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Viscounts of the West Kingdom Review

A Updated March 11, 2021
 
4.0
 
0.0 (0)
963 0
Viscounts of the West Kingdom (Punchboard Reviews)

Game Information

Players
1 - 4
There Will Be Games

Viscounts, the third and final installment in Garphill Games' West Kingdom trilogy is here, picking up the baton from Paladins, and running in a different direction. Rondels and deck-building in the same game? Be still my beating heart!

First we had Architects, which was a bit like a grown-up Stone Age worker placement game. A good game, but not too heavy. Then came Paladins, which really upped the ante and got a lot heavier, and did a really nice twist on the standard worker placement formula. Towards the end of 2020, Viscounts arrived, and was one of a growing trend of combining deck-building and other mechanics.

In Viscounts of the West Kingdom we're sending our viscounts around the kingdom, constructing buildings, transcribing manuscripts, and increasing our nobles' influence in the castle. To do that we're using our band of townsfolk and criminals, gaining deeds and converting debts, trying to prove ourselves the most powerful.

 

King Of The Castle

I have no shame in saying that one of my favourite things in this deep, strategic game, is moving all the little dudes around on the castle. It's ridiculously satisfying. Lots of games have actions that combo up and give you stuff, but none do it in such a fun, toy-like way. I take an inordinate amount of pleasure from moving the pieces around and telling everyone else - in explicit detail - what I'm doing.

This castle is absolutely packed, players competing for the top spotThis castle is absolutely packed, players competing for the top spot

"So i add my guys here, then this one goes here, that one goes there, and this one goes up a level and gets me a free move on the first tier. I move him, there, and trigger another one. This guy goes up, flips a debt for me (thank you very much), now there's three in there, so up he goes again to the top, and now I take a resource, and the castle lead card. Oh, and look down here, there's four in this section now, and two of them are yours? Oh dear, off you get then. My castle! Adam's castle!"

Yeah, I can be pretty annoying to play games with.

That's just one part of the puzzle though. Getting the buildings off your board gives you some really powerful bonuses, like permanent bonus icons for your preferred action, and clearing a full set of buildings is worth loads of points. Collecting manuscripts is the real sleeper strategy though, the initial bonuses on them aren't always extravagant, but the bonuses for collecting sets of different coloured ones, and the bonus cards for being first to collect three of a kind, can lead to some crazy end-of-game scoring.

 

Getting The Full Picture

One thing I found in my first few plays, is that it's very easy to get drawn into this mindset of 'see what cards I have, see what I can do, do that, repeat'. Playing this way however, you're not really taking advantage of the gimmick (and I really don't like that term) of having deck-building. Choosing which cards to destroy when you can, and which you recruit into your deck, is one of those things which shows its importance more with each play.

There are usually small margins in victory in Viscounts, and a carefully crafted deck means you can do your preferred action maybe even just one more time than your opponent, and that can be the difference between winning and losing. Destroying cards not only refines your deck, but you also get the value of the card back in silver, which is also vital for certain things. You will undoubtedly reach a point in one of your games where the thing you need to complete your master plan is one... space... further... than you can move, and that single silver piece can be spent to increase your range by one.

That's the sort of margins we're talking about here.

 

Set Your Own Pace

It's no secret that I love heavy euro games. One thing that I've noticed in a lot of the games I played last year is that you can always see the end of the game. In Merv you get twelve turns. In Praga Caput Regni it's something like 16. Even in Shem's own Paladins of the West Kingdom, there are eight rounds, then it's done. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind that at all, all of those games are fantastic. What it leads to though is a lot of over-analysis for the last turn, trying to squeeze the maximum points from it.

In Viscounts, the end is driven by the deed and debt decks, and when one runs out. It's maybe a subtle difference, but an important one to me. It's something normally in older or more light- or middle-weight games, like Stone Age, Dominion, or even Ticket To Ride. Seeing it again in Viscounts made me really appreciate the tension and meta game it brings; keeping an eye on your opponents, the cards remaining, where the virtue and corruptions are, trying to figure out if it's worth triggering the end and watching people scramble for the last points.

A game near the end. That board gets busy.A game near the end. That board gets busy.

