The box says "QUEEN DOM" on the side in huge marker-pen letters. A neighbour signed for it before my wife retrieved it and put it in the halls where my kids and their friends passed it as they came in from school. I wonder, with a thrill of horror, how many people think I've been ordering sex toys.
"It's .... it's a game," I stammer, holding the box open as proof. No-one cares.
Twenty minutes later they care. At least the kids do. That's all it takes to unpack Kingdomino, assemble the cute card castles, read and teach the rules, set up and play to the end. The only snag is the dreadful rulebook, which makes a meal of its easy task. I reckon I can do it in a paragraph. Let's try.
Each turn you lay out two sets of land dominoes in rough value order, face up. Players take them in that order so if you get a less useful piece, you get first pick of the next lot. You add your piece to your growing kingdom, matching at least one end. After all the pieces are gone you score, one point for each square of a land type times the number of crowns in that area.
Okay, maybe rulebook writers don't get paid enough. But when you have the bright, chunky bits to demonstrate with, it's a cinch. The kids love the dominoes. They love the fairytale castles that do nothing but sit in the middle of your kingdom like a cheeky garden gnome. They love the game, which is so easy and so fast and yet makes you feel smart even if you don't play well.
It's better than sex toys.
You make exactly two choices in each turn. First, what domino to pick next turn. Second, where to put the one you've just picked up. Yet beneath this gossamer, there is surprising spatial alchemy. Where you slot the shiny extension in your jolly kingdom entails hidden sacrifice. Sometimes, making one area bigger means blocking off another. Sometimes, maximizing your score means sacrificing your perfect five by five square and your last play alongside it. Sometimes, it's better to take something you don't really need to stop someone else from getting it.
Simple choices, but they matter. There are variants, extra challenges for extra points if it all seems too neat and flyaway for you. And the whole thing burbles along on a cheery stream of randomness, not knowing what dominoes will appear a turn from now.
It's a box you can take anywhere, so long as you've got big pockets, so I start to. I play it with friends in a café, a kingdom rising and falling in the time it takes eggs to fry. I squeeze in a lunchtime game with unsuspecting colleagues, the gay castle pennants fluttering in a drab meeting room.
The real kicker though comes when I take it to see Graham. Graham is a mathematician and he's very good at games. He's also very good at talking nonsense. We sit, drinking, and discussing a range of topics from psychology to singing bowls to quantum mechanics as drunken old friends are wont to do. Then, as darkness creeps comfortably into the room, I pull out the box.
"Want to play? It's really quick."
His curiosity overcomes his inertia. And he beats me again and again and again, perfect squares with perfect scores falling out of his fingers like dust. So much for the kids' game.
This kind of makes a mockery of Kingdomino's supposedly grown-up cousin, Queendomino, which was also in the sex toy box. I have heard that the two combine well into one game, although there don't seem to be official rules for doing so in either one. First, though, it seems wise to taste the vanilla version. So I set it up one night with the elder daughter.
Atop the same structure as it's smaller relative, the game adds money and buildings. You spend one to get the other from a selection on sale and you put them on a new terrain type. It adds a little complexity and a massive slew of scoring options. The buildings give you all sorts of new ways to expand. Suddenly, blocking off parts of your kingdom isn't always the wrong thing to do.
Buildings go on from a random selection, but they remove all sense of randomness from the game. Now, whatever dominoes pop up, there are a dozen different ways you can translate the land into points. You can even crap on other player's plans by burning down buildings with a big-nosed dragon. It's simple yet captivating and I love it. Right up until the point the last domino slides into place.
We stare at our boards, baffled.
"I'm getting a calculator," says the daughter to my dismay. I like to use game scoring as an excuse to make her practice arithmetic.
"We don't need that," I state with confidence and start toting up her points. After about a minute, I've forgotten the running total. There's a scoring pad in the game, so I get it out and start again.
After another minute, she gets up and leaves. "Tell me who won," she mumbles on the way out, all her interest ebbed away. Mine is flowing fast. After another minute, knowing I'm alone and can be a hypocrite in private, I get out a calculator. By the time I'm done, no-one cares any more.
Still, there is Kingdomino.
My wife is doesn't play that many games, but the kids' enthusiasm persuades her to try. Soon, she's fitting in the pieces and toting up points with the best of them. All four of us sit at the table in the evening light, poring over our own puzzle, laughing and commiserating together over good moves and bad luck. Bees buzz past the open door in the drowsy spring heat. Drinks get poured, snacks get crunched, dominoes slide across the tablecloth.
There are no dice. No tech trees. No wars get fought, no deals struck and no civilizations conquered. Yet, sat in my little pink fairytale castle, I am profoundly happy.