Anybody who follows this blog even a little bit knows that I am a big Shem Phillips/Sam MacDonald fan.
I was first introduced to Shem with Raiders of the North Sea (a game that has fallen a bit in my estimation but I still really enjoy) and their first collaboration (Architects of the West Kingdom) is in my Top 10 games played of all time.
Paladins of the West Kingdom I definitely enjoy, but its length plus the fact that my fellow players didn’t really care for it means I haven’t played it enough to really get a feel for it.
The third in the West Kingdom series, Viscounts of the West Kingdom has many fans who think it’s better than Architects.
Would I agree?
I’m not sure yet, but let’s take a look.
Viscounts of the West Kingdom is once again designed by Shem and Sam with art by The Mico. It’s published by both Garphill Games (where I got it from on the Kickstarter) and Renegade Game Studios.
It was published in 2020 and plays 1-4 players. This review is only for the 2-4 player mode as I have not tried it solo yet.
Shem and Sam both really love playing with game mechanisms, making each game in a series have a unique feel even when some of the iconography and artwork is the same.
Viscounts is no different as this one does deckbuilding but adds a unique spin to it.
Each player starts with a player board that holds all of the buildings they can build as well as a place to play their cards.
This player board also has a bunch of iconography that, if followed precisely, will enable you to play a perfect game (rules-wise, as maybe nobody can help you actually play the game well).
Players also start with 20 meeples (for playing into the Castle), a starting deck of 8 cards, and part of the game start process is choosing a hero and where on the board your Viscount will actually be placed. The starting place card will also tell you your starting resources.
This 9-card deck (assuming you don’t have a starting card that lets you destroy cards ahead of time) is shuffled and players draw 3 cards from it.
The board comes in five segments that are locked together with the plastic Castle in the middle. The order of the segments is randomized.
The actions in the game are very simple, though chaining them together to do well is kind of brain-burning.
On your turn, you will shift the cards on your player board to the right, with the right-most one falling off (and you do the effect if it has a drop-off effect). You then play a card from your hand.
Thus you will always have 3 cards in front of you (except the first two turns, in which the open sections on your board have symbols you can use).
If the card you play has an immediate effect, then you get that now.
Otherwise, you move your Viscount (the horsey-figure on the board, thanks James) a number of spaces equal to the silver value of the card you played. You can spend extra silver to move extra spaces if you need to.
Depending on where your Viscount lands, you can do one of four actions (you only have two choices though, as where you land prohibits two of the other choices).
If you land on the outer ring, you can do the following:
Market Action: Based on the number of blue bags you have available, from the cards on your player board plus any other blue bags you have, you get the result on the space you are on. The open space on the board above lets you get one silver per blue bag you have.
If you are on a space that lets you get some other resource, or perhaps flip a deed/debt, you can spend additional silver for each blue bag you need to get it.
Build Action: You can build one of the buildings on your player board and place it into one of the open squares at the top of the board in your space. So the red Viscount could build a building in one of the two open squares (blue has already built a building in the third spot).
The cost of the building in hammer symbols (on your cards and any other hammer symbols you have) is shown above the building on your player board.
You can spend stone for additional hammers you need.
If your Viscount lands on an inner space, you have two different action options.
Green above can do one of the following:
Manuscript Action: Each inner space has a pile of manuscripts next to it that can be transcribed. For each holy cross symbol on your player board (as well as any other holy cross symbols you have) will count toward the required number of symbols to transcribe that manuscript (in this case, 4).
If you don’t have enough, you can spend inkwells to get additional crosses.
You place the manuscript by your board and get an immediate effect if there is one, or maybe the manuscript will be worth endgame points.
There is a bit of set collection in the game as well, as there are four unique manuscript colours. Each full set of different colours will get you 16 points (with reduced points for each set of fewer different colours).
You can also use the gold “fleur-de-lis” symbols you have to send workers into the Castle.
The process of sending them in, splitting them up and having them advance further into the Castle is more complicated than I am going to get into, but rest assured that if you do this action a lot, you can get a lot of points.
If you do things right, you may also be able to bump other players’ workers out! They do get some compensation, but they won’t get the points anymore.
