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Architects Of The West Kingdom (Acquire-To-Zendo)

⚒️ If You Build It, They Will Come To Arrest You

2018, 1-5 players
Complexity: moderate/high

Architects Of The West Kingdom is a worker-placement game from New Zealand studio Garphill Games, creators of the North Sea trilogy of worker-placement games. Architects is the first in the "West Kingdom" trilogy, set at the end of the Carolingian Empire (circa 850 CE), and it adds a couple of unique twists to the worker-placement formula. Instead of cleaning up your own workers, you arrest each others' and sell them to the guard house. Additionally, there's a morality track! Will you secure victory through high-minded virtue, underhanded dealings, or some combination of the two?

Let's See It In Action

In Architects Of The West Kingdom you and up to four friends take on the role of royal architects trying to impress the king and maintain your noble status. You do this by acquiring the most victory points, which are determined at the end of the game by the buildings you construct, the work you do in the Cathedral, the resources you've acquired, the debts you've taken on, and the number of your employees who've gotten themselves arrested. In order to build, you'll need to gather resources and apprentices from across the board.

You have a pool of twenty workers that you'll send across the board to run errands for you. They can mine for bricks or gold, get coins from the silversmith, quarry stone, cut trees, barter for marble, make donations to the storehouse, and more. Now, in a typical worker-placement game, locations work almost like a weighted draft. You have a fixed number of resources (workers) to place but once a location is occupied, it's off limits. After a while your supply of workers runs low, so you burn a turn reclaiming them, which opens up any locations you had occupied.

Architects works very differently. Anyone can place a worker anywhere, regardless of who's already there (with one noteworthy exception we'll get to later). On your turn, you place one worker in one spot, but the reward you get is based on the total number of workers you have there. So if you place a worker at the Quarry, you get one stone. If, on a subsequent turn, you place a second worker at the Quarry, then on that turn you get two stones. Later, if you place a third, you get three stones. If you place a fourth, etc, etc, etc. Now, having three or four workers at a location is going to attract the attention of your opponents, so inevitably one of them will go to the Town Centre and have your workers arrested.

Arrested workers go into the little penalty box on their character card...

(Kindly don't confuse the red captive workers in the box for the bricks just outside the box, or the blue workers that are my own.)

You can then go to the Guardhouse to drop off any workers and get money in return. You can also go there to pick up your own that are housed there for free, or to pay the guards to liberate your workers from someone else's character card.

In addition to workers, you're going to need apprentices, who will give you permanent bonuses and the ability to construct certain types of buildings.

 Once you have the requisite materials and apprentices, you place a worker in the Guildhall...

...and you can pay your resources to construct a building card in your hand, which gets you victory points and a reward.

Alternately, if you are sufficiently virtuous, you can build in the Cathedral, which gets you a reward, even more virtue, and serious victory points.

That's right, if you build in the Cathedral five times, that's worth twenty victory points. For context, the winning score for the game you're seeing here was 37. That's a lot of points, and only one player can get that high. And, in fact, virtue is its own reward. You can get up to 7 victory points just for being virtuous, and you can lose up to 9 for being unvirtuous.

So, given the intense rewards, why be unvirtuous at all? There are a couple of reasons, but the main one is that you can get cheap resources quickly in the Black Market. And if you're too virtuous, you're not allowed to go to the Black Market at all. Black Market spaces are the exception to the anyone-can-go-anywhere rule, meaning the first person to go into that far-right location gets two marble, a lumber, and a stone for the low low price of three silver and the loss of a virtue point, but no one else can go there until the Black Market gets reset.

Additionally, unvirtuous people cheat on their taxes. Throughout the game you'll pay for things with silver, and a certain number of those coins are taxes that go to the Tax Stand instead of the general supply, but if you're at two or three virtue points, you get to cheat by one silver, and if you're below that you get to cheat by two.

Speaking of which, one of the things you can do on your turn is give up two virtue points to send a worker to go rob the Tax Stand.

The money in there adds up pretty quickly, so even the most virtuous soul will take the virtue hit if they need the money and the pot is ripe enough.

The game ends when some number of workers have entered the Guildhall, then you total up your points and find out who gets to stay in the King's good graces.

Finally, there are optional rules for variable set up and a card-based automata that you can play against in either solo or two-player mode. I've played against the solo-play nemesis Constantine and that guy is a jerk.

What Makes It So Good?

Worker-placement is not my favorite mechanic, but Architects puts such a fun spin on it with the ability to arrest your opponents' workers and the ongoing morality track. There's a tension between going full-virtue and racing up the Cathedral track for maximum points or just sacrificing points for cheaper materials and tax breaks and counting on the extra buildings you construct to make up the difference. Or you could start out unvirtuous and change course mid-game. I've played all three strategies and there's no definitive advantage to any of them. The game is remarkably well-balanced that way. In one of the first games I ever played, one person went full virtue and one person went full non-virtue and they ended up tied! (Now, position on the virtue track is a tie-breaker, so the virtuous player won, but still!)

Even with the complexity of the rules, it's pretty easy to pick up if you have someone there to who can answer questions. I played it with my 8-year-old for this post, and I only beat him by 3 points. And honestly, he just had a good time arresting my workers and I just had a good time robbing the Tax Stand. The components are pretty good and the art is lovely. I've never played a game with this kind of theming or setting, so that's interesting as well. And while the game is best with three or four, it scales cleanly from solo all the way up to five.

Good rulebook, too. It's very easy to find answers to your questions when they come up mid-game, although the automata scenario rules could do with a hair more explanation.

What's Not To Like?

My hands-down biggest complaint is the iconography for stone-workers and wood-workers--apprentice skills that are required for certain buildings. One uses a brownish axe and one uses a grayish hammer and they look extremely similar. Look at the picture of the apprentices above, and compare the upper-left icons on the two left-most cards on the top row and you'll see what I mean. Yes, they're different, but every single game someone gets them mixed up.

None of the rules are particularly complicated, but there are a lot of them. Some of the locations get awfully finicky. Consider the Mines: for n workers, you can either get + 1 bricks or n/2 gold, rounded down. Not exactly intuitive. And it's important that these rules are there for balance, but it can be hard to play without someone who already knows the game, otherwise you spend all your time thumbing through the rulebook. The locations have guides on the board to help you out, but the symbology isn't always clear.

Finally, there are a lot of bits, which means setup and cleanup can be a pain if it's a one or two player game. The box isn't quite up to the task of storing the components, either. There's a cardboard insert to separate the wood from the cards, and there are a lot of baggies, but it would have benefited immensely from a plastic tray.

Is It Expansible?

It was originally Kickstarted, so there are a number of promos you can get that are interesting but inessential. The second in the trilogy, Paladins Of The West Kingdom, is out, and the third is due out this year. All three are independent, though. If they follow the same pattern as the North Sea games, then it's likely there'll be a campaign expansion or two that links them all.

Final Thoughts

If this were a ranked list, this game would easily be in my Top 10, possibly my Top 5. It's just so well made. I love it, despite the fact that I have very little innate interest in architecture, worker-placement games, or Carolingian France. There's something to be said for a game that's so well-crafted that you can scoff at the theme and still end up absolutely adoring it. And there will be at least one more game this list that fits that category, and the post for it will run in December (spoiler alert: it's Wingspan).

Tune in next week when we break out the ceramic tiles--and try not to break any of them--in Azul...

In Acquire-To-Zendo, Kurt is going through his favorite board games in alphabetical order. Read the explainer or see more posts.


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