In September, a board game app based on the 2007 game Kingsburg took the gaming community by surprise. We often hear about upcoming board game ports way in advance of their release, but Kingsburg appeared so suddenly on the App Store [for US$4.99] that someone submitted it as Kinsburg, which made it kind of hard to search for in the early weeks of its release. The typo has now been fixed, so if the game sounds interesting to you after reading this review, you know it'll be easy to find.
What is Kingsburg (subtitled "Serving the Crown") all about? It's a light, fun strategy game with plenty of luck and a good helping of "screw-your-neighbor" involved. You play an advisor to the king – or maybe a duke with his own duchy, something like that – and you spend five "years" gaining resources, erecting buildings, and preparing for invasions of evil armies with things like barbarians and zombies. It's fun once you know what you're doing. Continue reading for more.
Kingsburg is a game of rolling dice in order to influence members of the royal court. Roll your three dice well, and you might get the benefits from the king. Roll poorly (i.e., low), and you'll have to have an audience with the jester. He's not as generous as the king. Each player has three dice, and whoever rolls lowest places his die (or dice) on an advisor first. Each player gets to meet with an advisor, then the turns continue with players who still have dice left placing them on unoccupied spaces.
This is the heart of the game, placing your dice on the right spaces. You want to get the right resources for your own game plan and place your dice in such a way that it prevents your opponents from getting what they want. Because where you get to play is limited by what you roll, you can't always help yourself or hurt your neighbors, but you do the best you can with what you've got.
Once all possible dice have been placed, you collect resources or bonuses from the advisors. Most commonly, these are resource cubes (gold, stone, and wood), but you can also get military assistance, a sneak peek at the invading army, points, or other things. Once everyone has gotten what they've got coming, it's time to build a building if you want. These buildings provide ongoing benefits through the game, like a military bonus or free gold each season.
The order in which you erect your buildings is vitally important, so don't expect to win your first game. This is true whether you're playing against the app's AI or human opponents. Still, once you've got an idea of how to carve a path to victory, the game kind of plays itself.
Literally the first thing you'll notice about Kingsburg: Serving the Crown is that the game forces you to watch a series of start-up screens that take over 40 seconds before you can get into the game. After this time sink, things move pretty quickly. If you haven't played the board game version, it's easy to get overwhelmed since there is no bird's eye view screen that shows you everything at once.
There's also no way to see at a glance which advisors have already been selected this turn. Yes, you can see that a previously chosen advisor's number turns into a colored disc when you attempt to influence him or her, but that just means that you do a lot of tapping as you try to place your dice. The same thing goes for remembering what resources you currently have and what your building goals are. Let's hope that any eventual iPad version implements an overview screen. The dice graphics could also use a bit of sprucing up, since the faces keep changing even after the dice stop moving. It's kind of unnerving.
Like Zooloretto, Kingsburg adds a small play-to-play mechanism that requires you to beat the three-player game in order to unlock the four-player version (and so on for the five-player mode and a special soundtrack). You can also only choose red, blue, or yellow when you first start the app. Black and green are apparently too special to be made available from the get-go. Also, there is no way to assign names to colors, so if you don't remember which color is yours, the many info screens can be slightly confusing.
Another problem that should be easy to fix: in the building phase, if you don't tap the hammer icon before pushing continue, you can miss out on building anything at all. Since the game doesn't have an undo button, this is a painful mistake to make. There are other ways to mis-tap your intentions -- things you'd never do when playing the tabletop game -- and it's silly to not have an undo option.
Even with the app kind of fighting against you in this way, it's still awfully easy to wail on the AI opponents. In my second iPhone game (and only my third game ever) I trounced the bots 55 to 21 to 13. That's not exactly close. Still, if you like the game and want to get a play in during a lonely lunch, Kingsburg: Serving the Crown will offer its services.
Other players have suggested that the Crane's effect (pay one less gold to build certain buildings) does not work in the game. Either this was fixed in an update or that player didn't realize that, once you build the Crane, all the gold costs for the affected buildings drop by one, and you don't actually need to pay one less during the build phase. It just happens.
I have gotten the app to freeze, but I was able to figure out a fix. I had called up the info screen from the bottom of the app when the game went to show the current scores. It then wouldn't let the menu go away and thus covered the continue arrow. Quitting the app and restarting allowed me to continue.
Andrea Chiarvesio, who designed the original board game, said that he is happy with the iPhone port but would also like to see a zoomable board in order to get all the information at once. "It's the official porting, and overall a good job," Chiarvesio said. "Also, there will be (I hope) implemented some extra features that I and Luca designed just for the iPhone game. So far, only the base game was implemented."
That sounds exciting. For now, there is no sign of even the "To Forge A Realm" expansion in the app. While we wait for these extras, if you want to give the game a try before getting the iPhone app, you can download a Java version of the game (with AI opponents) here.