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Review: Architects of the West Kingdom

This review was first published on table for ONE, richly illustrated with photos of the game.
Board Game: Architects of the West Kingdom


“THESE ARE TREACHEROUS TIMES, AND RIVAL ARCHITECTS WILL STOP AT NOTHING TO SLOW YOUR PROGRESS. WILL YOU REMAIN VIRTUOUS, OR BE FOUND IN THE COMPANY OF THIEVES AND BLACK MARKETEERS?”

INTRODUCTION
For a long time, the board game genre worker placement followed a tried and true formula as to how things ought to be. Place a worker meeple on a location and in return reap the associated benefits. Rinse and repeat. Enter, stage left, board game designer Shem Phillips. In 2015 Phillips released Raiders of the North Sea through publisher Garphill Games, a game which sought out to evolve the formula by introducing the “place one, take one” worker action mechanism. Raiders of the North Sea went on to become a smash hit, including being nominated for Kennerspiel des Jahres alongside Terraforming Mars and Exit, the latter ended up winning the coveted award. Then late last year, I started to hear whispers about a new worker placement game designed by Shem Phillips and SJ MacDonald, a board game that once again would take the tried and true formula and twist it into something new and interesting.

Today, table for ONE reviews Architects of the West Kingdom from a solitaire point of view.

COMPONENTS
Metal coins for Architects of the West Kingdom. Photo: Garphill Games

It never ceases to amaze me just how much game, literally and figuratively, publisher Garphill Games manages to fit inside such a small box. The publisher’s previous releases, the North Sea trilogy, all fit inside these size Small containers and Architects of the West Kingdom is no exception. However, what the game “lacks” in size it makes up for in component quality. All the various resources are made of custom shaped wooden tokens; the actual game board is made of a nice cardboard thickness that after some 20+ plays shows no signs of wear and tear. I own the retail version of the game which comes with cardboard tokens for the coins; they are of good quality and perfectly serviceable.

But there is also the option to purchase metal coins and here is where I expose my Achilles heel for the entire world to see: I have a major soft spot for metal coins in board games. There is just something about them that makes me go into full blown Gollum mode, whispering “my precious” as I caress them. Anyway, the ones that are available for Architects of the West Kingdom are really nice to the touch. So it may be the case that my copy is a bit heavier as a result of the addition of metal because like I said, I am a weak individual with a broken soul.

There are a couple of minor gripes that I want to mention when it comes to the production quality. First, the individual player boards are made of thick paper rather than cardboard. As a result, they are starting to show signs of wear and tear. On the plus side is the fact that it took dozen of plays before this degradation transpired which is worth taking into consideration. Also, and this is probably more of a personal nit-pick rather than an actual “critique”, but I would have liked to see some more interesting art on the back of the different cards. Personally I love the art that illustrator Mihajlo Dimitrievski brings to the table and it would have been nice to see it on the back of the cards as well, as oppose to the current blue and green plain design. Overall though the component quality is high throughout and even more so if you purchase the metal coins.

OVERVIEW
In Architects of the West Kingdom you are a royal builder of noble heritage, tasked with the mission to impress the ruling king. This lofty goal is achieved by constructing buildings and landmarks of importance within the region, whilst simultaneously contributing to the development of the grand Cathedral. You maintain your status as a noble by utilizing your workforce to gather raw materials needed for construction work, hiring apprentices to aid you in your ambitious undertaking and also keep a watchful eye on the opposing architects.

Architects of the West Kingdom is a worker placement board game, albeit with a twist. Usually within this genre, the player has access to only a handful of workers or less in order to perform various actions. For example, in the classic game of Viticulture (designed by Jamey Stegmaier & Alan Stone and published by Stonemaier Games) you start with just three worker meeples at your disposal. In Architects of the West Kingdom, your starting work force is 20 meeples strong. This shift away from the current norm of worker placement design often throws new players for a loop; seeing that part of the charm of the genre is being ruthlessly efficient with just a few workers, then surely there is no challenge to be had when having this many workers at your disposal? Au contraire. Allow me to elaborate.

The main board consists of a number of different action locations. Much like any given board game within the genre, each location provides the player with a resource of some sorts: be it raw materials, money or the possibility to hire an apprentice. You put down a worker meeple on any given area and receive the corresponding resource, hence the term “worker placement”. So far so simple. But what separates Architects of the West Kingdom from the rest of the pack, is the fact that once you have placed a worker on the board it stays there. This is important, because the more workers you have on any given spot, the more powerful the payout becomes. Take for example the Quarry location; it rewards you with a stone resource per worker present. On your first turn you decide to place a worker and thus collect one stone. On your next turn you once again allocate a worker to collect stone. But since you already have a worker on site, you instead receive two stones. See where this is going? Suddenly you are reaping in the benefit of having multiple workers in any given spot, as the reward for doing so grows exponentially. The rulebook actually refers to this concept as “worker investment” which I find quite appropriate.

