A game designer isn't really a huge cultural icon, but every now and then one comes along and puts his or her unique stamp in the gaming world. Enter Donald X. Vaccarino. Donald X. turned card games on their ear with his 2009 award-winning deck builder "Dominion"—the game (when coupled with an expansion or two) that's almost never the same twice.
Donald X. is at it again with, Kingdom Builder, a board game with many random elements that ensure re-playability and freshness for many, many game nights to come. Throw in the "Nomads" expansion, and you have a .03% chance of playing the same game twice, according to Queen Games rep, who demoed the game for me at Origins Game Fair in June of 2012. Not only that, but it was just announced that Kingdom Builder has won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award for Game of the Year--giving Donald X. his second such honor.
The Setup - The game setup is fairly simple. Choose 4 game boards randomly, and place them together in a rectangle; then deal 3 of the 10 included Kingdom Builder cards (these tell you how you score points), and place a few special ability tokens in the predetermined hexes. Then choose which color of little houses you want (except the orange ones; you can't have them...they're MINE!) and you're ready to go.
The Game Play - The game play is quick and the mechanics are simple: Build 3 settlements on your turn. Where you play them is determined by the terrain card you are dealt that turn, and any special abilities (there will be 4 out of a possible 8 in each game) you may have that can help you tweak your strategy and possibly build an extra settlement or two as the game unfolds. Your strategy is determined by the Kingdom Builder cards that are in play for the game; they determine how points are scored for your settlements based on location, groupings, spacing, etc. The only other way to score points is to place a settlement adjacent to a Castle hex (there are always 4 of them); this will get you 3 gold at the end.
End Game - The goal is to score the most gold, and the game ends when a player plays all 40 of their settlements—each player then receives their final turn. Your score is then tallied (again, according to the scoring criteria on the Kingdom Builder cards), and whoever comes out with the most gold wins.
I'm not over simplifying the mechanics of the game; they are very simple and easy to learn. The strategic side of the game is where things really shape up. Because the way you score points is different in each game, adjusting your strategy each time you sit down to play it is vital!
The Bottom Line - While the special abilities are reminiscent of Dominion, and the building of settlements hints to Catan, the truth is, the mechanics and strategies involved create a unique and engaging game play experience that will make you want to set up another game as soon as the first game is over. The pictograms used to explain some of the special abilities are at times cryptic but nothing insurmountable. This is a fun, lightweight, quick-playing game.