The Marmite Of Board Games. . . . . And I Hate Marmite! - Kingdom Builder Review

................(sigh)..............I can't believe I'm having to do this, but this review has been requested many times ever since my Top 10 Over-Rated Games list on the podcast so it's become necessary to do so. Let it be known that I don't love every game I play and in essence I suppose it's a refreshing change to post a negative review on the site as there has been a trend of positive ones lately. 

It is already obvious from the title and that paragraph that I really don't like this game. . . .  . . . at all . . . . .  and not because I don't like abstract games (yes it's an abstract game we'll get on to that later), I actually really like abstract games. Ever since my early school days of playing Chess in a pub league, I've loved the strategic, yet simplistic aspect of them. But there are many things about this game that drive me up the wall especially when I know how popular this game is with some gamers and how it "somehow" won the Spiel Des Jahres in 2011! 

However, remaining objective here, I'll explain why I believe this game is immensely over-rated in my opinion, yet will highlight its positive points as well (pictures courtesy of BGG).

"The cover that's on the box is a typical example of "Bait 'n' Switch"

Designer: Donald X. Vaccarino (2011)
Publisher: Queen Games
# of Players: 2-4
Ages: 8+
Play Time: 45+ minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: 283/7.11
Dice Tower 2013 People’s Choice Rank: n/a
Category: Abstract Game with Area Control
  
You've Come This Far!

In Kingdom Builder you are attempting to create your realm by placing buildings in such a way that they earn the most gold at the end of the game.

The game board is modular and contains a variety of different types of terrain hexes. During your turn you draw a single terrain card which dictates which type of hex you are allowed to place 3 buildings on. The only other restriction is that where possible they must be connected to your settlements already in play. Certain locations on the board will allow you to grab special action tokens which give you extra ways to move or place your buildings on the board.

"Probably the best bit of artwork in the game"

Victory points (gold) can be earned by building next to castles on the board as well as meeting the conditions of three objective cards, which give extra gold for building your kingdom in a particular manner. Once the last building from a player is placed on the board, the player with the most points is the winner.

Simple and Speedy, Yet Costly Construction

Still awake after that? Wow I'm impressed! But let's start with the positive points of this game to begin with. The game is fairly quick, clocking in at around 45-60 minutes for a four player game and even less potentially with only 2-3 players. You can squeeze this into a tight time-slot without much trouble and for people like me the game is over after a short time which feels like an act of mercy more than anything else.

It's also really simple to teach among family situations hence probably why it got a place in the Jahres awards because they do like to reward games with a good family weight. There is so little to learn in this game that you can teach it in about 5 minutes and be up and running straight away. The rule book is very clear and easy to follow so fair play to Queen Games there.

However the first of the negative points (yeah the positive points is a short list) is that it's too expensive for what you get in the box. You get a bunch of basic wooden houses of your colour which even though they are wood, aren't really interesting to look at, a bunch of cards with very basic artwork to represent the terrain and conditions and several quarter boards with hexes on it that link together to form a square of 4 boards. But the game has an RRP for over £40 and most online stores are selling for around £35+. That's too expensive for what this game is and I'd have thought £25 would be a more fitting price, £30 max.

"Looks colourful yes, but that's not a difficult thing to achieve, but the terrain boards don't look like terrain!"

Particularly when you consider that the artwork in this game is very basic. It's colourful yes, but that's its only appeal and the boards look like someone just hit Copy and Paste several times in difference places with a colour palette with terrain areas going all over the place in ways that don't seem geographically logical. It does keep the variation up a little from game to game, but all you're doing is moving the various colour segments about and what position they are will make little noticeable difference in how the game plays. Amerigo has a similar modular setup, but in that you choose where you go and the size of the islands has a direct impact on the game. In here, it doesn't matter a great deal as the terrain deck and condition cards are going to dictate how your game plays anyway. And if you're colour blind, good luck, that's all I can say, good luck to you. The board gets so cluttered with coloured houses everywhere in large player games that it's difficult for even a trained eye to see what's what.

