Why hello. Take a glass, and pull up a chair. Let me tell you about my week.
On Thursday a box arrived containing a copy of Kingdom Builder, winner of the coveted 2012 Spiel des Jahres award. That night I slotted into my well-worn groove on the settee and got down to the job of removing shrinkwrap and popping cardboard. Sadly, and perhaps surprisingly, that task gets tiresome when you’ve done it as many times as I have.
The components are functional, but pedestrian, little wooden houses and lots of brown modular board pieces. I was reminded how unreasonably annoyed I am by the fact that Queen Games puts multiple copies of language dependent components in all their games. So after sorting I’m left with a big stack of cards in every major European language which I will never use, and a small stack of English ones. There’s a big sheaf of individual rulebooks in a babel of tongues.
On Friday I fished the English rules out of the morass and read them. It’s very simple. Take a terrain card and place three little houses on matching hexes on the board, adjacent to your existing houses if possible. Place next to a special hex and gain either points or an extra build power. Attempt to make the best of the three scoring cards out of the ten available that are in use that particular game.
Simple enough that I thought on seven-year old daughter could play it. So on a lazy Saturday afternoon we did just that, dust motes dancing above us in the late winter sun. “This isn’t a game I can beat you at, is it?” she asked. “Probably not” I replied, not wanting to risk disappointment. She duly lost the first game and then inevitably won the second. And the third. By the time I got up off the floor my legs were stiff from sitting cross-legged for so long.
She liked the game, got the strategy of the simpler powers and scoring cards, like points for each building next to a river or mountain. She said she thought it was unusual, and liked the excitement of the card draw that determines where you’re allowed to build each turn. I asked her how much she enjoyed it compared to the other games of mine she’d played. Better than Carcassonne, she thought, but not as good as Wrath of Ashardalon. Sensible girl. I agree entirely.
On Sunday I dared to have another try at the originally abysmal iPad version which I excoriated in a review. The single player version has improved considerably, fixing the slow speed and frequent crashes of the original release. But it’s still got usability issues, and I gave up trying to start the barely-functional multiplayer. Instead I played against three AI opponents who crushed me unmercifully, and demonstrated that it’s a much more interactive with more than two. The board is more cramped and you can engineer races for the best building plots. This is a good thing. I played until my fingers ached.
I tried to confirm this that same evening by playing live on the service Brettspielwelt, the first time in years I’d been there. It didn’t go well. The client was as obtuse as I remembered, and slower. Only a community as insular as gaming would put up with such a poor tool. I did play a game, but only with two. And my opponent, who beat me handily with some clever moves, was silent when queried as to its charms. Either that or they were German.
So on Monday night I gathered with some friends to play, one a gamer, two not. We sat round a homemade table on tatty but cosy chairs in a smoke-filled parlour before a roaring fire. It took no time to explain, and felt so effortless to play that we chatted and chugged beer between moves. The talk flowed freely around the little wooden houses and settled comfortably into the small spaces between the bits of modular board.
There was little of the usual excitement, tension, bending stiff-backed over the play that board games usually generate. Nor did we lose ourselves, engrossed in some shared world or tale that the game provided. But it was strangely engaging for all that, gently occupying active minds in the same way that fidgety people twirl keys to occupy active fingers. And the thrills came, briefly, in the end when we toted up how we’d done against the three scoring measures in use that game. I won against my three inexperienced friends.
By Tuesday I was convinced enough about the qualities of the game to drop $5 on a promotional
expansion. But not convinced enough to spend 5 Euros, plus a qualifying 20 Euro purchase, plus posting and packing, for another one from Germany.
On Wednesday lunchtime I went for a long walk through my lovely home city, working up warmth and lather against the cold, drab British weather. As I trod the firmament, I thought about Kingdom Builder and about Armadillos. There’s a famous advert from long-ago UK TV that featured the quote “Armadillos: soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside.” Kingdom Builder is the opposite. It’s enormously soft on the outside, almost repellently flaccid. But once you reach the tasty bits within, you’ll find there’s more than a little bite to them.
The next lunchtime I gathered together some of my semi-willing work colleagues upon whom I regularly inflict shorter games. We played Kingdom Builder in a meeting room under the harsh glare of an office striplight. They seemed vaguely annoyed by the game at first, as though without spaceships or monsters and requiring some thought, it wasn’t a sufficient diversion from the drudgery of code. But they settled eventually, and enjoyed it. We couldn’t quite finish inside the hour, not with four, but I’m pretty sure my experience would have told if we’d toted up the score. It felt nice, going back to my desk, to carry a box that wasn’t covered with embarrassing, juvenile art.
My daughter has asked to play it again. So have my friends. The people at work have not, although they’re an uncommunicative lot so that may mean nothing at all. I never got to try it at my local game club, strangers stoked with shared passion gathered in the stifling heat of a delightfully shabby meeting room above a worryingly shabby pub. But they’re plotting a special exhibition game in a bookshop for TableTop Day, and I’m plotting to bring Kingdom Builder along.
I keep most of my games hidden in wardrobes and cupboards. Many are in the attic, nestling close together in airtight containers for comfort against the long dark. But there’s a small selection in open view, downstairs, on a bookcase. Titles I can pull out when my family want to play, or friends come visiting, or I need something to grab quickly before heading out. Games that, basically, anyone can learn and enjoy from small children to die-hard hobbyists. It’s not a big selection because games like that are hard to find. And today Kingdom Builder has taken its rightful place amongst that select and exclusive club.