 

Any Pieces Missing?

The danger when combining mechanics in a game is whether all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Nobody wants a jigsaw with a piece missing, or the wrong shaped holes and nobbles? tongues? Whatever the sticky-outy bits on a jigsaw piece are called. Anyway, I digress. Viscounts marries everything together really nicely.

There is so much randomness in setup that no two games will feel the same, and there are a lot of different ways to play, and no dominant strategy. You'll see people say that filling the castle is an easy road to win every time, but when you compare the points available for completing all the castle actions, buildings, and the maximum realistic amount of manuscripts, it really isn't.

The deck-building is really clever. Balancing who is in your deck, who you recruit or dismiss during you turn, the order you move them across your board, and combining the icons and effects on them, it's really nicely done. Much like moving and taking actions, the card management feels like a game in its own right, but the really important thing here is that although each part feels like a game, the way they combine is nigh-on perfect.

Deck-building, area control, resource management, player board upgrading - it's all there, and it all works.

 

"Dancing With Myself, Oh Oh, Dancing With Myself"

Even Billy Idol had to entertain himself sometimes, so it's a good job there's a full solo mode in the box. Shem puts proper opponents in his solo games, which I really like in a solo game, and Viscounts is another excellent example of how to do it well. Paladins' opponent was great, with variable difficulty, and Viscounts goes even further. The reverse side of each of the player mats has a different AI to play against, each focusing on a different favoured action. It's really well done, really easy on the housekeeping, and thanks to the clear iconography and excellent player aids is really easy to do.

The various AI boards, their favoured actions in the top left corners.The various AI boards, their favoured actions in the top left corners.

Solo doesn't feel like a "I'll have to make do with this instead of real people" option, it's really enjoyable experience deserving to be played even if you have a regular group around you.

 

The TL;DR Bit

In summary Viscounts is awesome. It plays smooth, it's great fun, it's on the heavy side. The deck-building works, the components are great, the solo is fantastic. You can play differently every time you play, which keeps things fresh. You'll know how to play it within your first game, and the teach is pretty painless too. If you like Garphill Games' other West Kingdom games, I think you'll love this. The Mico's distinctive art style might not be for everyone, but it's the signature on these games, and personally I love it.

But is it better than Paladins? ....hmmm, ask me this time next year.


Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
4.0
Viscounts of the West Kingdom
AR
Adam Richards (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Adam lives in Cornwall, UK. He has been playing tabletop games in a ‘serious’ way (i.e. something other than Cluedo and Blackjack) for 10+ years now. If it goes on a table, he's happy to play pretty much anything, as long as it’s not roll-and-move. However, he loves Eurogames most of all, especially anything with worker placement or a rondel, as well as social and hidden-role games. His favourite designers are Alexander Pfister, Shem Phillips, Stefan Feld and Uwe Rosenberg.

Outside of board games he has a lifelong obsession with videogames, and loves gardening, space exploration and pretty much anything nerdy in the slightest. You can find more of his reviews and articles on his site - Punchboard Reviews

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #320390 11 Mar 2021 13:26
Viscounts is like a laundry list of things that I dislike in games, but the AI opponents on the flip side of the player mats is a brilliant idea.
adamr's Avatar
adamr replied the topic: #320401 11 Mar 2021 15:05
Tawantinsuyu does a similar thing, the automa is on the back of the player aid mats.

What is it you don't like in games, that this seems to tick all the boxes of? :)
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #320402 11 Mar 2021 15:25
It's a modern Euro. Too much F:AT carry over around here still.

This is one the list of games I'm anxious to try once I can see friends again. I've found all of their games interesting at the very least, but Raiders of the North Sea and Circadians are the only 2 I've liked enough to hold on to. I enjoyed Paladins but at 2 hours, it's wasn't going to see regular play around here.

Architects is the only one I've outright disliked, and even then, I still found it interesting.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #320403 11 Mar 2021 15:29
1. heavy euros
2. excessive open information, which often leads to analysis paralysis
3. victory point salad
4. deck building
5. rondels
6. games with a pre-set number of turns
7. meeples
adamr's Avatar
adamr replied the topic: #320404 11 Mar 2021 15:44
Fair enough on a lot of those, personal preference is personal preference after all.

