SdJ Re-Reviews #34: Kingdom Builder

  • Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino
  • Publisher:  Queen Games
  • Players:  2 – 4
  • Ages:  8 and Up
  • Time:  45 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 20


Author’s Note: One of the goals of this series is to walk through the history of each Spiel des Jahres winner.  That hasn’t been done before for many of the winners, but that isn’t the situation with Kingdom Builder.  Like he did with Dominion, Donald X. Vaccarino has himself published a comprehensive history of Kingdom Builder.  Since the material naturally flows better from the designer than from me, what follows is merely a condensed overview that is based in large part on Donald’s “Secret History of Kingdom Builder.”  I’ve tossed in a few tidbits based on my interview with him, and add some of the other information I normally include in the series.  

Kingdom Builder: Donald X. gets another win…

Back in 1999, Donald X. Vaccarino designed a card game called The Baron Game.  “It needed work,” Donald wrote in his Secret History of Kingdom Builder, and over the course of several iterations, it became a bidding game where players put pieces on the board.  Donald called this game Baron Lite.

Baron Lite is the earliest predecessor of Kingdom Builder.  Three important elements from Baron Lite would later be incorporated into Kingdom Builder:

  • The piece placement rule, which holds that you must put a piece next to one of your current pieces, if possible.  The piece placement rule was designed to reduce politics, meaning the ability of players to talk their opponents into making moves that are good for them and bad for other players.  As Donald told me in our interview, “It’s tricky because it has to matter where your pieces are and yet that guarantees politics.”  But with the piece placement rule, blocking someone in can actually help them, since they can teleport away.  
  • You gain abilities by being adjacent to a hex, rather than on it.  As Donald pointed out in his Secret History, this means that multiple players can get an ability.
  • The gameboard was built out of quadrants.

In 2006, a few months after Donald made Dominion, he made a new version of Baron Lite, using a science fiction theme.  His game group was only interested in playing Dominion at that point, and he had Dominion expansions to work on, so he tabled the idea.  Many of his files on the game did not survive him changing computers.

Then, after Dominion, he had plans to make Dominion-inspired games.  One such idea was basically “Dominion-with-a-board,” but he later abandoned the idea of incorporating Dominion in favor of a more simplified game.  As he wrote in his Secret History, “I didn’t need to make a deckbuilding game for the sake of making one. I didn’t need to cash in on Dominion, I had Dominion itself. This game could just try to be the best game it could be, and if that meant not being a deckbuilding game, that was fine. So I replaced the deckbuilding with, you turn over a terrain card on your turn and put three pieces on that terrain.”

He then made a prototype, with the game being an engine-building game.  He used the Baron Lite piece placement mechanic.  “It wasn’t like this game was a new version of Baron Lite; I just felt like, in any game with pieces placed on terrains like this, I might use the Baron Lite mechanic. It was a good mechanic for the job.”

Most of the design was completed in 2010.  In the original version players had 50 settlements instead of 40.  There were no chits, and players could get the ability just by being adjacent to it.  There were 12 quadrants instead of 8.  Some of the scoring was changed, as were the special abilities.  In the early version players drew their card at the start of their turn instead of the end.  These changes were relatively minor, and as Donald said, “It was pretty similar to the final game.”

Queen Games approached Donald at Spiel 2009.  As he told me, “They wanted to see a prototype but I had already given away the ones I’d brought with me. I kept them in mind.”  He ended up sending them the Kingdom Builder prototype in early 2011, and he found out a couple of months later that they wanted to make the game.

Queen made a few changes during development.  They reducing the number of settlements and available quadrants.  They put score tracks on the back of the quadrants.  They moved the drawing of the cards to the end of your turn so that you could study the board while other players moved.  They had the oldest player go first, whereas Donald hadn’t specified.  They removed the playmats Donald had originally used to track your abilities, and at his suggestion added chits, limiting the chits to two per space.  They changed the scoring for the Lords Kingdom Builder card.  They renamed some of the cards, and they changed Donald’s “rock” terrain to a “canyon” terrain.  

They also changed how the quadrants could be oriented.  As Donald explained, “I had the quadrants stay in particular corners – a northwest quadrant was always northwest, and always right-side-up. This change meant there were a lot more ways to put the board together, and you could get combinations of abilities that otherwise wouldn’t come up.”  Donald had originally oriented it so that you couldn’t get two buildings on the first turn, and now that is possible, although one of them will be a Castle.

The quadrants themselves also changed: “Originally each board had three copies of an ability, with one board having castles (only, that board had four of them). I changed it to two copies plus a castle on most of the boards. This shortened turns a little while still giving you a variety of abilities.”

Donald called the game Kingdom Builder.  Dominion was originally called Castle Builder, since you were building a castle, so he thought Kingdom Builder was a good working name here.  As he’s said before, he doesn’t put much effort into names for prototypes since publishers will generally change them.  He told me, “It was a surprise when Queen didn’t change the name.”

