October 15, 2011

Board Game Review: Kingsburg

Kingsburg (Fantasy Flight/Andrea Chiarvesio & Luca Iennaco, 2007)
2-5 players / 10 + / 90-120 minutes

It was a prosperous year for the land.  The King’s magnanimous advisors provided me plenty of bounty for just a bit of flattery in return.  I developed my province, strengthening both prestige and military.  But Winter was setting in and soon the evil hordes that live beyond these realms would descend like a plague of locusts to devour all they could.

“My lord,” reported a courier.  “The enemy approaches and we are outmatched!”

“Well,” I scoffed, asking, “and what of help from the King?”

A look of fear swept across his brow.  “He’s only sent one soldier, still not enough to man the defenses.  We’ll be crushed!”

“Arrrgh, just like him to sit fat and happy while the enemy ravages the outlying lands.”  Then adding dryly, “Must be good to be the King.”

What You Get:

A quality, good-looking product.  The board keeps track of everything except your personal buildings.  The advisor boxes are big with nice artwork and have icons that clearly identify which resource(s) they make available.  Several tracks surround the advisors to mark turn order, military strength, current year, and current season with a larger scoring track running around the edge of the board.  Wooden tokens are used on the various tracks and wooden cubes in yellow, silver, and brown denote gold, stone, and wood.  There is a small wooden pawn serving as a King’s envoy.  Each player has their own individual building mat and a pile of cardboard chits to mark which structures they’ve completed.  Then last, but certainly not least, the game supplies 21 dice in six different colors – kind of like a gamer in a candy store!
The components
 The Quick Rundown:

Dice Placement
Kingsburg is definitely a Euro game – but with dice!  It is a worker-placement and resource management game that uses those dice as “workers” to collect resources or points.  Further, resources are used to construct buildings which earn more points and/or give you various other benefits.  The game is played over five years and you are given three opportunities (called productive seasons) each year to collect resources and build structures.  To collect resources, you will roll three dice (sometimes four) at the beginning of a season and then use that roll to influence advisors – “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more!”  The advisors are all numbered 1-16 and offer different stuff.  But to receive their offering, you must match your roll with their number.  You can place your dice in any combination so long as you match the advisor’s number exactly.  So theoretically you could influence up to three advisors each season, though it is more likely you’ll only grease the palms of one or two – an advisor will only give out his/her wares to one person, per season.  Season after season, year after year, you hope to sweet talk and name drop enough to grab more and more resources to erect bigger buildings and snatch more points – all in the effort of creating an idyllic, prosperous kingdom.  The one wrinkle in this otherwise Kumbaya-adventure is that each year, a horde of horrible meanies will invade trying to burn your buildings, steal your resources, or *gasp* take away your victory points – a Euro gamer’s worst nightmare!  Therefore, you’ll need to make sure to procure soldiers and build defensive structures just in case the cheap jerk of a King, who you’re trying to make wealthy, doesn’t send enough help to defend your women.

E for Everyone:

Mr. and Mrs. Your Highness.
While not entirely perfect, Kingsburg is really a slam dunk for family suitability.  It is a great choice to introduce hobby gaming to both kids and non-gamers.  It is also a wonderful introductory title to the worker-placement genre.  It would make an excellent pick for casual gamers at a peer group’s regular game night.  And although it may wear out its welcome sooner with heavy strategy gamers, even those of that leaning should enjoy rare sessions of it, especially with friends and family who are more casual players.

This is a really slick design.  The rules are easy to understand, but you still don’t really appreciate the beautiful simplicity until getting into game play.  Once you begin, it runs so smoothly with almost no downtime that, by the end, you don’t realize that an hour and a half has gone by.  The dice placement mechanic is extremely intuitive.  Players plan their strategies pretty much simultaneously, which reduces (but does not always eliminate) analysis paralysis.  And after all dice are allocated, each turn is structured in steps to quickly resolve actions until the beginning of next season.

