Review: Kingdomino

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Length 10-20 min

Release Date February 2017 (wide release)
Designer: Bruno Cathala
Publisher: Blue Orange Games
Category: Family Game, Filler
Player Count: 2-4
BoardGameGeek Rating: 7.4 (1300 votes)
Price: $18.00 MSRP
Bruno Cathala has well established himself as a master game designer. He’s published over a hundred games and expansions, including Shadows over Camelot, Abyss, and the excellent Five Tribes. While he’s best known for his big box games, he’s also designed a fair amount of smaller titles, such as the tiny abstract Niya and the small card game Sobek. Kingdomino is in the second group and draws heavily from his previous games. Does that mean Bruno is running out of ideas, or that he has found the perfect recipe for his favorite ingredients? Let’s find out! 

Content Guide

There’s really nothing in this box but pictures of castles and landscapes. 

Review

Before I get to the gameplay of Kingdomino, I have to give respect to Blue Orange Games. This game has wonderful components in a compact package. You have to punch out the (purely aesthetic) castles that rest on the center tile, but otherwise the dominoes come already punched out and sorted. They are huge! While that makes them hard to shuffle, it makes players’ individual kingdoms look really, really nice. The art is wonderful and clear, too. And best of all: this game has an insanely low MSRP of $18; it’s available for around $12 online. I hope they aren’t ripping themselves off!
All of that is great, but it doesn’t add up to much if the gameplay isn’t any good. In Kingdomino, players are taking domino-like tiles (two squares) and connecting them to a 1×1 starting castle to make a 5×5 kingdom. Tiles equal to the number of players available on each turn and are displayed in ascending order—tiles farther down are better. However, turn order for the next turn is based on the last turn’s choices. So, if you take the best tile, you’ll be picking last in the next turn. This mechanism is straight out of Vikings on Board by Bruno’s frequent collaborator, Charles Chevallier, and is clearly inspired by Five Tribes as well. Each landscape scores by multiplying the squares by the number of crowns in the region, a mechanism taken straight out of Cathala’s Sobek (an incredibly underrated gem). With two players, each player gets two pawns and four tiles are fought over at a time. 
What I just wrote above is the entire game. You play until the tiles run out, and then score your kingdoms. If you can’t place a tile (it has to connect to the same landscape type on one half of the domino or the castle), you discard it. There are some variant rules for bonus points I actually did not like (thankfully, they’re variants), but that’s it. This game rests entirely upon two mechanisms: turn order and scoring, and it survives on the strength of those two unoriginal, but brilliant, concepts. In fact, it thrives.
Simply put, Kingdomino is one of the best gateway games ever made. It takes two minutes to explain, yet it has enough to chew on in a quick fifteen minutes. At first, we expected the game to “play itself,” with players “snaking” turn order each round. However, we found with several plays that while sometimes choices were obvious, they were usually non-trivial, and each turn has two important, intertwined decisions: what to claim next (and how that affects turn order), and where to place the tile you claimed the round before. Scores varied from very close to one game where I was absolutely trounced. While I felt kind of “stuck” in that particular game, I prefer having the variance of possibilities, especially in a game this short.
I do have a few minor complaints, but they don’t add up to much. I wish the 3-player game used all of the tiles (perhaps with a dummy?), because you can be pretty screwed if you are counting on a landscape that doesn’t show up again. (With two players, you can do the 7×7 variant.) More importantly, I feel like the game is juuuust on the border of too simple. I wish there was a second, complementary scoring method. For example, if a variety of tiles (at any rank) had an icon for a set collection mechanism (e.g. 1/3/6/10 points for 1/2/3/4 icons across all landscapes), that would give another angle of attack and make tile-drafting decisions a bit more interesting. But I find the game plenty interesting as it is, and I suspect it could even be popular enough to warrant an expansion—no small feat for a small game. 
And indeed, Kingdomino is quite a feat. This is a fantastic, quick, “potato chip” game in the vein of Karuba and Qwixx, but the turn order mechanism makes these significantly more interactive than those. It fills a unique gap in a crowded genre, and leaves no room for competition. With lovely components, a low price, and interesting gameplay, I make no reservations about telling everyone to go buy this one. 
 
Thank you to Blue Orange Games for providing a review copy of Kingdomino.

The Bottom Line

Kingdomino is brilliant in its simplicity. This is a highly addictive, wonderful game that would be a perfect introduction to the hobby, but also works well with seasoned gamers. It's also inexpensive. Go get it.

 

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