Kingdom Builder (Game Review)

Kingdom Builder box

Kingdom Builder

Though Kingdom Builder is very different from Dominion, Donald X. Vaccarino’s previous game, it’s fair to say that they come from the same design approach. Both are based on rules so simple that it hardly seems like they could contain a worthwhile game, but include a variety of items that all interact with the rules in different ways. The player’s mission is to find the best use of the offered items, which is tricky because each game only contains a few of them. The vast differences in strategy when different combinations of items are available is what gives the game its depth and replayability.

The similarities end there, though. Dominion was built from elements so elegant that it’s hard to remember how original they were at the time: deck-building games, and, less obviously, systems of “undirected attacks”, came from Vaccarino’s mind. Kingdom Builder, on the other hand, starts with an element already exhaustively covered by Eurogames: placing cubes on the spaces of a map, which are defined by their terrain and possibly by neighboring special spaces. From there, he applied Dominion-style elements to provide different powers (based on the unique spaces that are included in the modular map) and scoring rules.

Kingdom builder in playThis isn’t a Dominion clone. Kingdom Builder feels less like a Dominion knock-off than deck-builders such as Ascension and Thunderstone. Just as two very different Reiner Knizia games can both be recognized as having common elements, these two Vaccarino games share a similar approach. They deserve to be judged on their own merits, though.

So, looking at its merits, different Kingdom Builder games do feel fairly different from each other. The presence of Stables, for example, which will let you jump one already-placed cube two spaces every turn drastically alters the strategy when it appears (the normal rules are strict about forcing you to play adjacent to your other pieces on the board, so the ability to move beyond that is huge), and scoring points based on spreading your pieces evenly around the quadrants of the board is very different from scoring based on majorities in each quadrant. Games last about 20 minutes, and the ideal strategies vary each time. While Kingdom Builder doesn’t feel like a completely unique game, it doesn’t quite feel like any other, either.

However, the game has some frustrating elements. For one thing, the terrain type you may play on is chosen by a card draw each round. While your “special” moves are generally not affected by that, it randomizes a major element of the gameplay. Also, this reverses the pattern of most games, in which players build up an engine and find themselves making their most powerful or point-gaining actions near the end. Instead, Kingdom Builder is usually won in the first few rounds, when players race to choose special powers and aren’t yet limited by having pieces on the board they must play adjacent to. If the game weren’t so short, either of these elements would be fatal to it. Fortunately, it’s the perfect length for its depth. Victories and good play still feel satisfying, but losses that were outside your control aren’t painful.

Pleasant but ephemeral, Kingdom Builder is a good game to own, but also not one that anyone should feel bad about skipping. It’s real worth will only be judged once the inevitable expansions are released. In this respect, Dominion comparisons are necessary again, because that game felt drastically different once a few expansions had opened up its possibilities. I’m unsure what to expect here. The potential of “place cubes on the terrain your card shows” doesn’t seem as broad as that of Dominion’s deck-building system, but Vaccarino has definitely earned the chance to prove himself. The only thing I can say for sure now is that this initial release of Kingdom Builder offers less variety than the initial release of Dominion did. With four of eight special buildings, and three of ten scoring rules, used every time, elements seem to repeat more often. No Kingdom Builder item yet changes the game as much as the most notable Dominion cards, and the most fundamental abilities (such as “play on an extra space of a given terrain”) feel less distinct than Dominion’s basic cards (such as “+2 cards, +1 action” versus “+1 card, +2 actions). My best guess is that Kingdom Builder will continue to be fun, but never essential.

Grade: B-

  1. August 30th, 2012

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