The random element provided by the dice is not overpowering.  It certainly will influence how and when you implement your strategy, but it rarely derails it.  A couple of elements still let you retain a lot of control in the game.  First, although better rolls will net you better swag, there are still a variety of advisors that offer similar benefits, so you can aim for resources with different dice values.  Also, there are a few building improvements and advisor benefits that allow you to manipulate your dice or even re-roll a poor result.  To further mitigate bad luck, there are a couple of places each year that provide aid to the player performing the worst.  And as a balance, there is also one point that provides a bonus to the player performing the best.  This is a brilliant design that tosses in a bit of the unknown (just like real life), yet still favors strategic development and player control.

There is also a nice balance of choices in strategic development without being overwhelming.  The planning lies in which buildings you choose to construct.  They are all arranged on your individual mat in five rows of four buildings each.  You can build in any row you wish, but only from left to right – so you cannot purchase a better building until constructing its predecessor.  Each row emphasizes different benefits, so you can strongly develop one area, but only at the expense of ignoring other potential needs.  But if you try to balance it out too evenly, then you’ll find yourself falling behind in points.  It may not necessarily be a heavy brain-burner for experienced Euro gamers, but it is still a rich enough experience to enjoy while at the same time it provides great depth for newcomers without engulfing them.  For children, this complexity level is really ideal for leaning how to make meaningful decisions and how that affects long-term strategy.
The development tracks.
 The game creates just enough tension, as well, since you don’t have enough turns to build everything you’d really like.  In addition to this time constraint, you’re always on the edge of your seat when rolling the dice, hoping for that optimal combination to land the advisor you need.  Even if you roll the numbers you were wanting, then you have to sit around hoping that no one else steals that advisor before you.  Turn order each season is determined by total dice values, with the player rolling highest having to go last.  If the values are wildly skewed, then competition over particular advisors will not be as robust.  But if the values are all close (as is often the case), you may wish you had rolled even one less just to go first!  In any event, the turn order and placement mechanic is generally well-balanced but still provides opportunity to “steal” advisors for an interesting, if not too terribly spiteful, “take-that” element.

The game’s main dodgy element is the end-of-year invasion.  At first, it doesn’t seem like much of an issue because you are aware of the enemy’s possible strength before the attack (it increases progressively each succeeding year).  So you can plan accordingly and make sure that you have enough soldiers plus defensive bonuses to meet or exceed the enemy’s numbers.  Focusing only on your military, however, will likely mean less development in other others. In that case, there is an alternative.  Just before each attack, the King will send soldiers to help everyone defend hearth and home.  The kicker is that that assistance is represented by one die roll.  If you were banking on a lot of help and the roll is a ‘1,’ then you’re just up the creek without a paddle.  Actually, it’s probably worse than that analogy, because the consequences of defeat (loss of points, resources, and/or buildings) are pretty severe for a game with only 15 opportunities to collect and build.  My kids and I kind of luck this push-your-luck component, except they never let me roll the King’s reinforcement die because they say I stink at it.

The bad guys!
The invasion mechanic is actually a nice segue into mentioning the one long-term issue with Kingsburg: replayability.  Generally, players will settle into the same strategy after a handful of plays.  More than that, strategies will largely be similar from player to player.  This is not to say the game is “broken” in that one development track is the only sure way to victory.  But optimally, you cannot ignore your military development and, indeed, must build it up to a certain extent.  While this will mean fewer points earned, it at least gives you more insurance in keeping those points by winning the end-of-year battle.  Conversely, if you concentrate too much on the other tracks that garner high points, then you may possibly lose them through military defeat, which then ends up a wash.

I have read that the expansion, To Forge a Realm, fixes both the wonky invasion element and the replayability issue.  However, it is out of print, out of stock at every online retailer (big and small) I can find, and so next to impossible to get.  And my collection is not large enough to take advantage of trading opportunities, yet.

Okay, I’ll Shut-Up Now:

In the end, I personally rate this game a 7 on the Board Game Geek scale (Good game.  Usually willing to play).  It may not sustain serious hobby gamers over the long term (without the expansion), but it is a crisp and smart design that keeps game play flowing smoothly, with just the right amount of tension and interaction.  The result is an experience that provides a pleasant introduction to the hobby and gives kids the opportunity to learn the basics of strategic planning.

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