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!