Kingdomino is turning an ancient game piece into the next hit board game franchise

Kingdomino, the award-winning board game, is a runaway hit. Released in 2016, the tile-laying game rode success on the convention circuit all the way to a slot on store shelves at big-box retailers nationwide. Now, designer Bruno Cathala is gearing up to release a new, more advanced version of the game. Polygon sat down last month to chat with him about the birth of the franchise, and how his next title — Kingdomino Origins — builds on the original.

Cathala lives and works in the French Alps and, outside his work as a hobby games designer for the global market, he also takes on local clients. One such client was a nearby ski lodge, which had commissioned him over three consecutive seasons to create unique gifts for its guests.

“This ski station wanted each year a new, small — very small — game for the people coming into the station,” Cathala said. “The first year I made a small card game. The second year it was a very small, tiny game, and the third year it was a dice game. And they asked for a fourth game, and I had absolutely no idea. I had to do it very, very fast. […] Immediately — I don’t know why — I saw dominoes.”

Bruno Cathala
Photo: Blue Orange Games

Today, some consider dominoes in the same category as blocks and other children’s playthings. But the objects date back to 13th century China, where they were originally a kind of playing card used in many different games. Later, dominoes appeared in Italy in the 18th century. They’re still a common tool used to play many different kinds of folk games today.

“Everybody knows dominoes, because it reminds you to your [childhood],” Cathala said, “but for me — for meI never played a domino game which was interesting to me. So it was a good way to use this game component to create something.”

The result was a game that focused on creating landscapes on the table.

In Kingdomino, each player draws dominoes from a communal set with the goal of creating the largest contiguous landmass at the table. Connecting the most fields or mountain tiles, all arranged together, earns you points.

“Immediately I tried to make colors, and not numbers,” Cathala said, “and to place them, not in a line, but to fulfill a square. And immediately I saw that there are some areas which have been created, and it could be a good way to create something interesting to me.”

Photo: Blue Orange Games

The player with the most points at the end of the game wins. It’s a concept as concise as it is satisfying, one that blends strategy, geometry, and simple math into something almost magical.

Of course, that original version of Kingdomino was only available to families in the French Alps who paid for a week-long pass at the nearby resort. But the game eventually expanded into the version we know today, a game that is tremendously easy to teach — even to small children — and one that comes packaged in a small, portable box with a $20 price point. The game (originally published by Pegasus Spiele and distributed by Blue Orange Games in the U.S.) would go on to win the 2017 Spiel des Jahres, one of board gaming’s most prestigious international prizes.

Cathala never stopped working on the game, however. He kept on playing it, hundreds of more times, and couldn’t help but improve on the design. That experimentation led to an expansion, called The Court, which was made available for free online in March 2020. It added characters and resources to the game, adding another layer of strategy.

“The problem is that this expansion is too expensive to produce,” Cathala said. “Kingdomino is not an expensive game. If you produce this expansion with all the resource tokens, the expansion will cost quite the same price as the original game — which is not really acceptable on our market. So my publishers say, ‘No, we won’t make that.’ But for me, I want to play with this.”

Photo: Blue Orange Games

As a result, Kingdomino Origins was born. Instead of a medieval theme, the game rolls the clock back to prehistoric times. Instead of competing only for victory points, players are instead trying to accumulate multiple resources: mammoths, fish, mushrooms, and flint. In the most advanced mode of play there are also lava-spewing volcanoes that throw flaming debris across the map. What was once an open plain for ancient elephants can quickly become a burned out, barren wasteland. Players can even spend points to hire on additional helpers, little cave men and women that can help them to score more points.

“It all adds a small fun factor and tactical factor into the game, which I really enjoyed,” Cathala said. “So it was a good opportunity for me to balance the game exactly the way it has to be, and to add some interesting things which [couldn’t have been incorporated] into the original Kingdomino.”

The growing popularity of board gaming has exposed many new consumers to the hobby game space. A trip through the toy section of your local Target or Walmart confirms that there are more unique new titles on the shelf than ever before. But how have these new big-box retailers changed the design process for creatives like Cathala?

“It’s hard to answer to these questions,” Cathala said. “I think that [the] U.S. market and French markets are different. This kind of [big-box retailer] doesn’t exist [here]. […] When I’m working on a game, I’m never — frankly speaking — never thinking about the market. I don’t care. Because I’m thinking that a game designer is someone who is creating a path […] I’m not someone which tries to analyze the market and to think that I have to go in that or in that direction. No, I want to show my direction and try to convince people to follow me.”

So, what about the next iteration of the Kingdomino franchise? Cathala has ideas, but right now they’re ephemeral, at best. He says we’ll have to see what emerges after he’s had a chance to play another few hundred rounds of his newest game.

Kingdomino Origins will be available for purchase online at the Blue Orange website starting Sept. 16. You can download the rules starting today.

Kingdomino Origins was previewed with a pre-production copy of the game provided by Blue Orange Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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Kingdomino was the 2017 winner of the prestigious Spiel des Jahres board game of the year award.

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