Review: Kingdom Builder

Time for a Kingdom Builder review! I bought this game several years ago after playing a friend’s copy. It’s a fairly lightweight game in the “area control” category, in that you place settlements onto the board to take control of


The rules of Kingdom Builder are very simple. Set up the game by selecting four interlocking board sections, each having a hexagon-based map with various terrain types on it. Then draw three public “objective” cards from a special deck and place them face-up near the board. These objectives define how points will be earned during the game – some objectives give you points for having settlements adjacent to water, or having the most settlements on a board, or having the biggest group of contiguous settlements, etc. Each player is then dealt a single terrain card (which just shows a terrain type), and you’re ready to go.

On a player’s turn, he reveals his terrain card and places 3 of his settlements onto the board, on terrain which matches his card. The catch is that the player must play adjacent to one of his existing settlements if possible. (If he has no settlements adjacent to his terrain type, then he can play settlements onto that terrain anywhere on the board.) The player then draws a replacement card and his turn is over.

There are certain special spaces on the board which provide an action tile to players with settlements adjacent to the space. These action tiles can be used one per turn before or after a player places settlements, and they let the player do things like move an existing settlement on the board or placing a new settlement with some restriction (e.g. only on the edge of the board, or only on grassland, etc.).

Opinion: Positives

  • The game is simple without being silly. The rules are quick to teach and easy to pick up, but there are strategic nuances which only become clear after several plays. Due to the rule which forces you to play adjacent to your existing settlements, the game is often as much about where not to place your settlement as where to place it (thereby keeping options open for later turns).
  • It doesn’t overstay its welcome. Playing time is typically under half an hour, which feels about right for the game.
  • Replayability is great. You can swap out boards to change the map each time, and each board has different special action tiles on it. Additionally, the victory conditions themselves (that is, how to score points) change with every game, preventing players from falling into a single “optimal” strategy rut.
  • It’s kid-friendly in a Carcassonne-style fashion. Having just one card in your hand, similar to Carcassonne’s single tile, limits analysis paralysis and helps move the game along.

Opinion: Negatives

  • Randomness can be frustrating. Apart from the special action tiles, you can only play settlements onto the terrain type of the card you drew…so if you don’t draw the right terrain type for several turns in a row, your plan can be held up or even ruined by other players who play onto your desired spaces first. This can certainly be mitigated by careful play and the special action tiles do help, but there are times when you’ll be frustrated at the single card draw.
  • It’s easy to accidentally cheat. As the game progresses, it’s sometimes easy to miss the fact that a player is adjacent to a terrain type somewhere on the board. Plus, with special action tiles to account for, this game demands player attention in surprising ways – especially when playing with children.


I consider Kingdom Builder to be comparable to Carcassonne, even though the core gameplay is very different. Both games have a single-draw-defines-your-turn mechanic, and both are comparable in approachability, complexity, and the luck-of-the-draw aspect. Carcassonne has the potential to be much more cutthroat (depending on your game group), and Kingdom Builder has simpler rules (no complicated farmer scoring to deal with) as well as more variety of play thanks to its changing victory conditions. Both games can sometimes have brain-burning turns as you try to figure out where the “optimal” play is and decide how much you want to push your luck in terms of future draws.

I enjoy Kingdom Builder and I think it’s a solid game design, but it probably wouldn’t stay in my collection if I didn’t have younger kids to play with. I like pulling it out with kids or as an easy-to-teach game with dinner guests, but it doesn’t have enough depth to really stand out among the other games in the closet. I would rarely if ever suggest it with experienced strategy gamers.

The verdict: a qualified thumbs-up!

Review: 7 Wonders

7 Wonders is an approachable, mid- to light-weight card-drafting game. What does this mean? Read on!


The game is played over the course of three “ages”. In each age, players are dealt a hand of 7 cards. The players then simultaneously choose a card from their hand, reveals the selected card at the same time as everyone else, pays the costs (if any), and plays the card on their personal tableau in front of them. Players then pass their hand of cards to a neighbor and repeat the process until there are no more cards.

