The closest I’ve ever come to designing a building was that time I drew a picture of a fort and recruited a couple friends to build it out of the discarded couches behind the apartments where I lived as a child. I’ve also never tried my hand at designing a board game (wait, does misinterpreting board game rules count as game design?) And yet, I feel that architecture and game design share similar end goals. Architecture and board game design both involve designing and creating works that seek to strike a balance between function and aesthetics. With Raiders of the North Seas, designer Shem Phillips struck a nice balance between content and presentation by combining euro-game mechanics with outstanding art. Being a big fan of Raiders of the North Seas, I was eager to check out Phillips’ latest collaboration with artists Mihajlo Dimitrieveski, Architects of the West Kingdom.
In Architects of the West Kingdom players vie for the King’s favor during the Carolingian Empire by building landmarks and contributing to the construction of the city’s cathedral. In their role as architects, players take turns sending out their workers to gather resources (wood, clay, and other euro-game staples), hire apprentices, and even negotiate the illicit black markets. Gameplay is straightforward enough, even almost indiscernible from a number of past and present worker placement games. But Architects of The West Kingdom builds on this traditional framework (heh heh) and adds interesting twists to the worker placement game genre.
Architects of the West Kingdom forgoes the typical starting handful of two or three workers, giving players access to all their workers at once. Instead of hiring new workers, players have access to a workforce twenty meeples strong from the game’s start. And you’re going to need twenty workers. You see, the more workers a player has on an action space, the bigger the return. Every time you send a worker to gather some wood at the Forest action space, you gain a wood for every one of your workers in that action space. Subsequently, the second worker you place at the Forest gets you two wood. Your third worker gets you three wood. Other action spaces let you collect one resource plus an additional resource per worker. At the silversmith, players collect one silver right off the bat, plus one per additional worker. So, if you have three workers there and send a fourth one, you’d collect five silver.
The game encourages you to invest in action spaces, enticing you to send out worker after worker in order to maximize the resources that are collected from action spaces. It’s a very ingenious way to keep the game moving. Instead of recalling workers every few turns, players use their abundance of workers to gain more and more resources. But players have to be very careful because having too many workers on one space can get you the wrong kind of attention.
Bounties, The Quicker Picker-Uppers
Enterprising players can send a worker down to the City Center and pay a tax of one silver to capture a group of same-color workers from most action spaces. Once captured, those workers stay on that opponent’s player board until they decide to haul them off to Guard Tower where they can be turned in for the one silver per worker. Imprisoned workers can be freed by sending one of your own workers to the guard house to what I imagine to be a negotiation of their release. But that’s only if the opponent who captured your workers decides to turn them in for the bounties. Keeping your workers on their own board might feel like a wiser decision. Captured workers on your opponent’s’ board can also be released by sending one of your workers to the Guard Tower action space. Of course, there’s a steep fee of five silver.
Architects of the West Kingdom presents players with some interesting choices. Every time a worker is added to crowded action space it becomes a bigger target. The temptation to spend a turn sending a worker to the City Center to capture other players workers becomes more and more tempting. It’s an easy way to earn silver, but it can create some ill will between players. Players soon start to hesitate when taking their turn, weighing the risks of adding workers to an already crowded action space. Sure, five wood in a single turn can be quite profitable and will go a long way to building some of those landmarks that you’ll need to win the game, but maybe you should spend that turn collecting your own workers. Doing so at an opportune moment can save you some silver down the line while denying an opponent a hefty payday. Also, getting those workers back before another player scoops them up is very satisfying. The game really excels at creating moments where this decision feels crucial.
Virtue, the Black Market, and All That Other Stuff
There’s some other interesting mechanics in the game besides the ability to capture workers. Taking actions in the black market, hiring shady apprentices, and building certain landmarks makes players drop down in the Virtue Track. Once a player’s marker reaches certain thresholds, they may no longer contribute to building the cathedral. If they slip all the way down the Virtue Track, they gain a debt (worth -2 victory points at the end of the game) for every virtue they lose beyond the virtue track. If you build landmarks that are considered virtuous, you go up on the track. And, while they say that virtue is its own reward, being up on the Virtue Track grants you victory points at the game’s end as well as letting you discard debt cards you might have collected along the way.
The Virtue Track is an interesting way of keeping players from going all in on taking actions in the black market (gaining valuable resources), stealing from the tax stand, and being an otherwise nefarious architect. In short, the Virtue Track lets you walk the line between working the game like a typical worker placement game (gathering resources through your workers) and taking shortcuts by going to the black market o robbing the tax stand.
Architects of the West Kingdom includes a pretty serviceable solo mode where you play against an opponent that is controlled by a special deck of cards. After you take your turn, you draw a card from the solo deck and carry out the necessary actions on your opponent’s behalf. The cards in the deck include special rules for the bot player. So, instead of building landmarks at the Guildhall, the bot player collects marble (worth one victory point at the end of the game). Streamlining the bot player’s turn goes a long way towards making the solo version of the game feel intuitive and easy to keep track of in tandem with your own turns. As a welcome bonus, the bot can be brought in as a third player in a two player game.
You can expect from Architects of the West Kingdom that same shine and polish of other Garphill and Renegade games. Sturdiness comes to mind. The box itself is strong, durable, and very adequately sized for its contents. Inside the box you get nice wooden components, decent cards, and some ok cardstock player mats. The standard cardboard coins are a bit lackluster, but there is an optional set of fifty metal coins that can be purchased online or from your friendly local game store.
The art by Mihajlo Dimitrievski is bold, cartoony, and so very tastefully vibrant. Honestly, these games by Shem Phillips with Mihajlo Dimitrievski art are becoming iconic. I’m very much looking forward to their next collaboration
With Architects of the West Kingdom, Shem Phillips examines the blueprint of the traditional worker placement games and adds a few new features without tearing down the sturdy foundation of an already well-established game genre. The result is light-medium game that is easy to teach and has tremendous aesthetic appeal.
Potential players and buyers should be aware that the game’s mechanism of capturing workers and taking sending them to prison might be a bit uncomfortable for some.
I highly recommend this game if you enjoy worker placement games and are looking for a fresh take on the genre.
Architects of the West Kingdom was designed by Shem Phillips, S J Macdonald, with art by Mihajlo Dimitrieveski, and is co-published by Garphill Games and Renegade Game Studios.