Monday, August 21, 2017

Board Game Review: Kingdom Builder

A close-up view of a game after it has ended. There are four sections of the game board, each placed together to form the play area. Each one is made up of a grid of hexagonal spaces, coloured to represent grasslands, forests, flowers, canyons, mountains, lakes, and deserts, with a fancy space representing a city. On most of the non-water spaces is a wooden house token in one of five colours: blue, white, black, red, and orange.

I've been able to play this game a few times now, and though at first I didn't think much of it, my second play through caused me to realise that it's actually a really good game. It has all of the best elements of a good game that I described in my article on good games. There's no player elimination, it has a lot of player agency, it's relatively simple, it ends decisively, it allows for upsets, and best of all, it's fun to lose. So let's take a look at it.

We start with the numbers, just like always.

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 5
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Average
Average Length of Game Play: 45 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: High
  Conflict: High
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

The lands spread out before you, just waiting to be settled. Riches await the one who is able to seize the best territory. Can you move your people into the most beneficial areas? Victory awaits the one who can!

This game consists of several board segments made up of hexagonal spaces. These spaces can be one of several different terrain types. Some are forests, and others grasslands. Some are flowers, and some are canyons. There are lots of water spaces, which cannot normally be built on; the same is true for mountain spaces. In addition, each board segment has two 'locations' and a city. Players choose four of these segments at random and place them together to create the playing area for this game. Thus, the board is different every time.

Then you draw a number of goal cards, which describe the main ways that players earn victory points. In some games, you earn points for each settlement adjacent to a water space. Others give you points for having the most settlements in each of the four board segments. Some cards even award you for having settlements in a straight line. But in this way, the victory conditions also change each game.

Tokens are placed on each location; these tokens grant you bonus moves. You can claim a token when you build a settlement adjacent to that location. Then each player receives forty wooden house tokens in his or her colour.

On a player's turn, he may place up to three settlements on the board. However, he is restricted by two factors:

  1. He must draw a card showing a terrain type at the beginning of each turn. All settlements placed during this action must be placed on this terrain type.
  2. He must place settlements adjacent to his existing settlements, if possible. Only if it is not legally possible to place a settlement adjacent to one of his own settlements already on the board can he place a settlement elsewhere.
This is where the strategy of the game comes in. Whenever you place settlements, you're causing subsequent settlements to be drawn to the same clump of terrain until that clump is full. Thus, for example, in the photo at the beginning of this article, in the front left, there is a small cluster of five grassland hexes together, surrounded by water, forests, and flowers, with one city space next to it. Once the first black house was placed there, any subsequent black houses placed in grassland spaces must go in this same little clump of spaces, until all of them are full. Furthermore, if the black player draws a forest card, he must place in the forest spaces adjacent to a settlement in the grassland spaces.

So choosing where to place your settlements is very tricky, as it will affect your possible placement options for several turns afterwards.

Once you have acquired a token from one of the locations, it grants you additional optional actions. Some such tokens let you place an extra settlement on a flower space, so long as it obeys the rules of adjacency (it must be adjacent to one of your existing settlements if it is legally possible to do so). Another one lets you move a settlement from one space to another. A third token lets you place a settlement at the end of a straight line of three or more of your settlements already on the board, extending that line by one more.

And so forth.

The more tokens you collect, the more additional optional actions you can take. And it is very maddening when someone prevents you from getting a token.

In fact, that's one of the best things about this game. It has a lot of potential for 'screw you!' actions. That is, a player may take a space that you wanted before you get a chance to place a settlement there. Or a player may completely surround a location before you get a token from it, meaning that you are now completely unable to get a token from that location at all.

Although there's no direct conflict in this game (you can't attack other players, or remove their settlements from the board), but by blocking other players' moves, you can greatly anger those players. Many were the times in which a player would become enraged and begin shouting at another player who'd just stolen a spot that the first player had been working towards for three or four turns...

Once a player has exhausted his supply of forty settlements, finish the round so that everyone has an equal number of turns. Then calculate the victory point total for each player. Whoever has the most points is the winner.

That's the whole game. And yet, from such a simple premise with very basic mechanics, there is a lot of strategy and planning in this game. There's a little bit of randomness in the selection and placement of board segments, but the vast portion of randomness comes from the cards you draw to determine where you're able to place your settlements this turn. Usually, this averages out over the course of the game, but I have seen a player spend six or more turns drawing nothing but canyon cards (and getting more annoyed with each one).

So, if you like thinky-thinky games that fit all the aforementioned criteria of a good game, Kingdom Builder might just be for you. And if it's not enough, there are four expansions already, each adding new board segments, new location tokens, and a spattering of other new rules.

Anyway, I think that's all for now. I hope you enjoyed this review! I'll see you back here next week! Until then, have fun playing games, and remember to

Game on!

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