Two things maybe worth pointing out though are that the rondel mechanism is different to a traditional one. You do move around a board, but how far you go and what actions you do are entirely up to you. If you had the resources, you could build a building every turn. So I wouldn't let a dislike of rondels put you off.

The other bit is around number of turns. One of the things I specifically liked and made a point of in the review is that there isn't a set number of rounds in the game. Players drive the end-game.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #320406 11 Mar 2021 15:50

adamr wrote: The other bit is around number of turns. One of the things I specifically liked and made a point of in the review is that there isn't a set number of rounds in the game. Players drive the end-game.


I misread that part in the review. That makes it better that the duration is an element that is subject to player manipulation.
adamr's Avatar
adamr replied the topic: #320407 11 Mar 2021 16:00

Josh Look wrote: It's a modern Euro. Too much F:AT carry over around here still.

This is one the list of games I'm anxious to try once I can see friends again. I've found all of their games interesting at the very least, but Raiders of the North Sea and Circadians are the only 2 I've liked enough to hold on to. I enjoyed Paladins but at 2 hours, it's wasn't going to see regular play around here.

Architects is the only one I've outright disliked, and even then, I still found it interesting.

I haven't played any of the North Sea trilogy yet, although I think if I get any, it'll be Raiders. Generally speaking, I like the heavier side in a game. Raiders of Scythia looks interesting though, and Hadrian's Wall is due soon too.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #320408 11 Mar 2021 16:24
I don't like heavy Euros because they use the same part of my brain that is all worn out at the end of the work day. I wonder if Shellhead and I both have that, since both our jobs are all about math, logic and algorithms. Like right now it's 4pm, and just adding 17+8 gives me a stabbing pain in my left eye. I have to be about 3 or 4 days into vacation before heavy euros begin to look like they might be appealing. This series does look pretty, so maybe at the tail end of a vacation I might get around to trying it.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #320410 11 Mar 2021 16:49
On the list of soloable heavy euros, where does this fall? Heavier than Feast for Odin?

Now that i have space to leave games set up and the kids won't scavenge them for barbie accessories or impromptu catapult ammo i wouldn't mind having something like this set up as an alternative to a night of tv/vidja games.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #320411 11 Mar 2021 16:50
The only one I've been able to try is Raiders and I liked it, since I thought it was an unusual take on the well-worn worker placement mechanic. But my Euro-loving girlfriend didn't care for it so, yeah, personal preference is still the dominant factor in most game choices, I would think. I wanted to try the rest of the series, but no one around here has taken a shine to them.
adamr's Avatar
adamr replied the topic: #320413 11 Mar 2021 17:01

jason10mm wrote: On the list of soloable heavy euros, where does this fall? Heavier than Feast for Odin?

Now that i have space to leave games set up and the kids won't scavenge them for barbie accessories or impromptu catapult ammo i wouldn't mind having something like this set up as an alternative to a night of tv/vidja games.

It's a very different beast to FFO. Odin does that thing where there are a hundred different things you could do (like lots of Uwe's), whereas Viscounts is about finding the best combinations of a much smaller set of choices.

The other thing to remember is that Uwe's games are beat your own score, whereas this is win/lose vs an automa. I actually wrote a piece about this just today!

Garphill make really, really good automa opponents. If it were me picking one from each pile, I'd choose Nusfjord and Viscounts (would probably just edge out Paladins because of the different AIs)
adamr's Avatar
adamr replied the topic: #320414 11 Mar 2021 17:06

ubarose wrote: I don't like heavy Euros because they use the same part of my brain that is all worn out at the end of the work day. I wonder if Shellhead and I both have that, since both our jobs are all about math, logic and algorithms. Like right now it's 4pm, and just adding 17+8 gives me a stabbing pain in my left eye. I have to be about 3 or 4 days into vacation before heavy euros begin to look like they might be appealing. This series does look pretty, so maybe at the tail end of a vacation I might get around to trying it.

