Review: Paladins of the West Kingdom

It doesn’t matter what type of media you’re talking about–video games, movies, television shows, books, or board games–there are always certain cultural milestones that come along and provide a sense of definition. They aren’t always revolutionary, incontrovertibly changing the landscape from that day forward, but they are momentous nonetheless, reaching such a point of near-universality that it can seem strange to those in the community to discover someone hasn’t been exposed. Proclaiming that you haven’t is usually met first with shock–“How could you not have seen any Game of Thrones?!”–and then with evangelizing–“You absolutely have to watch the Marvel movies, I’ll lend you the first Iron Man to get you started!”

There have been a few games like that in recent years, a number that sometimes seems disproportionate compared to TV, movies, or music, until you recall just how many board games are being released every year. Being on the retail side of the board game industry really makes it obvious when one of those games arrives on the scene; we can remember it happening with Scythe, with Pandemic Legacy, and most recently, with Raiders of the North Sea.

We may have only played one out of those three…there’s just so many games out there!

Yep, as the caption states, despite there being four games, three expansions, and an RPG for Renegade Games’ “[Blank] of the [Direction] {Blank]” (BOTDB) series, until being sent a copy of Paladins of the West Kingdom for review, we hadn’t played any of them. And neither of us is really certain as to the reason for that! Honestly, the only things we can really blame are the sheer glut of games that have been stuffing the new release shelves in the past few years, and the fact that for all that the art is unique and interesting and we are well acquainted with the quality of games that Renegade is continually putting out (Brianna is obsessed with Overlight), the game series has never quite jived with our interests in terms of theme. It’s not that we have anything against this style of historical worker placement title, but for a pair of women who admittedly enjoy immersing ourselves in fantasy and science fiction worlds more than actual human history, they just didn’t seem to offer enough to draw our attention away from some of the other, admittedly flashier, games that have been coming out.

You may consider us suitably chastized. Paladins of the West Kingdom is a brilliantly designed, highly strategic cornucopia of interesting decisions and sleek interactions, and if it is representative of the quality of the other games in the series, we will need to revisit our gaming choices to slot Raiders, Shipwrights, Explorers, and Architects into our gaming rotation. Despite still not being what we might consider thematically interesting or original, this game has quickly made a home for itself in our top 10, and joins Bunny Kingdom as one of the only games in our collection that we are invested enough to box-top, tracking our scores for every game played on the inside of the box lid for posterity.

If you’re a fan of the BOTDB games already, this review might not contain anything especially new for you–you probably know exactly what to expect from this latest installment, and have likely had it on pre-order at your FLGS for months. If like us, however, you haven’t quite gotten around to playing any of the prior games and are wondering if it’s worthwhile jumping in at this point, allow us to give you some insight.

Note: A copy of Paladins of the West Kingdom was provided to us by Renegade Game Studios in exchange for an honest, comprehensive review.

The cover of the game box

Overview

The story of Paladins of the West Kingdom is, like other BOTDB games, set during human history. Players are taking on the roles of nobles in the Kingdom of the West Franks (part of what would eventually become France), who must take the safety of the outlying villages into their own hands against invaders on their nations’ borders. As nobles, players will recruit the local townspeople to assist, working to build up the Influence, Strength, and Faith of their lands in order to stave off the invaders, with a little extra help from the Paladins–the King’s finest knights.

Some of the Paladins from which the game derives its name.

In each of the 7 rounds of play, you will recruit 6 workers from the city, and send those workers out to perform various actions: building fortifications, hunting and trading, constructing outposts and commissioning monks, and either fighting off or converting the dangerous outsiders to your cause. The strength of each action is determined by your Strength, Faith, and Influence scores, and many of these actions will result in increasing one of those three, in addition to granting you bonuses, victory points, additional assistance, and resources. There are 6 different types of workers available to assist you in your cause: Scouts, Merchants, Fighters, Clerics, Criminals, and general Labourers, each of which has its own specialties.

