To build a kingdom, first lay waste to usability

Donald X Vaccarino is one of the most feted designers on the current scene, thanks to the highly creative offering of Dominion, his first game. He’s continued delivering on that initial promise, with one of his recent offerings Kingdom Builder winning the coveted Spiel des Jarhes award in 2012. Now the game has made the transition onto iOS.

Kingdom Builder is, like most of Donald’s games, based on a simple but clever idea. Play occurs on a board divided into spaces of different terrain types, dotted with a randomised selection of buildings. Each turn a player draws a card indicating one of the terrains and must build on three spaces of that type, adjacent to one of his existing buildings if possible. If you build next to one of the special buildings you can use its power on your turn, such as an extra build or the ability to jump empty spaces.

There are three random conditions to earn victory points dealt anew each game from a small selection, such as building next to water or spreading your settlements widely. Once one player runs out of building tokens these are added up to determine the winner.

Kingdom Builder

The rules are easy, but that simplicity belies what turns out to be a fiendishly well-balanced and challenging game in practice. Its critical acclaim is well deserved. Although your placement options are limited by the card, you’re constantly balancing the need to pick up special building powers by blocking your opponents from building in advantageous areas. And of course you need to think about how to score, with the clever variable scoring requirements ensuring the game doesn’t fall victim to tried-and-tested strategies, all the while keeping the players on their toes.

The app was released through Queen Games, who published the original physical version. Queen have a bit of a reputation in the board gaming world for picking up excellent titles but then encountering various delays, eccentricities and service problems on delivery. It rather seems that they’ve carried these same issues through into the delivery of this, their first iOS app. The game is playable, but is bedevilled by just about every kind of minor problem you can imagine.

The first you’ll probably encounter, unless you’ve played the game before, is the fact that no rules are included. That forces you into the terrible tutorial which is not only badly structured but has been translated from German and is riddled with various spelling and grammatical errors, as is much of the text in the app. The chosen font for this poor verbiage is Marker Felt, one of the few fonts guaranteed to raise the ire of designers and typographers to similar levels as the also-hated Comic Sans.

Presentation is similarly weak throughout much of the app. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the static graphics but they’re a little grainy, and being nothing more demanding than static graphics, you should really expect better. Usability is basic with no undo button, few options and no way to return to the menus from in-game. Animations and screen transitions are fairly basic but still manage to run into frequent freezes and delays.

Kingdom Builder

You’ll encounter the same lag playing against the AI which takes its own sweet time over making straightforward moves. However, it is at least capable of playing a challenging game. The hardest of the three levels offered should be capable of unmercifully crushing relatively experienced human players. But be prepared for a slow game, even on good hardware.

That wouldn’t be an issue if the online multiplayer against other human opponents was any good. But it isn’t. Inexplicably it’s delivered via the German browser-based gaming service Brettspielwelt rather than Game Center. That’d be annoying in and of itself since it means a separate registration, as well as a lack of achievements and awards, but it doesn’t even work properly, being riddled with usability problems and lag and crashing issues.

Kingdom Builder should be a great game on iOS. The rules are simple and the play eminently suitable for transition to a touchscreen interface. But while it essentially delivers what it needs to, it’s a salutary lesson on how a number of small issues which might not be deal breakers individually can rapidly snowball and make an app slip into unusable territory.