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Viscounts of the West Kingdom

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RRP £59.99
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Viscounts of the West Kingdom is set at a time when the King’s reign began to decline, circa 980 AD. Choosing peace over prosperity, our once strong King began offering our enemies gold and land to lay down their axes. But peace is a tenuous affair. As poverty spread, many people lost faith in his ability to lead and sought independence from the crown. Since finding favour in his …
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Exceptional Components

Rating

  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • Interesting mix of mechanics
  • Point salad scoring
  • High production quality

Might Not Like

  • Lots of icons to learn
  • Games can end suddenly
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Description

Viscounts of the West Kingdom is set at a time when the King’s reign began to decline, circa 980 AD. Choosing peace over prosperity, our once strong King began offering our enemies gold and land to lay down their axes. But peace is a tenuous affair. As poverty spread, many people lost faith in his ability to lead and sought independence from the crown. Since finding favour in his courts, our future has also become uncertain. As viscounts, we must be wise and decisive. Loyalty is to be upheld, but gaining favour among the people must be our priority, should there be a sudden shift in power.

The aim of Viscounts of the West Kingdom is to be the player with the most victory points (VP) at game's end. Points are gained by constructing buildings, writing manuscripts, working in the castle and acquiring deeds for new land. Players begin with a handful of townsfolk, but should quickly seek out more suitable talents to advance their endeavours. Each turn they will be travelling around the kingdom, looking to increase their influence among the various areas of society. The game ends once the Kingdom reaches poverty or prosperity - or potentially both!

Over the last few years, Garphill Games and particularly the design team of Shem Phillips and S J McDonald, have become household names in the board game community. The West Kingdom trilogy built on the solid foundation of the North Sea trilogy. Now, with great anticipation, the third and final chapter of the West Kingdom Saga has hit our tables. Spoiler alert, Viscounts of the West Kingdom does not disappoint!

Mechanics of the West Kingdom

Garphill has taken worker placement and reinvented it! Viscounts takes more of a smorgasbord approach to mechanisms, with Worker placement taking a back seat. The mainboard is a giant two-tiered rondel. Around and around your Viscount rides merrily taking actions. What those actions are will depend on your position on the rondel. The outside track lets you trade and build buildings from your player board. The inside track is where you’ll assign workers to the castle or acquire manuscripts.

The action you choose is powered by icons on your display. Most of these icons come from the multi-use cards that are the stars of Viscounts. It is, after all, a deck builder where you are always trying to improve your deck of cards. Sieving out the not so great and buying cards with greater rewards or ones that better match your strategy. Pretty standard deck building stuff. But where Shem excels is in twisting standard mechanisms and making them unique. In Viscounts this twist is introduced as a conveyor belt type display that your cards travel along as new ones are played. There are 3 spots on your conveyor belt for active cards. The icons on these 3 active cards give you your basic action taking power. That can be augmented by paying resources or even paying to dismiss the townsfolk card in your meeples sector of the board.

Some cards have rewards when you first play them. Some give you a power all the while they’re active on your display. Others have a drop off ability that triggers when they drop off your 3 card display. All this makes for some deliciously juicy decisions when choosing which cards to play. Add to that the re-order action where you can change the order of cards currently on your display and the conveyor belt mechanism alone gives some serious weight to this game.

Actions of the West Kingdom

As I said the cards are the stars of the show and the driving force behind Viscounts. They give you abilities, rewards, they power your actions and even dictate how far you can travel on the rondel. When it comes to scoring points and winning though, there’s plenty more going on in this firecracker of a game.

Buildings are removed from your player board when constructed. This gives you an ongoing ability for each building built. You also get a reward depending on where they’re placed on the game board. Manuscripts each boast a coloured ribbon as well as an immediate bonus. These ribbons offer points through set collection. First to get 3 of the same colour gain a reward but sets of every colour will score big at the games end too.

The central castle is a nifty piece of componentry and an even niftier twist on traditional worker placement. Workers are placed in the lowest tiers of the castle and when any section contains 3 of your colour then one immediately moves up to the next tier. Some might move laterally to creating chains of worker movement which can be a lot of fun to set up! Players gain rewards when their workers move up tiers but they’ll also score VP based on each workers position on the castle at games end. The king of the castle gets a bonus 5 points too while everyone else you would presume are the obligatory dirty rascals.