At the beginning of each round, players draw three Paladin cards from their deck. Each Paladin provides two workers, temporary bonuses to one or more Attributes, and a special ability which is in effect only during that round. This presents the first strategic decision players can make on a round: choosing which Paladin to play, which to place back on top of the deck to be drawn the next round, and which to be buried at the bottom of the deck, never to be seen again. With the Paladins in tow, players then draft workers from the tavern, gaining an additional four workers to use during that round, and then take turns placing their workers on one of the 12 action spaces on their player boards. There are rules which must be obeyed concerning which workers can be used on which tasks; for instance, fighters and clerics together can Convert outsiders, but fighters will instead work with scouts to put down these dangerous attackers. Play continues around the table, with players taking one action at a time, until every player is forced, or decides, to pass. At this point, the round ends, upkeep is performed to reset the board, and the first player token is passed to begin the next round.

During the course of play, in between all the resource gathering and worker placing, the nobles (the players) can also accumulate Suspicion and Debt. Whenever a player recruits a Criminal to assist them for a round, they will draw a Suspicion card, and take the displayed number of coins from the communal tax supply. Whenever the Tax runs out, it immediately triggers an Inquisition, where the player(s) with the most Suspicion will be forced to take on additional Debt. Each Debt that remains unpaid at the end of the game represents a loss of 3 points, although there are ways to pay and even to destroy Debts entirely throughout the course of the game.

There are literally twelve different actions you can take on a turn; more if you count the two-tiered actions separately. And that’s not counting King’s Favours, which come into play later!

The actions that are available to players are widely varied. They can be as simple as sending workers out to trade or hunt for food, or trading a worker for a Criminal, which act as “wilds” when it comes to fulfilling worker requirements. The strength of many actions is determined by the level of one Attribute, and rewards players in another–for instance, players with more Faith can Commission more advantageously, and will be resulted with an increase in their Influence. A higher Influence will then allow players to either build additional Fortifications, which in turn increase Strength, or Absolve, which results in increased Faith. Many of these actions will also provide one-time bonuses of workers, resources, victory points, or other helpful actions, like paying Debt or removing Suspicion. Other actions, like Recruiting townspeople or Attacking Outsiders, can provide you with immediate or ongoing bonuses. For instance, recruiting Gatekeepers from the town will ensure that you take an extra bonus of some kind every time you take the Fortify action on future turns, and Attacking an Outsider can immediately grant you extra workers for use in that round. The actions form a complex web of interdependence, where every action you take impacts your ability to perform at least two other actions available on the board. As well, in later rounds, King’s Favour cards open up additional powerful action spaces on the central board, available to any player–but only the first player who manages to place a worker there.

Once 7 rounds have been completed, players tally up their victory points, with the highest score taking the win. Victory points can be accumulated in a number of different ways: there are five different actions that begin to pay out in VP once they’ve been performed 5 or 6 time; your Strength, Influence and Faith Attributes are worth more points the higher they are; Outsiders that you have Converted will each provide additional bonus scoring opportunities; the King’s Order cards, in the centre of the table, give you all additional goals to work towards for bonus points; your paid Debts are worth a point each; and the number of resources you have left to you at the end of the game will grant you a few extra points, as well.

First Impressions

While Paladins of the West Kingdom certainly isn’t hurting for depth when it comes to interesting gameplay combinations, it is pushing the limits when it comes to the depth of the box. This little square box is jam-packed with content, to the point that there isn’t even room for an insert. Everything fits, technically, but there’s not exactly a lot of wiggle room here. To be honest, we’re not really sure what would happen to this game if you tried to sleeve the cards; it’s such a tight fit already that any extra content might result in a box that’s literally filled to bursting.

The rulebook is thick and wordy, but only as much so as the somewhat complex nature of the game requires. There are a lot of action spaces on that board, a lot of moving pieces that go into making this game flow the way that it does, and we will always appreciate dense but clear instructions over brief and vague. There are plenty of examples provided, and rather than crunching everything into as few pages as possible, Renegade Game Studios has provided plenty of breathing room, which allows for both verbal and visual learners to digest the information.

