“Do You Wanna Build a ... Kingdom?” - Architects of the West Kingdom Review
In 2015, designer Shem Phillips burst onto the scene with his smash hit Raiders of the North Sea, which took the tried and true worker placement genre, and gave it a subtle twist via a “place one/take one” mechanic. He’s now teamed with rookie co-designer SJ Macdonald for his most recent release that takes what could be a paint-by-numbers worker placement game and once again gives it an injection of new life with a mechanic I’ll call “worker investment”. Paired with a distinct art style from Phillips' usual collaborator Mihajlo Dimitrievski (aka The Mico) and featuring a unique morality mechanic known as the virtue track, Architects of the West Kingdom aspires to be another bright spot in the populous world of the medium weight Euro game.
In Architects, you are a royal builder tasked with impressing your king by building various landmarks, buildings, and the almighty Cathedral all while trying to maintain your noble status as you send your plentiful workforce out to collect raw materials, hire apprentices, and keep a watchful eye on the work of opposing architects. Whoever holds the most victory points, collected via building construction, work on the Cathedral, and your standing on the virtue track, will be the winner at the end of the game.
You’ll begin the game with a variable player power and starting resources and silver, with the possibility that some of your workforce starts out locked up in the Guardhouse. A small card draft will give you a hand of 3 buildings to give you an initial focus, and then the game begins. On your turn you’ll place one of your 20 (!) workers on any space in the kingdom, of which there are plenty: resource collection spaces, a Silversmith to get more cash on hand, The King’s Storehouse to increase your virtue with his majesty, the Workshop to hire apprentices, or the Guildhall to construct buildings or work on the Cathedral. And then there is the underhanded side of the West Kingdom: send a worker to the Tax Stand to rob it, but cost yourself some virtue. Head to the Black Market, where goods are cheaper, but your reputation will suffer and you’ll put yourself at risk of being sent to the Guardhouse. At the Town Centre you can round up groups of your opponent’s workers, capture them, and then head to the Guardhouse to turn them in for cold hard cash. While at the Guardhouse you can also spring your workers from jail or pay off debts you’ve acquired.
And all of these locations that you can visit work under the unique “worker investment” system. Let’s say you send a worker to the Quarry, where you’ll receive one stone for each of your workers there. You receive one stone. Next turn you’ll send another worker to the Quarry, where you now have 2 workers, and you’ll receive 2 stone. Again you’ll visit the Quarry, now grabbing 3 stones. You are creating a stone empire, and nobody can stop you! Until an opponent visits the Town Centre, wrangles up all of your workers from the Quarry, and holds them hostage on his player board until he can turn you in for some silver. You’ll want to keep pumping workers into these spots, but when you do, you’re placing a huge target on your back. The tension, push your luck, and cat and mouse games you can play with your opponents are delightful.
Now back to why we’re all here in the West Kingdom - to build! Once you’ve gathered the necessary resources and have the required apprentices on hand, you’ll head to the Guildhall, where you leave a worker permanently as he constructs your newest contribution to the lands, turn in your resources, and build your building which will often have an immediate effect, an end game effect, or both. Alternatively you can contribute to the Cathedral, which will net you great points at the end of the game, but uses up your resources and requires you to discard a building card. But wait, life is never that simple in the West Kingdom. Temptation is everywhere, and while you’d love to remain a noble, virtuous builder, you’ve made some mistakes. One too many trips to the Black Market, or knocking off the Tax Stand, and you sit in the bottom of the virtue track. Sure you get to skimp on your taxes, but someone as dastardly as you isn’t allowed to contribute to the almighty Cathedral. Alternatively if you’re an angel sitting atop the virtue track, you can’t visit the Black Market and take advantage of those great prices. Managing the virtue track is a lot of fun, and can often trip you up and make you devote a few turns to getting to where you need to be. At the end of the game, the more virtuous you are, the more points you’ll score. So while it may be advantageous to sit at the bottom of the track in the early game, you’ll then have to spend time, actions, and resources to make amends by end game.
BUILDING IN A FLASH!
While the options in Architects are numerous, the actions plentiful, and the decision space wide, the gameplay itself is lightning fast. Your turn couldn’t be quicker. Place a worker, take the benefit. Place a worker, hire an apprentice. Place a worker, wrangle up some opponents. It really flies. Raiders of the North Sea was a breath of fresh air in the worker placement genre because of the “place one/take one” mechanic and how quickly it moved around the table. Architects takes that snappiness and cranks it up to 11. My group played a 4 player game in about 75 minutes, and that was it’s first time on the table and it required some rules explanation. I played a 2 player game in 35 minutes! My solo games also clocked in at 45 minutes, and that’s managing an automa deck, and trying to min/max my work as much as possible since there’s no one across the table from me.
