I’m not a fan of Dominion so when I bought Kingdom Builder, I wasn’t looking for the next awesome game by Donald X. Vaccarino; I was looking for a lighter, fun game with lots of re-play value. Did I find that? Yes. Emphatically yes.
The game is for 2 to 4 players, age 8 and over, with a play time of about 45 minutes. If you’re a fan of Dominion and think this is another deck-builder, it’s not, in any sense; nor is it card drafting or hand-management as you only get 1 card at a time; nor is it area control, worker placement or pick-up and deliver. There are no stocks to invest in, no trading or betting or bidding. The mechanics listed on the Board Game Geek page is “route/network building” and that’s close but still misses. You’re just making points the best way you can manage given 3 random cards that set the parameters, and four random abilities provided by the map layout. And that, it turns out, is more than enough.
On your turn you show your card and place 3 of your wooden houses (settlements) on that type of terrain, adjacent to previous houses if possible. The “adjacent” rule is very important, limiting where you can go and possibly making your opening move a critical one. If you have built next to a location where the various ability chits are placed, you can use each of those abilities once each turn either before or after building your settlements. Then you draw a new card. That’s it; that’s your whole turn. Doesn’t sound like much, does it?
The secret is in which locations with their special abilities you build next to. The abilities are: place a new settlement on a desert (yellow) hex, move a settlement two hexes in a straight line, move a settlement to the terrain type on your card, place a new settlement on the edge of the board, place a new settlement on a grass (light green) hex, place a settlement on a hex of your terrain card type, move a settlement to a water hex, and place a new settlement at the end of a row of three or more of your settlements.
When you add 4 of these abilities to your placement options, it can open up your choices nicely. But if you choose poorly, you can find them totally useless in helping you achieve points as dictated by the scoring cards drawn for this particular game.
There are 3 scoring cards (out of 10 that come with the game), dealt randomly each game. You can be trying to place settlements adjacent to mountains or water, on many horizontal lines or vertical lines, or adjacent to castles and locations. You may be trying to create one very large settlement area or as many areas as you can. Maybe you’ll have to build settlements in each of the four map sectors, or connect locations and castles. Sometimes the combination of scoring cards work together but sometimes they are such that you have to choose which ones to concentrate on.
When a player puts his last settlement on the board, that triggers the end of the game–scoring occurs at the end of that round. You add the points you earned for the three scoring cards, and three points for each castle next to which you placed a settlement. The winner is the player with the most points, of course. In case of a tie, you’re all equally brilliant!
The components are nice, as you would expect from Queen Games. The colors and artwork are clear, making it easy to see across the game table, and the cheat sheets for the locations’ abilities are a nice addition. I like that the back of each map board has a score track, making it useful as well as eliminating the need for VP or money tokens to keep score.
Each time I’ve played, I’ve had a good time even if I lost. Although the game is simple in theory, there’s a puzzle-like aspect to finding the best way to accomplish the goals set out by the scoring cards. How do I get across the board or build many small areas when I am required to place adjacent if possible? Which ability tile is going to help me the most? Where should I start when I want to make one long horizontal line but the board is full of rivers?
The game may take 45 minutes to play, but it doesn’t feel like that much time has passed because the turns are quick for the most part. There is very little confrontation except when someone builds in your way, which could be on accident or deliberate, depending on the people with whom you’re playing. Around here, you can assume it’s deliberate!