The biggest problem with purer strategy board games is that it can become clear about an hour in who is going to win. One player can rev up their in-game engine to the point that every turn they take feels twice as effective as yours and there’s nothing you can really do to interfere with their plans. You can then be forced to spend an hour or more limping along and doing your best while the game plods along to its already inevitable conclusion.
This effect feels particularly prominent in Paladins of the West Kingdom, designed by Shem Phillips - creator of the Viking-themed North Sea trilogy (Shipwrights, Raiders, Explorers) to which the West Kingdom series (in which Paladins is the second chapter, after 2018's Architects) is a follow-up - and SJ Macdonald. The board game focuses on players assigning a limited number of meeples to enable increasingly effective actions on future turns. Gathering momentum is crucial, but Paladins has no mechanic to help players catch up when they’re behind, which is particularly galling since it can take hours to learn and play. If you can get over that frustration, the game’s potent mix of flavour and strategy makes for a deeply satisfying experience.
Set in West Francia, the medieval kingdom that would become France, Paladins of the West Kingdom has players take on the role of a noble working to earn the most victory points by the end of the game through strengthening and defending their kingdom. The primary way to earn points is to raise your faith, influence and strength values, which also act as a cap on various actions, ensuring that players can’t just focus on a single strategy.
Two to four players all start with the same resources and abilities. Each turn, players draw three cards from the 12-card deck of the game’s titular paladins and choose one to play, one to put on the top of the deck and one to banish to the bottom of the pile. Each paladin has a special ability that modifies the rules for the turn, such as removing the cost of recruiting helpful townsfolk, provides a temporary buff to one of the core three values and determines two of the worker meeples you’ll be able to use that turn, which in turn affects what actions you’ll be able to take. You may want to stash the same paladin on top of your deck for several turns in a row, saving them for the perfect moment. Unfortunately the randomisation element can be frustrating when none of the special abilities are particularly useful for your given strategy and current board position.
Four more meeples are received based on drafting cards - there’s always one more card than the number of players so everyone gets at least some choice. Players then take turns assigning workers to take action on spaces on their board until they run out of resources or decide to pass, with the chance to save up to three workers for the next round. There’s a dizzying amount of options including gathering basic resources like silver and provisions, and more involved developments that require more resources and higher values as you focus on them. The game takes place over the course of seven turns and you’ll earn additional victory points for performing the same actions five to seven times.
Many of the actions are naturally connected. For instance, building fortifications requires an increasingly high influence value but earns you strength, while attacking outsiders requires strength and earns influence along with immediate rewards, such as more workers. On the other side, absolving sins provides a wide range of effects like acquiring provisions or additional labourers along with raising your piety, which is used to convert those same outsiders to your cause and gain strength and extra points at the end of the game based on what you’ve built or who you’ve defeated. The key is timing your value increases so that you’re ahead of the curve and don’t miss a turn ramping up.
You can accelerate your progress by praying, which lets you spend resources to remove your pieces from a space so you can use it again the same turn, but the hard limit on doing the same action seven times over the course of the game forces you to build multiple engines. This is the closest the game has to a catch-up mechanic, but players who have been able to gain extra resources throughout the game will also have an easier time diversifying than those who are struggling to gain traction.
While Paladins can feel like a struggle to get through at first, its rules eventually become intuitive.
Recruiting random townsfolk found on a shared centre track costs silver, but the investment is well worth it for the future reward. Each townsperson provides some sort of benefit when a specific action happens. Ideally you’ll stack these to favour the actions you plan on taking anyways, but the rewards are greater for actions that are not fully under your control. Attacking can earn you an extra provision or silver, which are used to pay for fortifying or absolving respectively, while paying off a debt can earn you additional workers which allow you to take more actions.
Debt is the game’s most entertaining gameplay element, earned by either recruiting townsfolk without paying their silver price or running afoul of the inquisition. There are six types of workers - labourers who can perform only generic actions; fighters, clerics, merchants and scouts who perform the actions you’d think they’d be appropriate for; and criminals who can do anything but earn you a suspicion card whenever you collect one. Those cards award zero to three coins from a collective tax pool, which is great for accelerating your plans.
The downside is that whenever that pool empties, the inquisition shows up and no amount of silver will pay them off. They’ll saddle whoever has the most suspicion with a debt card, which costs you points at the end of the game unless it’s been paid off through actions like absolving yourself or commissioning monks to make a pilgrimage to a central shared board. They’ll also take away half of your suspicion, making it that more tempting to rack up some more if you now have less than your fellow players. Paying off debt actually rewards you positive points, like the medieval equivalent of a good credit score. The result is that you’d be denying yourself important potential advantages if you avoid suspicion and debt entirely, but you need to stay aware of everyone else’s status lest you draw the inquisition’s ire at the wrong time.
While there is a shared board used for some developments and players are all competing for the same outsiders and townsfolk, the high number of viable strategies means that you’re likely to be able to act fairly unimpeded for the first few turns as everyone is ramping up. Turn order starts to matter a lot more on round three, when the first of five shared King’s Order cards are available. These cards have much more powerful effects than anything you can get from your own board, and there’s no way to get someone off them once they’re there until the next round. Beyond jockeying for those prized positions, it’s more likely for your progress to be blocked by another player by accident than through malice.
Paladins of the West Kingdom can be played solo, with the player using the same board and rules as the main game while their AI opponent uses a modified board and deck of cards indicating what random actions they’ll take. To compensate for the lack of intelligent strategy, the AI gets to ignore worker type limits and silver and provision costs. That advantage means that their engine can take off much faster than yours unless you’re both lucky and strategic. It’s even more disheartening to know you’re going to get crushed by unthinking cardboard than it is to see your friends pulling ahead. At least there will be no one to object if after a few rounds or an hour you decide to pack things up and start again with a new set of strategies.
While the game can feel like a struggle to get through at first, its rules eventually become intuitive and turns speed up as players gain confidence. Much like the power of West Francia’s rulers was tested over more than a century of conflict, Paladins of the West Kingdom is best appreciated over time. Several playthroughs will see you gather your own strength, before grasping the chisel, sword and cross to secure dominance over your friends.