Posts Tagged ‘ Queen Games ’

Kingdom Builder: Nomads (Game Review)

Kingdom Builder: Nomads box

Kingdom Builder: Nomads

Donald X. Vaccarino’s Kingdom Builder is a light but decent game, whose main draw lies in the promise of variety that later additions will offer. Kingdom Builder: Nomads therefore has a much larger responsibility than most game expansions do. The results are inconclusive; Nomads offers a good variety of new features, but it doesn’t seem to open up the Kingdom Builder system in the way that I’d hoped.

Nomads has four boards, each with a new building on it. Since each game uses four random boards, this adds to the variety of combinations available. These also put more effort into the mountain and water layout, making it much more interesting to plan around impassable terrain. The abilities of the new buildings vary. The Quarry, which lets you add “Stone” to block off tiles on the map, is a fun ability. The Caravan, on the other hand, is surprisingly confusing. While it plays a similar role to the Stables of the original game, it slows down turns and even causes good characters to make occasional mistakes.

Instead of Castle spaces, these boards include the “Nomad” spaces that give the game its name. Each of these holds a single tile that grants an ability slightly more powerful than the standard buildings. However, the tiles are used a single time and then discarded from the game. This is a great addition, since there are now more items to go for on the board, and new considerations about which ones will be the most valuable for the game.

The heart of Kingdom Builder is really the fact that the scoring changes completely from game to game. (Imagine playing a Chess variant where one game is a race to move your Pawns the furthest, the next is based around controlling specific spaces on the board, and so on. That will give you an idea of the variety of strategies that different sessions of Kingdom Builder offer.) Here, the expansion also has a good twist. Three new possible scoring conditions are added which award points for actions during the game instead of at the end. They are well balanced, and offer interesting new choices.

The only bad addition in the Nomads expansion is, fortunately, completely optional: Pieces for a fifth player may be welcomed by some, but I found the game to have too much downtime this way. Kingdom Builder is a fast-playing filler, and I don’t want to wait for four people to make moves between each of my turns.

Early in a Nomads game, with Quarries and Nomad tiles in use (plus the new red player pieces)

So if Nomads fleshes out the game in multiple ways, why am I somewhat disappointed? Well, part of it is the price. After adding a $35 MSRP expansion to a $60 MSRP base, I still feel like I have a light game that offers direct comparisons to Dominion but doesn’t have anywhere near the variety. Queen Games offers high-quality production along with its high prices, but that just makes me frustrated that the backs of the cards and boards don’t match the original. Apparently I have the American version of Kingdom Builder and the International version of Nomads, so everything has different backs. It can be worked around, but it feels shoddy given the price.

More importantly, though, is the nagging impression that Kingdom Builder is already running out of steam instead of promising new ideas yet to come. In a behind-the-scenes look at the game, Vaccarino flat-out admits that the number of scoring cards we’ve seen so far has been limited not by what Queen could afford to print for the game, but by what he could actually think of that played well. Having exhausted the basic possibilities in the first set, he now covered in-game scoring for Nomads. But what’s next? Will the next expansion need to add entirely new concepts just to justify three more scoring cards? This game already had to replace some existing score cards so that references to “Castle spaces” now say “Castle or Nomad spaces”, and it can be confusing for players to notice the distinction between them on the boards. It seems like the new ideas will increase complexity quickly.

If you like Kingdom Builder, Nomads has several clever additions that will double the game’s lifetime for you. It still dampens my hopes about the future of the game, though. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll stick with it through the next expansion or not.

Grade: B-

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-