Once you’ve done your action, you have the option of hiring the townsfolk that’s in the pile of cards in your board segment.
If you do hire, you pay the silver cost, get the immediate effect that’s in the top right corner of the card, and put it in your discard pile for use once you’ve reshuffled your deck and it comes to your hand.
Hiring the Illusionist, for example, will cost you 1 silver and you will immediately get to reorder the three cards on your player board, if you want.
After that decision, you see if you have a corruption/virtue collision (explained in a moment) and then draw up to your hand size. It’s then the next player’s turn.
Virtue and Corruption are the cornerstone of the system in Viscounts of the West Kingdom.
Each player board has a track with virtue and corruption starting on opposite sides.
Some actions or cards will get you corruption or virtue either when you play them, hire them, or things like that. Playing a criminal (purple skull icon), for example, will get you corruption equal to the number of criminals on your board.
Also, when you shuffle your deck for any reason (either because you need to draw cards or you choose to shuffle after a townsfolk’s ability lets you do so), you see how many criminals are on your board.
If any, you get one corruption.
If none, you get a virtue.
Near the end of your turn, you see if the two markers have collided on your board.
If so, you resolve that collision based on where it is.
If your virtue marker has moved further (meaning that the markers are more toward the left of your board), you will get some Deeds and a little bit of silver. Everybody else? If they have criminals, they’ll be getting some Debts or corruption.
If your markers are moved further to the right, you will be getting more silver but some Debts as well. Your opponents, if they have no criminals on their board, will either be getting some virtue or (if you’re especially corrupt) even a Deed!
Deeds and Debts start out on one side. The unflipped Deed will get you a point at the end of the game. And unflipped Debt will get you -2 points.
If you manage to flip them (there are many ways to do so during the game), the Deed will get you 3 points at the end of the game.
The Debt will get you a free resource at the time that you flip it.
Why is this important?
Deeds and Debts are the timer for the game.
There are a certain number of Deeds/Debts available during the game, based on player count.
Which ones are scored for majority is based on which one runs out.
If the Deeds run out (the red card), then players will gain points for having flipped the most Debts.
If the Debts run out (the black card), then players will gain points for having flipped the most Deeds.
Thus it’s a rather interesting balancing act, if you decide you want to go for those points (12 points is not nothing, but if you have a high point total elsewhere, it’s not a make-or-break thing).
When one of them runs out, the game end is triggered. Players finish the round (going around until you reach the first player again) then each player gets one more turn.
There are a variety of endgame points to count.
How many buildings of each type you managed to build. Sets of manuscripts, or even manuscripts that have endgame scoring on them. Workers in the castle. Some different bonus cards you might earn during the game. Deeds (flipped and unflipped). The majority for most flipped Deeds/Debts (depending on how the game ended).
Whoever has the most points is the winner!
Is Viscounts of the West Kingdom a noble game where everybody in the town looks up to it in awe? Or is it a corrupt ruler who everybody in the town despises and spits on?
I wasn’t sure after the first play, but I do think Viscounts of the West Kingdom is right up there with Architects.
Of course, that could be because it took us five plays before we didn’t get any rules wrong.
This isn’t a knock against the rulebook (though it’s not the best I’ve seen) but just us forgetting rules and not following the sequence of play closely enough.
Between the player aid each player gets and the player board that shows each action in order, it shouldn’t be that hard.
But for some reason it was for us.
Now that we have had a couple of “perfect” plays, I have to say that I love this game.
The four main actions are intuitive and easy to remember when you can do them and how to do them. Each one is tied to a resource (silver, gold, stone or ink) that you can use to make the action better and those resources aren’t used for any other action (silver is also used to hire townsfolk, but that’s a separate thing from the actions you take).
Being a deckbuilder, there are typical deckbuilding tropes included, but even those are just slightly different. This can be good and bad.
Good because it’s nice to have something different.
Bad because if you start expecting things to be the same as previous ones, you will end up playing a lot wrong.
For example, some cards will let you destroy other cards in your deck, the staple of deckbuilding games (get those lame starting cards out of your deck, make it thin!).
In Viscounts of the West Kingdom, that is a viable strategy but you may not want to destroy all of your base cards. Some have good symbols you will use for your strategy.
