06 July 2019

Board Game Review: Architects of the West Kingdom

The cover art for Architects of the West Kingdom. The top half is a painting of a king, a battle-scarred knight, and a noblewoman, all looking at the viewer. The bottom half is a Gothic cathedral midway through construction, covered with scaffolding and surrounded by wooden cranes. The painting is done in a moderately cartoon-y style that has more of an avant-garde feel than a childish feel.

I've posted before about the reasons why I don't like worker placement games. I find that I don't like feeling like I have no good options available to me; most worker placement games limit the actions I can take, either by restricting how many tokens can occupy a single space or by providing me with a very small number of tokens to place. Often both. So when I see that a game is a worker placement game, I tend to be reluctant to try it.

I am pleased to report that Architects of the West Kingdom does not suffer from these annoying factors. I was pleasantly surprised by this game, and I ended up enjoying it quite a lot. So for today's entry, I will review this game. Starting, as we always do, with the numbers:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, and makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 4
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Average
Average Length of Game Play: 90 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Architects of the West Kingdom

A game of Architects of the West Kingdom in progress. The board is laid out on the table, with player mats, cards, tokens, and meeples around the board and in various places on the board itself.

Players take on the role of architects in the late Carolingian empire, working together to build a new cathedral and working individually to build smaller structures, all for the purpose of maintaining their noble status by impressing the king with their efforts.

The board represents the town and nearby environs. There's a reputation track along the left edge of the board, spaces for apprentice cards in the lower right corner, and a space for the buildings deck. Otherwise, the board is taken up with spaces to put your workers. Each player gets a player mat; one side allows you to play with identical player powers, and the other introduces some level of asymmetry by making each player slightly different in starting resources. Players get twenty meeples to serve as their workers. There are tokens to represent the various resources: ore, clay, gold, lumber, and marble. Black market cards, favour cards, debt cards, and silver coins complete the components for this game.

Unlike most worker placement games, which give you a small number of workers to start and allow you to increase the number of workers you have available as the game progresses, Architects of the West Kingdom gives you all twenty at the start. You simply have to manage those throughout the game. Once you place a worker, it does not return to you until you take an action to retrieve it. But other players may capture your workers as well!

Additionally, most of the spaces have no limit on the number of meeples that may occupy that space. The only exceptions are the black market, which has three spaces that may have only one meeple each, and the Guildhall, which is not a single space, but four rows of six spaces (some of which are ignored in games with fewer than five players).

Game Play

On your turn, you simply place one of your workers on one of the spaces on the board and take the associated action. Spaces include:
  • Resource spaces - You can go to the mines to gain clay or gold, the quarry to gain ore, the forest to gain lumber, or the silversmith to gain money.
  • Workshop - You may pay to gain an apprentice card or a building card. Apprentice cards grant you some benefit, and are required to construct building cards. Building cards may be constructed on a later turn to grant some benefit as well as earn victory points.
  • Black Market - You may take one of three actions: purchase a single resource, purchase a set of four resources, or effectively duplicate the Workshop action at a discount. Taking any of these actions results in the loss of reputation.
  • Tax Stand - A portion of the cost paid at several of the spaces on the board goes to the Tax Stand. If you place a worker here, you gain all the money that has been placed here, but you lose a reputation as well.
  • King's Storehouse - You may either spend some resource tokens to gain reputation, or trade some resources for marble.
  • Guildhall - When you place a worker in one of the spaces here, you may either spend the listed resources on a building card to construct that card, or you may advance your marker on the Cathedral track, which costs a building card and some combination of resources but grants you victory points and a favour card. Favour cards give you some reward, such as reputation, resources, or silver.
  • Town Centre - When you place a worker here, you may collect meeples from any space on the board. If you collect your own meeples, they are returned to your supply to be used again. If you collect another player's meeples, they are considered captured, and are placed in the captured worker area of your player mat.
  • Guardhouse - When you place a worker here, you may either place the captured meeples on your player mat in prison (gaining one silver for each meeple you turn in), return all of your meeples from prison to your supply, spend some silver or take a debt card and lose a reputation to reclaim all of your meeples from another player's captured area, or pay off a debt (turn the debt card over to indicate that you've paid it off; unpaid debts are worth negative victory points at the end of the game, but if you pay off a debt, you gain reputation).
Whenever you place a meeple at a location, the amount you get from that location depends on the number of meeples you have at that location. For example, the first meeple you place at the forest grants you a single lumber token. If you place a meeple in the forest when you already have a meeple there, you get two lumber tokens. If there are already two meeples at the forest, and you place a third, you get three lumber tokens, and so on. 

Other locations grant you a 'per meeple' benefit in some other way; for example, the Guardhouse lets you take one action per meeple, so if you place a fourth meeple at the Guardhouse, you may (for example) turn in captured meeples from your player mat, release your meeples from prison, and retrieve your captured meeples from two other players. Be careful about having too many meeples at any one location though; other players may be tempted to capture your workers with the Town Centre action.

Permutations in Architects of the West Kingdom

Ultimately, you gain victory points mostly by constructing buildings from the cards in your hand and by contributing to the construction of the cathedral. However, you also gain (or lose) victory points from reputation. You start the game at 7, but if you end the game at or above 10, you gain victory points. Likewise, if you are at 5 reputation or below at the end of the game, you lose victory points. However, having a low reputation does have some benefits; if your reputation drops to 3, you pay one less coin on any action that involves paying taxes. You can't contribute to the cathedral if your reputation is less than 4, and you can't visit the black market if your reputation is above 9.

Also, occasionally, the black market will 'reset.' This happens once all three spaces in the black market are full, and at certain points on the Guildhall track as well. When the black market resets, all meeples in the black market are returned to their owners. The black market card is changed, which alters the resources available with the black market actions. Additionally, anyone with three or more meeples in prison during a resent loses a reputation, and the player with the most meeples in prison gains a debt card.

Winning Architects of the West Kingdom

Once the Guildhall track is full (twenty four total meeples in a five player game; reduce that number by four for each player fewer than five), all players get one final turn. Each player counts up their victory point total from building cards, the cathedral, and reputation. They gain an extra point for each gold or marble token they have, and for every ten silver they have. They lose two victory points for each unpaid debt they have, and they lose one for every two meeples they have in prison. The player with the most points is declared the winner.

Final Thoughts on Architects of the West Kingdom

As I said, I was pleasantly surprised by this game. Normally, when I play worker placement games, I find myself getting frustrated because I can't take the action I want to take, either because someone has already taken that action and made it unavailable to me, or because I don't have enough workers left. But Architects of the West Kingdom does away with that problem, by not limiting the number of workers that can occupy most of the spaces, and by giving me a reasonable number of workers to start the game with.

But let's look at the final test: the six characteristics of a good game.
  • It allows for upsets.
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It's relatively simple.
  • It ends decisively.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It relies on player agency.
I was tempted to put a question mark by the 'it's relatively simple' one, as the actions available at each space can be pretty diverse. It can be a lot to keep track of, remember what's possible. The iconography is very helpful in that it details what's available, but it's not as intuitive as would be ideal. Once you've played the game one time, the icons become much easier to understand, but it took me (and the others playing with me) a few turns to really get the grasp of what they all meant.

Still, if that's the only complaint, I think we're doing pretty well! But as always, I hope I have provided you enough information to decide for yourself if you want to give it a try! And whatever choice you make, I hope that you will join me again here next week, after you promise to always

Game on!

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