Kingdoms is the latest Reiner Knizia game to be published by Fantasy Flight Games and is essentially identical in play to his earlier Auf Heller Und Pfennig.
This game is from Knizia's earlier days when his games were often described as being very "mathematical". That is, they were generally very dry and much more heavily focused on mechanics than theme. Kingdoms certainly shows why this label was applied as its very much the case in this game.
There are 22 tiles that will be played onto the board which is a plain 6 x 5 grid. These can be resource tiles which count positive, hazard tiles which count negative or special tiles. These are drawn from a common pool and each player is given one at random as a "reserve". Each player also has a set of castles in his or her colour valued from 1 to 4. Turns are very simple, just placing a single tile onto an empty space on the board. This tile can either be one drawn from the random pool, the player's single tile reserve or one of his/her castles. This continues around the table until the board is completely filled at which point scores are awarded.
Scoring is fairly straightforward, for each of your castles you add up the positive values in its row, subtract the negatives and multiply it by the value of that castle. You do the same for the column that its in. There are four special tiles which complicate this slightly. The Dragon nullifies any of the positive resource tiles in that row/column (but not the negative hazards), the Gold Mine doubles the value of all tiles in that row/column and the two Mountain tiles will split a column or row into two distinct parts. (So if there's a mountain between the Cemetery (-2) and your castle you won't be hit with those negative points.)
|Scoring example: The Red castle scores 14 points for its column. (5+1+4 points minus 3 for the wolves. This is doubled because it's a "2" castle.) It also scores 12 points for its row. (The Gold Mine doubles the +3 to +6 which is again doubled as it's a "2" castle.) Note that the -6 Troll does not subtract anything as it's on the other side of the mountain tile.|
Once you've scored all players' castles you remove everything from the board and do it all over again. (All the tiles are available with the exception of the players 2, 3 and 4 valued castles, once these are played they're removed from the game.) Play three complete rounds and the winner is the player with the most points.
The components are of adequate quality. The board is small and puzzle cut into four pieces. It gets the job done but it's not exactly inspiring. The tiles are standard Fantasy Flight quality which is definitely inferior to most German games. The die-cutting is superior to earlier Fantasy Flight productions but use of a knife is still a good idea when punching the tiles. I feel like a broken record continually bringing these points up but they remain valid. Once you've grown accustomed to the quality of the tiles and punching in a game like Clippers (where the tiles pretty much drop from the sprues) it's hard to be happy with anything of lesser quality. On the positive side they are nicely designed with pleasing artwork and clear markings. Its very easy to tell at a glance "what's what" on the board. The castles are octagonal which helps distinguish them as well and is a nice touch. So, a passing grade overall on the bits. As with all games though, the most important question is in how it plays.
The game is primarily a tactical one and it's difficult to set up any long term strategy. For the most part you'll examine the board for opportunistic play. If there's a high valued spot you'll likely erect one of your castles there. You'll also want to place high valued tokens at the "intersection" of your castles so that you get double use from them. It's fairly straightforward but there are some clever tricks and chances that you'll need to take. If your opponents have set up a lucrative row should you try and spoil it with a negative or join in on the party? One the one hand you want to set yourself up so that you can get maximum use out of any good tokens you draw but this may end up back-firing as an opponent plays a Dragon on the most inopportune square.
The game is relatively quick at about 45 minutes and so the lack of true strategic depth is not a serious flaw in my opinion. As I said at the start of the review, it's all very mathematical as you examine the board and decide upon a course of action. The game fails to capture much in the way of atmosphere and you don't really get any sense that you're building a kingdom when you place a tile. This is a shame because the very simple nature of the game feels as if it needs some sort of "sprucing up". Certainly the foundation is very solid but I never felt truly engaged with the game. I think that more than anything else this shows how far Knizia has come as a designer and the overall feeling I have of Kingdoms is a game whose time has passed.
Now, despite all this I still think the game is worth trying. There are a lot of games that I would recommend before Kingdoms but that's true of all but the best games after all. The mechanics are solid and there are enough decisions to keep you engaged for the length of time it takes to play.
- Greg Aleknevicus