Mihajlo Dimitrievski returns to do the artwork for this latest installment in the series, which obviously lends a sense of cohesion and continuity that makes the game box and artwork for Paladins easily recognizable as belonging to the same family of games. It’s an art style that has its share of divisiveness–there are some folks who are really into the look of the games to which he’s lent his artistic talents, and others who dislike it–but it is unique. Art is, of course, subjective, but in our opinion, we would rather see something distinct and interesting, like Dimitrievski’s work, than another iteration of technically beautiful but somewhat lifeless illustration.

The game does fall into the common pitfall that traps most games which are set in a historical European setting, which is that the characters on the cards might not provide the kind of representation we’d prefer to see in games. The argument, of course, is that the populations of these places were, at the time, overwhelmingly white, and therefore it makes sense for all the characters depicted in the game to also be white. In addition, while there is admittedly good gender representation in the Townspeople and Outsider cards–and not necessarily in historically accurate gender roles, as there are women in martial roles depicted on both sides–the Paladins themselves, heroes of the game, are all dudes. And every character who is not an Outsider is also very obviously white.

#BoardGamesSoWhite — but it is admittedly nice to have a decent cast of female characters balancing out the men, and not all in the usual “feminine” roles!

History doesn’t like to paint medieval Europe as a diverse place, but the truth is that the Middle Ages were incredibly racially diverse. People of colour have been present all throughout history, and not solely as slaves or perceived as sub-human. The argument that games (or any media, but we’re board-game focused here) need to exclude POC from their games in order to be “historically accurate” is kind of a lazy excuse. Besides this, the idea that board games need to portray any level of historical accuracy when it comes to skin colour or gender is just kind of pointless. Unless you’re depicting actual historical figures, it shouldn’t matter what race or gender your made-up characters are. This is a board game, after all, not a history textbook.

Now, to be clear: Paladins of the West Kingdom doesn’t make any claims about historical accuracy, and I’ve never seen anything that indicates that not including POC in the cast of characters–outside of the Outsiders–was a conscious choice. However, it is symptomatic of a default that we want more designers to be cognizant of, and actively challenge, because the fact that it’s so ingrained in our Western society that no one questioned whether maybe one of the eponymous Paladins should be a person of non-European descent is problematic.

The Outsiders are the most varied cards in the game, again split evenly between men and women, and the only ones depicting non-white characters.

COMPONENTS

I am known to gush about inserts on occasion; as alluded to earlier in this review, that isn’t going to be the case here. Paladins of the West Kingdom has no insert to speak of, and organizational ease has been sacrificed in favour of establishing a smaller shelf footprint. This isn’t a huge issue, as there isn’t a ton of sorting that is required, and there is just enough wiggle room to allow the smaller card decks and player board components to each have their own baggie.

As much as the box footprint is as small as they could possibly make it and still fit all that content, the table footprint is expansive. We play around a oval table that can seat up to 8, but getting even three players at the table can be a little bit of a challenge. The orientation of the game board is long and skinny, not leaving much room at either end, and both the central board and the player boards require cards to be placed above and below, resulting in a bit of a messy sprawl. That said, they are very well designed, with clear iconography and a place for almost everything.

The tokens are all made of a thick, glossy cardboard, which is nice to handle and doesn’t make me worry about eventual wear in the way a linen finish does, and the Coins of the West Kingdom package that Renegade released allows players to upgrade their cardboard currency to lovely clinky metal money. They are pricey, but they are very, very nice.

Piles upon piles of tokens. The coins in the foreground are those that come with the game; those in the back right of the image are the metal coins that can be purchased separately.

The player boards are similarly thick and robust, with reinforced hinges along the folds that feels like it’ll last a good long while. Because the solo mode boards are on the opposite side, they are designed to be folded either way, which means that no matter how you prefer to play your board will lay flat on the table–a very important feature in a game that relies on having so many bits moving around on the board, where a knock can spell disaster.

