Kingdomino was one of the games we got try out at the UK Games Expo 2017. Recently announced as a nominee for the Spiel des Jahres we sat down and gave it a try without having any particularly strong expectations. In our experience, games selected for consideration in that award uniformly reflect a particularly safe design philosophy that emphasises relatively uncomplicated fun. That’s not bad in any sense but it does mean that they tend to be somewhat ephemeral. It’s always difficult to write a meaningful review of a game that is just going to end up with ‘yeah, it’s pretty good’ as its epitaph. Inoffensive is always the hardest category to critique. Inoffensive doesn’t give a lot of purchase for a reviewer’s clawing fingertips. We might be trying to get wrist deep all up in its guts, but there needs to be something there to act as the leverage to get inside. Games like Twilight Struggle or Imperial Settlers, or Suburbia or Concordia – they’re all more than just fun games. Fun is only part of what they offer to a player. They also inspire passion.
So – what about Kingdomino then?
Kingdomino is the perfect encapsulation of a reviewer’s dilemma. I don’t have any particular problems with it. I’ve enjoyed playing it. I’ll enjoy playing it again. I enjoyed playing the game to generate the photographs. I enjoyed simply placing tiles around for the purposes of setting up a featured image. There’s something inherently satisfying about just placing tiles and making a nice landscape. Board games are tactile experiences and we shouldn’t shy away from accepting part of the enjoyment comes from manipulating components in a physically satisfying way. It’s nice to do this especially with chunky components like those to be found in this box.
Here’s how Kingdomino works. Each player gets a little cardboard castle that sits upon their starting tile. They also get a pair of little wooden King meeples (of which they will use one or two, depending on how many players are in the game). Each turn, a number of domino tiles equal to the number of players will be dealt out from the top of the stack. They have numbers on the back of them, and they get arranged in ascending order. Lower numbers tend to be less desirable than higher numbers but desirability rapidly becomes a property inexorably linked with the choices you have made earlier in the game. Value, in Kingdomino, is an intensely personal calculation.
Once the tiles are sorted they’re flipped over and players take it in turn order to claim one with their king. That’s going to be theirs to add to their kingdom when their turn comes around in the game proper. Once the first three tiles have been claimed, another three tiles are dealt out and then sorted into the appropriate order. This second column of tiles are then flipped over.
And now the game actually begins. Kingdomino, as you might expect from the name, plays heavily on the namesake connection. As I said in my post on the UK Games Expo, it’s kind of like what would happen if the game of dominos had unprotected sex with Isle of Skye. The competition is entirely over the best land and the choicest terrains. The end-result is a game of passive-aggressive gerrymandering interspersed with repeated moments of staring at your land and moaning ‘Oh, piss’ as you realise how badly you’ve messed things up.
In Kingdomino you’re not actually selecting a tile on your turn. Your turns are always a step behind what’s happening – you’re selecting your next tile and placing the one that you last selected. That’s enough to put everything subtly out of sync. It makes every turn a little bit like having an anxious horse participating in a waltz. Any time its limbs go where you expect is a victory in and of itself. Sometimes in Kingdomino you’re just glad the hooves landed somewhere without breaking anything important.
On your turn you pick up the tile you’ve claimed and then place your king on one of the unclaimed tiles in the other column. The order in which kings have claimed tiles determines the next turn order – it’s always top down in the active column. Taking the lower numbered tiles gives you the juiciest pick of what’s to come next. That might not be worth the risk – the next column is only dealt out once the previous one has been fully consumed. As such, you might pass the chance on a good tile only to see a two, six and eight dealt out from the stack. Oh, piss.
When you pick up your tile you place it in an evolving 5×5 grid of your own design. Standard dominoes rules apply here – you need to place a tile so that it has a half (at least) that matches the terrain to which it is attached. Your starting tile counts as all terrain types, but once you’ve used up all four sides of that you’re at the mercy of the landscape you’re constructing. Your starting tile might end up in the centre of your realm. It might be on the edge. It might be grotesquely and distracting off-centre for no clear reason because sometimes games turn us all into monsters. It doesn’t matter – all that matters is that we place it somewhere. If it can’t go anywhere it gets discarded back to the box and the failure that represents will haunt you for the rest of your days.
Once everyone has placed their tile and selected the next, another column is dealt out, it’s revealed, and then play continues in exactly the same fashion until the end point which is when someone has fully constructed their 5×5 domain or nobody has a valid move left. Probably the latter one, really.