The ebb and flow of the virtue track is just plain fun, and cleanly integrated. You’ll feel like your decisions have consequences. I’d love all that money sitting in the Tax Stand, but it’ll cost me two virtue, plummeting me to the bottom of the track and making me dangerously close to taking a debt card. I need to hire an apprentice, and this squire that specializes in tiling would be a great asset to my team, but just hiring him will move me up the virtue track, making me now unable to visit the Black Market. Every action, hire, building - they all have consequences that entangle you into this morality check within the game.
Architects’ timer is also very well done. Depending on player count, you’ve got a set number of spaces available in the Guildhall, where you build buildings and contribute to the Cathedral. When the last spot is filled, that triggers end game. The quicker people build, the quicker the game will go. You can really lean on opponents by visiting the Guildhall early and often. I always appreciate a good timer in a medium weight euro, as it adds to replayability, making each game feel a bit different.
The gameplay in Architects is fantastic, but I haven’t even talked about the art and production, which shine through and integrate seamlessly with the terrific mechanics. I adore The Mico’s art style, and it gives Shem Phillips’ games a unique identity. The iconography couldn’t be better, as everything is clearly shown on the board and requires no back and forth with the rulebook. The components are above average - cards are clear well defined with a huge deck of both buildings and apprentices, resources are small but distinguishable, the board is thick, beautiful, and clear, and the metal coins (a Kickstarter add on very similar to the Raiders of the North Sea coins) are some of my favorite currency upgrades in gaming. There’s a lot of money handling in this game, and there’s a very satisfying clank when dropping your money into the Tax Stand (or emptying it out!)
Variability is also above average, with a thick deck of building and apprentice cards, 5 player boards with variable player powers (and 5 more if you backed on kickstarter) and a variable game end timer that will change from game to game depending on how you and the rest of your table is building in that particular session. I do think you could play the game similarly each time in regards to the virtue track. I’ve found bottoming out early to save on taxes, and then making the slow climb back up in the late game seemed to work well for me. The solo mode is terrific - an easy, straight forward automa deck that will take its actions in a particular order, often times ruining your best laid plans by visiting that Black Market space you had an eye on, or wrangling up your workers in the Forest before you can get that last bit of wood you need. The automa has 2 difficulty levels, and I found the easy to be quite introductory, but the hard to be very competitive and difficult to defeat.
THE S.T.R.E.A.M. SYSTEM
Board games are subjective, as anyone will tell you after reading this review or numerous others, and there are a few things that are important to me personally as a gamer when it comes to just how I feel about a particular game. Enter the S.T.R.E.A.M. grading system. This is a simple grade, A-F that targets my most important qualities in a board game: Strategy, Theme, Replayability, Entertainment Value, Accessibility, and Materials & Design. It is not meant to be a system for determining if it is the best game ever, but simply for pointing out where a game excels, and where it could improve within these categories.
Strategy - B: Architects of the West Kingdom features multiple paths to victory, and many ways to play the game. The “worker investment” mechanic adds a layer of decision making - lay low, or go gather as much as you can. You can aggressively work to slow down your opponents, or sit quietly hoping to avoid attention. The Virtue track lets you play with the game on another level, and the decisions for where to get your points are yours to make.
Theme - C: While “building a city” will never be a unique theme in the sometimes oversaturated board gaming world, Architects makes it unique and interesting with the inclusion of the virtue track, and the ability to directly affect and even capture your opponent's workers.
Replayability - C: With a stable board state, it isn’t the most replayable game ever. If you find something that works for you on the virtue track (bottom out early and push up late has worked for me) then I assume you’ll be trying that again in future games. The decks of cards and variable player powers are of sufficient size to make each game unique and the variable end game timer based on player count keeps things fresh.
Entertainment- A: The game is fun, plain and simple. It flies around the table with easy and quick decisions to make. You can find fun combos of buildings and apprentices, and mess with opponents if it will benefit you. The play time is very fast, this game will never overstay its welcome on the table.
Accessibility- A: An easy teach, crystal clear iconography, and plays terrific and fast at every player count. Shem Phillips and SJ Macdonald have made a perfectly accessible, teachable, and playable fast medium weight euro.
Materials and Design - B: The art by The Mico is unique and one of my favorites in board games today, resources and card quality are of above average quality, and a beautiful board makes this a winner in art design and components. And those coins!
Architects of the West Kingdom is a welcome addition to the medium weight Euro market, and is set apart by its ease of play, rapid pace, art style, and unique twist on the worker placement mechanic while paired with the well integrated virtue track. It recently fulfilled to Kickstarter backers and should release to full retail in December at the very attractive price point of $35-45, making it a terrific value. While a step above a gateway game, I think it could be a great stepping stone into the medium-heavy area for newer gamers thanks to the open decision space it presents. I would play this game any time, especially given the play time, and look forward to even more plays to see new strategies and ideas emerge. I can only hope Shem Phillips will continue this into another series of games, ala his previous North Sea Trilogy, and can’t wait to see what’s up next from he and his team at Garphill Games.