Hot Takes: Kingdom Builder, Clank!, and Innovation The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

posted in: First Impression | 0

Yesterday the Thoughtful Gamer group went to Knight Moves, a local board game cafe, to try out some games we hadn’t played before. I had a great time, and the cafe was lovely. I’ll definitely be doing some more “new game” meetups there in the future. We managed to play three different games, and it was certainly an interesting experience, as one of the games I liked quite a bit and another I didn’t like at all. The third game was aggressively mediocre. Let’s talk about that one first. Here is my very first impression of…

Kingdom Builder

I’ve always been intrigued about this game by Dominion designer Donald X. Vaccarino, mostly because, well, he made Dominion, but also because I’ve always heard two narratives about it. The first narrative is that it’s a very luck-based, low strategy game that’s not interesting and didn’t deserve to win the Spiel des Jahres. The second is that it’s actually secretly brilliant; a simple game to learn and a tough one to master with all kinds of hidden depths.

After one play I lean towards the first narrative. Kingdom Builder is a game about placing settlements on a hex grid, simplified about as much as it can go. On your turn you reveal the terrain type you’ve drawn from the deck and must place 3 settlements down on the map on that type of terrain. They must be adjacent to your existing settlements, if possible. That’s the basic mechanism of the game and it’s about as boring as it sounds.

A bit of spice is added to the game by the random board segments (you play 4 of 8) and random victory point cards which determine how you can gain points. Each board segment has castles and segment-specific hexes that can give you bonus powers if you park a settlement next to them. Sit next to a castle and you get 3 points.

That’s the entire game. You have to place 3 settlements, and you just try to make those placements as efficiently as possible. My problem after this one play of the game is that no individual part of the game is particularly fun. The locations available to place settlements are determined by random card draw. Some combinations of bonus actions and victory point cards, at least in our game, were exceptionally powerful. One bonus power in our game was all but nullified in its effectiveness because of one of the victory point conditions.

There was a decent puzzle feeling from trying to figure out which of a few limited options was most point-efficient. I suppose once you get more familiar with the game you can plan both tactically (get the most points right now) and strategically (set yourself up for more flexibility in where you can place settlements later in the game).

But I didn’t find anything particularly compelling about it. It was a neat diversion, and not necessarily bad, but I’d be perfectly fine if I didn’t ever play it again. Compared to a similar game of limited options, Carcassonne, it doesn’t have any of the aesthetic pleasure of matching your tile to the landscape, nor does it seem to have any element of risk or push-your-luck like Carcassonne.

Compared to a similar game of puzzle-solving and tactical point-gathering efficiency, Five Tribes, the puzzles here are pedestrian and unengaging. Compared to another game of building wooden pieces onto a colorful hex landscape, Terra Mystica, you get no sense of progression, overcoming the land, or accomplishment here.

Kingdom Builder was passable.

Clank!

This hot release of 2016 was the next game we played, and this was my favorite of the night. Clank is a deckbuilding game with a large amount of dungeon delving, full of monsters, treasure, and a nasty dragon. Afterwards, when we were discussing it, I think I found a good descriptor for this, even though it sounds moronic: Clank is a game halfway between Star Realms and Mage Knight.

Basically what you’re going to do is the standard deckbuilding procedure–start with some crappy cards and use them to buy better cards to do things. The fun part is that the things you can do here involve wandering through dungeons, fighting monsters, and getting away with treasure.

The entire game is structured as a push-your-luck experience thanks to the dragon. Every time you make too much noise in the dungeon (through playing cards) you generate “clank”, which is represented by cubes thrown into a bag of mystery. The bag is seeded with a good number of neutral cubes, but every time the dragon attacks you pull a certain number of cubes out of the bag (that number increases as the game goes on). Any of your color go against your health total, and any neutral cubes are removed from the bag for the rest of the game.

Managing your health and trying to get as many treasures as possible before frantically escaping is a fantastic framework made even better by the fact that the first person to return to the surface starts a countdown timer of sorts where the dragon is guaranteed to attack with increasing numbers of cube draws each round.

The card display rotates like in Star Realms, and you can buy, attack, and move as much as your cards allow. Random events that trigger dragon attacks or more clank from each player are listed on certain cards, so the more the group collectively buys the best cards, the more dangerous the entire expedition is for everyone. Neat.

The cards themselves have a variety of powers and seemed about normal for the genre in terms of interesting and exciting effects. The real draw here is the combination of deckbuilding, adventuring, and interpersonal brinksmanship. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but did not adore it. Regardless I’m excited to play it again.

Innovation

What a weird game. I was expecting one, since this a Carl Chudyk game, and Carl Chudyk makes weird cards games as a rule. But Mottainai, my other Chudyk experience, seems benign compared to this.

I honestly don’t know if I had a typical and expected experience with this game or if I experienced a weird outlier, but at least it ended quickly.

This game is ostensibly about the progression of innovation throughout history, but it’s mostly about symbols and card effects. The cards are split into 10 ages, and the basic rule framework is easy to understand–certainly more than with Mottainai.

You can draw cards, play them on the table, use the effect of a card that is on the table, or score an “achievement” which contributes to one of the victory conditions (the other is points, and I think a few cards themselves might have victory conditions on them).

Since I don’t know what a typical game of Innovation is supposed to look like, I’m just going to tell you what happened in my game.

We start by drawing and playing some cards on the table. They had some cool effects, and I got a couple of cards that condensed my actions, allowing me to draw and play or score cards with one action–neat. The rulebook helpfully said that the castle symbol was important for the first couple of ages, although its effectiveness dies out after the beginning stages of the game. I remembered that but hardly drew any castle symbols on my cards at all.

Matt, my opponent, manages to snag a card that allows him to instantly score all of the cards I have in my display with the castle symbol on them. This was over half of the cards I played. See, there’s a neat (on paper at least) mechanism in the game where whenever you activate a card’s ability you check the symbol tied to that ability and see if your opponent has the same or more of that symbol displayed on their side. If they do, they have the option of also doing that action (giving you a free card draw in return).

However, some of the cards allow you to attack your opponent if they do not have equal or more of the given symbol. These seemed excessively powerful and this particular one effectively knocked me out of the game.

So for the rest of the game I couldn’t play any cards that had the castle symbol on them, which ended up being many of the cards I drew. Meanwhile, Matt was able to leverage some card abilities to draw cards further up in the timeline of the game easily, which gave him access to more powerful effects.

Soon he had a card that let him score a couple of 10 point cards, passing me in points, and then used another card to draw 2 ages above a 10 point card. But since there is no 12th age that triggers the end of the game. So not only was he able to quickly and easily score the highest point value cards in the game, he was also able to determine when the game ended.

Meanwhile I never got above age 2.

Is this that famous Chudyk chaos I always hear about? I’m fine with swingy and unpredictable games but this was the biggest snowballing effect I’ve ever seen. If this is Innovation, then I don’t think I want to play again. Seems more like bad game design.

I will say that one of the mechanisms, called “splaying” seemed cool, though I only got to do it once. Basically you can only have one of each color card in your display at once, but if you “splay” you can reveal some of the symbols on the cards underneath, increasing the effectiveness of that color.

I could be convinced to play Innovation again. I was excited about it when reading the rulebook and it seemed like it had some cool ideas. But what a horrible first impression.

 

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