What you’re looking to do here is build large, contiguous masses of terrains. But you’re also looking to pepper those terrains with crown symbols – those act as multipliers on the score you’ll get for the area. An area of two tiles with a crown in it is worth two points. Two crowns in a two tile area are worth four points. Three crowns in a four tile area are worth twelve. No crowns are worth – you guessed it – zero points. The tiles you see being placed in front of you are all ever shifting in value. A single crown might be relatively priceless if you have a big terrain you can’t otherwise score. On the other hand, if you have a dense forest with four crowns already you might be keen to pick up that otherwise undistinguished double forest tile. Every new turn of the tiles is like an episode of Storage Hunters – you don’t know what you’re going to get but you better make sure you’re quick enough off the mark to get it if it’s good. You’re constantly making decisions on the timing of turns based on an unpredictable lottery.
This is very satisfying and it’s also the source of the repeated moments of intense frustration. It’s so simple. It’s so easy! What can be easier than picking the next tile you want while placing the tile you just got? And yet. AND YET.
It’s those cramped constraints that do it for you every time. Five by five seems like it’s masses of room to begin with – a land truly fit for a king. A few turns down the line and things are very cramped. You’re constantly making compromises and threatening to build a wall to keep immigrants out. Sure, if you just had one more tile’s space to maneuver you could place that crown where it would get you enough points to claim independence from Kingdomino and start a new game all of your own. However, you don’t have that space. Instead you place the tile where it does the most good – not where it’s optimal, but where it’s not sub-optimal. Perhaps more accurately, you place the tile where you think it’s going to do the last damage.
That then starts a failure cascade. You played that tile there and because of that you suddenly find the next tile that is revealed goes from ‘the must have crown jewel’ to ‘a piece of trash that you’ll just need to throw in the sea’. You just don’t have the room you need to take advantage of the opportunities that are suddenly coming your way. And remember – if you pick the best tiles on offer in the current turn, you’re going to be picking last for the next. You can’t not pick a tile – whatever garbage you’re left with is yours now, buddy. If you can place it, you have to place it. Be proud of it, even as it throws a wrench into your carefully laid plans. I mean, maybe the pink player grabbed the only decent tile that was on offer, and left you and blue with what was left…
Maybe that could have been worth a small lottery win of points if you’d just made some very small adjustments early in the game. Maybe now it’s impossible to fit into your land because it can’t be made to obey the deceptively generous placement rules. Maybe you’re screwed, because you don’t really get enough turns in Kingdomino to be able to waste one.
And then, what if the joy of taking the initiative crashes head-first into the reality of your own geography? What if none of the tiles you have available to select can be placed? What if the cost of missing the tile you wanted was to be left facing the prospect of a second missed turn?
Oh, piss again.
A single compromise early in the game might cost you two turns at the end as your grid finds itself with gaps and jagged edges no tile in the stack can fill. Even if you have the space, you better have the landscape to support your often meagre choices. Kingdomino usually doesn’t end with the triumphant placement of a capstone. It ends instead with the sombre ritual of erecting a headstone. Sort of, anyway. There are I suspect vanishingly few funerals where the eulogy is recited by the departed themselves, and fewer still where that eulogy consists of little more than inarticulately mumbled curse-words.
The worst thing about it in the end is that with the benefit of hindsight you can see your own short-sighted logistics staring you in the face. The placement of tiles is, at least to begin with, rarely so restrictive that you have no choices. When you’re looking at a landscape riddled with bullet-holes though it doesn’t help all that much to know that each was self-inflicted.
That’s Kingdomino – very simple, very satisfying, and a good chunk of uncomplicated fun. And that circles us back to my earlier comment – it’s inoffensive in every way, and that doesn’t give me a lot of purchase to get stuck into it in any meaningful sense. It doesn’t inspire passion or enthusiasm.
That’s not a sin.
However, when I look at the games for which I have given more enthusiastic recommendations that is a virtue they all share. Kingdomino is moreish, but it’s moreish like binge-watching episodes of an old eighties sitcom on TV. It’s perfectly pleasant, and doing anything else would need me to confront the choice paralysis that comes with changing the channel. Kingdomino is so bright and breezy that after playing it I’d likely be up for playing it again but I can’t say I spend a lot of time thinking about it when it’s not right in front of me.
Again, this is absolutely no sin – not every game needs to be the subject of slavish nerd worship, just like not every TV show has to be Breaking Bad or the Sopranos. It just means that regardless of how much I kick the tyres I can’t nudge this game out of the cloying mud represented by having to say that it’s basically perfectly fine. Kingdomino is the popcorn you consume without really considering it during an especially gripping movie. It doesn’t ask much of its players, so the barrier to entry is very low. It gives plenty back, so the reward for the time you invest is high. I’d say it was a perfect game to use to introduce new players to the hobby, but I’m not really sure it is. My worry is they’d come away from the experience saying ‘Yeah, that was fun but I don’t see why you get so het up about all these games’. And yet again I say this is no sin. It’s not fair to ask more of a game than it transparently offers and Kingdomino doesn’t pretend to be more than it is.
Yeah. It’s pretty good.
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