The Kingdom Builder board game is a light, fast playing euro game. It was originally released in 2011 and designed by Donald X Vaccarino (of Dominion fame). It’s for 2-4 players, lasts less than an hour and should be fine for players aged eight and up.
And yes, you can play this one in isolation. It’s online at Brettspielwelt (which I’m not keen on), where you can play in real time. But there are also official Apple and Android apps.
In terms of game play, you’ll be using cards to claim areas of the board to score points. While it has an area majority look and feel, there is no battling: areas you claim are yours. And forget theme. This is a purely abstract game made pleasantly pretty by its nicely drawn medieval artwork. In the box you’ll find eight modular game boards, 164 wooden pieces, 37 cardboard chits and 35 standard sized cards. Everything is standard German euro quality, with clear iconography and nice if unspectacular artwork.
Teaching the Kingdom Builder board game
Mechanically, this may be one of the simplest ‘teaching’ sections I’ve ever written. At Board Game Geek Kingdom Builder rates 2.07 (out of five) for complexity. Scrabble rates 2.10. The actual rules fill two sides of A4, which includes copious pictorial examples. But as with so many simple games, that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to master. And better still, it is a lot more varied than many games of its ilk.
Start by laying four of the eight game boards together randomly in a rectangle. Each game board has two or four unique location tiles that are now placed on them. You then draw (and lay face up) three of the game’s 10 scoring cards. Each player takes 40 wooden pieces (settlements) in their colour and draws a card from the terrain deck. You’re ready to go.
On a turn, a player shows their terrain card and places their first settlement on the board on a hex matching this terrain type. They place a total of three settlements, all on the same terrain type, with later ones having to be adjacent to any they’ve already placed (if possible). If not, they can’t start a new settlement elsewhere (on the correct terrain type, or course). Once done, if any new settlements are adjacent to spaces that still contain location tiles, you take that tile (you can only have one of each type – so four max). Then draw a new card.
Location, location, location
On later turns, these location tiles either let you place extra settlements, or move settlements you’ve already played. So, in theory, with four extra action tiles (very unlikely), you could be laying seven settlements per round. As the game ends at the end of a round where a player places their last settlement, extra placements can be a real advantage. But then, moving settlements can be equally advantageous. It all depends on the scoring cards.
The three scoring cards give players most of their points. And all players score for all three cards. But they can be contradictory. The Hermit gives you a point for each separate settlement – encouraging you to separate as much as possible. But the Citizens card gives you a point for each two settlements connected in one large settlement. The Paddock location lets you move a settlement two spaces, and that space can be non-adjacent – great for scoring on the Hermit. But the Oracle location lets you place an extra settlement on your current terrain type – great for finishing and scoring for Citizens. Oh, what to do…
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: Sure, a series of bad card draws in Kingdom Builder can screw you. But in my experience, as with all good sub-hour games, good players miraculously seem to be way ‘luckier’ than bad ones. Also, I don’t tend to like the aggression of most area majority games. But I love the idea in theory. For me, this beautifully ‘euros’ the idea of area influence into a package I appreciate. It’s thinky, but you can mess with each other’s plans to a degree. And the potential placement restrictions make most of your moves incredibly important.
- The thinker: There’s a subtlety here that many fail to grasp. A bad initial placement can literally ruin your chances from the start, which leads to a few ‘one and done’ experiences for players. For me, that’s a shame. Your first turn has to be your longest, as you assess which location tiles work best with the scoring tiles – and how the hell you’re going to get them to work together with your opening terrain card. Touch as few other types of terrain as you can, or be heavily restricted on later turns. But might getting a certain location tile be worth it? For me, it’s a brilliant ‘super filler’.
