Review of Kingdom Builder

Kingdom Builder
Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino
Publisher: Queen Games
Ages: 8+
Time: 45 mins
Players: 2-4
Review by Nathan Beeler

Kingdom Builder box

Going Boldly
After charging to the highest heights of the euro-gaming world with his game Dominion, Donald X. Vaccarino must have begun looking for new worlds to conquer.  One of his follow-up games, Nefarious, a game about mad scientists plotting to take over the world, seems to give an indication of his post-Spiel des Jahres winning mindset.  With Kingdom Builder, the other of his two latest offerings, the man drags Queen Games kicking and screaming into the realm of wargaming, where he plans to revolutionize the experience there, as well.  And – boy howdy – has Mr. Vaccarino succeeded at his goal: the game plays like no other wargame I’ve ever seen or heard of.  In fact, aside from the hex grid map, a strong argument could be made that it plays exactly like a middle of the road light-weight euro.  Let’s take a peek inside the box, at the future grognards have to look forward to.

Hex Grid Map

Take a Look, It’s in a Box
The first thing that jumps out among the components is old reliable; the hex map, chock full of terrain types and locations.  However, even here there is a twist, in that the map is made up of four modular boards, a subset of the eight that come packaged with the game.  Each of the eight boards has different configurations of terrain, as well as a different special location on it that confers a slight change in the rules.  Players can randomly or deliberately choose which of the four to use and their location relative to each other.  Because of this, the game plays differently every time.

The next thing out of the box are the settlement tokens, which look very much like little wooden houses.  “Houses?!  Where are the chits or figurines or blocks?  Where is my military?”, you may hear yourself asking.  And those are very good questions.  The answer is, there isn’t any of that.  The genius of Donald X. Vaccarino’s new wargaming system is that he has done away with fighting units altogether.  Also gone are lines of sight, terrain bonuses, stacking limits, and look-up tables.  Everything is simplified, streamlined, improved.  Now if you want to conquer a territory, it simply has to match the terrain type that’s on the randomly drawn card you’re given each turn, be currently unconquered, and if possible be adjacent to one of your currently existing settlements.

Keys to the Kingdom
That adjacency rule is the key to the game, because each turn a player must conquer exactly three empty hexes in the manner described above.  Often, due to scoring rules, he will want to play in one area of the map; settling next to a castle gives three gold toward victory, while settling next to a special location will give the first two players to do so an extra action each turn.  But just as often the player is forced to continue to play in the area of the map he’s already played in until the area he started in is filled or until he is in some other way unable to make a legal play adjacently.  Because of this, a lot of the game’s strategy involves trying to conquer hexes that meet the game’s goals but that doesn’t leave the settlement exposed to many different adjacent terrain types.  Often a player will play suboptimally, scoring-wise, simply in order to avoid touching a new terrain type.  Or he may decide that a long term goal is worth the exposure.

A word about those goals: in most wargaming I’ve seen the object is to destroy enough enemy units, capture certain territories from them, or in some other way beat down your opponents or survive their beat down.  Clearly, this kind of play can lead to hurt feelings, and may in fact ruin friendships.  With Kingdom Builder, wargamers are offered a new kind of objective: to earn the most gold.  Since gold can’t be spent in any way, though, players can think of it as victory points, the ubiquitous victory condition in euro-gaming that seems fresh and new in a wargame setting.  Handily, each board comes with a scoring track on the back that can be used to add up the gold booty accumulated during the game.   And while there will still only be one winner at the end of this final reckoning, players are not allowed to destroy what someone else has built up to get there.  In this new friendlier wargaming sphere, the only way a player can lose a hex they’ve already taken is by choosing to give it up.  The worst that can be done to another player is block their path or take a special location tile before they can get there.  Gone also are the tedioius historical contexts that have long burdened wargames, weighing them down with backstory and the need for accuracy.  Kingdom Builder doesn’t even bother creating a fictional story to motivate this desire for gold.  Are we errant knights, greedy royalty, or invading army leaders?  Who knows?  We’re just told gold is what we want, and to win we have to have more of it than our fellow players.  How refreshing!

