Table of Contents
|Name||Architects of the West Kingdom (2018)|
|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|BGG Rank||78 [7.83]|
|Designer(s)||Shem Phillips and S J Macdonald|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
A review copy of Architects of the West Kingdom was provided by Asmodee Nordics in exchange for a fair and honest review.
We gave Architects of the West Kingdom four stars in our review. It’s not awash in new ideas, but the central one it does have is wonderful – it truly reinvigorates a formula that I absolutely would not have enjoyed otherwise. It’s a really nice game and it’s well worth some of your precious attention. It eloquently argues the case that innovation isn’t necessarily an all or nothing affair – sometimes the right twist at the right time can work wonders. Like a knife in the stomach.
Wow, what a dark turn that introduction took. I don’t know where that came from. Maybe best not to probe too deeply into my psyche though, it hasn’t been explored for a while and I’m scared there are spiders lurking within these dusty cobwebs. Instead, let’s stick another, different, knife into the Architects of the West Kingdom box and autopsy its accessibility.
Let’s begin with the first incision.
The worst colour scheme anyone can choose, by default, is red, green and blue. All categories of colour blindness have problems with this triad – it’s just a consequence of the way eyes work. Architects has five different colours for its pieces, which mitigates the problem to an extent, but anything more than three players and the palette will limit the feasible choices people have. Here are the workers. Unfortunately the additional colours it provides are problematic too since purple is a colour that is an issue for protanopes and tritanopes.
And here they are on the map:
The rest of the game doesn’t use colours as a way to exclusively indicate information, and in another game this might not even be an issue. The problem here is that a group of workers is defined by its colour. The capturing mechanism which is so core to the game relies on being able to accurately and covertly identify worker groups. You can’t inquire of the table here, because the question ‘How many workers do you have there?’ puts an unwelcome spotlight on what you’re planning. You could do it safely on your turn, but by that point getting an unexpected answer may upset plans upon which you were relying.
It’s also an issue for tracking virtue and position on the cathedral.
We can’t recommend Architects of the West Kingdom in this category.
There’s a huge amount of subtly interrelated visual information in the game. Worker groups, their disposition, and their numbers are all vital pieces of information and not easily susceptible to verbalisation. You’d either have to ask suspicious questions like ‘How many red workers at the quarry’, or ‘Where does blue have the biggest group’ or try to parse out meaningful strategy from a complex, exhaustive description. Even players that have some degree of ability to discern visual information will find the tight quarters of a space is likely to complicate things considerably.
Apprentice cards are open information, and there won’t be so many of them on offer that options would be difficult to articulate. Building cards are closed information, and they’re sufficiently information dense that it can be difficult to relate them to game state. The layout too is inconsistent – some cards have an end-game state, some have an immediate effect. Others have two immediate effects, or two end-game effects, or no effect at all. Contrast can be exceptionally poor on these too, especially with regards to resources and virtue impact. The difference between ‘gain a virtue’ and ‘lose a virtue’ is quite small too, made up of a small break that bisects the icon. Small crosses may also be applied to icons. It’s a busy design where a lot of information is conveyed iconographically without those icons being particularly clear.
The resource tokens are all of different form factors and can be differentiated by touch. It’s easy enough for a player to work out what resources they have available, but less easy to work out what that means for worker placement without support from the table.
But the real game here is in cross-reference. You don’t want to commit resources to spaces if they don’t do you any good, but also you maybe don’t want to waste a capture of your own on someone else’s group if they no longer need particular resources. If I have eight workers in the forest, the chances are I don’t need more wood – I need those workers back and so I’ll need to spend a capture action of my own to get them. That I’ll do at the last possible moment in the hope someone else does it for me, unless I have a lot of workers at the town centre already. That implies a particular constraint on the timing of an action, which in turn implies a window of safety on all your actions. Relating this window to your cards, my cards, and the board state is visually intensive.
The entire pace of the game is directed by the guild-hall, and sometimes you’ll be weighing up options based on the number of likely turns you have to make it happen. If someone has a lot of resources and there are only four spaces left then you might have four turns at most that you need to optimally arrange. If more people are playing, maybe you only have one. You need plans that can adapt to changing circumstances and those would involve holding in mind multiple complex sets of data that can adapt to rapidly changing states. The difference between someone having one stone and sixteen stone can be a single turn, but the gradient at which they can get to that output changes more incrementally and might go from sixteen to zero before they get a chance to make the move.
We don’t recommend Architects of the West Kingdom in this category. There’s just too much subtly interconnected information.
Almost all of the information that you need to play Architects of the West Kingdom is represented cleanly on the board. There is some small advantage to be had in memorising deck composition but not enough that it’s going to be a problem and you could easily solve it by removing some cards from the decks before playing. As far as memory impairments alone are concerned we have few serious concerns.
For fluid intelligence impairments, the problems are considerable. We’ve already talked in the review about how cleverly Architects manipulates issues of risk, reward and timing. Calculating when to take a risk and how far to push your luck requires an implicit understanding of a lot of soft mathematical factors. It’s more aggressively ‘game theoryish’ than a lot of games that we’ve looked at because in the end the tipping point for your workers being captured is held in an opponent’s head. All you can do is make some assumptions based on their needs, wants and preferences. If you know someone plays passively you might be more willing to stick your neck out, but you also need to moderate that with the knowledge they might be counting on you doing just that. It makes for a really interesting game experience, but one that is heavily reliant on cognitive faculties.