Also, destroying a card can only be done from your hand or, if you want to take risks, the top card of your draw pile (without knowing what it is before you choose). There is no “destroy a card that you’re no longer using in your discard pile” or anything.
This makes the choice a lot harder.
Another twist is that destroying a card actually gives you the card’s silver value, so it can be a way to make a bit of money if you’re running short.
I also love the player board and how you have to plan your moves ahead of time, at least somewhat (as well as having to work around what cards are actually in your hand).
Each card has an ability that’s either ongoing while it’s on your board, immediate when you play it, or an effect that happens when it drops off your board.
It’s a neat take on the whole system and I really like how it’s handled here.
Another cool thing is how you can interact with the townsfolk that are available to hire.
If you’re taking an action that uses a symbol they have, you can actually “dismiss” them by paying their silver cost, basically getting them out of the game.
Green can do a manuscript action and can pay 2 silver to dismiss the Friar and get its cross symbol.
Whether or not you dismiss or hire a townsfolk, you always get the symbol in the top right.
Dismissing or hiring the Friar will get you an immediate virtue.
What’s the best thing about Viscounts of the West Kingdom? The fact that you have a variety of strategies that can take you to victory and whoever wins is probably the one who executed it the best based on the cards they chose.
In my last game, I totally ignored the Castle except on one of my last moves, where some other effect let me put some meeples in the Castle. I never even took the Castle action.
But I concentrated on building and manuscripts and was able to pull it out with a lot of building points.
The blue bags and merchant actions are important because that’s largely how you will be getting your resources, but I’m sure there are other ways to do it as well. Especially powerful (maybe overpowered? Probably not, but something to watch out for) are the townsfolk who let you convert blue bags into another symbol.
If you’re going with a blue bag strategy, those townsfolk are killers.
The virtue/corruption mechanic is very well done and I like how it’s kind of a timer of the game. That and the Deed/Debt cycle and trying to make sure they are flipped adds another layer to the rich cake.
The artwork, as usual with the Mico, is outstanding though of course there are some people who aren’t fans.
I like how the entire West Kingdom series has consistent art work for the same type of townsfolk, though obviously the townsfolk have different effects in each game.
The Illusionist is the same no matter which of the three games you have, for example.
There are a couple of minor niggles I have with the game, though they don’t have much impact.
First, it would have been nice if the Castle came with the level markers glued on or something (the pieces you put in each layer). Shem has said that the orientation will never change, so it’s not like it’s interchangeable.
Yet you have to either keep the box level when storing or transporting it or you will have to keep putting the levels on there.
Another thing about the Castle is that how to move meeples around it can get really confusing.
If you take it step by step, it works fine. But it’s really hard to explain to new players, especially if somebody is moving four meeples into the Castle at a time. If there are a lot of meeples in the Castle, it can also be hard not to knock pieces over.
There is a lot of iconography in this game, seemingly more so than the other two games (I may be wrong but it feels that way). Most of it is well-explained on the back cover of the rulebook but a good player aid for symbology would have been very helpful.
Finally, setup can be a bit of a chore (even more with the expansions I discovered!). Organizing the manuscripts, shuffling the (fairly large) stack of townsfolk cards.
It’s not too bad, but there are the occasional times when you look at everything and say “you know what, let’s play something easier to set up.”
As far as a footprint goes, I don’t know if anything in the series will equal Paladins of the West Kingdom (though I have heard the first game of the new series is quite the table hog!). However, it does require a fair amount of table space.
Our games have taken around two hours to play, so it’s suitable as a main course for your game day pleasure.
Overall, I have to say that Viscounts of the West Kingdom is a worthy ending to the West Kingdom saga. It takes deckbuilding and turns things on their heads just enough to make them interesting.
I find myself thinking about my plays afterward and trying to decide how I’m going to want to play next time.
And I just like thinking about all of these symbols and the cards and how they all interact.
That’s the sign of a good game to me.
Will it overtake Architects in my mind?
Stay tuned for my “Best Games Played in 2022” ranking in January to see the answer to that question.
Meanwhile, I will be over there in the corner trying to remember how to pronounce “viscount.”
(This review was written after 6 plays)
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