I enjoy what is often referred to as ameritrash (or amerithrash depending on the circle you run in) games, whereas my fiance prefers euro games. See, she really enjoys analyzing a game, determining the best strategy, and out-thinking her opponent (which she usually does). I, on the other hand, prefer looking at cool art, coming up with a crazy strategy, and relying on a bit of luck to hopefully make my dumb strategy work (it usually does not). However, every once in awhile I am able to find a light strategy game that has enough luck in it to keep things interesting. Kingdom Builder fits that niche for me pretty well.
In Kingdom Builder you are attempting to build a kingdom (shocking) by placing your settlements on different terrain around the board. What terrain you can build on is determined by the one card you have in your hand. Each turn you play a terrain card and then place three settlements onto the corresponding terrain type and then draw a new card for your next turn. For the most part, that is all you do. However, there are a few gameplay wrinkles that add some depth.
The most important rule in the game is that you must build adjacent to a current settlement you have, if you are able to. This means that each time you place settlements down, you have to keep in mind what terrain is around them because the next terrain card you draw may lock you into having to place your settlements right next to where you have already built. For some people, this is the biggest drawback of the game. They would prefer to have a hand of cards and carefully consider the order they play them in order to maximize a strategy. I can definitely appreciate this, but I love how much you have to think on your feet and adjust strategy throughout the game based on the terrain cards you draw. If you have someone in your gaming group who suffers from AP (analysis paralysis) this can lead to some very slow turns though, which is unfortunate.
In order to make sure there is not a dominate strategy, Kingdom Builder adds a decent amount of randomness in addition to drawing terrain cards. First, the game board is variable and composed of 4 different board tiles pushed together. These board tiles are randomly chosen at the beginning of the game out of a pile of 8. This means the actual makeup of the board, and what resources are where, are different from game to game.
In addition, each board tile has locations and a kingdom on it. Building next to a kingdom nets you extra gold at the end of the game (the person with the most gold wins) and building next to a location allows you to take an action tile. These action tiles grant you powerful abilities you can use on your turn. You may be able to add additional settlements to the board, move the locations of settlements, or build in places you previously could not (as examples). You can use the actions each turn, so building next to locations is essential to help you manipulate the board to maximize the amount of gold you have at the end of the game. Each player starts with 40 settlements, and once someone has placed their last settlement, you finish the current round and the game comes to an end.
How you score each game is determined by which Kingdom Builder cards are present. The game comes with ten, but only three are used in each game. These cards tell you how gold will be distributed at the end of the game. For example, your scoring conditions could be earning gold for each settlement built adjacent to a mountain, earning gold for each settlement in your largest kingdom of connected settlements, and earning gold for the smallest number of settlements you have in each zone of the board (this encourages you to spread your settlements out equally in the four different board tiles).
The component quality of the game is good. Granted, there is nothing here we have not seen in games before, but the boards are solid, the settlements are the traditional wood houses, the chits are thick, and the cards are high quality. Basically, the component quality is what we expect of games today. There is nothing unique or extraordinary about it, but it will survive a large number of plays just fine. The art is geared towards mechanics, so there is nothing to write home about, but the terrain types are easy to understand (though some people say they struggle with mountains versus canyons) and most of the art for the action tiles is pretty understandable if you have played hobby board games before. If not, usually one rules explanation is all that is needed and any subsequent plays the art serves as the rule reminder.
Kingdom Builder seems to be a pretty divisive game. It did win the Spiel Des Jahres in 2012 which is supposed to recognize the best family game to come out in the last 12 months (there is another award called the Kennerspiel Des Jahres which is geared towards more complex games) but some folks do not like the randomness of the terrain cards and how, theoretically, depending on the Kingdom Builder cards that are present, and the terrain cards you draw, it may be almost impossible to win. I have never personally witnessed a situation where someone flat out could not win, but I have been in situations where I had to play things exactly right to even have a remote chance of winning. Some folks make house rules where you start with two cards to help reduce the randomness and increase the strategy, but this is something my group has never adopted.
Overall, I enjoy Kingdom Builder, though I recognize it is not a perfect game. There might be a bit too much randomness for some people but I do believe most people who do not like the game sell the amount of strategy in the game short. If you are ok with a little bit of luck and changing strategy on the fly, Kingdom Builder may be a good fit. If you prefer heavier strategy games with little luck, you may want to look elsewhere.