Kingdom Cards

Shakespeare Got to Get Paid, Son
So how does a player get gold and win the game?  In addition to earning gold for settling next to castles, which is always true every time the game is played, three scoring cards out of a set of ten are in play each game.  These “Kingdom Builder” cards govern the other ways gold is portioned out for that particular play.  One card gives gold out for the number of settlements in your biggest contiguous grouping.  Another gives gold for each settlement next to the impassable mountain hexes.  Yet another gives gold, Knizia-like, for the number of settlements on map segment where a player has the least.  These scoring rules, in concert with the modular maps, make each play of the game fairly different.  Kingdom Builder is clearly a death knell for the static maps of historically important locations and predetermined victory conditions of wargaming’s past.

The last important innovation that Kingdom Builder brings to the table are the special locations and the tiles associated with them.  When a player subdues an empty defenseless hex next to one of these location, she can take one of the two associated tiles on that location as long as one is available and she hasn’t taken from that location already.  These tiles allow her to take an extra action on each subsequent turn, either before or after her requisite three conquests.  These actions come in two varieties: move a settlement or bring an additional settlement from off the board.  Long time grognards can think of these actions as strategic retreat and reinforcements, respectively.  These actions are the final piece of game variability, and the one I think that has the most influence on how the game feels.  Being able to use the horse stable action to jump a settlement two spaces away opens up an ability to spread out to new territories quickly.  Having the ships in play means some settlements can be built on water hexes, where that’s otherwise not allowed.

Building Speed
One of the biggest differences between Kingdom Builder and most standard wargames is the quick playing time.  The box rates the game at 45 minutes, and that’s probably average in a four player game.  Two experienced players in a game with lots of extra pieces coming on the board could finish a game in closer to fifteen or twenty minutes.  Rumour has it that Joe Huber once finished a game of it before it even began.  Each player is given only 40 settlements, and must play at least three every turn.  At most a game consists of 14 rounds of placing three settlements on the terrain type you are given, which often doesn’t leave you many choices to agonize over.  Making the most of those placements, and setting yourself up for future turns, can lead to a little bit of analysis paralysis if you aren’t careful.  This is especially true once a few extra action tiles are at a player’s disposal.  But at its worst Kingdom Builder improves on the agonizingly long turns of most wargames that I’m aware of, and I think this change will be hearitly embraced by the wargaming community.  Soon they will be able to play ten games where before they would only have had time for one!

Terrain Cards

It’s Not in the Cards
Some might call Kingdom Builder a card driven wargame, simply because of the terrain cards that drive play.  This is fair, and it should be noted that along with the hex grid, the cards were something Donald X. Vaccarino decided to keep from the current state of wargaming.  However, aside from being a source of comfort and familiarity, the cards can also be a source of frustration and angst.  If you’ve set yourself up to be able to get a new location tile when you draw desert or canyon, and then you don’t for many turns, it can be a hard pill to swallow.  Sure, most of the time there’s something else decent to do with the other terrain types.  But sometimes you’re just hosed by bad luck.

I’ve already had friends proposing “fixes” to this element of Kingdom Builder.  One suggested players could pick their cards from a face-up tableau of three cards.  I’d propose that all that does is make your fortunes even worse when none of the cards you want come up.  My girlfriend and I tried playing without the cards, letting us pick whichever terrain type we wanted on any given turn.  The fear going in was that this would significantly slow the game down, but it didn’t do that at all.  We pretty much knew what we wanted at all times, so instead of spending time trying to make lemonade out of a crappy draw, we quickly went about our turn.  It actually sped up the game a little.  Having said that, it did remove some of the tension, and we both agreed it didn’t make the game any more fun.  Turns out, Mr. Vaccarino knows what he’s doing.

My Kingdom for a War Horse
So what is Kingdom Builder?  As a wargame it is truly astonishing; a game full of new mechanisms and innovations to get excited about.   Granted, most of these mechanisms, while new to wargaming, would feel completely same-y in euro-gaming.  In fact, if it was just a euro it would be a likeable but ultimately forgettable release that may service as a decent lightweight filler, but would probably get lost in the shuffle within a year’s time.  Thank goodness it’s a wargame.  And even though I don’t normally go for wargames, I liked this one just enough to buy a copy.  Kudos to Donald X. Vaccarino for opening this gateway into a new world, and thank also to for Queen Games’s willingness to branch out and take a chance on something so revolutionary.  I’m keen to see what they can do with role playing games or parlour games next.

