This award-winning tile-laying game challenges players to expand their territory and build thriving empires. But does Kingdomino pack enough depth to stand up to repeat plays?
Designer: Bruno Cathala
Players: 2 – 4
Chances are that at some point in your life you’ve played a game of dominoes. It’s a timeless family classic and a mainstay of traditional gaming.
It’s also about as interesting as filling in your tax return form. But that hasn’t stopped a domino-inspired game winning this year’s Spiel des Jahres award – board gaming’s answer to the Oscar for best picture.
Kingdomino casts players as rival monarchs seeking new lands to add to their domains. That’s pretty well-trodden ground in gaming. There are more expansionist king simulators than you can shake a jeweled scepter at. But this latest take on the theme stands out for its sheer simplicity. There are no armies to command, trade routes to exploit or restless citizens to placate. Instead there’s just a stack of tiles and some tiny cardboard castles.
Turns in Kingdomino couldn’t get much simpler. Each round sees players draw terrain tiles from a randomly-shuffled stack. Different tiles show different combinations of territories like grasslands, wheat fields, and forests. You’ll use them to build a square-grid kingdom, scoring points for connecting areas of matching terrain – but only if they contain at least one of the crown symbols shown on some of the tiles in the stack.
You’ll choose a tile to add to your kingdom with each passing turn. But the game’s real challenge lies in just how it makes players think about their choices. Each domino comes with a number on its back, and you’ll lay them out in two lines running from lowest to highest. One row shows the tiles available to you now, the other shows the ones you’ll be able to acquire on the following round.
Pick the first tile in the row, and you’ll get first choice of the ones set out for the next turn. Take the last, and you’ll make your pick after everybody else – meaning you’ll be stuck with whichever domino your opponents don’t want for themselves.
The clever bit? Higher-numbered tiles come with higher-scoring terrain, so while its always tempting to go after the juiciest options on the table, there are consequences for letting your lust for land get the better of you.
Unrest in the realm
It’s a subtle, built-in balancing system, and it means that it’s difficult for one player to establish a runaway lead. But effective as it is, it can’t disguise the fact that the game feels, well, kind of empty. It takes a very abstract approach to kingdom-building, and as a result it often feels a bit sterile.
But the bigger problem is that aside from the steady process of picking and placing tiles, there just isn’t very much for players to do.
It’s not that Kingdomino is devoid of interesting decisions. Throughout the game you’ll need to balance the importance of grabbing the tiles you want against the advantage of having the first choice on the following round. There’s also real planning involved in laying out your growing kingdom. You’ll aim to maximise scoring opportunities while avoiding painting yourself into a corner and ending up unable to place tiles in the later rounds.
But after four or five plays, I found myself asking: Is that it?
Kingdomino feels like a core mechanism in search of a larger game to peg itself to. It’s slick and straightforward in ways that make me think it could become an addictive little smartphone app. But as an analogue game it leaves me wanting more. Like sushi, I can appreciate its elegant simplicity, but I’m still hungry when it’s finished.
At the back of the rulebook you’ll find some optional tweaks that add a touch of complexity to the game. The most satisfying for me was a two-player variant that ups the size of players’ kingdoms, challenging them to build seven-by-seven square grids rather than the standard five-by-five. But it still left me feeling that it could do with quite a bit more meat on its bones.
Hail to the queen
I can’t quite recommend Kingdomino, and usually there wouldn’t be much more to say than that. But don’t discount it just yet, because there’s an alternative on the horizon that looks more promising.
Queendomino, set for release later in 2017, is both a standalone game and an expansion playable with the original release. It promises some changes to its predecessor’s formula, and while exact details are still to be announced, it’ll introduce new rules for commanding knights, founding towns and constructing buildings. It’ll also support up to six players, and unlike its big sibling, it acknowledges the fact that not all monarchs are men.
It’s enough to make me quietly hopeful. Kingdomino’s mechanical core is light, tight and intuitive, and if it can just offer a little more actual game to explore, it could enjoy a long and glorious reign.
Learn to play Kingdomino with this video guide from Rodney Smith
- Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this game from its distributor.