When Donald worked on Dominion he also had many of the expansions planned out.  I asked if that was the case for Kingdom Builder since the game has two major expansions released and a third on Kickstarter right now.  He said, “When the game was published I had stuff leftover that could go in expansions, but it wasn’t like Dominion where the expansions were clearly planned out.  Quarry, Village, and the Crossroads ability were all in the main set at one point and are now in expansions; but no expansions were done when the main game was finished.”  

I also asked Donald if there were any other interesting tidbits about the game, and he mentioned that his game group was not initially a fan.  “When I first made the game, at the time I was playtesting Dominion with what I will call ‘Magic players.’ And none of them liked Kingdom Builder; I was the only one who liked it. I eventually worked out that they were ‘Magic players’ and tried the game with some ‘Carcassonne players,’ who did like it. But still, when I sent it to Queen, I was thinking, will I be embarrassed to have this published? It turned out okay!”

Indeed it did turn out okay.  Kingdom Builder was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2012, going up against Eselsbrücke and Las Vegas.  In giving Kingdom Builder the 2012 Spiel des Jahres, the jury praised the variable gameplay, saying it always gives players new strategic challenges.  The game ranked 7th in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting that year, and it received a nomination for the International Gamers Award.  

Now that the game has been out for a few years, I asked Donald if there was anything he would change.  “I’d replace a few of the scoring cards. At the time I had trouble coming up with enough good ones. Later on I figured some stuff out and so Marshlands has 6 good new ones and there are more coming in the 4th expansion. It would be great to improve the main set ones but at the time I was stumped.”  He also added that, when you lose an ability, he’d potentially change it so that it returned to the hex rather than leave the game.  

Kingdom has since received an iOS release.  I wasn’t able to locate sales data on the game, but like most SdJ winners, it is likely in the hundreds of thousands of copies.  There are also several promos available for the game.  

Donald Vaccarino continues to design games, including expansions for Kingdom Builder.  As I mentioned above, one such expansion is on Kickstarter right now.  When I interviewed Donald back in September, he said he had two unpublished expansions.  One is Marshlands, and Queen has signed up to do the other one as well.

The Gameplay

In Kingdom Builder, players aim to earn the most gold at the end of the game.  Gold is earned by skillful placement of settlements.

Four of the game board pieces — each with 100 landscape hexes — are put together to form the game board.  There are five terrain types suitable for building — grass, desert, canyon, flower field, and forest — as well as four types of terrain that aren’t — mountains, water, castles, and locations.  Being next to a location hex gives the player a special ability, as discussed above.  Being next to a castle hex gives the player three points at the end of the game, although this bonus can only be earned once per hex.

Kingdom Builder

Two location tiles are put on each location hex, and the terrain cards are shuffled to form a face-down draw pile.

The game comes with 10 different Kingdom Builder cards that specify the conditions for earning gold.  In other words, they control scoring.  Three of these are used in the game, with the three being drawn randomly at setup.  I’m not going to discuss the full rules for each card, but the following will give you an idea of the game’s scoring mechanisms:

  • Fisherman: Gives gold for being next to water.
  • Miners: Gives gold for being next to mountains.
  • Merchants: Gives gold for connecting castles to locations.
  • Workers: Gives gold for building next to castle or location hexes.
  • Discoverers: Gives gold for each horizontal line on which you have a settlement.
  • Knights: Gives gold for each settlement on the the horizontal line on which you have the most settlements.
  • Hermits: Gives gold for having different settlement areas (i.e. gold for not clustering your settlements).
  • Lords:  Gives gold for the player with the most and second most points in each of the quadrants.
  • Citizens:  Gives 1 gold for every 2 settlements in your largest settlement area (i.e. gold for clustering your settlements).
  • Farmers:  Gives 3 points for each settlement in the quadrant where you have the fewest settlements.

During a player’s turn, he or she must build three settlements from their supply on terrains of the type shown on their terrain card.  The location hexes give special abilities which may be result in extra actions.  These extra actions can be taken before or after the building of the three settlements as part of the mandatory move.  The player’s turn ends when they draw their next terrain card.

Building settlements next to location hexes gives special abilities.  These either allow you to play additional settlements on your turn or allow you to place extra settlements.  For example:

  • Oracle: Build a settlement of the type shown on your terrain card.
  • Farm: Build a settlement on a grass hex.
  • Oasis: Build a settlement on a desert hex.
  • Tower:  Build a settlement on the edge of the game board.
  • Tavern:  Build at the end of a strong of at least three of your settlements.
  • Barn:  Move any existing settlement to the same terrain type as your terrain card.
  • Harbor:  Move any existing settlement to a water hex.  (This is the only way to build on a water hex.)
  • Paddock:  Move any existing settlement two spaces in a straight line any direction.  You can jump across otherwise inaccessible hexes, including those that are occupied by other settlements.  