- The trasher: I can take or leave Kingdom Builder. I’d rather play a more aggressive area placement game, but the mix of strategy and tactics here is well judged. That said, the game is much better for me at four players. The board is so much tighter, and the fight for those location tiles can be fierce from the start. With two, both players can pretty much do what they like and get what they like. You can always house rule and use less location tiles. And man, don’t get me started on the ‘theme’. Although at least it isn’t birdies or bunny wabbits…
- The dabbler: Wow, this game really is simple. Which makes it all the more frustrating when you then lose your first game by a million points! But it only takes a few plays to work out the strategy basics. While there isn’t much of a theme the game pieces are nice and colourful, so it looks good on the table. And the boards are nice and chunky. I don’t find this is a game I choose often. But every time I play it, I’m reminded of how much I enjoy it. I really do like a game where we don’t need a rules refresher each time we get it to the table!
There are some poisonous reviews of the Kingdom Builder board game. But it still rates a seven out of 10 overall. And sits just outside the Board Game Geek top 500 ranked games. So I’ll skip the people who rate it poorly because it is ‘light’ (uh huh), ‘doesn’t include war’ (oookay), is about placing cubes (erm…) or because it is soulless because it has no theme (wow, that guy again). Why? Because they’re playing a game they were never going to like.
I’ll also skip past the people who think it is OK to rate a game a ‘1’ out of 10 because they’ve been upset by the publisher. Fine, I get it – Queen Games has upset a lot of players over the years and many have legit beefs with them. Write angry letters, take them to task on social media, protest outside their offices. But giving a game a low ranking does a disservice to the thousands who try to use BGG as a source for information on how good a game is. With so many games out there, it’s hard not to boil your research down by an initial look at the game’s overall rank. This kind of attitude gives some great games a bad rap.
On to sensible points. Yes, some of the scoring cards do seem under/over powered. But this rewards repeat plays. I see some cards are major, some minor. If two of the scoring cards are major, and one minor – but the minor one works well with a major? I have my strategy. I think levelling this as a criticism shows a lack of thought into how the game works. It’s the same as those who say the game is 100% luck. You had a bad play of a short game. Don’t let the big box fool you – this is a short filler-style game that rewards back-to-back plays.
The elephant in the room
Some claim ‘drawing/playing a single card limits the decision space’. Sure – in one way. And one most aren’t used to. This common Kingdom Builder reaction shows how many players struggle outside their comfort zone. Yes, in round one, you must play your one card – in one of at least six areas. This decision will be affected by how many other terrain types those spaces link to (limiting later decisions). Which location tiles they’re near (giving unique long-term bonuses). Where other players have placed (can you expand as you want to?) And what’s nearby (will rivers/mountains stop your progress – and if so, is that good or bad?).
Many complaints come from players placing badly on initial placement in their one play. I get it – a bad first play often puts me off a game. In Kingdom Builder, your first three settlements played could see you touching three of the five terrain types. From then on, if you draw one of those, you must expand this initial area. So, thanks to this ‘luck’, you have a 60% chance of having to extend from your starting spot. Which may force you to connect to another terrain types. Now 80% of the cards are against you and its all the game/luck’s fault.
If you instead connect to no/one other terrain type, your chance of expanding elsewhere (and opening up the whole board) is 80/60%. And a commonly used house rule lets you mulligan your second card draw if it matches your first. Suddenly the ‘luck’ is more on your side and you have a whole board of opportunities and options to consider. Go figure… But yes, the game has its fair share of randomness – that I cannot deny.
While I don’t want to go into detail here, I think it’s worth mentioning there have been several big box expansions for Kingdom Builder. Each adds extra landscape boards (with their own unique location bonuses) and new scoring cards. Each also has a theme (mechanical, as well as pasted on lol) that takes the game in a slightly different direction without changing the core. I’ll try to get to review them individually in future. But suffice it to say, this adds plenty of extra replay value once you’ve got a bunch of plays under your belt.
Conclusion: The Kingdom Builder board game
People can get a bit feisty when talking about Kingdom Builder. Like most popular games it divides opinion, but I find this one gets the hearts racing a little more than most. My first play I remember very clearly. I sat down with two good gaming friends and was absolutely destroyed. Did I think, well that was random stupid nonsense with no choices. No. I thought, how did they manage to do so much better than I did? We played again, I did a bit better, and I was hooked. It’s an absolute keeper for me. And I’d recommend any fans of short abstract games with light rules, but an interesting decision space, to give it a go.