This is another fine DICE HATE ME! review
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 Imperiumstrategy 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.
This is another fine DICE HATE ME! review