Architects of the West Kingdom review

Architects of the West Kingdom (2018)

Game Details
NameArchitects of the West Kingdom (2018)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [2.76]
BGG Rank76 [7.84]
Player Count1-5
Designer(s)Shem Phillips and S J Macdonald
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's great! You should probably try it if you can!

A review copy of Architects of the West Kingdom was provided by Asmodee Nordics in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Architects of the West Kingdom is a very good game but I confess my heart sank when I first opened the box. It so violently reminded me of Raiders of the North Sea that I thought I’d fallen for the board game equivalent of a Unity asset flip. The aesthetic, the component design, and the board layout all make it look like it’s going to be a mere variation on a theme. Even as I was leafing through the manual it felt like maybe Shem Phillips, designer of both games, was cleaving to the Kairosoft model for his growing resume of releases. Kairosoft have made the same (good) game about a dozen times and show no sign of stopping. In a world where we have Codenames Disney and Marvel Splendor, I felt somewhat downhearted at what was happening before me.

But this is a story with a happy ending – Architects of the West Kingdom is not only a very different game to Raiders of the North Sea but it’s a better game too.

Architects of the West Kingdom box

What’s happening here is something infinitely preferable to the pathologically reskinning that occurs elsewhere in the industry. What Phillips is doing is developing a coherent, consistent aesthetic direction that ties across a range of titles. It’s just sort of odd to see in a hobby where so much of its output is the result of juxtaposed sensibilities working together on an incidental basis. I’ve often pointed out that the big issue in usability for board gaming is the lack of anything resembling a consistent design language. Every time you pick up a board game, it’s a thing in and of itself. We might have a shared definition of words, but we don’t have a shared meaning. All games might agree what a meeple is, but few agree on what a meeple is for.

All this is to say that the visual design of Architects benefits from its compatibility with that of Raiders even if the first impression might be jarring. Familiarity with one affords a certain familiarity with the other. If the manual is the shared inaccessiblity of all board games, reusing design metaphors is part of the eventual solution. It’s why on every serious application you ever use on your computer you’ll find ‘print’ under the ‘file’ menu. It’s why we still use the iconography of a floppy disk (a technology many computer users will never have encountered) to indicate saving. Semiotics, as a subdiscipline of board game design, is very badly under-emphasised and I appreciate that Shem Phillips is violently bucking that trend.

All of this has nothing to do with the game, really. I just wanted to point it out. Mainly because I very rarely get to use the word ‘semiotics’ in anger. I often think of these reviews as lecture notes for a course I will never deliver, so please forgive me my occasional diversion.

Architects of the West Kingdom board

Architects of the West Kingdom is a game that is built around a system that pathologizes risk-taking to a degree I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a game before. Laid before each player is a board that promises riches beyond compare – a veritable cornucopia of free-flowing natural resources. As you assign your army of workers to these spaces, you collect up tokens that represent these resources, and these tokens can be cashed to create the buildings that award you victory points. Each building requires huge outlays, but also requires the guidance of skilled specialists – you commission their services with coins you collect from the board.

Simple enough, but there’s a twist here.

The core mechanism that Architects threads through the board is a kind of incremental excess. When you assign a worker to a space, you get benefits for that worker and all the other workers you have there. Your first worker might give you a piece of stone. Your second gets you two, your third three and so on. The exponential effect of this can be considerable, and seductive. Sure, maybe you don’t really need five stone but that’s so much stone and it can all be taken away so quickly so you’d best gorge yourself while you can.

The guildhall

Here’s the twist. One of the spaces on the board is a town centre action and it lets players capture groups of workers. As with almost every space on the board, the more workers they have assigned there the more effective the action becomes. They can claim groups of their own workers, returning them to their available pool. They can also claim your groups and send them into a kind of debtor’s prison on their board. Later they can offload groups from their board to the prison for cash money. The legal system in Architects of the West Kingdom is a for-profit industry.

Imagine then what that does to the psychological evaluation of cost and benefit. The cost is so high – you could lose all that momentum invested into an area of the board if you don’t take advantage now. The benefit too is so high. So many resources for so little invested effort. It’s easy, in all the glorious gluttony, to lose sight of the fact that the benefit may not actually align with the cards you have in hand. It’s not to your benefit to have fifty pieces stone on your player board if all you’ll ever need is ten.

But still… fifty stone is a lot of stone and maybe it’ll be useful somehow later?

That by itself is a fascinating mechanism that effectively decouples your instincts from your best interests. You can never truly know how much of anything you’ll need until the game is reaching its conclusion and so why not insure yourself against scarcity?

