Designed by Donald X. Vaccarino
Published by Queen Games - 2011
Time: 30-60 min
My little brother lives and grew up in Germany. In spite of him being in the center of the modern gaming renaissance, he has virtually no experience with modern tabletop games. On our last visit, I decided to pick up a game that we could play together at night, which posed certain challenges: the game had to be relatively language independent, it had to be simple and approachable for him, and it had to be satisfying for my wife and I who were veterans of the hobby. After days of fruitless searching in the smaller villages we toured, we finally found a department store carrying hobby games and puzzles. There, with it’s electric yellow box shining like a beacon, we found Kingdom Builder.
Kingdom Builder is a competitive game for 2-4 players. Players take turns drawing a card and placing three settlements down spaces that match the terrain on the card, and if possible, they must build adjacent to their existing settlements. This is the clever golden rule of Kingdom Builder that governs the strategic choices you make. Because you are restricted to agency if possible, you try to find ways of ensuring that it becomes impossible to place adjacent, freeing you up to place anywhere on the board. This is key to securing high value spots and gaining location tiles.
A chief feature of this game is that each quadrant (more on that in a bit) has certain locations granting powers for players to move settlements, place new ones, or in some other way alter their gameplay. These location tiles are reusable, and a valuable asset in sculpting your kingdom.Eventually, players amass an array of special powers, and are able to do a myriad of actions that are both powerful and unique to them. Once a player has placed all of their settlements, the round finishes, and players count points to determine the winner. The thing is, points are awarded different each game.
During the setup of Kingdom Builder, you randomly assemble four of the eight 10 x 10 boards, and make one of the most beautiful game maps in the industry. Then, three scoring cards are drawn, detailing how players will score points at the end of the game. There is a clever variety of scoring conditions, ranging from simply one point for each settlement next to certain board features like mountains or water, to the much more complex three points for each settlement on the quadrant (10 x 10 section of the board) that you have the least settlements on.
This variety makes Kingdom Builder really stand out among other so called “gateway” games. While the core gameplay remains consistent, the ever changing combination of board and scoring conditions ensure each experience will be a fresh puzzle. Every board comes with it’s own unique layout and special powers, creating exciting new ways to reach your goals. Because the game moves so quickly, our group often made it to the end of one game and immediately drew new score cards and rotated the positions of two boards to have a completely new experience.
One thing that can’t be understated is how beautiful and evocative this game is. The colors are vibrant and alive, and upon closer examination there are tiny elements within each space giving that board unique character, inviting players to imagine the story of a bridge across a river, or worn path through the woods. Additionally, the scoring cards have gorgeous art, hinting at a familiar yet at the same time exotic (and possibly mystic) medieval land. These tiny features have no bearing on the gameplay itself, but it really helps wrap players in a snuggly thematic comforter, even if the game itself imposes no narrative and is otherwise a complete abstraction.
At first glance, Kingdom Builder is a simplistic game with little choice; you draw one card, you play three houses, rinse, repeat. But once you scratch the surface, you are left with a game that has players making meaningful decisions every turn, balancing immediate benefit with long term strategy and mitigation of luck. By no means is the game perfect, some turns you will draw a terrain card that will give you no benefit for the duration of the turn, and if you are wanting a game that has in your face player interaction with other players or a heavily thematic game, this game may not be for you. But as my wife and I toured Germany, exploring the countryside, visiting cities, monasteries, and castles, I couldn’t help but feel like each game of Kingdom Builder itself was too, a sense of peaceful exploration and discovery. It is a versatile game, excellent for people just exploring the hobby, and seasoned fans of middle weight euros. I truly love this game, and while my tastes and interests in games has changed over the years, my love of Kingdom Builder has remained evergreen.