I spend most of my day doing similar (writing solutions, API integrations, automation scripts etc), but I find it hard to switch off. For me, the heavy games keep my brain engaged (which I like), while not thinking about work (which I don't like). I totally get where you're coming from though, I sold Spirit Island because it practically gave me anxiety over optimising moves!
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #320423 11 Mar 2021 22:25

adamr wrote: It's a very different beast to FFO. Odin does that thing where there are a hundred different things you could do (like lots of Uwe's), whereas Viscounts is about finding the best combinations of a much smaller set of choices.

The other thing to remember is that Uwe's games are beat your own score, whereas this is win/lose vs an automa. I actually wrote a piece about this just today!


Thanks, that is helpful. A game where the ending is "look at this table and see where your score ranks on a chart" isn't very satisfying, even in otherwise really good solo games like Nemo. Beating a robo player is better for me.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #320436 12 Mar 2021 07:01
I'll still play Uwe games solo because I still enjoy the puzzle, but yeah, the ending is never satisfying.

I really love FFO solo. Not having an AI and instead having your previous round be the obstacle is less to deal with and kinda neat.

Thanks for bringing more Euro coverage to the site, BTW. I've enjoyed your work so far.
adamr's Avatar
adamr replied the topic: #320437 12 Mar 2021 07:09
That's his solo signature. Nusfjord makes such clever use of it in the campaign mode. Often in his games you choose a deck of cards, and you see/use some of them. In the campaign you play three back-to-back games. The first game uses half the cards (as normal), the second game uses the remaining half, and the third uses a random mix of the things you didn't build in the first two games. The fact you can play the entire thing in less than two hours is great.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #320443 12 Mar 2021 08:47
The biggest problem I have with heavy euros nowadays is that they're such a colossal pain in the arse to learn and teach.

Euros, in general, have a thematic disconnect where the rules don't "make sense" because they represent the parameters of a puzzle instead of a real-life thing. You can't anticipate how anything is going to work until you've got the whole picture, and even then it often takes a playthrough before the pieces start to fall into place.

Like, if you've ever played one hex and counter wargame, you already know half the rules to pretty much all of them. You have a movement allowance based on the unit's speed, because it makes sense that faster units travel further. And difficult terrain costs more to move over, because, y'know, it does. It just all makes sense. Euros aren't like that. You can't project forward to guess how bits of the puzzle are supposed to work.

Back in the day when games like Agricola were cock of this particular walk that was fine. But then designers decided the best way to add weight was just to cram in more and more resources to make the disconnect between collecting them and getting points even wider. That added more rules. Then some bright spark decided you could have multiple puzzles with multiple resources all on the same board! Great! Except it's *even more* rules that don't make any damn sense until you've seen them in action.

Given, then, that I tend to like lighter games in any case, and games with high player interaction, and that a complex rule set is the number one thing that puts me off games nowadays, you can imagine that heavy euros just don't pique my interest much. The likelihood of me enjoying them is just too low to be worth the monumental effort of learning them. I'm sure I'm missing out on some great games, but hey, you can't play everything.

This turned into more of a long rant than I intended. I'll stop now.
adamr's Avatar
adamr replied the topic: #320444 12 Mar 2021 09:16
A lot of that comes down to the game, and the designer. Stefan Feld loves to throw everything in one pot (Bonfire, Trajan), and while they are difficult to learn how to tie together, they are at least balanced. By the same notion though, I wouldn't want to teach Bonfire.

Grab something by Uwe Rosenberg though, and although still heavy, they're thematically more sound, and less in terms of moving parts. Hallertau, his most recent, for example - there are a ton of places to put workers, but it's all at least logical. You get some sheep from the market, great, you get more wool this turn. You want meat on a later turn, send the sheep to slaughter. When you plant crops in a field, the next round the yield for the field slips down one. You leave it fallow for a round, it goes up. But that's all you do on a turn - place one or more cubes in a single space on the board, take the stuff they produce, spend the stuff.

The same is true of Viscounts, it's really not too hard to teach or understand. Turn a card over and put it on your board. The number in the corner is how far you can move. The things you can spend, are the values visible on your board. Then you either buy stuff, or trade one of three resources to get one of three rewards. And in a grossly simplified way, that's it.

