Kingdom Builder Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2011
Playing Time: 45 Minutes
Restriction breeds creativity. You’ve probably heard variations on this phrase before in regard to creative work. But what about games?
We’re frequently subjected to big numbers that speak to various games’ supposed freedom. “27 action types, 150 unique card abilities, and 10 special player powers, modular board components and 7 expansion modules, for functionally infinite replayability!”
I’m sure I could make that even more grandiose, but similar phrases are used in the marketing copy for hundreds of games these days. So how about this:
“You draw a single card, and it tells you the terrain type you’ll need to place houses on. Approximately 80% of the board will be off limits to you on any given turn.”
Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it?
But it is, and therein lies the paradoxical beauty of Kingdom Builder, an award-winning 2011 design. It’s a game as much about limitations as freedom, but understands how to give you opportunities within those limits.
Kingdom Builder – The Premise
A hexagonal map is laid out. Four quadrants are positioned in modular fashion to make the full play area, and a handful of scoring cards are drawn from a deck to show how you’ll score points in this session.
On players’ turns, you draw a card that corresponds to one of a handful of terrain types, and you place up to three houses on this terrain type. Additionally, houses must be placed adjacent to your other houses, if possible.
Adjacency to a few randomly selected special ability tiles will grant you additional action options, such as placing a 4th house on a specific terrain type, moving an existing house, or building atop a water hex. Scoring is varied based on what’s drawn, and you might score for adjacency to water, or the size of your largest settlement of houses, or one of many other types.
Freedom Within the Limits
Generally, a gamer will play Kingdom Builder (KB) and immediately feel restricted. Scoring will seem luck-based and too dependent on card draw. But they’ll also see that the more experienced players always seem to do better.
How could this be? They’re subject to the same whims of luck, right? But good players are consistently good, so something else is at work.
Then you start to see how to avoid limiting your placements by strategically spreading yourself around the board with early plays, where the restrictions of adjacency don’t hem you into a particular quadrant of the board.
Then they’ll experiment with the special ability tiles, which can unlock additional adjacencies and terrain types, allowing for subtle freedoms and sneaky back doors to various scoring types.
Lastly, they’ll learn how to gauge their play so that they’re not necessarily focused on scoring at first, but on maintaining flexibility in play, and only in the game’s latter 50-60% does it become a more deterministic scramble for points. And they’ll see others doing this on the same shared space, and start to make shrewd placements to slow down or block opponents from crucial hexes.
It’s all quite nuanced, and rarely obvious at first, even to seasoned gamers. And it’s also what makes the game so excellent.
Limits Within the Freedom Within the Limits
Am I overselling things here? Yes, a little. Occasionally the card draw will simply crush you, with little or not strategic recourse, nor easy route back to competitive relevance. This is rare, but it does happen. Your first placement might be to fill an entire grass section, so that you aren’t bound to it in future grass placements. But then the next card forces you to stay next to your grass houses, and the next further chains you to a specific subsection of the board. This doesn’t happen often, but stinks when it does.
So if the game’s intent is to walk that tightrope line between restriction and freedom, it at least occasionally missteps.
The silver lining is that this is one of the breezier games you’ll find within its strategic weight and length. It’s more likely to leave you wanting more, or simply to overturn the board tiles for a different setup and play again.
I’ve also never seen a veteran KB player do poorly (even if they don’t win), which makes me think even then, it’s someone fatalistically giving up on their game, or not learning from their mistakes, rather than the luck simply being so bad.
Variance Within the Freedom Within the Lim…Ok, You Get It
Last but not least, KB gets points from me for having about 3 rules to teach, but being infinitely variable. That embellished marketing pitch in my intro can actually be true when a designer understands what types of things create meaningful variance, and which only create surface-level variance.
The line between the two is subjective, of course, but I do see a line. And here, the setup, scoring types and special ability tiles all create vastly different gameplay results, but without adding substantially to the game’s rules overhead.
Kingdom Builder – Conclusions
Kingdom Builder is the 2012 Spiel des Jahres Winner, and for good reason. Easy to teach and get into, plenty of depth, impossible to master but also rewarding of skill, and it has a pleasant playtime and learning curve that will never be too intimidating even for families or casual game groups.
I will stop short of the superlatives I reserve for my absolute favorite games, but the sturdy, “really good” games just beneath them are often the ones that I am able to play more often and which generate more total joy due to that fact. Kingdom Builder understands much of what is lost in the modern arms race of component types, rules complexity and sub-systems, each vying for your attention in a crowded market. It understands that depth need not be accompanied by complexity, and limitations are not anathema to creativity, freedom and fun.