By now a follow-up question or two should have dawned upon you: “but what happens when I run out of workers to allocate, and how do I stop the other malicious architects from whispering words of poison in the ear of the king?” This brings us to the other side of the coin, the coin you use to bribe the townsfolk so that they throw the competition in jail. At the start of a game of Architects of the West Kingdom, you will most likely think to yourself that this bounty of meeples will last the entirety of the current game. That thought quickly diminishes as you look down on your player board and notice that suddenly there is only one lonely meeple staring back at you. That is when you activate the Town Centre location. Here, you can round up either workers belonging to other players or the artificial opponent (more on that later) or your own workforce. You then have the option of sending the captured workers of the opposition to the Guardhouse aka jail, where you will receive one coin per captured worker. As Jerry Maguire once said: show me the money! Why you need to pay the townsfolks to essentially capture your own workforce is a bit unclear to say the least.

When I first heard about this mechanism I thought that it sounded a lot like “that-that”. And if there is one aspect of board games that I absolutely loath it is the aforementioned one. But the interesting thing about Architects of the West Kingdom is that it never feels personal, you never feel picked on or bullied by your opponent. Because at the end of the day, you need your workforce to return to you in order to acquire new raw materials or change strategy based on the current board state. So when someone else captures your workers, it actually presents you with the opportunity to slow down, take stock and regroup by visiting the Guardhouse and set your imprisoned meeples free. If you have some coin you can even pay taxes in order to retrieve your captured workers before your opponent sends them to jail, thus depriving them of precious money.

Another key aspect that makes Architects of the West Kingdom such an interesting worker placement has to do with the actual length of the game in terms of playtime. In order to construct either buildings in your own tableau (which rewards you with victory points at the end of the game), or participate in constructing the Cathedral, you have to place a worker on the Guildhall action space of the main board. The catch being, workers placed on that particular part of the board can never be retrieved. It is as simple as it is a work of art in terms of board game design. What this means is that the Guildhall acts as a natural counterweight, hindering a player from just building uncontrollably and in the process running away with the win. The Guildhall also acts as the timer for Architects of the West Kingdom. Depending on the number of players, there are only so many opportunities to place workers. When the last spot is covered by a worker meeple, the game ends. Again, this element of expanding your part of the kingdom versus having fewer workers at your disposal is such an interesting part of an already deliciously intricate puzzle.

THE SOLO MODE
In Architects of the West Kingdom you have the option to play in solitaire against an artificial opponent: Constantine or Helena, depending on which difficulty level you wish to tackle. Regardless of which rival architect you choose, they both operate based on the same deck of cards. These cards, called schemes, dictate the action that the artificial opponent undertakes during its turn. The actual upkeep of managing the artificial adversary is as simple as flipping the top card of the deck face up and resolve the corresponding action. At the start of the solo game, the deck will consist of 20 scheme cards. But as the game progresses, certain actions performed by the artificial opponent will add additional scheme cards to the draw deck. These “future scheme cards” are more powerful versions of the base actions that are available for Constantine or Helena, like adding a marble resource in addition to executing the main action or capturing your workforce from two locations at once for example. There are a few exceptions which differentiate the artificial opponent’s actions from yours. For one, they are not restricted by their position on the Virtue track in terms of taking actions like visiting the Black Market or constructing the Cathedral.

Architects of the West Kingdom has a track for keeping score of the player’s level of virtue. Performing certain actions lower your virtue, like for example robbing the Tax Stand for some quick and easy money. Others, like participating in the construction of the grand Cathedral, instead elevate your status among the church and nobles resulting in an increase of virtue. Not only does the position of the virtue track result in positive or negative victory points at the end of the game, it also dictates whether certain action spots are available or not on the main board. For example, if you find yourself too far down on the virtue track as a result of frequently visiting the Black Market or robbing the Tax Stand, well then you are not welcome to lay down a single brick on the majestic Cathedral. The same is true of the seedy Black Market; a nobleman of such high stature and virtue would not dream of setting his foot in such a milieu populated by degenerates and thieves. The artificial opponent however ignores these boundaries altogether, acting freely independent on its current virtue level.

