Let’s kick off with the obvious – Kingdom Builder is a bloody awful name. Actually, that’s a bit harsh. It explains exactly what you’ll be doing in the course of the playing the game, sure, but it’s far from inspiring. Look at Donald X. Vaccarino’s other games; Dominion brings about thoughts of grasping for power, for example, while Nefarious makes me think of cruel and unusual scientists desperate to take over the world. Kingdom Builder though? Ummmm… yeah.
Anyway – to the game itself. Between two and four players are set the task of… well… building up kingdoms. Set-up is nice and quick; the play area is constructed of four separate large tiles, each of which made of hexes depicting different types of land as well as lots of castles. Each of the randomly chosen tiles also has areas that bestow special abilities on a player who manages to build in a hex adjacent to it.
Three cards are flipped up before play starts that state how gold (the points in Kingdom Builder) will be allocated at the end of the game. These could require that you build in each of the four sectors of the board or you’ll score your longest straight line of buildings, for example. In all, there are ten different ways that you’ll be scoring, and with only three chosen in each game (along with eight separate large tiles you’ll build the board with), there’s plenty of opportunity for replays.
How do you earn these points then? At the start of each player’s turn, they’ll flip a card off the deck that shows one of the five terrain types that you can place your houses on: Grassland, Flower Fields, Forest, Desert and Canyons. When you’ve shown your card, you must place three of the houses from your supply on the corresponding terrain wherever you please. However, if you’ve already got something on the board that’s either adjacent to or already built on that type, you must extend what’s already there. Your choices will be somewhat impaired by the Mountain and Water spaces which can’t be built upon but there are Castles dotted about the place that give you bonus gold when scoring comes around.
And in reality, that’s essentially all there is to Kingdom Builder – flip your card, place your houses, aim to meet the three objectives. So why did the Spiel des Jahres committee choose to add it to the pantheon of excellent games that have been celebrated in previous years? I’d say it’s down to that simplicity. Early games will leave you saying “Is this it? That’s all I have to do?” but there’ll come a moment when you realise that it’s a bit more than just putting stuff on the board. You’ll work out ways in which you can cut opponents off, discover how to use the areas that no-one can move into to maximise your placement, and learn which bonus powers you should race for.
That isn’t to say that it’s a complex game that will require players to devote hours of play and study to get into it – KB is really about a deep as a puddle, albeit one after a decent shower – but it’s a splendid way to pass the time. A perfect game for people new to the hobby as well as those families that the SdJ winner’s status appeals to, it’s got just enough need for strategy in there for more experienced gamers who are after something that won’t tax their brains too much. Of course, the haters will say that the Spiel des Jahres is being watered down again with such an accessible title taking the prize, but ignore their whining. It’s well worth playing even if it’s far from the most complex release that Queen have ever put out.
What you’ll get when you pick up a copy is a (very) lightweight Euro that you’ll enjoy more when you sit down with people who are looking to play something for fun. If you’ve got someone who’s ridiculously over-competitive in your group, leave it on the shelf and try something else. Kingdom Builder strikes me as the very epitome of a ‘new’ SdJ winner; easy to get your head around, family friendly, nicely produced… it will do very well, of course. Yes, the relative simplicity may put off some more experienced gamers, but they’ll be the ones missing out on this fun little experience.
Kingdom Builder was designed by Donald X. Vaccarino and was released by Queen Games in 2011. Two to four players can sit around the table for this one and games should take around 30-45 minutes. If you’re looking for a copy, you can pick one up for around £33 from the good folks at Gameslore, Spiel des Jahres award not included.