Virtue and Corruption in the West Kingdom

As you travel around the West Kingdom doing what Viscounts do, you will inevitably collect debt and deed cards. Yet another part of the glorious point salad, debts and deeds also trigger the endgame. Partway through the debt or deed decks are the poverty and prosperity cards respectively. When one of these cards is revealed one final round is played and the game is over. It’s really rather clever because the prosperity card revealed by lots of deeds being taken will score players for the debt cards they have. The poverty card scores for deeds. So this creates a kind of seesaw effect when the deed pile gets low players to aim for the debts in order to score better. Now the poverty card is perilously close they grab deeds again.

It’s a very dynamic way to deal with game length rather than say x amount of rounds. The only downside is that the game can end rather suddenly and at the whim of another player. A little like Scythes end game trigger. It’s just something else to keep an eye on and consider when deciding your action.

Theme of the West Kingdom

This theme within a theme of poverty versus prosperity, virtue and corruption, debts and deeds is central to the West Kingdom games. Viscounts deals with it in a really unique way. Each player has a virtue and a corruption marker and as they gain either those markers move along a track on their player board. Corruption moves right and virtue left until inevitably they collide. On the turn, these collisions happen an effect is resolved dependant on the current position of the markers.

Collisions on one player’s board effect all other players. Thus providing a nice bit of interaction. More interaction comes in the form of the workers in the castle. At the end of your action phase if there are more than 3 of any colour in one section you can bump workers back to their owners till only 3 remain. This is no bad thing though as every bumped off little fella gives its owner a consolation prize. You can even bump your own guys for a reward if that suits you. In fact, for all the fierce competition the player interaction in this game is overwhelmingly positive. I love that.

Aesthetics of the West Kingdom

Being the final game in the West Kingdom trilogy Viscounts is instantly recognisable. It shares the well-trodden art style and graphic design of previous Garphill games. This is no bad thing, these games look incredible! In terms of unique components, it has some great meeples, the viscounts on horseback are fantastic. The castle is an impressive centrepiece if a little ‘plastic’ compared to everything else. But it does tie the modular board sections together really smartly.

Actual gameplay is entirely language independent which is impressive on a game of this weight with this many different powers. The downside is an almost overwhelming amount of iconography to learn. Prepare to play your first few games with the rule book handy! Having said that once you’ve got it the game flows pretty smoothly.

Is it the Best Kingdom?

Lighter than Paladins and heavier than Architects, Viscounts hits a complexity sweet spot. The mix of mechanisms and its point salad scoring give it a well-rounded feel. There are always good options in Viscounts, though it never feels scripted or pigeonholes you into a certain strategy. The movement on the rondel gives a lot of freedom. It’s an excellent action selection mechanic and I’m glad they went with it over worker placement. It makes this final instalment look and feels different from previous games. As different as it is though there are central themes running through the West Kingdom saga. Virtue and corruption and great building work. Viscounts deals with them all again but it does it in fresh and novel ways.

Though having only 4 main actions, each of those actions comes with myriad factors to consider. Along with a large number of symbols to learn it can feel a little overwhelming at first. Stick with it though and Viscounts of the West Kingdom is an intensely satisfying game. With the largely positive player interaction and reward combos possible the game won’t punish you for scrabbling at the start or changing tack halfway through. Viscounts is in my opinion another Shem Phillips masterpiece! The twist on deck building and worker placement is great. I particularly like the drop off abilities, but there is so much more in there too. Like a perfect recipe, the mix and ratio of ingredients are finely tuned and the result is a definite contender for my game of 2020!

We Built This City

We are coming to the end of the King’s reign in the West Kingdom and entering the final phase of the wonderful trilogy of games. We built the city with Architects, defended it from invaders in Paladins and now we must govern in Viscounts of the West Kingdom. Today, I’m talking about the differences and intricacies of the solo mode specifically. If you want to have a look at the multiplayer game, we have an excellent review here. Solo modes are increasingly popular in game and I think this one is right up there. So join me at the table… or don’t, I suppose. This is a solo game after all.

Solo Differences

Viscounts plays exactly the same for the human player – you set up in the same way and take your turn placing a card from your hand out to your player board, move your viscount and then take the action you want to. However, there are differences for setting up and playing for the AI players.

