Review: Kingsburg (iPhone)

Posted by James (admin) on September 25th, 2010

Kingsburg is a dice-rolling, resource managing and building game.  Players roll 3 dice and then take turns allocating combinations of their dice in order to gain the benefits of the 18 different advisors.  For example, allocate two 4’s (or a 5 and 3, or 6 and a 2) and you can use the number 8 advisor (Treasurer) who gives the player 2 gold.  Players use their resources (gold, stone and wood) to build buildings which give players victory points as well as a wide variety of abilities like re-rolling a dice, added strength in battle, bonus VPs, extra resources and so on.  The 20 different buildings are split into 5 groups and each group has a level 1, 2,3 and 4 building.  The buildings within the groups must be built in order, so a player can only build a level 2 building if they have built the level 1 building in the same group, and so on.

Players roll dice to use advisors and then build up to one building 3 times (Spring, Summer and Autumn) before an enemy attacks in the winter season.  Players only know the possible maximum/minimum strength of the attacker but not their exact strength or the benefits/losses for victory/defeat (unless they use certain advisors that let them see the enemy).  There are a few extra bonuses between seasons for most buildings and so on too.  The game ends after 5 years and the player with the most VPs wins.

I really like Kingsburg.  I have the board game and used to play the PC version quite a lot at lunch times a couple of years ago.  There is an element of luck in the dice rolls as the higher number advisors give better benefits but you always feel you have some control as you work out how to split/allocate your dice to get the best result and try to build buildings you will find useful.  Also, working out how best to use your dice results is interesting and thoughtful gameplay, and I constantly want to roll dice to get more resources and build more.  There’re some tense moments because you can only claim one advisor at a time so sometimes have to risk another player claiming an advisor you also want to use before you get another chance.  There is some player interaction when claiming advisors (as you might block, or be blocked by, others) and when trying to win the bonuses between the seasons, but there’s no interaction when building or in battle.  So, the main competition is the race to gain points.

As well as earning battle strength from buildings and advisors, you can purchase strength at the start of each battle.  After any purchase, a dice is rolled and every player adds that to their strength which is then compared to the enemy’s strength (which is now revealed).  Therefore, you often have to assess how much risk you’re willing to take, especially as the penalties for being defeated can be quite harsh.  Some variant rules for the battles have been created (for players who don’t like the large random factor as a roll of a 1 or a 6 is massive difference) but only the original battle rules are in the iPhone version.

Kingsburg on the iPhone is a very polished looking game which uses the luxurious graphics from the game with smooth transitions.  The icons from the game are really clear and the buttons are a decent size.  The sound effects are nice too plus the music that plays when you complete a game – kind of Annie Lennox at the end of Lord of the Rings meets Coldplay –  is so good I sat and listened to it for some time.

There’s no online play, which I don’t mind too much, but the game can be played ‘hot seat’ (multiple human players passing one iPhone between them).  You can also play against AI players (which don’t have a difficulty setting).  To start with, you can play a 3-player game and you can unlock the 4-player and 5-player options by playing the game.  I like the little bit of progression this adds, similar to Zooloretto iPhone,so that there’s something to earn.

The 10-second intro movie looks nice but the full start sequence is quite long at 40 seconds before you reach the first menu: 20 seconds for the company logos, 10 for the animation and 10 to load the game.  I don’t mind this being unskippable on the first play, but after that I prefer to have option to skip it.  This is especially important as 40 seconds is way too long when it runs the full sequence every time you return to the app (even if you only switched to email and back).

When you roll dice, the dice slide around the screen as the numbers on them change which I think is a bit gimmicky and doesn’t add anything to the gameplay.  I’d really like an option so this animation didn’t get shown at all as watching your own roll every time becomes dull, let alone then having to watch all the AI rolls as well.

The Interface
The two issues above are relatively minor but, unfortunately, Kingsburg has a major problem due to the way the game is spread over lots of different screens.  When allocating dice to the advisors, you tap on each dice to select/deselect them in order to create different totals.  As each total is generated, the relevant advisor’s portrait slides onto screen showing the benefit they offer.  The problem with this is that it means you have to keep checking (or remember) the benefits of all your different combinations so you can choose how you’re going to split/allocate your dice.  Plus, you need to remember if any of the advisors are already taken (shown only by an opponent’s crest above the advisor, rather than greyed out).  It feels like the original board game style (using the portraits) is leading the interface design; whereas, the player’s needs and the iPhone’s small screen size should have dictated the interface design.  As a result, I spend ages checking and re-checking which advisors I could use rather than being able to see them all in one place.

I think it would have been much better if the advisors were shown as a single line each (2 columns of 9 lines ) with just their value (1 to 18) and the icons showing their benefit.  Any advisors already taken by opponents would be greyed out and all the remaining advisors that match every potential combination of your dice could be highlighted – thus, making it easier to choose which advisor to use, especially if you have tokens that let you tweak the results.  Alternatively, 9 advisors could be shown on screen at the same time with small portraits (with the same highlighting of available and taken advisors mentioned above) and the player could swipe the screen to scroll across and view all 18 advisors.

The advisor screen issue above is compounded by the fact that your choice of advisor(s) needs to be made in conjunction with the amount of resources you own and the resource costs and abilities of the 20 different buildings which are on separate screens.  I understand the building costs and benefits is a lot of information so the summary screen showing all 20 buildings with their costs is a good reference sheet.  However, when you tap on a building you get a screen showing its portrait, the resource costs and the VPs gained when built – but this is only one piece of info more than the summary screen and you have to tap elsewhere to bring up a help window showing the building’s ability.  The help window can be set to always display but this means it shows on every screen in the game and needs to be tapped to hide it before continuing.  Showing each building’s benefit on the building’s screen (no help window required) would have helped immensely and there’s plenty of space for that information.  As for the resources you own, these should just be shown on screen all the time as this info is constantly needed.  With these changes, the game would be easier and faster to navigate.

Resources and building opportunities are tight in Kingsburg – which is what makes the game fun – so knowing what resources you have, what you can get and what you need is critical.  As a result of the interface issues, I found Kingsburg took over an hour to play my first game and not much less for my second and third games (even though I’m already familiar with the gameplay) as I spent so long going between screens checking all my options and resources.  At one point, I was tempted to get the boardgame out so I could view the player mat with all the building details and the advisors on the board.  It’s such a shame too as it looks great and the great gameplay of Kingsburg is there.  If the interface flow was more user friendly, it could have been one of the best iPhone board games on the market.  Instead though, the visual design overwhelms the usability and I’m left sounding like a parent of a teenager who had a house party without permission – I’m not angry, just disappointed.


[Played single human player versus AI]

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