Caveat Emptor
I am not a wargamer, and probably wouldn’t recognize one if it was wearing my favorite undies.  My qualifications to write this review are that I have played Axis and Allies once (and hated it), A Few Acres of Snow once (and didn’t care for it), and Memoir ’44 once (not my cup of tea).  I have also leafed through a copy of “World at War” that got sent to me by accident.  My girlfriend and I still ask each other in quiet moments, “What if Manstein had Attacked?”

What do others think?:

Dale Yu: Just to be clear, Kingdom Builder is a Eurogame… I think that Kingdom Builder will end up being a successful game for Queen – possibly even entering that realm of “Gateway Games”.  It’s easy to teach, easy to play, and all of the mechanics work well with each other.  There is plenty of variety in the game with the modular board (using 4 out of 8 pieces) as well as the goal cards (using 3 of 10) and special actions (4 of 8).  So, once you learn the basic rules to the game, the game shouldn’t get stale.

Where the game fell a bit flat for me was that the decision making seemed fairly straightforward.  The rules of placement constrain your options – you must place your three houses in whichever terrain is on the single card that you have drawn, and they must be adjacent to previously placed houses.  Given the goals of trying to score gold or get terrain markers, the best play to make with your three houses was generally clear to me.  Only occasionally would a card draw give me two options to realistically consider (well, at least in my opinion).  I have discussed this with a couple of other gamers, and I’ve found that there is a lot of disagreement on this issue – about half agree with me about the decision making where the other half feel that there are a lot of things to consider.  So, I don’t know if I’m oversimplifying the game, or perhaps I’m missing something in it, but I’ve played the game four times now and my score has been quite competitive in every game – this leads me to believe that I understand what’s going on in the game.

That being said, I’m still considering whether or not to add the game to my collection.  The artwork and presentation are well-done (as I’ve come to expect from Queen Games), and as I mentioned earlier, the game is accessible to all levels of gamers and non-gamers.  It is definitely the sort of game that I could use to introduce others to this great hobby of ours.  Games tend to play fairly quickly, 30-45 minutes for a four-player game, which is another important factor that I consider for my “gateway” games.

Jonathan Franklin: Colonel Beeler was looking through the wrong end of his telescope at Kingdom Builder.

It is clearly a party game:
1. You draw cards.
2. You groan.
3. You score points.
This is a gatewayish Euro with limited choices and a fairly mundane set of systems.  It is not an objectionable game and I have played it a few times just to teach others.  At the same time, none of the scoring options or variable buildings are that exciting.  In addition, we had discussions about building on the water that were not really answered in the rules.  Meh, but at least short.

Rick Thornquist: I can’t really improve much on Nate’s great review, so I’ll just echo the praise.  I found Kingdom Builder to be a very good light to medium weight game that plays quickly and has good strategy.  Yes, there can be a problem if you don’t get the cards you need, and this is especially bad for first-timers, but this can be fixed pretty easily.  I can see this as a very good gateway game.  I like it!

Lorna: I find Kingdom Builder to be a light weight ,fairly mindless filler. It is shortish, depending on who you are playing with. Pleasant enough to play and probably a good gateway game (I haven’t actually tried it on any non-gamers yet).

Ted Cheatham:  I must be off my rocker tonight.  I hope the review was a little tongue and cheek [edit: It is, more than a little, and you must be. -NB].  This is not even close to a wargame in my playbook.  It is a fairly abstract piece placement game with variable boards and end game scoring.  Light and quick with a potential for some planning with the right cards.  Overall, my three games felt very similar.

Craig Massey:  Three games in and I think Queen has a potential hit on its hands.  Kingdom Builder is a game that feels like it will have the same type of appeal that Carcassonne, Keltis, or Ticket to Ride have making it a potential early contender for next year’s SdJ.   My experience with the game would echo some of the comments above in that the games have felt similar, yet there is a nice measure of variability with the modular board and different scoring cards. It is short and easy to explain.  It also seems like a system that could support expansions which are starting to seem essential for building a game brand.  For me Kingdom Builder is going to be a keeper.

Brian Leet: I’m afraid this game defines Neutral for me. It has a clever simplicity, nearly infinite variability in set up and plays quickly. With that said, after a couple games the decision making doesn’t have quite enough interest to grip me. I can’t fault others their enthusiasm, while not finding it infectious at all. I think it has a fair amount of potential as a gateway game, and if it develops enough popularity to be readily familiar to most gamers it will make a good filler for groups or at conventions. Outside of that setting I just don’t see it hitting the table, so it won’t end up in my collection.

