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.).
- 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.
- 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!