Board Game Review: Kingsburg

For the game night blog carnival this month I’ll be reviewing Kingsburg from Fantasy Flight games. It’s a 2-5 player worker placement game, with enough twists to set it apart from other games with a similar themed mechanic. It’s been seeing quite a bit on my table recently, mostly due to the engaging play and how it handles worker placement.

Players are governors for various towns under the command of a king. Their goal is to be the most prosperous governor, outshining the others after 5 years. This is typically done by completing the construction of different buildings within their respective towns.

Each turn players roll 3 dice and place them on various sections of the board, representing the king’s court. Once a section is claimed, that player has the ear of a specific advisor, and no one else that round can ask for favors from that member of the king’s court. Each member of the king’s court offers resources (or other bonuses like troops and victory points) that can be used to construct buildings.

Players take turns assigning their dice until either all available spots are claimed, or they have no dice left. This can make for some very cut throat play where you choose to shut out one player, and use your last die for a lower member of the king’s court. The conundrum is the higher die totals will yield more aid from the royal court. But this can mean you are allowing other players to get resources from lower ranking court members. So the player is constantly thinking whether to use all their influence for a single advisor, or try to block out other players. It’s a fun way to handle worker placement.

Resources gained (wood, stone, and gold) can be spent to build one construction for the town. Each type of building is on a progressive track, where previous buildings must be made first. All the town buildings have some special function and earn victory points. There are definitely some interesting combinations between them, and as players progress up the building tracks, more and more powerful abilities become available.

One particular element I like about Kingsburg is there are plenty of opportunities to catch up if you lag behind during a certain year. Small consolidations are given to the player with the least amount of resources and buildings. The player with the lowest number of buildings always gets to influence the court first. During the middle of the year, they can also get an opportunity to construct 2 buildings, or gain favor from a court advisor that has already been influenced from another player. Not to mention every member of the royal court can offer something useful to the player, even the lower ranking ones (just that higher numbered court advisors are more powerful). It’s a nice way to keep everyone in the game.

Now, what I’ve described is a pretty standard worker placement/building type game. It’s pretty fun, but ho hum as you’d expect this from just about a dozen other games. Fortunately Kingsburg has a twist to the game play. Monsters.

Each year, you have a random monster threatening to rampage through the realm. And every year the threats become more powerful. As governors for various towns, not only are you scrambling to construct more efficient buildings, you also have to worry about the town defense. While fortifications might help with defending the town, they don’t offer the larger game bonuses of other non-military buildings.

Players that soundly defeat the monsters, and have large standing militias at the end of the year do get victory points. But that is fleeting as those militia forces disperse at the year’s end and have to be recruited again. Doing nothing likely means the loss of resources, or the destruction of buildings. So that monster threat can’t be ignored completely.

Another tweak is you have a rough idea of the monster strength coming at the end of the year, but won’t know the exact amount or the type of threat until they attack. Some fortifications are ideal against certain monsters (like a palisade against goblins, or a chapel against zombies), while not offering much protection against others. There is a way to gain some divination and see the approaching threat, but that usually means diverting needed influence for resources towards a court member that offers less rewards/resources. Without that knowledge you’ll likely over defend yourself, further diverting needed resources from construction (or worse, not be able to muster enough defense against the rampaging creatures).

The Good – It’s a light, approachable worker placement game that has enough strategy to making it engaging. You have to balance a lot of things during the game year. You have to try and develop your town, at the same time making sure you have enough forces to defend it at the end of the year. And all of this makes for interesting choices on which royal court members you will influence. At the same time, other players are doing the same thing and may prevent you from gaining that ear of a particular court member. The components are nice with beefy counters and nice wooden blocks. The artwork is whimsical and captures the fun medieval theme well.

The Bad – With repeated play, I can see some set strategies creep in. This is especially prevalent with 2 players. It becomes a bit easier to work towards a winning town building combination. The random monster threat helps counter this a bit. However I think the game really shines with at least 3 players, as you really feel the bite of not being able to court the royal advisor you want. As the 2 player game does this by randomly removing particular advisors each season, it still doesn’t beat having a 3rd or 4th player actively selecting advisors.

While there are stopgaps in the game to prevent a player from falling too far behind, this can happen (especially with the victory points). It’s more of a problem mid-game. If a player gets hit by a monster, they can lose a lot. Combined with poor dice rolls for a few seasons, they can really fall behind and not be able to climb back up. It can be a bit of a downer of having the game effectively end for them in the middle of play.

I’ll also add that while I enjoy all the choices and strategic possibilities, this can lead to some serious analysis paralysis. Be prepared to offer lots of advice to players to keep the game moving.

The Verdict – Kingsburg is great and one of my favorite worker placement games. It avoids a lot of the fiddly, worker drone shuffling of other games, replacing it with a simple dice roll. You have that feeling of progression as you slowly build up your town. The interaction with other players is there, as your choices (and theirs) have a direct impact on the play from turn to turn. All of this construction is under the shadow of a looming threat that will come at the end of every year, with each creature being randomly chosen from a small set of cards (adding some game-to-game variation).

I highly recommend this game. It’s approachable for relatively new gamers and has enough meat in the rules and play to keep a more seasoned board gamer interested. It handles a broad number of players well, with the 2 player game being as much fun as a 5 player one. This is a great game to have in your collection.

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