Settlement placement, unless controlled by a special ability, must follow the building rules:

  • One settlement per space.
  • Your mandatory placements must be on the terrain type shown on your Terrain Card.  Settlements built with the bonus actions may be restricted to certain terrain or space types.  
  • No settlements on water or mountains (unless using a Harbor).
  • You must place adjacent if possible.

There are some minor clarifications on these points, but those are the general rules.

The game ends when one player has built the last settlement from their personal supply, but the round continues to ensure equal turns.  The three Kingdom Builder cards are scored using the score track (which is on the reverse of a terrain hex), and the player with the most gold wins.  

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

I fell in love with Kingdom Builder after my first play.  I was in graduate school, and shortly after the game was released, my friends and I ordered a copy online.  After we tried it out, I declared it one of my favorites.  I admired the variability of the game: I loved how each play was wildly different than the play before it, based on different combinations of the location hexes and the Kingdom Builder cards (i.e. scoring cards).  I spent the next several months pestering my friends to play it with me.  (I’d usually make them agree in advance to have the Lords card in play.  It is still my favorite card, but then again, I’m a sucker for area majority games.)

I may have loved the game, but my friends didn’t like it nearly as much as I did.  Neither did many in the hobby.  When the Opinionated Gamers reviewed the game four years ago (long before I joined), they gave it positive but not enthusiastic reviews.  And as Kingdom Builder headed towards its SdJ victory, many in the hobby were downplaying it as luck driven or dry, the same complaints offered by my friends.  

I partially understand that sentiment.  I think the most fair complaint against the game is that it is dry, or as Dale once better articulated, the “decision making seemed fairly straightforward.”  I admit much of the strategy is obvious at the outset of the game when the Kingdom Builder cards are revealed.  But you never know where your moves are until you draw your terrain card, and setting yourself up for future movements makes for interesting gameplay.  And it isn’t as though you are necessarily restricted to placing pieces on a small part of the board: when you combine your mandatory move with special abilities, you can sometimes make phenomenal moves in unanticipated parts of the board.  

I suspect many of the “dry” plays of Kingdom Builder arise from suboptimal combinations of Kingdom Builder cards.  This is bound to happen in a good portion of games.  Different combinations make the game better or worse: Fisherman, Miners, and Merchants would be dry, for example, but I enjoy almost any card combination with Lords.  In the end, I’ve enjoyed most of the combinations I’ve played with.

As for the game being luck-driven, that rarely bothers me about a game.  That said, in this case, I don’t see that particular concern as true.  Sure, the game has luck as a factor (primarily in which terrain card is drawn), but I rarely see a newcomer beat an experienced player.  There’s quite a bit of skill in knowing which special abilities are worth going for… and knowing how to use them.  And can always take the suggestion to draw terrain cards from a face-up tableau of three cards.  

I see Kingdom Builder as great strategy game with solid mechanics that work well together.  It is easy-to-learn, but there is depth.  Gameplay is fast — the decisions simply aren’t tough enough to inspire long turns — and gameplay is highly variable, keeping it fresh.  The same thing that attracted players to 504 this year originally attracted me to Kingdom Builder.  I still see Kingdom Builder as one of the better examples in the hobby of variable scoring.  

Would Kingdom Builder win the SdJ today?  As with any newer winner, I think it’d have a shot.  Kingdom Builder likely benefited from a weaker year — many of the 2012 nominations and recommendations are forgettable, in my opinions — but I still think it compares favorably to recent nominees and winners.  The game hits many of the right notes, and the originality and variability of the design would likely still appeal to the jury.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Joe Huber (1 play) – I haven’t played the game again since the original Opinionated Gamers review was published, so I really don’t have more to say; the Spiel des Jahres win did nothing to tempt me to try it again.

Patrick Brennan: A positive vibe placement game. 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 3 settlement placement on your terrain card to help you get where the scoring rules want you to get. It’s easy to teach so the family can play, and there’s enough there for gamers. Good light Euro fillery meat.

Dan Blum: The core of the game isn’t awful but it isn’t anything very interesting, either. However, that’s Vaccarino’s go-to design strategy: a simple set of core mechanisms which randomly-chosen elements are plugged into before each game. (I’m not sure that all of his games are like this, but certainly most are.) This can work well, most notably in Dominion. In other games including Kingdom Builder it’s highly variable: with the right set of ability tiles and scoring cards the game is reasonably interesting (albeit still quite random), but with other sets I find it incredibly dull. Obviously any “pluggable” game is going to have some variance along these lines, and I’ve certainly played some games of Dominion that were less interesting than others, but none that were nearly as boring as a fairly typical Kingdom Builder game. This is in part due to Dominion’s better core mechanisms and its relatively well-developed set of cards.

The fact that one can choose a decent set of tiles and cards to play with is all that raises the game to “neutral” for me; I can’t rate it higher because even with a good set I don’t enjoy it that much, and there’s also the fact that I have to craft a set to play with. I prefer that all the development work is done before I play the game.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W.
  • I like it. Patrick Brennan, Erik Arneson
  • Neutral. Dan Blum
  • Not for me…  Joe H.
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