Firstly, take one of the player boards and flip it to the solo side. You can choose randomly or pick the opponent you want to take on. Each has their own focus, which we’ll get to later. Set it up the same way as your player board with one change. The Guildhalls and the Trading Posts are switched, which will help later. Then, look at the left most section of the card area on the solo board. This will tell you which cards you need to remove from the AI Scheme deck (those with a black back and a brown header on the front.) Shuffle those cards and place them to the left of the AI board. Then shuffle the Future Scheme deck (those with a black back and a black header on the front) and place them nearby.

In step 8 of the setup rules for Viscounts of the West Kingdom, reveal only two pairs of Player cards and Hero Townsfolk cards and choose one for yourself. Place the AI’s Viscount figure on the space indicated on the other Player card and give them the starting resources printed on the Player Board. And that’s the setup! Time to play.

As said before, your turns will be the same, but you then have to contend with the AI’s turns. There are a couple of general rules to be aware of such as the AI Viscount only moves clockwise around the outside of the main board, wild resources will be gained based on the specific AI preferences and both the AI and you will give the opponent the Rearrange ability when landing on the same space with the Viscount. For the AI, this means they gain a resource of their choice. Also, certain icons will behave differently for the AI, as shown on the AI reference card. For example, a Rearrange icon or gaining two silver will give the AI a resource of their choice. A white card with a green plus lets the AI add a future scheme card to their discard pile and when flipping over debts and deeds, the AI will flip whichever they have the fewest of then prioritise debts. There are a few other specifics but the AI reference card explains these pretty well.

When you take the AI’s turn, you’ll move all the cards in their row to the right, then flip over one from the deck and work through the actions from top to bottom. In general, these cards will list three steps, or four if they have a Criminal icon at the top. If you have a Criminal icon, the card reminds you to move the Corruption marker to the right for each Criminal icon showing. The second from bottom icon relates to the movement of the AI’s Viscount and the last icon is the action they will attempt to do: Build; Noble; Manuscript or; Primary Focus.

The Primary Focus action varies on the AI opponent and is in the top left of the AI board. When Building, the AI builds the left-most available building they can afford, which is why the Guildhalls and the Trading Posts are switched, so the costs are in descending order. The AI will then place the building on the left-most Building Spot in the section they are in, moving clockwise. Like the human players, the AI cannot build across the Rivers and they gain any benefits from the Building Spots and Links made.

The Noble and Manuscript actions work in the same way for the AI as they do the humans, except the AI can take the action from the outside ring. The only other differences are that, during the Noble action, the AI will place as many workers in the castle as possible, with a minimum two.

The game ends in the same way as it does in a full player count but the AI will take the final turn. They also score in the same way as the players with one exception. They score points for each leftover resource. Whomever has the most points is the winner.

Final Thoughts

Here’s the thing – if you like a difficult solo version with a large variability available to you, you’ve come to the right place. Each of the AI’s has a specific focus, be it building, writing manuscripts, bolstering their own actions or jumping up the castle. You even have the option to increase the difficulty by adding Future Scheme cards during setup. And I really like this game, despite the solo mode destroying me every time I played against it. That said, every time I lost, I immediately set up for another game to try again against another opponent. What I’ve also found is that the AI scored about as many points as I did in my first playthrough with real humans, which suggests a pretty good balance in the design. Even if it also suggests I’m not that good at it.

I love that there is the flavour of an AI focusing on one thing. It gives a real crash course on the efficiency of the gameplay if you play it right, which makes it a perfect learning tool. I hugely appreciate when a designer puts a solo mode in that gives an AI to defeat rather than a target score, and I love when the opponent is a difficult one.

To me, Viscounts is my least favourite of the trilogy, but that is not a slight on it. All three are excellent games, I just like Architects and Paladins slightly more. But then, I’ve played both games more. So having the chance to play the solo mode, and understand the unique relationship between the cards and the actions you are taking makes a real difference to my enjoyment of the game. I’m fairly certain I played it wrong a few times but that’s ok because I wanted to get back to the game and play another round.

Zatu Score

Rating

  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • Interesting mix of mechanics
  • Point salad scoring
  • High production quality

Might not like

  • Lots of icons to learn
  • Games can end suddenly