There’s no real reading level required, but the symbology used on the cards is opaque to the point of being meaningless. Players will eventually come to understand it, but it probably won’t be in the first game. As such, while you don’t need to read to get all the gameplay impact from a card you’ll almost certainly in real terms need to consult the manual more often than is comfortable. ‘No necessary in game text’ in this circumstance translates more correctly into ‘Eventually no necessary in-game text because it got shunted off into the manual and made difficult to find’.
Formal numeracy is more of an issue, because the various components that go into making up your score at the end have variable impact. Debts for example will give you point penalties, but some buildings may reduce what that penalty is. Some cards will lower your virtue at the end of the game, and virtue will have a score implication. Some cards add victory points for resources, specialists, buildings or more. At best what you’re likely to have in mind when playing is an approximate range in which your score is likely to lie, and the arithmetic behind it can be complex.
There’s a lot of seriation required, but also players really need to understand the compounding effect of exponential return. The relationship between worker and productivity is a curve rather than linear and it’s amazing the impact that has on the complexity of resource gathering. The arithmetic of it though is not consistent – sometimes you’ll get a thing per worker, or one thing plus one for every worker, or half a thing per worker, and so on. Goods, as a consequence, have a free-market value that is completely decoupled from logic. You could easily have a game where gold is in abundance and yet wood is scarce. Understanding the economy of the game is a function of understanding the value of goods, which is in itself a function of understanding how readily people are making captures.
Within all of this, you need to align building cards to your resource production, which requires both a willingness to invest deeply and the ability to compensate when it goes against you. Tactical understanding of short-term goals will heavily influence long term strategy. If you can’t get the board working in unison with that you’ll end up in a position where you likely can’t make anything happen.
We can recommend Architects of the West Kingdom for those with memory impairments alone, but not for those with fluid intelligence impairments.
Play for players with physical accessibility impairments can be supported with verbalisation and the provision of a card holder. All actions can be described unambiguously, and the outcome of most actions is a logical extension of the number of workers in a space. When it isn’t, all the outputs can be expressed verbally without problem.
If play without verbalisation is desired, then we have some issues. The first is that spaces can become exceptionally crowded after a while, and due to the way that workers are allocated to spaces they will only rarely be neatly grouped up by colour. There’s quite a lot of free room on the board between spaces but there’s only so far you can stray from the circles before it becomes inconclusive as to which space a worker belongs. Fine positioning isn’t required, but positioning isn’t a non-issue. With discipline this could become something you can ignore but regularly readjusting pieces would be an ongoing chore.
When gathering up workers too, the chances are you’ll be collecting up lots of workers from awkward clumps of pieces. Dropping or dislodging them could upset the game state if people aren’t paying attention. Support from the table might be required in the worst case scenarios.
Your player area will become very cluttered as time goes by, being made up of your unassigned workers, captured workers from other players, money, and all the excessive resources the exponential gathering system put your way. It’s easy to lose resources in the pile. Many is the time I’ve noticed a bit of wood buried under stone, or a coin submerged in some wood. Particularly problematic is when workers blend into resources. The red player needs to be particularly mindful to separate workers from bricks, for example.
All the key information on cards is visible in a standard card-holder, and there usually won’t be so many buildings in a player’s hand that number will be an issue. Given that you need to see the whole card at a time though, multiple card holders may be required.
We’ll recommend, just, Architects of the West Kingdom in this category.
Architects of the West Kingdom is in many ways a parable of being able to let go. It’s gamifying the sunk cost effect in a way that we don’t see often. And in doing so, it really does create potential for truly extraordinarily punishing moves.
Let’s say I need huge amounts of gold. I place a worker at the quarry, but gold requires two workers for each resource. And let’s say that another player sees my need for gold, and captures my single worker. They’ll earn a coin for each they gather, so while it’s not an optimal move (there are better ways of getting money) it’s not a move that costs them anything other than an opportunity. And, by denying me gold they may have given themselves sufficient time that the opportunity cost is feasibly nothing.
And let’s say they do that every time I go to the quarry.
Gold is the only example where it’s possible to completely block gathering, but there are limited other ways to get it so it’s possible for one player to massively impact upon another and still profit from it.
The real emotional cost though comes in the other extreme, when someone has invested deeply in a resource. Really you’re not capturing what they have, but what they could have. If you capture five of my workers at the forest, I already got my fifteen wood. What you’re really taking from me is the twenty-one wood I could have had if you didn’t, and by extension the twenty-eight I could have had the next turn. Having a lot of workers in one space takes time to arrange, constantly creates a worry that someone will come and undermine you before you get the full value out of it, and may require a certain critical point before the investment is worth it. If I need thirty wood for my plan to come together, you have just turned an eight-turn project into a ten turn project. And the earlier you make a capture, the worse you make it. If you intervened after every three workers, it would take fifteen turns to get what I need. If I was going to provide an effective simile, I’d say it can be like every time you sit down to write a complicated document a co-worker calls you on the phone just as you get into the flow of it.