Many cards have resource requirements a player must meet in order to play them. These resources can be generated from the player’s civilization (consisting of cards he has already played in front of him), or players can buy resources from their immediate neighbors (players to the left and right) – provided those neighbors actually produced the desired resources. Some cards, thematically represented as trading posts, reduce the cost of buying such resources from neighbors.

Some cards can be played for free if the player has already played the necessary prerequisite card in a previous age. (For example, playing an Altar in the first age would let you play the Temple in the second age for free instead of paying its resource cost, and the Temple in turn would let you play the Pantheon in the third age for free – each of these being worth progressively more points.) In this way, the game rewards players for following a long-term strategy.

There are also cards which provide military strength. At the end of each age, players compare their military strength with that of their immediate neighbors. The winner gains a number of points (1 point in the first age, 3 in the second, and 5 in the third), whereas the loser loses just 1 point regardless of the age.

Instead of playing a card face-up for its benefits, players can also choose to draft a card and play it face-down as a stage of their wonder. In doing so, the player ignores the cost on the card and instead pays the cost shown on his player board. Each civilization’s board is different, and each stage of a wonder provides some benefit to the player. Most offer victory points at the end of the game, but many also provide other benefits during the game, such as resources, military strength, the ability to play a card for free, and so on.

Opinion: The Positives

There are a number of things we like about 7 Wonders:

  • The game is easily taught to new players yet also has strategic depth for experienced players. This is a game that even “non-gamers” can pick up and enjoy on the first playthrough.
  • There are a good number of decisions for the short playtime. Typical games in our group take 30-45 minutes, and while this is by no means a brain-burner, there are a lot of opportunities for meaningful decisions. To excel at 7 Wonders requires both tactical thinking (reacting to which cards are available in your hand to draft) as well as strategic direction, because certain paths to victory reward long-term commitment. For instance, science cards (of which there are three types) are scored in two ways: the number of science cards of the same type squared (so 4 “gear icon” science cards gets you 16 points) as well as 7 points for each set of all three science icons you have. This can add up to the bulk of your score, so it pays to be thinking and planning ahead even from the beginning of the game.
  • Player interaction is balanced. The three main ways to interact with other players in 7 Wonders are buying resources, fighting militarily, and of course the card drafting itself. The nice twist to this game is that the negative side effects of interaction are minimized. In the case of trading, buying a resource from another player does not prevent him from using that same resource in the same turn. (Thematically, this makes no sense, but it works very well in the game.) For military defeats, the losing player does lose a point but that’s usually a fairly minor setback over the course of the game. This is by no means a “take-that” kind of game, but it’s also very important to pay attention to your neighbors and which cards you’re passing along for them to draft.
  • The game is friendly to parents of young kids. That is to say, 7 Wonders is easy to momentarily pause and resume if a child needs attention, because the game state is always clear and it doesn’t require a lot of mental immersion.
  • Most games end up fairly close, and it’s not always obvious who will win. Ocassionally we do see a runaway victory with one player winning by 20 points, but that is rare. On more than one occasion, our 4 players have had a total point spread of only 5 or less.
  • The game scales well to multiple player counts. I don’t recommend it as a 2-player game (though a variant exists), but for all other players it scales well – you add or remove cards from the age decks based on the number of players.

Opinion: The Negatives

  • A few of the wonders’ special ability icons are obtuse. There are two or three icons on certain wonders which we virtually always have to look up in the rulebook. Once we look up the rule to find out what the ability is, we can look at the icon and say “oh, yeah…I see why they came up with that picture”, but it’s not intuitive. (I’m looking at you, play-from-the-discard-pile and play-a-card-for-free abilities!) However, most of the iconography is excellent and this is a minor flaw.

I have a hard time coming up with negatives for 7 Wonders based on what it is. If you don’t enjoy card drafting, you won’t like this game. If you want direct take-that player interaction, this isn’t the game for you. If you want a heavy, meaty, strategic game, look elsewhere.


This game neatly fills a niche of having a game that’s teachable in a single play yet has enough depth to keep strategic gamers interested and involved. Thanks to the short playtime, it’s also rare this one gets only a single play once we pull it out of the closet.

