I was surprised by the inclusion of Bruno Cathala’s Kingdomino in the 2017 Spiel des Jahres. At the time Kingdomino was somewhat obscure to me and many others I spoke to. I had heard of its upcoming release and thought it sounded average and not very interesting. A domino style tile laying game? Not the best sales pitch. When it WON the Spiel des Jahres I was forced to take a look. How could a game based on dominoes be so appealing?
When the game arrived it claimed a 15 minute play time. That sounded like a challenge to me, so I put it to the test. I took the game to DnD night to play before we started our evening campaigning. I estimated that with reading the rules plus game time we should be done within 20minutes. Ambitious? I thought so but it turned out to be about right. The game was over in no time and we were playing a 4 person game for the first time reading the rules as we went. The first thing I could say with any certainty is that the game time was accurate. I was surprised at how easy to learn it was and how quickly I picked up on gameplay. I expected a 15-minute game to be quick and simple, yet I also expected that once I had played the game more than once it would grow old. So I took the game to school and played it with a bunch of kids and staff of all ages many times. I now think that not only is Kingdomino incredibly easy to learn and play, it’s depth of play and fun interactive mechanics may prove it to be a perfect gateway and filler game.
The object of the game is to build a better kingdom than anyone else. You do this by drafting tiles with various types of terrain on them and placing the tiles like dominoes into your kingdom. You may only build your kingdom to a 5×5 square and any tiles that cannot be placed within this boundary are lost and consequently do not score. You score lands based on the number of types of terrain that connect to each other multiplied by the crown symbols you have on that type. No crown symbols means no score. Each tile has a number on the back that indicates its value within the game. When tiles are taken for drafting they are placed into a column with the lowest number at the top and the rest in ascending order. Each game begins with a column of tiles laid out as described and then flipped to show their terrain.
The first round begins by randomly drawing out the king tokens. These are placed on the tile you wish to draft. At this, a second column is made using the same technique. From lowest value to highest each player takes their turn. They removed their king and place it on the newly formed column indicating the next tile they wish to draft. They then take the tile they have selected and add it to their kingdom. Once the last tile is played the game ends and kingdoms are scored.
Inside the box, you will find a clever insert that minimises set up time. You have four castles with 4 starting tiles, and 8 player tokens, one per player in 3-4 player games or 2 of each for a 2 player game. Each part of the game is well manufactured and the cardboard tiles are thick and sturdy with a lovely clear design. The tiles are all randomly assorted in a draw pile that sits comfortably in the box, no need to even take them out. The game even suggests using the box as a way of orientating the drafting step, which does help when learning the game. The small amount of thoughtfulness is just a nice touch.
As for how it plays, the tile laying has a feel of Carcassonne with the same satisfaction of knowing that each game will be different. The tile domino design and the 5×5 restrictions provide a challenge to place tiles down and link together forcing you to make regular tactical decisions. This does hell for the more OCD players that want everything to fit and makes sense. There is so much joy in getting your kingdom to look and fit together, and a great deal of fist shaking and laughing at that solitary terrain sitting on its own not scoring you anything. The game has those pleasant ups and downs. I love the tile laying element and while I say it has that satisfaction of Caracassone, I should say that it is only comparable, in no way would this game replace Caracassone in a collection, but could prove to be a valuable addition all the same.
For me, the best part is the tile drafting mechanic. It creates a variable player turn order that not only makes sense but plays into the strategic play of the game. Do I want to choose first or take the more valuable tile? Taking the more valuable tile places you further down the draft and going first might be more important at the time. This simple option impacted decisions far more than it has any right doing. This tension is great to find in such a small game and possibly is only successful because the game only takes 15 minutes. If you are the sort of person that enjoys lighter fast games then this game might be for you. It does not have too much to do but this is perfect for a quick game. Kingdomino was a pleasant surprise and only proves why I list Bruno Cathala as one of sth best designers working today.