Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A review of Kingdom Builder....

Following up Dominion has got to be one helluva tough task. The original "deck-building" card game has spawned a dynamic, exciting, and very different way to play hobby games. Whether or not you like Dominion, it's clear that its impact over the past 4 years has been a monumental game-changer (excuse the pun) unlike anything since Magic: The Gathering. So when that's your debut, expectations are pretty high for the sophomore effort. Cue 4 years later and we get Kingdom Builder from Queen Games, a beautifully produced abstract board game that I argue is clearly inspired by the modularity of Dominion but really lacks that game's originality, depth, and most of its excitement.

Now some will argue that comparing Kingdom Builder to Dominion isn't really fair as the gameplay is so different, one being an abstract network-building Euro and the other a deck-building card game. I would say, however, that the comparison is quite apt not only because they have the same designer but also because the only really original part of KB is clearly inspired by the random Kingdom card setup of Dominion. And sadly for me, this seems to be the only really interesting part of the game as well.

3 random scoring goals and the bonus castle goal
So what do you do in Kingdom Builder? Well, that really depends on the 3 scoring cards you draw at the beginning of the game out of a possible 10. One card, for example, gives points for large contiguous groups of connected settlements and another awards first and second place to players with majorities in quadrants of the board. Some scoring cards encourage spreading out while others invite you to surround certain spaces on the board. The one scoring condition that holds true every game, and hence does not require a card, is that you receive 3 points for every castle you connect to. In each game, there are between 4 and 6 castles so this is nothing to scoff at when high score sometimes can be as low as 40. So in essence this is really a connection game, much like Ticket To Ride or Through The Desert.

The gameplay itself is fairly simple, almost too simple. In fact, the first time I read through the ruleset, my immediate thoughts were, "Is that it?" and I actually avoided the purchase until I'd been swayed by some fairly positive reviews. In short, each player has 40 houses ("settlements") to place on the board to maximize their points according to the 3 scoring cards picked for that game. Every round a player draws a landscape card which designates on which of the 5 types of empty landscape spaces he MUST play 3 of his houses. In addition, if at all possible these new settlements must be played connected to one of that player's previously played settlements. And that's mostly it. But the thing is, it's these two somewhat artificial constraints that require most of the strategy and yet also provide a lot of the aggravation. Let me explain further.

The different blocks of landscape are all large and connected to each other so when you place 3 settlements in the desert, for example, you could decide whether to place at the edge of the desert next to, say, a patch of forest. This will allow you to continue onto that forest if you draw a forest card later. More often, though, you are trying not to connect to that forest region so that if you draw that forest card later and you are forced to play on a forest, you can start anywhere as hopefully there are no empty forest hexes next to your played settlements. Notice how both of these moves depended mightily on that certain card you drew later. But what happens if you played in the desert and then you drew another desert card and had to stay connected and play more houses in the desert. And you had no choice but to play your houses adjacent to the fields which you don't feel like expanding into. Then the next turn you draw a field card and, well, there goes another turn as you are forced to play into the fields. Yeah, lame. There are some turns in this game that almost completely play themselves and usually not in the way you want them to either. Considering you get at most 14 turns in the game (and that's if you play really poorly), wasting 3 or 4 on bad cards draw does not feel good at all.

No harbour for anyone else.  Sorry!
Not to say there aren't some ways around this. Certain locations on the board when connected to provide an action token which you can use repeatedly to do things like add a settlement to a certain terrain type or move one settlement 2 spaces, the latter being very useful. And like the scoring cards, only 4 of the 8 different action tokens are available every game providing more of that Dominion-style modularity. And sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Clever plays can be made when certain tokens are played before your landscape card allowing you to make a connection your previously couldn't. But this does lead to some major down-time when one player has 5 tokens and a landscape card and is scratching their head trying to optimize their move according to the four different scoring possibilities. Even worse, as in our last game, one player could get a field card then a chasm card on the first couple turns, completely surround the harbour action space, and basically lock everyone else out of the win in the first 5 minutes. Geez, wish we'd drawn either of those cards.....

So why is Dominion such a success whilst Kingdom Builder just falls kind of flat? Both games start with a very simple base game and build upon it using a subset of rules possibilities. Out of that modularity comes the interest in the game. The big difference is that base game of Dominion is unique, exciting, and very different and the cards there tweak that formula in very different ways. Kingdom Builder is not unique and really not that interesting. Flip a card, play houses on that type of space, remain connected if possible. The variety introduced by the actions usually does little more than let you play another house and the scoring opportunities are in general rather dull ("score for majority", "make the biggest connected group", "connect locations together on the board"). All of these goals have been done before many times, and I daresay better in most cases, so randomly combining a few of them doesn't really add that much tension.

In addition, unlike Dominion which is a fairly balanced game (yes, it really is, everyone can buy the exact same cards), KB is totally unbalanced and rather luck-driven by the landscape cards. One only has to go to the BGG threads to see how some players have tried to fix this aspect of the game. When you have a strategy but you have to waste turns ignoring it and just playing what the card tells you to, there is something seriously wrong.

Finally, and I think this is the biggest issue with Kingdom Builder, Dominion provides rewarding moments throughout its play-time. Every time you draw and cleverly chain together enough cards to purchase a Province in Dominion, it's that emotional payoff, that reason to continue. Other much better connection games have these mid-game rewards, too, like Ticket To Ride when you connect two cities to finish a ticket or Through The Desert when you surround a group of point chips and pick them up immediately. The problem with KB is that all of the scoring occurs at the end of the game no matter what scoring cards you're playing with so the most interesting part of the game for me is the last two minutes when we tally it all up. Too bad we played for 45 minutes to an hour just to get there.

I'm surprised that something this light and luck-driven has been released by Queen Games who in the past few years have released some of my favourite games. I kind of feel like they saw the runaway success of Dominion and its and decided to just accept the next thing from him to come along. Not to say that others couldn't enjoy this game, as it's not awful or unplayable. I mean, there is definitely a following online of people have house-ruled this game to shit trying to make it more strategic. But I'm kind of stubborn about house rules as I treat games like I do art, movies, and music. I want to experience a game exactly as the designer and company intended me to experience it, good or bad. And even if one is able to fix the random "you win, you don't" aspect of the landscape card draw, I just don't find the game all that interesting. I think the next time I'm in the mood for a good connection game, I'll just go back to Knizia's classic Through The Desert which is a helluva lot more fun.

I probably should have just listened to my gut when I first read the rule-set. Ah well, you live, you learn.