The loss of output isn’t the whole of it either. I also need to get those workers back and that’s an action of its own. If I have workers to spare maybe I’ll leave it until I can batch up reclaiming. In ideal circumstances I go to the prison and release them after you’re paid. There’s nothing that forces you to send them to prison though, and it costs a lot to force a release from your board. Capturing permits a ruthless player to add a heavy burden to your gathering. If it happens disproportionately often to one player, the effect is considerable – it’s not king-making so much as it is dethroning. It’s entirely possible, and indeed good strategy, for a table to work together to disadvantage an obvious leader.
The thing is – this is all kind of on the player making the big plays. No guts, no glory – but the glory comes from the fact that you held strong and took the risks. To be fair, the game certainly gleefully encourages you to do it – it presents a psychological incident pit where it feels like you can’t possibly lose the spin of the roulette. But you don’t have to risk the attention of your opponents.
If you can make one heap of all your winnings,
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss
And lose, and start again at your beginning
And never breathe a word of your loss…
As Kipling implies, if is the key word here. If someone can risk it and lose gracefully they won’t have a problem here. But still… it does sting. There’s no point pretending that is a game mechanism without a sharp edge.
We’ll tentatively recommend Architects of the West Kingdom in this category.
There’s a super weird feature of Architects of the West Kingdom. It comes with double-sided player boards, and a range of men and women represented on them. Instantly I thought ‘Awesome, you can choose the sex of your character’… but you can’t. You flip the board over and it’s exactly the same character. It’s not really a problem – the five player mats are made up of three women and two men, so you definitely have a choice. But the mat that represents the automata – as in, the only mat that can’t care if it’s a man or a woman – that one has male and female figures. Super weird. At best though it’s a lightly missed opportunity. The manual is gender neutral in its language, and while the box shows two men and one woman it’s offset by the fact the main player mats flip the ratio of sexes.
I’m also simultaneously pleased and disappointed to see that there are no metal coins in the box. While these were a lovely indulgence in Raiders of the North Sea, they are also costly and thus an unnecessary economic inaccessibility. It’s still not a cheap game though, hovering around the £48 mark at the time of writing. It supports up to five players and has a solo mode but is also presented in a way that does strongly recommend two sessions before anyone can fairly claim a win. That puts a big social cost on game night.
We’ll tentatively recommend Architects of the West Kingdom in this category.
Technically speaking, there’s complete language independence in Architects of the Kingdom. Written text is decorative rather than meaningful. The truth is the symbology is too opaque for that and regular reference to the manual will be required for at least the first play through the game. There’s no formal communication required during play beyond that.
We’ll tentatively recommend Architects of the West Kingdom in this category.
An odd one here – the intersection of a memory impairment with a communication impairment, given the lack of reference cards and the presence of opaque symbology, is likely to be an intersectional issue. Interpreting cards has to be done on occasion with reference to the manual and the lack of semantic differentiation between card payloads can be misleading. Reading the manual, and then remembering what it told you, is an important technique for resolving that. And so easily solved by having reference cards or sheets for players. You could solve the problem yourself by making your own, but that shouldn’t be required.
Architects of the West Kingdom plays more briskly than you might expect from a game of this nature, largely because of how resource gathering scales up quickly. However, it depends on player make-up – the final conclusion of the game is determined by accomplishment rather than turns or timers. If people aren’t task oriented, playtime can stretch out.
Architects sort of supports players dropping out, provided minimum player count can be maintained. There’s no mechanism in the game that scales to player count, and the workers a player may discard on the board then become available to whoever wants them in the usual way. Even seat order doesn’t really make a difference there because the only impact would be there’s no risk of someone breaking them free before they are delivered to the jail. It would be the same cost to the player capturing them as usual. Resources on the player board can be redistributed cleanly into the supply.
It’s inevitable a game that makes such a feast out of risk and reward would suffer in a teardown. The cognitive complexity of its systems has a cost that is reflected through this, as does the tight interrelationship of game state to game strategy. When the whole design is based on you risking something based on what’s in someone else’s head… well, you need to be pretty sure what’s going on if you’re going to get it right.
Amongst this though are some easy potential accessibility fixes. For the love of God, reference cards or reference sheets are not an indulgence. Putting the information in the manual isn’t enough unless everyone gets their own copy of it. Just looking at the manual can potentially reveal gameplay information. ‘Oh, he must have a card that isn’t obvious – I know what he’s looking to build’. This particular omission cuts across categorical lines. The palette choice – unfortunate and fixable. The business of the building cards – probably necessary but they could certainly be structured a lot more cleanly. As always, there are accessibility wins in here if anyone cared to listen.
Architects of the West Kingdom got four stars in our review, and given I went in expecting a slim reskin of Raiders of the North Sea I was delighted to find my first impressions subverted. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the games with the most interesting designs often suffer when it comes to evaluating their accessibility. Architects of the West Kingdom has a broadly problematic profile, but if you’re one of the people confident you could play it you could certainly do a lot worse with your time.
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.