Kingdom Builder is an award-winning abstract area control game made by Donald X. Vaccarino, who is probably most famous for designing the pre-eminent deck building game Dominion. Kingdom Builder was released in 2011 by Queen Games, plays 2 to 4 players and takes roughly 45 minutes to play and due to the variable board setup, has a considerable amount of replayability. Being one of my favourite games, I wanted to share why I like Kingdom Builder so much and hopefully try to demonstrate to you that this game is fantastic and well worth your time.
Image by BGG user binraix – https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/1152359/kingdom-builder
Kingdom Builder is quite simple to setup and start playing – you select 4 of the modular board pieces and fit them together to make up the actual board, set a 5th aside flipped-over to use as the score track. Each section of the board will have a different special tile on it, either a Castle or an action tile which will allow a player to either move their existing settlements or place additional settlements down each round. After the bonus tiles have been placed, shuffle the Objective cards, draw 3 and place them to the side of the board in view of all players; these help to give overall direction to the game as the allow players to score bonus points at the end of the game based on a number of different factors. After the board, bonus tiles and objectives have been setup, give each player the tokens of their desired colour, placing the round wooden disk token near the start of the score track. Lastly, shuffle the Terrain deck and place it next to the board in easy reach of all players. At this point, all that’s left is to determine the starting player and you’re ready to go!
The actual gameplay of Kingdom Builder is deceptively simple – you draw just one single card from the Terrain deck and then place 3 of your Settlement tokens onto the board on that particular type of terrain. Sounds simple enough, but the strategy of the game comes from the fact that you are required to place new Settlements adjacent to any existing Settlements whenever possible. This limitation makes some choices very difficult, as you’re often faced with having to decide whether or not you want to build in a given direction knowing that it will limit some of your options for building on later turns.
Image by BGG user EndersGame – https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/1654632/kingdom-builder
Early in the game, making sure that you’re not boxing yourself in becomes very important as it can be extremely easy to go after the bonus action tiles, however they are almost always bordering 2 or more different types of terrain, which may limit your ability to expand to other parts of the board.
This seems to be the largest criticism brought up against Kingdom Builder; that you simply draw a card and place your settlements where the game tells you to, so it just plays itself. I feel this is misleading for a number of reasons, but mostly because I feel that shows a lack of planning and strategy – your goal in playing is to do what you can to make the Terrain cards work for you, rather than be limited by them. Through careful use of the Water, Mountains, bonus ability tokens and even the other players in the game, you can setup situations where you are able to have a choice of where to build, which is where the meat of this game really lives. It’s always important to keep in mind that the building limitations only state that you must build adjacent to one of your existing Settlements whenever possible, but it doesn’t state that any one Settlement is more important than any other, so being able to spread around the board in different spots will always give you more choices.
Image from BGG user EndersGame – https://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/1843086/kingdom-builder
Personally, I find the most difficult part of the game to be the first few rounds as they are relatively straight-forward (no bonus action tokens are available in some cases) but can ultimately have large impacts on you over the course of the rest of the game. Being able to identify spots on the board where you won’t be “stuck” can be difficult, especially when you don’t yet have the ability to manipulate or adjust where your Settlements are being built.
As the game moves on, decisions can become easier to make, either because you have obtained bonus ability tokens that let you branch out further or you can plan out where you want to go and then begin working towards that. There are no ways to manipulate the Terrain deck or cards that you draw, so being able to plan for any of the 5 different possible Terrain cards is a worthwhile thing to do while other players are taking their turns. In my experience, blocking other players from being able to access bonus tiles is really only a concern in the later parts of the game, but is still something worth keeping in mind wherever possible.
Kingdom Builder ends whenever a player has placed their last Settlement, which can add a bit of a race element to the game if certain bonus actions tiles become available as part of the game setup. The earlier you are able to begin placing an extra tile each turn, the sooner the game will end and in many cases, having more Settlements constructed will award you more points via Objective cards. If anything, however, I feel the Objective cards are as much diversions as they are ways to score bonus points, as their promised rewards at the end of the game can frequently make players choose between placing a Settlement in a place that will score them more at the end of the game or placing it in a spot that will allow them to build in a better direction.
Some of these Objective cards grant bonus points for building Settlements in certain configurations, for example points for each horizontal row on the board where a player has constructed a Settlement, or for building next to Mountain hexes on the board (which can not actually be built on top of) or even for building continuous Settlements connecting Castles to other locations. Yet others will give points for the largest concentration of Settlements per quadrant of the game board, for the highest number of separate groups of Settlements per quadrant or even for building Settlements in all 4 quadrants of the board (which can be harder to do than you might expect). Despite being a possible source for many bonus points, I still think it’s more important to always try and put yourself into a position where your future turns can have the most impact on your strategy overall.
Luck will certainly factor into every game of Kingdom Builder as the Terrain cards are randomly drawn, but what has helped me in many of my plays has been realizing that there’s only going to be roughly a 20% chance of drawing any one type of Terrain on your turn, so focusing on each different type of Terrain and having a plan in mind regardless of the card drawn will help bring up scores and make the game feel less constrained and far more interesting.