The New ‘Burbs – A Kingdom Builder Review

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
— Oscar Wilde

In all the years spent in this wonderful hobby, I have learned that there are two things that hardcore board game enthusiasts live and die for: Game day, and new board game day. Like most enthusiasts, I am guilty of prowling the forums looking or information on the latest and greatest to be born in cardboard, especially if I find the art or theme intriguing, or if I’ve enjoyed previous works by the designer. And, so, when Kingdom Builder was announced and Queen Games released the generic cover art of a spectacled dude on his horse overlooking what looked like a stock shot of Castle Neuschwanstein below the gleaming name of Donald X., I let out a mighty yawn and went back to reading Twilight Imperium strategy forums.

And then a funny thing happened – people started talking about Kingdom Builder. A lot. It seemed that a lot of gamers let out a collective “meh” and went back to playing Dominion, while others thought it might have been the gaming equivalent of sliced bread. Article after article of good and bad reviews poured forth. A Kickstarter controversy reared its ugly head. It became quite clear that Kingdom Builder could be pushed aside but never ignored. So despite the fact that the last review I read chewed at the game like a pack of rabid beavers, I decided that the only way to settle this whole mess was to just find out for myself. And, lo, I bought Kingdom Builder.

Now, before I spoil the surprise of whether it was worth the price and attention, let’s go over how Kingdom Builder is played. In Kingdom Builder, players take on the role of a nameless royal who has set out to establish their kingdom as the absolute best in the land. Truth be told, though, the role seems to be more one of a civil engineer, as players will spend the game adhering to zoning laws and churning out tiny settlements that look like modern condos. Thankfully, that subconscious comparison does not detract from enjoyment of the game.

The goal of each game is to gain the most gold at the end by placing your little condos in advantageous locations or patterns within the four hex-filled, variable game boards. These advantageous locations and patterns are determined by three randomly-chosen Kingdom Builder cards. The scoring descriptions on these cards can vary from simple (score one gold for each settlement that is adjacent to water), to complex (four gold for each location and/or castle hex linked contiguously by your own settlements to other location and/or castle hexes). The bottom line is that with three out of 12 variable goal cards, players will have to vary their initial strategy for every single game, and remain tactically flexible throughout.

Although the scoring system can be a tad complex at times, the turn sequence is amazingly simple. Each turn, a player flips over the one card they have in their hand and places three settlements according to the land type on that card. The four variable game boards are filled with six different land types, some of which are grouped into large areas and some small. There are really only two rules to remember in placing settlements: 1) the settlements must be placed into a hex that matches the land type on the card, and 2) each settlement must be placed adjacent to another of that player’s settlements, if at all possible. If the second rule cannot be followed, then the player may place a settlement in any hex of the matching land type on the board. And that’s pretty much it.

The simplicity of the turn structure belies a fair bit of tactical depth on each turn. Adding to this depth are Location Tiles that are scattered about the land. These Location Tiles vary from game to game according to the four game boards that are chosen during set-up. When a player places a settlement next to a location tile, that player takes the tile (if there are any left) and is then able to use the tile as a special action in later turns. Some Location Tile actions allow for additional settlement placement during a player’s turn (such as the Oasis, which allows for placement into a Desert hex), while others allow players to move settlements that are already on the board (such as the Harbor tile, which allows a player to move one of their settlements into, through, or along a water hex, which cannot be normally built upon).

Indeed, the crux of Kingdom Builder – besides the need to pay close attention to the Kingdom Builder cards and, hence, the best way to score – is the Location Tiles. These Tiles, when properly used, are crucial for winning Kingdom Builder. Since each game has a variable set-up and goal condition, some Location Tiles will prove absolutely essential to achieve the goals, while others may prove almost worthless. However, despite the power that some Location Tiles wield in certain games, there is likely never to be one obvious choice. Sure, most players will gravitate toward one common, very useful Location Tile, but there is still enough wiggle room in the game’s playability to allow players to explore the use of different Location Tiles without completely sacrificing their chances to win. Wisely using those tiles is almost as important as their acquisition; in one game I happily nabbed the Oasis to allow me to build one settlement per turn on a Desert hex and then promptly built inside a Desert that seemed to encompass the entire board. For those of you who have yet to play, that move is like the Spanish Prisoner – sure there’s plenty of options for you to consider on each subsequent turn, but none of them are very good.