Patrick Brennan: I found this to be a positive vibe game. You’re aiming to get your settlements out to score points, and the neat touch here is that the scoring rules are going to be different each game (3 of the 10 possible rules are randomly chosen pre-game, with no doubt more rules to come via expansions). Different games might want to build lots of small settlements, others big ones, connecting up locations, on different horizontal lines, etc, so there’s a slightly different feel for each game which hopefully is enough to satisfy cravings for variety. The building restrictions (must always place adjacent to your existing settlements if you can) and the limit of 1 terrain card per turn (which may mean you can’t place adjacent so you can go anywhere) both makes turns quick and also pushes you to place carefully and smartly. Getting connected to the extra action markers early allows you the opportunity to do clever moves, be it separating, moving or adding settlements before or after your auto placement. It’s easy to teach so the family can play, and there’s enough there for gamers. Good light Euro fillery meat.

Jennifer Geske: My problem with Kingdom Builder is not that bad luck in card draw can ruin a carefully planned strategy. I often enjoy light-weight tactical games because I have to constantly figure out what the best next move is given what has transpired between my turns. After several plays, I have come to the same conclusion as Dale that the game just does not offer enough decision options to keep me engaged. This is especially the case if I keep getting the cards I need/want. It almost feels like I am on auto-pilot after the first two turns (granted that the game probably would only last about 10 turns). The best (and often the only) move seems very obvious. I also haven’t found a way to have meaningful (non-coincidental) interactions with other players in my decisions. While I don’t find anything objectionable about the game, and quite like the overall concept and the variable set-up built into the game, the lack of decision options and predictability of other players’ actions make the gameplay feels like just going through the motion. I know the term ‘filler’ and ‘gateway game’ have been used a lot in describing this game, and I have adjusted my expectation after the first play. Still, as is the game isn’t interesting enough for me to keep in my collection but I am willing to keep an open mind to try different house rules/expansions/anything that offers a more engaging gaming experience. I am glad that Nate bought my copy as I will most likely get the opportunity to try the variants.

Joe Huber: I can’t say as I was disappointed by Kingdom Builder, as I’m not a big fan of Dominion and therefore didn’t have particularly high expectations for the game.  But even given that, Kingdom Builders felt very uninteresting to me.  It didn’t feel like a wargame (which would have been more interesting) or a much of anything more so than a bland filler.  Dominion, while rather generic in theme, at least has interesting and different mechanisms, and thus stands out.

Fraser McHarg: A good abstract that has had a dose of theme-o-matic applied.  Fast, replayable and interesting for that sort of thing.  I played it a couple of times at BGG.CON and bought a copy.  Once we manage to crack the shrink I suspect at least one the kids, possibly both of them, will like it.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!…
I like it…  Nathan Beeler, Rick Thornquist, Craig Massey, Patrick Brennan, Fraser McHarg, W. Eric Martin
Neutral… Dale Yu, Jonathan Franklin, Lorna, Ted Cheatham, Brian Leet, Jennifer Geske
Not for me…Joe Huber

About nathanbeeler

Nathan has decided never to grow up.
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5 Responses to Review of Kingdom Builder

  1. Paul Lister says:

    Nice review. Any game my wife will ask to play has a place in my collection and Kingdom Builder is one such. The game works as a super fast filler – if it takes longer than 10 minutes a player (and preferably 6 or 7) then it overstays its welcome. I think I like it best as a two player. Its much more of an abstract than a war game :)

  2. Eric Brosius says:

    This game really fell flat for me, too. I didn’t feel as though I had many choices (though perhaps more strategic play would change that,) but even worse, I didn’t enjoy making the choices I did get to make. If you’re not enjoying a game, there’s not much reason to play it.

  3. Anye says:

    I like the game but would in no stretch of the imagination call it a wargame :)
    We bought it to play with the kids, it’s a little light (and constrictive) for serious game days except as an alternative to a filler.

  4. MSosa says:

    Instead of this just go play Through the Desert. The games are similar but in TtD you have more meaningful choices and greater tension between the players.

  5. Some of the expasions make the game more fun

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