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Games of the Year 2021: Chase on the charming and challenging Viscounts of the West Kingdom

Viscount me in.

Would it scandalize the readers to learn I don’t play many board games? Despite suffusing my day job with expensive boxes, I never manage to bring many to my table - at least, not nearly as often as pen-and-paper RPGs. That changed in 2021, and no title roped me back for another session more often than Viscounts of the West Kingdom.

Excuse my cheating a board game from 2020 to the top of the list, but I fell into a Garphill Games-sized hole this year and became stuck. The New Zealand team has a reputation for designing top-shelf solo experiences - arguably polished to a sheen in Viscounts - but this medieval midweight managed to capture my attention through a combination of depth, theming and challenge.

There’s a lot happening under Viscounts’ hood. Players compete to hold the peoples’ favour in a failing court surrounded by enemies, and the methods of achieving this goal are many - help the church compose manuscripts, aid villagers in constructing buildings, situate courtiers among the King’s inner circle, or simply seize control of the kingdom’s lands. The game ends once enough debt or deeds have been accrued, signaling the end of the old king’s reign either through prosperity or destitution.

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The elegance with which this seemingly complicated mess of mechanics plays out is a big part of the joy of playing Viscounts. Like other West Kingdom entries, worker placement composes the core of its engine - place viscounts on spots, exert influence to collect resources, invest those resources towards a goal. But the accompanying deckbuilding makes sense of what could be so much Eurogame noise by directing players towards very specific actions.

A player’s deck consists of villager cards that will aid their viscount by providing effects when played, as well as extra resources for completing tasks. These cards slide along a track where only three are active at one time, colouring the dominant strategy before hitting the discard pile. Even as I recruit and dismiss more powerful villagers into my retinue-as-deck, the best possible move is constantly changing depending on whose ruddy faces currently sit on the board.

In this way, Viscounts forces players to remain alert not only to their opponents but to their own path forward. Tossing out a squire one turn won’t do much in the moment, but that precocious brat could be key to installing a loyal duchess or lord in the highest echelon of court down the road. I needed to develop mental agility and a willingness to pivot even as my own deck evolved.

Viscounts of the West Kingdom layout image
There's a lot going on in Viscounts of the West Kingdom, but it all works together harmoniously.

This might be a good time to mention that I’ve never won a game of Viscounts of the West Kingdom. Shem Phillips and S J Macdonald’s finely tuned AI system has proven formidable, and while I’ve managed to close the gap to a few measly points, victory remains elusive. Importantly, none of these defeats have felt like a slog. It’s just one more mechanical puzzle to study and eventually unravel.

I know my opponents strategy from the outset because I control their board state, reading the queues from their special deck and watching their own engine develop. It reminds me of racing against time trial ghosts in the Mario Kart video game series (and other more realistic titles, I assume). I can’t win simply by copying their moves, but the AI can be understood and eventually outmaneuvered. The designers include four different priority setups for this imagined foe, giving me plenty more walls to climb after finally clinching that first victory.

Viscounts of the West Kingdom converted me into a Garphill fanboy. The Mico’s art style, which ranges across all of their cardinal direction motif games, sells the theming and fantasy, and the 3D castle at the center of the board gives the whole production a satisfying presence. But beyond all of that, this game wins my heart through the sheer audacity of kicking my ass over and over without once losing my respect.

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