Theme Be Gone!

If you are into thematic games, you're not going to find a shred of theme here. This is an abstract game, pure and simple, you're just placing houses on a board in various patterns to gain points. This concept has been used before and it probably didn't require as much of an investment to try it.

Some of the condition cards are just weird. Farmers for example requires you to build houses in all four quarters and you get points for the lowest number in a particular quarter. . . and that has what to do with farming. . . . what? Others can include building your houses in a straight line so you end up with this conga line of buildings stretching over deserts, canyons, forest and fairyland alike. Yeah fairyland is what I call the pink terrain, which I swear I have no idea what this terrain is meant to be. How often do you walk out in the country and see the colour pink everywhere? Did they run out of ideas or something? But that aside, you're building your settlements based on what the objective cards tell you, not how you would like to. Some objectives make sense such as the Miners that like building in canyons, but you could just simply invent a trade for each type of terrain and leave it at that.

"Knights - Build on a horizontal line. . . . . . huh??"

So in essence the medieval style dressing of castles and farmers and miners and knights etc. is just simply glossing over an abstract premise. The cover of the box shows a really colourful kingdom with vast landscapes etc, but when you set this game up you feel like you've just been suckered into the biggest Bait & Switch move since I Am Vlad.

Strategy For Kids, By Which I Mean What Strategy?

The game is aimed at families with young kids. There's no way I can fathom that this game was aimed for gamers. It boast words like "strategy" and "skillful" on the blurb, but there just seems to be little to none of that present here. The game is too simple for gamers and more in tune for families.

On your turn you draw one card from the terrain deck and that tells you where you're allowed to place 3 settlements. Why is that, who knows, the deck told you to so you're going to do what it says. On the first few turns, you have a few options as to where to place them. But once you've got some settlements down, it then becomes ultra-restrictive. Because if you draw the same terrain again you have to link them up to your original settlements so chances are you are lucky if you have two choices available and most of the time you'll only have one. How you link them is another choice but that's usually fairly obvious at the time and you can't predict whether you'll ever continue that link anyway due to the randomness of the terrain deck.

"Seriously what is that flower terrain supposed to be? I'm sticking with Fairyland!"

And by randomness I mean a LOT. You could have a plan to go for say, the Farmers, but to do so you need Deserts to get in that last quarter, but what a shame, the deck decides that the player before you is going to draw all the deserts. And when it's your turn, you'll just get fairyland again. You don't have much in the way of control over what you're doing because it's all defined by that one card you draw. Now if you could draw multiple cards and choose one, that would mitigate it, but no, your game could just go down the drain because dumb luck screwed you over. And luck is not something that should be present in an abstract game. How much luck does Chess, The Duke and Hive have?

The bonus action tiles that you can collect add a little extra bit of tactical play, but these aren't completely balanced. One allows you to place a settlement only on the outer edge of the board, where commonly it isn't great to do so, so it becomes a wasted tile other than just getting your buildings out quicker. But then there's one which allows you to slide a building in a straight line two hexes.  Don't ask me why, it just does, apparently these houses have wheels on them or something and can travel great distances. But that last tile is easily the most powerful available to which I personally and others have won games with simply by abusing it. Now you could try and grab them first obviously (I think there's only two tiles per different spot), but then your ability to get it is again dictated by that deck with the hand of one card. Also getting multiple different tiles usually means guaranteed victory as you'll be putting houses on the board twice or three times faster than any other player.

Now some variants have been made online to mitigate this by saying, have a hand of cards, draw two and choose 1 or don't use the cards at all (what a waste of components), but ARRRGGHH, write good rules! We're not here to fix your game for you, write better rules! No player I've met in a game of this has actually used them anyway.

