Friday, August 17, 2012

Kingdom Builder

For the amount of board games I play, I sure don't write a lot about them on this blog. I guess it's because I play so many of them, and talk about them all day at work, that I feel I've said all I need to say about certain games. However, if you're too far from the shop, or lazy, or are afraid of vagrants on the bus, and your car is on cinder blocks, you don't get to admire the pearls of wisdom I shed to the customers who come through our door.

So let me speak of the winner of this year's Spiel des Jahres: Kingdom Builder.

(photo by Raiko Puust)

I've played Kingdom Builder many times - probably 13 by now - and I really like it. It has some of my favorite aspects of board games: speed, ease of play, and player interaction (and maps... I love maps!). The average game takes about 30 minutes when you really get into it, but your first game will be closer to the 45 minute mark that the box claims. The game is simple to learn, and has many opportunities for strategic maneuverings within the confines of its basic game play.

In Kingdom Builder, your goal is to build the best kingdom. The quality of your kingdom is measured in points (or gold, as they call them). You only tally points at the end of the game, and you get points for touching cities (3 points), and fulfilling the conditions on the kingdom builder cards. Whoever has the most points, wins!

Kingdom Builder Cards (photo by Raiko Puust)

At the beginning of the game you have 10 kingdom builder cards, and 8 map sectors. You randomly choose four map sectors and set them up in a rectangle in any orientation (so long as it makes a rectangle), and three kingdom builder cards which sit at the top of the board. Each player then receives a terrain card, and the game begins.
(Photo by Mikko Saari)

On a player's turn, she flips over their terrain card (which she's allowed to peek at), and places three (always at least three, if possible) settlements on a terrain hexagon that matches the one on her card. These settlements always have to be touching a settlement belonging to her color, and matching the terrain hex on the terrain card. If this is not possible for whatever reason, all remaining settlements may be placed somewhere else on the board that matches the terrain card, but does not have to touch an existing settlement. The player then discards the terrain card, and draws another. Play passes to another player.

Terrain Cards (photo by Chris Norwood)

There are some neat things that one can do in this game, beyond simply placing settlements. If a player's settlement should touch a hexagon with a location on it, that player gets the location counter that's sitting on top of the location. There are always two location counters on a location, and a player may not receive more than one counter from the same location hex. She can receive another of the same location counter from a different location hex, but never from the same. The counters confer upon the player certain benefits that are explained in the game. Ship counters let you build on water, while barns let you move one settlement from a hexagon to a hexagon matching the card you just played. These counters can only be used once per turn per counter, but they have unlimited uses during the game.

Location Counters (photo by Chris Norwood)

The kingdom builder cards will give you more opportunities to score points. These ones are scored before cities, and include opportunities like extra points if you build on every horizontal line of hexes, or if you have the most settlements in one of the four sectors, etc.

It's that simple!

The game does have opportunities for strategic thought, though. One strategy I've used to some success is making sure I delay placing settlements so that they touch multiple terrain types for as long as I can. This way it leaves my decision-making open for as long as possible. If I can get to multiple spaces on the board quicker than my opponent, I can surround them, or just take some of those kingdom builder card conditions a lot quicker.

As mentioned before, I like the game because of its simplicity and speed. I find simplicity a virtue, and this game's got it. There are multiple areas for strategy and each game is going to be different what with the random board sections (which each include a different location), and kingdom builder cards. I normally move on to an expansion slowly, but with this one I'm dying to get on to the expansion.

At first I didn't like the random card draw for settlement placement. I thought this was too random, and I believe that a few players will see it that way, but ultimately I like randomness in my games, as I feel it's a great equalizer between player's skills. It also teaches you to roll with the punches, a skill I've noticed many gamers don't really like to utilize. I also wish there was a way to keep score during the game, but there's really not. I'd like to know how well I'm doing during the game, so I can adjust my strategy to suit the situation.

All-in-all a deserved win by the man who created Dominion, and though this may sound like heresy, I do believe I enjoy Kingdom Builder more than I do the father of all deck-building games. If you haven't played Kingdom Builder yet, pop down to your local game shop and do so.


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