Gameplay/ReplayComponents & ThemeFun
So, is Kingdom Builder a good game? The simple answer is: Yes. Kingdom Builder is an incredibly enjoyable and highly-addictive game that is easily accessible for the casual gamer and rewarding for the veteran. It plays well across the full spectrum of its player allowance, and I can safely say that it excels as a two-player game (even though there is not as much competition for land or Location Tiles). Replay for Kingdom Builder is completely off the charts. With 8 different game boards, 12 Kingdom Builder cards, a deck of random and constantly-taunting territory cards, no two games of Kingdom Builder will ever be alike. Oh, sure, there will be similarities, but even changing out one Kingdom Builder card from game to game would result in a slew of new strategic and tactical decisions. Queen Games may not be the cheapest publisher in the somewhat-crowded market, but they know how to pump out quality. The card art is nice, albeit fairly generic, and the little condos are very tactile and pleasing to place on the board. The real shining jewel of the game are the variable game boards; the art for the land types in the hexes is superb, and add a lot of color and interest to the game. They are very easy to distinguish, and there was a lot of thought put into not only the style and type of land, but also in the distribution and placement from game board to game board. As for theme - this is the only "meh" factor for me. It has that same faceless, generic medieval/fantasy world them of Dominion that just doesn't resonate with me. I crave something meatier, like an Elder God or some poor schmuck carrying a lasgun.And now, the bottom line: Kingdom Builder is a fun game. About three turns into the first game, I started to get that little tingle in the back of my brain - that indescribable sense of giddiness that a gamer only feels from time to time when they have a true Eureka moment, or when they can sense a devastating 3-card combo coming in Magic: The Gathering (hey, I had my time in the sun in the Good Ol' Days™). It's often described by some as as a feeling of cogs falling into place, as if this very game is extremely pertinent to their interests. Even in crushing defeat - and, believe me, this is few and far between with relatively-close scores - each player will walk away from the game with an immediate sense of what they did wrong and what they could do better the next time they play. And there will be a next time. Oh yes, there will be a next time.
Overall score: 15 out of 18 For those who like the style of Donald X. designs but not the multiplayer solitaire aspects, Kingdom Builder may be just the civil engineering project you're looking for.

Kingdom Builder is a game for 2 to 4 royal engineers, by Donald X. Vaccarino for Queen Games. It retails for $59.95, but you can order it online at Boardgameguy.com for $38.25 or ask your favorite local retail store for it!

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Comments
9 Responses to “The New ‘Burbs – A Kingdom Builder Review”
  1. Marc says:

    Great review. I will be on the hunt to play this one at Origins.

  2. Lance Peterson says:

    Thanks for the review. I played Kingdom Builder for the very first time in a tournament at last year’s BoardGameGeek Convention. As far as the game was concerned, my impression is just like yours. It’s a fun game that let’s you exercise your strategic thinking skills without sinking hours of game play into one game. Don’t get me wrong, I like long, deep thinking games, but it’s always fun to find a game like this that you can play in about 30 minutes. And it is really easy to explain the rules to new users.

    Now, what really impressed me about my game play in the tournament was that Queen games had 2 representatives there that not only helped explain the game, but also collected statistics on each game that was played. They collected information for each player in the game for points scored for each scoring condition and settlements left over for each player at the end of the game. They were interested in whether turn order made a difference in winning and how well different set up combinations worked. The board set up and scoring conditions changed each round, so they got to collect stats for a variety of combinations. It was really evident that they were interested in how well the game played and wanted to take an in-depth look at the mechanics. It was neat to see a Game company take a somewhat scientific interest in how well their game worked.

  3. rocket says:

    Great review. Saw this game at the local store a two nights ago, remembered this review, and bought it. I’ve since played it 6-8 times and everyone loves it. The simplicity of the rules makes it so easy to teach and learn. To me, it has a strong resemblance to Hacienda (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/19100/hacienda), which I was surprised you didn’t compare it to. Unlike Hacienda, the different game goals and alternate board configurations has a much stronger affordance for replayability.

  4. dicehateme says:

    Lance – Glad you enjoyed the review! I feel the same way about mixing up my gameplay between long, deep games and more simple ones that you can just get on the table quickly. By the way, Queen Games’ support of Kingdom Builder has been awesome, and that’s great to see their presence during your tournament. They are really investing in their products and so far it’s showing!

  5. dicehateme says:

    Rocket – This is great! I’m glad you picked up and enjoyed Kingdom Builder, and I’m very happy it was because of my review. Since the review, I’ve had a few people mention Hacienda, and the only reason I didn’t mention it is because I’ve never played. :) I’m definitely going to check it out, though, as it sounds like a game that Cherilyn and I would really enjoy. Thanks for the tip!

  6. So between this and sunrise city which is better for “board gamer light” type players. My wife is now up to Carcasone, Settlers, and Ticket to Ride level games. :)

  7. dicehateme says:

    Gozer – That’s a tough one! I’d say they’re both really well suited for light board gamers. If you guys like Carcassone then Sunrise City will probably be right up your alley. Kingdom Builder is a bit faster with a little more variability. But both are great! Get both. ;)

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