Artist: Aya Taguchi
Publisher: GG Studio
The King of Frontier was published in Japan in 2013 and not widely available back then, and highly sought right now. The number of owners for the game, as recorded on BGG, is paltry for such a highly-regarded game. Luckily, the game has been republished by Queen Games under a fantasy theme and relabeled as Skylands. From what I can gather of the new rules, the game is more or less the same with some minor tweaks to possibly make the game better. That’s great news both for the designer as well as the public. The game deserves more attention and whether you have the original Japanese version or the newly reprinted Skylands, it should be adequate.
I knew of The King of Frontier back when the Japanese microgame craze landed on the shores of the Western hemisphere. Kickstarted by Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter which generated a massive amount of publicity, the Japanese board game scene exploded which resulted in worldwide exposure and demand for games designed in Japan. A new generation of excellent designers from Japan such as Seiji Kanai, Hisashi Hayashi, Kenichi Tanabe, Masao Suganuma, Susumu Kawasaki and many others really made a name for themselves in the board gaming industry. Many of them continue to churn out quality games every year. The King of Frontier was designed by a relative newcomer, Shun Taguchi who has since published another game with Iello called Little Town. I knew the game was quite well-received and rated highly by some reviewers that were fans of the genre. Still, the game was incredibly hard to find and also very expensive when it was available.
While most reviewers think of King of Frontier as a hybrid of Puerto Rico and perhaps Walnut Grove, I think that is just partially accurate. To be fair, the game clearly has elements of both games, but as a standalone, it is pretty solid and far far shorter. King of Frontier, is a tile-laying game where players draw and place 20 tiles on a 5×4 grid map. Not all map grids have to be filled, but each unfilled square yields a -2 point penalty at the end of the game while filling the entire 20 spaces will earn a bonus of 10 points.
Players have 4 actions in total: Construction, Development, Consumption and Production. Each player chooses and action and everyone gets to perform the same action, while the active player gets a bonus. This is the Puerto Rico-inspired part of the game. As the name suggests, Development allows players to draw tiles and place them on the map. These tiles come in several flavors and orientations, but essentially, they are regions that produce wheat, stone, wood or part of a city (ala Carcassonne). Players rotate and place the tile on the grid map hoping to complete regions that are of a similar kind. Importantly, regions that border the edge of the map grids are considered incomplete. So, a region with all forest tiles will produce wood while a region with all wheat fields will produce wheat, etc. Each tile that form a region will have empty spaces for cubes during production. Which is a nice segue into….Production. A player that chooses Production will produce and fill all the empty cube slots with cubes of the appropriate color. So, if you select a quarry that is completed, then you can fill the quarry with as many gray stone cubes as there are slots in the quarry. Similarly a forest or wheat field can also be filled with the appropriate resources by placing the corresponding cubes in their empty slots on the tiles. Completed cities however, never produce anything.
The third action is Construction which allows you to build special buildings. This action is the meat of the game as the buildings really customizes each player map. Buildings range from direct bonus points to conditional points for fulfilling requirements, etc. Some are quite powerful and it is not clear how balanced these buildings are. All construction requires some resource cubes as payment (wheat, stone, wood, etc.). Once these buildings are constructed, each player is likely then to focus on how these buildings provide special benefits and custom tailor their actions to take advantage of these unique rule-breaking powers.
The last action is Consumption. Here, players can get VP chits by allowing cities to consume the wheat. One can convert wheat cubes to feed the population of one city. Each cube is worth 1VP and the number of cubes one can convert depends on the size of the city and the number of city “slots”. The bigger the city, the chances of having more consumption squares.
That’s it, players have these four actions to choose from with the active player having a slight advantage for each action. For example, the Builder gets a discount of one resource cube of any type, the Consumer gets 1 extra VP, the Producer gets 1 extra region to produce (for a total of 2) while the Developer gets to add an additional tile to the map (for a total of 2).
The game ends in several ways. When the VP chits are exhausted, when one person’s map is completely filled or if the development draw pile is depleted. Points are then tallied and winner is the person with the most points. Interestingly, the VP chits when exhausted do not get backup chits to supplement. So, if you choose consumption and can earn 8 VP but there is only a 1VP chit left, then you get that only VP chit and everyone else gets nothing. So brutal!
The new version of The King of Frontier called Skylands features a few tweaks which I have incorporated into my game of The King of Frontier and I think is harmless. First, the 4 actions can no longer be taken back to back. By moving a token around, one needs to cycle through the actions in a non-consecutive manner. In the original version, one can literally take the same action and no other (such as Development) all through the game. In Skylands, you are forced to choose different actions by moving your personal player token. There is a one-time chit that can be cashed in to stay in one location. This comes at a cost of 2 VP.
The other change I have incorporated is the Development action. In the original game, development tiles are drawn blind with the active player drawing two and the remaining players drawing one. In the new version, a number of tiles equal to the number of players plus one are drawn and displayed for all players to draft starting from the active player. Then the active player has the option to place the final remaining tile that was not chosen by anyone.
I am not a fan of expansions, but the New Buildings expansion is almost critical for the game as there aren’t enough building tiles out there to cycle between different games. Almost all the building tiles are used in each game at maximum player count, providing very little variety and replayability. With the expansion, only a subset of the buildings are used.
Because King of Frontier is Japanese game, much of the tiles were not translated into English and one of the gripes for the original game is how language-dependent the tiles are. It is indeed a pain to refer to a print out or reference aid all the time. To that end, I have created individual player mats with translation of the original material for each building for the main game and also the expansion. In addition, I have also made additional components for the tweaks from Skyland. All of these supplementary materials can be uploaded here on Board Game Geek.
I like The King of Frontier just fine even though it is not particularly original. Yes, it is inspired by some elements from other games, but it is solid enough to stand on its own. The game is short and I think it is a solid filler, though it is lengthier than your normal card game. Do I think it is better than Puerto Rico? Certainly not. I don’t think these games should be compared side-by-side. The game kinda straddles the niche for that 30-45 minute game meaty filler. I think this one falls more toward the Splendor, Cacao and Carcassonne category of light-weight Euros. From that perspective, the game is middle of the pack. It is fun, but perhaps not necessarily memorable.
That said, I must admit I am a sucker for the simple art from the original game. The stick figure drawings while crude, is delightful and quite appropriate for the game. I have come to appreciate the original art by most of the Japanese publishers which are almost always hand drawn and printed by a small publisher (or perhaps even self-printed). I think the majority, if not all the games coming out from Japan, I prefer the original art work. If possible, I have always tried to get the original version of published games, if not for the art work, then for the compact box size. The GG Studio version of King of Frontier is probably 1/5th of the Queen Games standard square box production. That said, I am thrilled that Queen Games republished the game under Skylands as I think the game deserves a larger audience.
Initial impressions: Average