7 Wonders gets a solid thumbs-up from the Winckler household!

Review: Dominion: Intrigue

Dominion is a widely popular “deckbuilding” card game, so named because the fundamental game mechanic is choosing cards to put into your deck and then playing them. It captures a taste of the deckbuilding of “trading card games” (TCGs) or “collectible card games” (CCGs) such as Magic: The Gathering while being self-contained in a single box, playable in 30 minutes flat, and affordable without a second mortgage. (Dominion involves no booster packs or anything of the sort; it’s a self-contained box game albeit with expansions available.)

The premise is simple: in each game of Dominion, there are 10 (randomized) actions available to put into your deck, three kinds of “treasure” (used for buying other cards), and three kinds of victory point cards (which are the only cards that matter when figuring out who won the game at the end, but until the end of the game they are dead weight in your deck). On your turn, you can play one action card and then spend treasure cards to buy one new card. As the game progresses, your deck becomes larger with (hopefully) better cards and you are able to buy more expensive actions, treasure, or victory cards.

I’ve played Dominion probably a couple dozen times, but it was only just recently that I discovered I’ve been playing it wrong all along. My wife and I would usually buy a bunch of actions, trying to get synergy between them and neat combos. Sometimes my wife would cycle through practically her whole deck, drawing cards and getting more actions and chaining things together. Then recently we had some friends over to play Dominion and one of them, ostensibly because she couldn’t choose from all the many actions available, bought nothing but treasure and then bought the expensive “Province” victory cards which gain the most points whenever she could afford it. In this way, she utterly destroyed the rest of us – the game wasn’t even close.

After that startling experience, I wondered if it was just a freak occurrence or if there was something to this strategy so I decided to try it out against my wife. I even told her ahead of time exactly what I was going to do so that she could effectively counter it. So for four games straight, I bought nothing but treasure (and maybe one action card), bought a Province whenever I could afford it, and won handily every single time. These massacres took maybe 15 to 20 minutes compared to our 45-minute average before the epiphany.

At that point we both wondered whether there was something broken about the game, and I went hunting for tips online. That’s when I discovered that apparently only noobs play Dominion the way we previously did. Supposedly there are three stages to Dominion players:

  1. Look at all the shiny action cards! Buy them all!
  2. Wait…buying nothing but money, provinces, and the occasional duchy always beats the action cards! (Also known as “big money” strategy.)
  3. “Big money” plus one good action card beats “big money”!

We never progressed beyond stage 1, and Dominion was certainly not on my list of favorite games. I was always willing to play it, but I’d virtually never suggest it because games just dragged on – I thought the 30 minute playing time on the box was a joke (like most playtime estimates on board game boxes).

I was afraid that “big money” might ruin Dominion for us, but I actually like the game better now. Shiny-action mode simply takes too long to play and the game outstays its welcome. Big money is snappy and makes you think hard about which actions you’re going to add, also reacting tightly to what your opponent does. I almost wish the rulebook would include guidance, something along the lines of “hey, I know all these actions look great and fun and all, but really you should completely ignore them and just buy money and provinces until you know what you’re doing. Trust me.”

Dominion: Intrigue is a standalone expansion which you can play with the base game or by itself. I like Intrigue better than the original because it has more interesting possibilities for player interaction, but with that said, I haven’t yet replayed the original since having the big money epiphany.

All flavors of Dominion remain in good standing among our household.

Verdict: Thumbs up!

Game Review: Warriors of God

I don’t recall exactly how Warriors of God made it onto my BoardGameGeek wishlist a few years ago, but I recently had the opportunity to trade for a copy of it. By “recently”, I mean “more or less around Christmastime of last year”, which was also about the time I acquired a copy of Eclipse, which has ever since then dominated the medium-to-long-duration gaming scene around here. (If you haven’t played Eclipse, don’t bother reading this review and go buy a copy of that first. Come back to Warriors of God in a year or so when you’re tired of Eclipse.) On Sunday, Mystie and I finally sat down to give Warriors of God its just chance at winning our hearts.

It was about four hours later when, midway through turn 5 (of 12) and after Mystie flipped the board over and stormed away1, I realized this was not going to be a big hit.