As with the very best euros though, it's what you do with those simple actions, and the strategy you come up with for getting what you want, that's where the weight comes in. It's not that you have to do a million different things and learn how to do them all, it's that there are only a few, but a lot of choice over when and where you do them. A heavy euro doesn't have to be complex. Some are, but not all. After my first play of Hallertau, I've never had to open the rule book for a rules reference, the same with Nusfjord. I can't say the same of a lot of lighter games in my collection.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #320453 12 Mar 2021 10:09
I moved that meta site tangent to its own thread, as it had value, but this thread is clearly more for specific reactions to the game in question.
jeb's Avatar
jeb replied the topic: #320465 12 Mar 2021 10:47
This game looks really pretty on the table and that is already getting my juices flowing. Remember all those totally abstract games without vowels? GRNDL and VRTBK or whatever? Those were so spartan I couldn't see anything to attach to. But a (kind of sloggy, passive-aggressive) game like CARCASSONNE: THE CITY still gets plays from me because I want to take a picture of the board at the end of every game.

A question for Adam though, is what is driving that close scoring? I don't recall who pointed this out (Uba?), but some games have close scores because players of equal skill end up with the same chances. But some games have close scores because the game is badly designed and you can't help but end up 20-19-18-18 because choices don't matter if the point soup is rich enough. If someone is bad at this game, will they get washed?
adamr's Avatar
adamr replied the topic: #320468 12 Mar 2021 11:16
It's actually good game design in my opinion. There are basically three things to 'do' in the game: place buildings, place guys in the castle in the middle, or collect manuscripts. All of them have points bonuses that snowball, so placing your last few buildings for example, is worth far more points than the first few.

What this all means, in my experience anyway, is one of two things. Either players concentrate on a separate path, so can both rack up the points, or players compete in an area, which stops one of them running away with it. What you're left with then are the small differences. Clever planning and play means someone can do slightly better than others.

The other bit that's really nice is the deeds and debts. Getting to a limit of either of them drawn throughout the game triggers the end. But if you trigger it through revealing a last deed card, for example, it's the player with the most debt cards who gets the bonus. It leads to a really nice cat and mouse feel when a deck gets close to the end.

The only trouncing I've seen is me, being beaten by one of the four AI boards. The cleric one is a beast!
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #320479 12 Mar 2021 12:08

adamr wrote: Grab something by Uwe Rosenberg though, and although still heavy, they're thematically more sound, and less in terms of moving parts. Hallertau, his most recent, for example - there are a ton of places to put workers, but it's all at least logical ...

... After my first play of Hallertau, I've never had to open the rule book for a rules reference, the same with Nusfjord. I can't say the same of a lot of lighter games in my collection.


Ah, but it's very much about what you get used to and how your brain is used to digesting information. I couldn't make head nor fishy tail of Nusfjord. Didn't get on much better with Architects of the West Kingdom, either, which made me immediately suspicious of this.

That said, you make a great point about Uwe Rosenberg. He really is very good at using these particular kinds of design tools to make thematically coherent games, although Le Havre is a terrible offender for the sort of nonsense I'm talking about. I probably ought to give some more of his stuff a try: Le Havre put me off terribly. Maybe I'll take a look at Hallertau.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #320491 12 Mar 2021 13:28

jeb wrote: A question for Adam though, is what is driving that close scoring? I don't recall who pointed this out (Uba?), but some games have close scores because players of equal skill end up with the same chances. But some games have close scores because the game is badly designed and you can't help but end up 20-19-18-18 because choices don't matter if the point soup is rich enough. If someone is bad at this game, will they get washed?


You know, point spread manipulation and "catch up" mechanisms is a great topic. I love the slinky effect of Power grid that retards the leader enough that other players can get past them with enhanced options in the auction and resource buy phases. I further love that it is an advanced tactic to DELIBERATELY slow your progress to exploit this mechanism at the right time.

So for me a tight race to the end as an inherent part of game design isn't inherently a bad thing, so long as skill still has a place. Nobody likes playing a game for the last 2 rounds when they know they are losing and nobody else likes it when that inevitable loser can chose to play kingmaker in some fashion instead (unless the game is like Diplomacy).