The system though has another little twist that ramps its effectiveness up another notch. Every time you place a worker you get more resources, sure. But you also make your worker group a more tempting prize for others looking to cut the legs away from under you. It’s incredibly expensive to release workers from an enemy player board until they have dropped them off in prison, and they don’t have to do that to a schedule that works for you. If you’re not careful you might find half or more of your workers are cooling their heels in a stony jail cell. That leaves you to frantically try to cajole the rest to achieve the ludicrious productivity quotas to which you have become accustomed.

Building cards

That’s what I mean by the pathology of risk-taking. The game inclines its head towards the space and gives you a saucy wink. And then it winks to the other players and inclines its head towards your workers. Timing here is everything. Most games require you to evaluate cost and benefit. Most games have some degree of risk taking associated. Few games though make you calculate the risk and reward against a pivot point in someone else’s head. It’s a larger, more extravagant take on the impossible game of ‘guess what number I’m thinking’.

Yeah, I love it. It’s so simple and yet so clever that it forces you to make important strategic decisions while standing on a rickety roulette wheel.

It’s good that this particular subsystem is so sharp, because the rest of the game is spectacularly straightforward in its design. It’s not devoid of other design quirks, but they’re things that we’ve seen in other games. To erect a building in the town, you need to inter one of your workers in the guildhall. Once all the foundations have been filled in with screaming bodies, the game is over. It’s eerily reminiscent of the way Village handled its pacing. Buying the services of specialists requires you to pay a coin each time you skip over a row, and then everything flows down to become cheaper. Small World, Century: Spice Road, and a dozen other games have similar mechanics. The tax stall, which gets populated with a portion of all the money spent in the game, works like the way everyone misremembers free parking working in Monopoly. It’s all very competent, but none of it is otherwise remarkable. And yet, it all plays in a fresh way because of the way output is exponentially influenced by input.

Imperial Settlers has something of this in its systems in which resources magically transmute into other resources in an excessively explosive manner. That though offered a far more manipulatable system – you could construct meaningful, precise engines with the right arrangement of cards. Architects by contrast makes every tentative move a taunt to the table.

A tempting group of workers

‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’, your meeples yell as you place them down.

‘Shhhhhhhhh!’, you frantically whisper. ‘Keep it down! We really need that gold’

The coolest thing about all of this is how it changes the equilibrium around the table. All those big, delicious prizes are available if you just step up and grab them. However, what you’ll most often find is everyone nibbles around the table – taking small bites rather than large gulps, because that’s how you avoid the attention of your opponents. It might feel awesome to say ‘I go to the quarry and get six stone’, but that’s something people are going to notice.

There are parts of the game where you might feel like a dog chewing on an expensive but delicious pair of shoes. Your owner is approaching and they haven’t yet noticed what you’re doing so you’d best speed up before they reach you.

‘Wait, how much stone?’ is the Architects equivalent of ‘Hey, what’s that in your mouth?’

CHEW, CHEW AS FAST AS YOU CAN.

Predictably though I have some concerns.

The first is that I’ve tried to explain the game a number of times to people. Smart people that play games. You get a certain way into the process and then realise ‘Oh yes, and there’s a lot of the game hidden in the cards and it’s written in a way that will be utterly unreadable to all of you.’. There aren’t any reference cards in the box (come on, why the hell not) and the first thing you do in play is draft your hand of buildings. These come with end-game scoring effects and immediate build effects, and they may as well be in hieroglyphics for all the sense they’ll make to a newbie.

‘Oh, that symbol means you get a virtue penalty point for every debt you have at the end of the game’

‘Okay. But what’s virtue? And what’s debt?’

There’s a reference guide that outlines what each building does, but it is inexplicably arranged into categories in a way that if you knew where the description was, you wouldn’t need it. If you already knew ‘the smithy’ was a gain resources card you could probably work out the rest from context. It’s just perverse really when alphabetical order is something we’ve all known about for some time.

Essentially what I’m saying is that there is a moral case to be made that any time someone plays Architect for the first time your win should have an asterisk beside it. It didn’t have to be so – it’s not something due to game design but rather skimping out on supporting materials for players. Reference cards for a game like this are not merely a nice to have. The manual too doesn’t really excel, being organised like someone with ADHD trying to tell a complicated story with a dozen characters and locales.

Once you get past that first awkward game though I think you’ll find Architects of the West Kingdom is worth the repeat play. It may not have a lot of fresh ideas, but the biggest fresh idea it does have is like a welcome waft of cool air flowing through a dusty cave. I commend it to your attention.

A review copy of Architects of the West Kingdom was provided by Asmodee Nordics in exchange for a fair and honest review.