Actually, I’d realized it wasn’t going to be a big hit approximately three hours earlier, when I was about halfway done with both an initial reading of the rules and my second glass of wine. This game is published by a wargaming company, and although it probably only qualifies as a very light wargame, the rules have a certain wargaming style about them. The first problem you may encounter is that it’s not clear exactly how one wins the game. Once you figure out how to win the game (controlling areas, I think), you have to hunt a bit to figure out exactly how you control areas. All the rules are laid out in a sort of numerical outline, which (from what I’ve seen) is common in wargames. However, I get the impression that wargame rule writers labor under the belief that putting rules into a numbered outline somehow magically organizes them in a fashion that makes sense, and there is where our opinions part ways. I would have liked a brief overview of what I’m trying to accomplish in the game (and how to accomplish it) before diving into the bulleted outline.

If you can make it through the rules with a vague comprehension of what you’re supposed to be doing (take control of areas), and if you also have a solid grasp on how exactly you get those areas (have leaders there and be lucky with dice), then the next thing you may discover is that it’s not at all clear what strategies and tactics will carry you loftily to your goal. Our first few turns of the game, therefore, consisted of putting troops on the baord and moving them in a semi-random fashion. I learned, for instance, that as the French, it is probably not the best opening move to attempt to invade England. (Similarly, this move is not markedly more likely to result in success on turn two, three, or four, though not for want of trying.) In my vain attempts to figure out how combat worked and what was likely to win a battle, I lost nearly every one. However, I somehow still stayed in the game thanks to controlling areas away from the main center of conflict. (Hint: each leader has a home territory, and it’s really easy for a leader to take control of his home territory. No dice involved!)

One of the real problems I have with this game (apart from the fact that it’s simply not very fun) is the fiddliness of the pieces on the board. The game uses square cardboard chits, a unique one for each leader as well as some generic ones shared by both sides to represent troop strength. The troops have to be assigned to a leader at all times, so you stack troop chits under the leader chits. However, troop chits are worth varying values of strength. This means that to figure out how much strength a leader has with him, you have to deconstruct the entire pile of chits and spread them out. This rapidly gets messy in a battle involving five or six leaders.

Another issue that some have complained about is the game’s reliance on dice. You certainly have to be lucky, as there are not a whole lot of die rolls but every one counts and can swing momentum significantly. I didn’t really have a problem with it in our game, but I could understand the complaints from people who do.

Ultimately, we quit after 5 turns when the (paper) board was inadvertently jostled–er, rather, when Mystie flipped the whole thing in a furious rage–and chits shuffled their way out of position. The problem was not the shuffling, which we could have rectified. The problem was we didn’t really want to continue, because the game wasn’t really fun.

Scoring Breakdown: Warriors of God

Score Comments
Aesthetics +1 This is a nice looking game, and it has Henry V quotes smattered all over it for good measure. (I’m pretty sure the Shakespeare was the only reason Mystie agreed to play it in the first place, that and she’s a sucker for anything remotely historical in that era.) My only complaint besides the fiddliness was that on some of the chits they use a font that is dangerously close to Papyrus, which is essentially a mortal design sin.
Components 0 Component quality was fine (though I’m not a fan of the wargame-style paper boards), but the chits were fiddly as all get out.
Rules 0 For all my griping, they weren’t really that bad. However, I really think that they could’ve been streamlined better. A single turn has 11 (eleven!) phases, and the quick-reference cards don’t always have enough information to tell you how to perform each phase.
Fun -1 This felt more like a slog than a game. Perhaps in that regard it’s a more accurate simulation of the 100 Years War than I give it credit for.

Ultimately I’d give this game a pass, and it’ll likely be back on my trade/sale list in the near future.

All this wargame-griping notwithstanding, I have a copy of Combat Commander: Europe in my closet, which is another game acquired (as a gift) at Christmas and which has still not seen the tabletop. (I’m telling you, Eclipse is where it’s at.) I have, however, just managed to make it all the way through CC’s rulebook (which was much more daunting than Warriors of God), so if I can manage to sweet-talk Mystie back to the wargaming table, expect to see another wargame review coming up soon.

  1. Dramatized for effect; actual history may vary