connect to specific locations and to achieve longer-term goals. However, I find that the two games feel very different to play.
As described, Kingdom Builder’s single card hand makes it a game of doing the best with what you have. In contrast, Through the Desert is a perfect information game where the tension comes more from a Go-like assessment of what you need to do now versus what can safely be left for later. There is also no engine building element in Through the Desert, nor does it have the variability that Kingdom Builder offers.
It would be possible to design scoring cards for Kingdom Builder that make it feel more like Through the Desert. For example, I was half expecting the Nomads expansion to introduce an area-enclosure element, and I still wonder if this will show up in a future expansion. For me, this demonstrates the flexibility of Kingdom Builder as a game system that can easily incorporate dynamics from other games.
Like Dominion, the separation of data and mechanics makes the game a prime target for expansions. Indeed, the first one has already arrived, and my last five plays have incorporated it. This review has grown long enough that I don't want to discuss the way Nomads expands the strategic space, but I may write a supplementary review after a few more plays.
Kingdom Builder is remarkably well suited for fan-created expansions, as they can be playtested without any new components being created. Several have already been proposed and I have a few ideas of my own.
I hope this review has set out why the game has been such a success for me, given my particular preferences. If, like me, you value elegance and emergent game play, spatial interaction and high variability, and are happy with reasonably high levels of randomness and abstraction, the game may well be worth considering. I think it would make an excellent selection for the 2012 Spiel des Jahres. In my experience it has worked very well with non-gamer friends and family, while retaining interest for the hardcore gamer too.
[Thanks to chaddyboy for images]