Great Art and a Few Novel Flourishes Make Architects of the West Kingdom Stand Out

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Great Art and a Few Novel Flourishes Make <i>Architects of the West Kingdom</i> Stand Out

Shem Phillips has had a quick rise in the ranks of designers of very traditional Euro-games since his 2015 title Raiders of the North Sea, which got a wider release in 2017 and earned a Kennerspiel des Jahres nomination that year. Raiders was followed by two more North Sea titles, Explorers and Shipwrights, which concluded the trilogy. Phillips has since gone George Lucas on us by bringing out a new trilogy that began with 2018’s Architects of the West Kingdom, co-designed with S.J. McDonald. As with the earlier troika of titles, Architects is a worker-placement and resource-collection game, and has the same fun, goofy visual style of his earlier games. You’ll find a couple of great rules tweaks that give the game some novelty, though, especially the mechanic that allows you to grab a bunch of your opponent’s meeples and stick them in jail—for cash rewards, of course.

At first blush, Architects of the North Kingdom will probably remind you of dozens of other Euros that give you a bunch of meeples, ask you to collect wood (seriously, again with the wood collection), stone, brick, and gold—here you can also trade for marble, but you can’t get it directly—and then let you use those resources to build buildings for points and other rewards. The Architects board also has a Cathedral that all players can build, or at least try to build, although space is limited and getting there first has concrete advantages (pun intended, as most of my puns are).

Meeple placement and retrieval is a bit different in Architects, including how many meeples you get—twenty, so it takes a village of meeples to play this game. You place them one at a time, but most of the main resource spaces on the board allow unlimited meeples, so you may place more meeples there on subsequent turns and then activate all your meeples on that space. For example, the space for wood gives you one wood token for each meeple you have there; the one for brick allows you to instead take one gold for every two meeples you have there. There are a few spots that allow just one meeple, including the Black Market (pay coins, take rewards, move your flag down on the Virtue track), and when you build a building card or add to the Cathedral, you place a meeple on the Guildhall and leave it there for the rest of the game. When you want to get meeples back, you go to the Town Square and pay one coin to retrieve an entire group of meeples of a single color from any space on the board.

Note that I said of a single color, but not your own color. You may use one of your meeples on the Town Square to capture a group of meeples belonging to one of your opponents, placing them in the little boxed area on your player card. On a subsequent turn, you can place a meeple on the Guardhouse and deliver all of those meeples to the jail, gaining one coin for each meeple thus incarcerated. You can go get your own meeples back by placing a meeple at the Guardhouse; that space also allows you to spend five coins to bring home all your meeples currently penned on other players’ cards but not yet in the jail itself.

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There are several other mechanics at work in Architects, none of which is quite as novel as the capture/retrieval setup, including that Virtue track, which can gain or cost you points at game-end and may limit what you can do during the game. If your Virtue is too low, you can’t build at the Cathedral, and if it’s too high you can’t go to the Black Market. Some game costs go to the tax coffers on the board rather than the off-board supply, and you can place a meeple there and lose two Virtue spots to grab all the coins there—often a very good tradeoff. The one part of the game I could have done without is the Apprentice cards, which you can obtain by placing a meeple at the Workshop and spending four coins; they come in three categories, which some buildings require you to have on your tableau before you can build them, and offer some small in-game benefits. That feels a bit too tacked-on to me, and the system of Debts, while thematically sensible, might be a little unbalanced on the punitive side of the ledger.

Architects has artwork from Macedonian illustrator Mihajlo Dimitrievski, whose exaggerated cartoonish drawings made the North Sea trilogy so striking and memorable. If anything the style fits the theme of Architects even better because the game is more fun and freewheeling. The font and icons will mostly be familiar to players of the earlier games, and the rulebook and appendix both do a good job of explaining the rest.

There is a solo mode available in the game as well with a separate “Scheme” deck that gets stronger (harder) as the game progresses, with the dummy player frequently capturing your meeples and gaining marble tokens as rewards. It can also contribute to the Cathedral for points, but can acquire Debts and lose points if you manage to jail its meeples for end-game. It’s a quick diversion although the core game’s mechanics are a little too ornate for automatic play.

Raiders—which is coming to digital this spring via Dire Wolf—is a slightly better game than Architects, but this one is more fun because of the jail mechanic. Games take about an hour for three players, 45 minutes for two, a half-hour in my one solo play; it plays up to four, and offers some variety in the player cards if you flip them so that each player starts with some unique skills or resources. I’ve certainly grown jaded with all of the “collect wood, stone, and brick, and then build stuff” Eurogames out there, but Architects at least adds a few flourishes that both make it more interesting and create substantially more player interaction (and trash talking) than there are in most games of this ilk. If you’ve liked Phillips’ games so far, he’s not done: the next game in the West Kingdom trilogy, Paladins of the West Kingdom, has already had a successful Kickstarter run and we should see it later this year.

Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.