Another thing to consider is that Constantine or Helena never collects resources, apart from marble. This leads to an artificial opponent who will utilize a strategy that relies heavily on capturing the player’s workforce in order to gain the precious stone for sending them to jail. However, the very same strategy can and indeed should be implemented by the solo player. Seeing that the artificial opponent can collect debt cards (which are worth negative victory points at the end of the game) as a result of having the most workers in jail as certain trigger points during the game called Black Market resets, the clever solo board gamer plots their actions in such a way as to ensure that Constantine or Helena has a large portion of their workforce behind bars when the reset triggers. At the end of the solo game the artificial opponent will score points based on the position of the virtue track, how far they managed to advance in terms of constructing the cathedral plus points for each piece of marble they have acquired during the course of the game. The difference between Constantine and Helena in terms of difficulty comes from the number of points the receive for each worker placed in the Guildhall; Constantine scores one victory point whereas Helena scores three, which makes for a considerably tougher challenge.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Full disclosure: Euro board games of medium weight in terms of rules complexity is most definitely my cup of tea. Therefore, it should come as little to no surprise that I thoroughly enjoy Architects of the West Kingdom. Much like Raiders of the North Sea, designer Shem Phillips has managed to take the bog-standard mechanism of worker placement and twist it into something clever and different. At the same time, Phillips and co-designer SJ MacDonald manages to adhere to the core formula of which worker placement board games are created from. The premise of starting with 20 workers as opposed a select few may seem trivial in theory, but trust me when I say it makes for a very interesting take on the genre of worker placement, a genre that otherwise has a tendency to feel stagnated and bloated. Shem Phillips was already on the right track with Raiders of the North Sea, where he introduced the “place one, take one” worker placement mechanism. This recipe is further enhanced in Architects of the West Kingdom, where we once again are treated to a clever twist on the tried and true formula. Having that many workers at your disposal may initially seem overpowered, but it does not take long before one realizes how this twist on the genre manifests itself into new and exciting dilemmas to consider. It is indeed tempting to overload any given location on the main board in order to reap the benefits. But that maneuver leaves you exposed to the gaze of your opponent; alternatively you will suddenly find yourself in a situation where you simply do not have enough workers to carry out constructing the Cathedral or other buildings.

This element of “push-your-luck” becomes an integral part of what makes Architects of the West Kingdom such a fine game in my mind. The more workers you add, the bigger the bullseye grows on your back. This mechanism can in fact lead to some pretty delightful games of cat and mouse with your opponent, as you add just one more little meeple to that particular location on the main board you been perusing in order to advance one step higher on the Cathedral track. By making the action of capturing workers beneficial for both the captor and the captive, the game never feels unfair or mean spirited when someone scopes up a large portion of your workers. In some ways you are dependent on them doing so, in the same way they are dependent on you. It is another one of those clever little nuances which just proves how well the different cogs that make up the underlying mechanisms of Architects of the West Kingdom are interlinked.

I remember reading a comment about Architects of the West Kingdom; someone felt the game was suffering from not having any engine building to it. And to some extent I am willing to agree to that statement. You will spend a fair bit of time and planning in order to acquire the necessary resources for constructing buildings in your own tableau, alternatively aiding in building the great Cathedral. But once spent you find yourself pretty much back to square one, starting all over again gaining resources. This start and stop procedure can be sometimes be perceived as jerky. One could make the case that it is up to the player to make sure they have the right amount of workers out on the board to quickly collect new resources, without drawing too much unwanted attention from the rivalry.

A deck of cards constitutes the solo mode in Architects of the West Kingdom. This will result in a pretty high degree of randomness in terms of how the artificial opponent conducts business. Some people will be put off by this design, others embrace it. As for someone like me who has played more than 20 games of Architects of the West Kingdom in solitaire, I find the artificial opponent to give me a sense of competing against an actual person rather than a dummy road block. It is most definitely the case that the luck of the draw can sometimes work against you, for example when Constantine or Helena captures your work force three times in a row. There is a real possibility this scenario might occur, and when it happens it does leave a sour taste in your mouth. But on the flipside, now you know that the probability of drawing yet another capture card is significantly lowered and can adjust your strategy. As with the artificial opponents created by the Automa Factory which operates on a deck of cards, it is up to the solitaire player to adapt their strategy accordingly to what cards have been drawn. There have been several instances where I have managed to time it just right in so where the artificial opponent has plenty of workers in jail when the Black Market reset occurs, resulting in them collecting a debt card. Because you can most definitely play the same game of cat and mouse with the artificial opponent as you would in the company of human opponents. To me, this is the sign of a good solo mode design: even though I am merely flipping cards of a deck I still get the sensation of competing against a human opponent as opposed to a “dummy”.

If you are looking for a streamlined, medium weight Euro that presents a clever twist to the tried and true formula of worker placement, then from a solitaire standpoint I highly recommend taking a closer look at Architects of the West Kingdom.
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