Fun-less Factor

The game itself as much as I don't like it isn't actually bad in the way it's mechanics work. For something that is trying to be a simple game, the mechanics themselves work fine despite no theme being present at all. But the game is bone dry to play. Draw a card, place 3 buildings, draw a card, place 3 buildings, etc. There's little banter across the table until someone takes your spot, but it's not due to skill, it's that DECK OF ONE CARD! Notice a theme here? You might as well replace that deck with a single die and say "on a roll of a three, you place in the yellow area" - it really is much like a roll and move mechanic.

So rather than being "bad", the game is simply just "boring. Very boring. And that is a bigger sin for me in a game than bad mechanics. If a game is designed badly, then you at least laugh about that aspect, take the hilarious review of Oneupmanship by Tom Vasel for example. If it's a thematic game, you can still get into the theme even if the game isn't designed very well. But here, you're just sticking buildings on the board as dictated by the game itself. You can poke fun at a bad game, but you can't at a boring game. If a game is boring, it sucks all the fun out of the room and leaves a depressed hulk of flesh slowly deflating on to the table, which you can fold up and put in the box with the game when you're done. 3 days I spent on that guy's shelf. . . . .

"The board gets very cluttered with more players, hard to tell what's going on a lot of the time"

And don't play this with AP players. Seriously, usually when you draw a card, you don't have many choices for where you can go, but that won't stop players from analyzing out all the potential points from every single space around their current settlement. If they have two or three bonus location tiles, it's even worse. So if the gameplay itself doesn't bore you, the waiting for your turn to come back will do. I said the game was fast, and it is, 45 to 60 minutes is fairly quick, but you will want this game to be over in 15 minutes let alone 60!

I actually cheered when I saw that the Dice Tower trio all gave it stick on their Top 10 Disappointing Games list, and that's a word I could use to describe my initial thoughts. The game had been hyped to me with the award and among die-hard Euro gamers and being that I like abstract games, I was keen, but boy by half way through the game I was begging for a quick and painless end. Repeated plays (mostly by lack of anything else to play at the time) didn't make the game any better or any more varied despite different condition cards appearing.

Verdict

I cannot recommend this game at all. It is without doubt one of the worst games I've ever played. That being said, if you are hoping to get younger players involved in something that requires a little more thinking than the usual roll and move mechanics, then this could fill that void for you nicely. The problem is, there's so many other better family weight gateway games out there. Ticket To Ride, Forbidden Desert/Island, even Small World, these are not only great games but great gateway games too and at least two of those can be picked up cheaper as well, yet have much nicer components and a theme to go with them. £35+ is just too expensive for this. I'm looking at Hive Pocket on my shelf here which was less than £13 and that's a better game. Pay a little extra for Hive Carbon and that looks great on the table.  I think after I'm done with Top 10 Thematic Games on the podcast, I'm going to do a Top 10 Gateway Games list and suggest some better alternatives.

Some do really love this game and fair play to them, different folks and all that and considering this game is ranked in the high 200's I'm clearly in a minority. But there a lot of people out there who don't like this game either. There is no middle ground here, you either love this game or you absolute detest this game hence the Marmite reference. I'm most definitely in the the latter camp and hopefully with this review you can make your own decision about whether this style of game will appeal to you. But it's never going to be anything but dull for me and there are so many better Euro games out there.

I hope I never get to play this again, this was the game that put Queen Games on my "caution" list. Thankfully they have redeemed themselves a little with Alhambra and a lot with Amerigo, but I put this at No 1 on my Top 10 Over-rated games for a reason. It won an award and is ranked in the high 200's, but I struggle to see why. The only high point I can see is that if someone bought me this game, I wouldn't have to go cold this Winter. . . . . .


You Will Like This Game If:

  • You want a family friendly game to include the kids in.
  • You don't like anything too complex in your games and prefer simplicity.
  • . . . . . . . . . . I actually can't think of a third point to put in here, honestly I can't. 

You Will Not Like This Game If:

  • You want something particularly tactical and/or strategic.
  • You are interested in theme and artwork quality in your games.
  • You aren't comfortable with being effectively eliminated as a result of bad luck.

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