Gaming Unplugged: Roll and build in Kingsburg

July 1, 2011

2007’s Kingsburg, designed by Andrea Chiarvesio and Luca Iennaco and published in America by Fantasy Flight Games, is similar to the subject of the last Gaming Unplugged, Alien Frontiers, in that both use dice as “workers” in a worker-placement mechanic. The similarities essentially end there, however, as Kingsburg uses those dice in different ways and for different purposes.

Each player has three dice and twenty wooden discs; two other discs are used on the scoring track and defense track, and one final disc is used to indicate turn order. A sheet with twenty different buildings, divided into five rows of four each, indicates what each building costs and the bonuses in VP and other effects you gain from constructing it; you must build from left to right along a row but you don’t have to complete a row before beginning another.

The game is divided up into five years, and each year has four seasons; spring, summer, and autumn are the “productive” seasons while every winter you have to repel a randomly-chosen enemy or face the consequences. At the beginning of each productive season all players roll their dice. Then, starting with the lowest total and moving up, each player places one or more dice on the board to influence one of the eighteen personalities (valued from 1 to 18); each personality can only be influenced by one player, so crafty placement can deny another player from getting what they want. This process continues until everyone has placed all of their dice or have no more legal placements. Then, starting with the first personality and working up the chain of command, players collect their rewards. Most personalities provide resources, although sometimes the player must choose which one(s); other rewards include defense, VP, a bonus tile that can be placed in a later round to add two to the value of your die/dice, and/or a peek at the upcoming enemy card. Then each player may construct one building, paying the appropriate resources.

In between each season is a special effect. Prior to spring, whoever has the least constructed buildings gains the use of an additional die; in the event of a tie (such as at the beginning of the game), the tied players instead each receive one resource of their choice. Before each player with the most buildings earns an additional VP. Whoever has the least buildings prior to autumn receives the King’s Envoy, which allows that player to either influence an already-claimed personality or to build an additional building once before the Envoy is awarded in the following year (ties result in nobody receiving the bonus). Finally, in preparation for the upcoming winter players may purchase additional defense at a cost of two resources each.

When winter arrives, the King (the game) rolls a single die. Each player’s defense rating (from rewards and buildings) is then added to that and compared against the strength of the enemy for that year. Those who lose the fight often face stiff penalties, while those who are victorious reap rewards; matching the strength is still a victory, but just barely — no reward for you, but no penalty either. The player(s) with the highest defense earn an additional VP for most glorious victory (assuming at least one player defeated the enemy in the first place). The potential strength of each year’s enemies is indicated both on the board and the back of the cards, so you will know when you are certain of victory; a fortunate roll from the King can defeat just about any opponent without much help from the player’s actual defenses, although the final year’s enemies range from strength seven to nine so you can’t be completely defenseless. Some enemies can destroy buildings, and will always raze the right-most one worth the most VP, so be wary of risking a low defense. The player with the most VP after the fifth and final year is the winner. Ties are broken by remaining resources and then by number of buildings, if necessary.

My biggest problem with Kingsburg is the fact that rolling higher almost always ensures victory, assuming competent placement of dice. The lowest total may place dice first, but if that player only has a total of seven he isn’t going to be shutting off a lot of options from someone who rolled, say, sixteen. the higher-valued personalities are obviously harder to influence and thus provide better rewards (the seventeen-point Queen is especially crazy). Advanced buildings demand extensive resources to construct, so someone only earning one or two goods per season is going to fall behind and may not be able to catch up, with or without the King’s help (pre-season bonuses). More importantly, the game is just sort of… dull. Roll, place, collect, build, repeat. The strategy in choosing which personalities to influence and which buildings to construct just isn’t enough, especially once you realize that everything you want to do hinges on rolling the necessary total(s) — also known as blind luck.

A game of Kingsburg can be played in around 90 minutes and supports from two to five players. The game usually retails for around $60 (a lot of wood in this box), but you can probably find used copies for much less.