Wednesday, August 1, 2012

August Board Game of the Month: Kingdom Builder

This month's Game of the Month also happens to be the Spiel des Jahres winner for 2012. It's estimated that the Spiel des Jahres winner can expect to increase its sales by several hundred thousand, and it seems to have worked in my case: when Alan walked into Games of Berkeley to buy Bohnanza, I went with him and walked out with Kingdom Builder simply because of the award.

Style and Gameplay

Kingdom Builder is a classic spatial, territory control game played on a randomly generated map with thousands of possible configurations. The basic goal of the game is to place settlements on tiles in such a way that they earn you the most points, and one of the game's most intriguing mechanics is its scoring system; every game features three randomly selected "goals" that decide how the game is going to be scored. There are elements of Go and Othello in the game's tile placement, and it resembles Civilization and other "settlement" games in that there are some special tiles that are especially advantageous to settle adjacent to. Between the randomness of the board and the 120 different ways the scoring can sort out, it's virtually guaranteed you'll never play the same game of Kingdom Builder twice.

One striking aspect of the game is its tiny rulebook. There are basically three rules in Kingdom builder: you place three settlements per turn, settlements must be on terrain matching a random card you draw, and settlements must be adjacent to existing settlements if possible. Over the course of the game, you can acquire special actions that allow you to break those rules--for instance, by placing an additional settlement or by allowing you to move a settlement to a non-adjacent tile. The "special actions" vary with the board, so every game features a practically unique set of those as well.

Most of Kingdom Builder's variability is in its setup and decided before the game even starts, but there's some variance in the game as well, which comes from the terrain cards. Those present one of the biggest optimization decisions in the game: you can choose either to use one or more of your "special actions" and keep the same terrain card, or forgo using them to draw a new one. If you're "stuck" in an unfavorable part of the map, it's sometimes advantageous not to use any special abilities so you can "escape" in the next turn.

In principle, the game moves very quickly, because each player is often locked into a small set of possible actions based on where they're already settled and what terrain they're allowed to settle on that turn. The special actions slow things down a bit simply because you have more options, and games with fewer players tend to move more slowly because players have access to relatively larger areas of the board.

Analysis and Anecdotes

The very best thing about Kingdom Builder is its variable setup, especially its completely random approach to how each game will be scored. It's tough to think of another board game that doesn't have a constant scoring mechanic, and that feature alone probably does the most for the game's replayability. Aside from merely adding up points differently, games that have different goals are going to have different strategic feels. For instance, a game where the goal is to make large settlements in all four corners of the board is going to play much differently than one where the goal is to create isolated settlements along the grid's obliques.

Although the terrain card deck can seem frustratingly random--especially if you draw the same type of terrain card several times in a row--it's entirely your choice whether you want to draw a new card or if you're comfortable playing your special actions and maintaining your current spot on the board. We've only played a handful of games, but it seems like the way to go is to build up your options over the course of the first few turns, taking new terrain cards every time. Then, once you've built enough of an "engine," it doesn't matter what terrain card you have because you're able to exploit synergies among your special actions.

Kingdom Builder's balance seems pretty good with the sole exception of the "Paddock" special action. It lets you break basically all the rules of the game, allowing you to tunnel through unsettlable tiles and settle on tiles not adjacent to your own settlements, regardless of the terrain they're on. We've only encountered Paddock once, and it seemed like it was ludicrously unfair, though our data set is admittedly small.

One last thing about Kingdom Builder that board game veterans will notice is its designer, Donald X. Vaccarino, the man behind the Dominion dynasty. At Ludi Berkeley, we're particularly interested in similar dynamics and mechanics across apparently dissimilar games, so this one was particularly intriguing to analyze with respect to its cousin Dominion. Clearly, they're very different games that don't at all resemble each other aesthetically, but the theme of "no two games are going to play the same way even though you're using the same rules" is obvious in both.

Overall Impressions

A big selling point of Kingdom Builder ought to be its ease of play, and it mostly delivers, especially in its speedy setup and end-game scoring. In a group of gamers less inclined to analyze every decision and attempt to optimize every element of every turn, the game probably does move along as quickly as it's supposed to. And I suppose it's not really Kingdom Builder's fault that a group of engineering grad students is naturally going to do exactly that.

Kingdom Builder is very easy to learn, even for people who aren't already into "Euro-games," but there's enough replayability to satisfy even experienced gamers for a long time. The part of the game I'm least enthusiastic about is its flavor--it might have the most bland name of any board game I've played, and but for its Spiel des Jahres, I probably wouldn't have thought to be interested in it. And I wish its scoring goals and special actions were slightly more thematic; it's easy to reduce everything in the game to its base mechanics. Luckily, those base mechanics are really fun, and it's not hard to see why Kingdom Builder was honored as the best game of the past year.

2-4 players, 60+ minutes, $60 at a game shop or $42 on Amazon.