Brutus Rating: 2/10 daggers in the back
Pairs well with: A different type of beer for each terrain you build on
Do you remember that thrill you first had, when you were young(er) and excitable and new to the world of board gaming, and you first discovered that the maps of some games are randomised at the start? Like ‘Woah, this randomised Catan map has all of the brick next to each other, how exciting! Oh and in this one all of the fields are lined up next to mountains, how sweet!’ And then there was Small World, where the lands are the same but the history is different and the races that try to populate it all have different randomized attributes. “Today we’re going to fight with FLYING skeletons? What madness is this?”
No? Just us? It takes us back to childhood memories of those ancient strategy computer games with randomised set-ups. Can we pretend that this fixation makes us endearing rather than sad and odd? Excellent.
Well, if by chance you ARE excited by that kind of thing, then Kingdom Builder is a game for you! There are several different boards to choose from and you select four at random at the start, each constituting a quarter of your future Kingdom. Even more excitingly, each different potential Kingdom-quarter comes with a different bonus action token, meaning the moves you’ll be able to make in the game will be different. EVEN MORE EXCITINGLY THAN THAT (is it even possible to be more excited?) the way to earn points and win the game is ALSO randomised at the start, through a decently-sized collection of cards.
In Kingdom Builder you play a mighty kingdom-builder (OK, so it’s not the most roleplaying-heavy game in the world). The aforementioned randomised selection of cards (of which you get three!) determines what kind of people you’re building a kingdom for, thus also telling you what kind of things they’re looking for in a kingdom, thus also telling you how to get points (‘gold’) and some delicious, delicious victory.
If you’re building a town for miners then you’ll probably want some settlements near the mountains, which is where they tend to get their mining did. So a ‘miners’ card will (quite logically) get you one point per settlement next to a mountain.
At the time of writing and photographing we closed our eyes and picked fishermen, knights and merchants. A pretty pleasing group to live with, we all have high hopes for our future realms; got ourselves some food, some income and a solid line of defence. There have been worse fundaments for civilisations.
So the aim of our game will be to build our tiny little houses near water for our fishermen, connecting different settlements for our merchants and … all in a horizontal line, for the knights.
No, we don’t know why they asked for that. It doesn’t seem like it’d be easily defensible. Do they… do they want to do some jousting, and they want the longest possible run up, spanning the entire kingdom? That can’t be it, because they don’t mind if there are canyons in the way, or how broken up the horizontal line is. Do they just have weirder fixations than even the misery farmers? Who knows! Ideas and answers on a postcard, please.
Play for this game is fairly quick and fairly simple. There are some snazzy terrain rules which will determine where you can lay your houses, of which you’ll lay a base of three per turn, as well as a few kinds of bonus tokens which will let you take extra actions. These, again, are randomised thanks to the boards that you chose at the start. Many of them are kind of samey (Build more on grass! Yay! Build more on desert! Yay…) but there are one or two which can be pretty game-altering. The horses of this kingdom, for example, are so strong that an entire tiny wooden house can hitch a ride across a couple of hexagons and settle down elsewhere. Literally game-changing.
Speaking of those little wooden houses, we should spare a little spot of criticism for the production of some of them. A few of the roofs seem to have collapsed in. Knew we shouldn’t have trusted those bloody fishermen with building the kingdom for us!
The snazzy terrain rules are that you draw a card with a picture of a terrain on it, and that’s where you are destined to build this turn, for three of your settlements at least. It’s unclear why your kingdom is being restricted in this way. Are the people demanding it? It’s difficult to see why a kingdom of fishermen would demand that you build only on the desert for three bloody turns in a row. Besides, what power should they have over you? You’re building a kingdom for them! Go to hell, fishermen! Perhaps instead you only have the materials to build on a certain type of terrain? But then what extra materials would you possibly need to build on the grass that you wouldn’t need to build on the flowers? Ok, let’s just call it some weird superstitious reason and leave it at that. You’re a superstitious kingdom-builder. Done. Let’s not question it any further.
The game is all about making the best you can out of the randomised selection of things that the game throws at you. Mostly in the form of some very annoying terrain restrictions. It’s all randomised in a way that doesn’t seem to leave you too reliant on luck, at least not if you play it right. Sure, having to build your settlements in the sodding canyons for three turns in a row can dick you over a bit but there are measures you can take to avoid it ruining your kingdom too much. Oh you didn’t take those measures and now you’re stuck building in the corner? Well that’s just your own fault.
If you’re not careful you can really feel yourself just getting carried away. A turn itself seems so insignificant, “oh I’ll just waste this one turn building on this bit of desert but I’ll be fine next time”, but then after several turns you can look back and find yourself having just squeezed out a sad turd of a civilization and you’re out of control and maybe you’re not up for this kingdom ruling business after all! Aah! Woe!
This happened in the game we were just playing. Those of you already familiar with Kingdom Builder might look at the photos of the board and think “That can’t be the same game they were describing in the post! There are hardly any horizontal lines at all! If they had Knights they’d be doing terribly!” You’d be right. We were just doing really terribly. We’re rightly ashamed.
Aside from all that, Kingdom Builder is a pretty good game. It’s fairly simple and all of that randomisation we’ve been banging on about for most of this review equates to some pretty damn good replayability. Possibly our favourite game to come out of Essen 2013. Huzzah!
The photographer won again, but whatever. The real winners are the fishermen.
*Lizzy: Can we get some nice photos of some of the bits that make up the game this time? Please? For journalism?
Dr Photographer-Friend: No! Screw you! I’m going to spend most of this time taking photos of this apple and this weird dog toy you’ve been using as a door stop instead. Stop trying to strangle my artistic vision!
Still, credit goes to him again for our photos.