The workers in the game are all nice, good quality wood, with rich vibrant colours–although we would have liked to see more accessible colour choices and/or shape differences to denote the different classes. Neither of us has any type of colourblindness, but its still hard at times to immediately differentiate the blue, purple, and black workers when pulling them out of the mixed pile. A solution would be separating them into piles, but with the footprint of the game on the table already being so large, it’s easier to just keep them in one lump supply. Beyond accessibility, having the workers be different shapes might also have helped with theme immersion, making it easier to identify and remember the thematic names of the different workers, rather than resorting to referring to the colours as a shorthand.

Lastly, the cards are nice, a decent quality and weight of paper with a nice enough finish. They do see a fair bit of shuffling though, which means that we are already seeing the cards begin to bend and the edges chip, and sadly I don’t think there’s enough room in the box to sleeve them all. With the amount of play I expect this game to see in our home, it won’t surprise me if those cards begin to wear excessively; they’ll likely be the first thing to give out, unless we decide on an alternate storage solution to allow them to be sleeved.

It’s a miracle that everything fits back in the box, but the end result is a lot more portable than the typical 12-inch square.

Gameplay

When we first played the game we were both struck by how similar it felt in some ways to Orleans. The mechanics are entirely different–worker placement with drafting, vs worker placement with bag building–but the way that actions link together and can provide really neat, beneficial chains felt very similar. In addition, we appreciated the way that there are very few moments where you find yourself entirely stuck; much like Orleans, there is always some action available to you, and each action can open up its own path of strategy. There aren’t really any wasted actions; even if you do miscalculate, or find yourself with workers to spare and nowhere to use them, the game’s allowance of carrying forward as many as three workers to the next round ensures that such mistakes aren’t as costly as they might be otherwise.

The way the game allows you to manipulate your deck of paladins is one of the most interesting parts of the game. In a less well-designed game, this feature would lead to luck of the draw defining your strategy going forward, limiting the effectiveness of your actions and forcing you to either act in less efficient ways or play the game as the cards dictate, removing choice from the equation. Paladins of the West Kingdom avoids this potential pitfall through a couple of clever design choices. Drafting three paladins and choosing the one to play, the one to keep, and the one to pass over allows the players to direct the momentum of their game. The range of choice in the paladins’ abilities and bonuses means that you’re likely to always have a hand that offers you both long-term and short-term assistance; ways to gain those extra resources right now, if you find yourself short, or ways to really maximize your late game effectiveness. You aren’t punished for drawing one of those late-game cards early on, either, because the ability to put one card back on top of your deck means you can keep that paladin floating around until you’re ready to use him.

An example of a mid-game player board.

The ways in which the different actions can affect one another are deliciously meaty, making each round feel more like a puzzle than some worker placements can manage. Determining the exact actions you want to take, in what order, and ensuring each action is going to have the result you want–with no unforeseen consequences? It can be incredibly hard to keep track, and of course, there is always the chance for other players to throw a wrench in the works by claiming a card, a space, or one of the few communal action before you can get to it. But again, where Paladins really shines is in the fact that even if you do get thrown off course, there is usually at least one other viable route that you can take, either detouring slightly until you can get back on track or opening an entirely new path forward to hopeful victory. Sometimes, being forced to re-examine your options gives you an insight into an entirely new strategy that you hadn’t even considered before.

If there were one part of this game that still has me quirking a quizzical eyebrow, it would be the Inquisition and tax mechanic. Suspicion, Debt, and Tax seem at times to be almost superfluous; while they do absolutely have an impact on the game, unlike almost every other aspect there doesn’t seem to be a way to craft a strategy around them directly, and so whenever an Inquisition occurs it almost feels like a hiccup, an interruption in the flow of a game that runs extremely smoothly. We’ve played a handful of games thus far, so it’s entirely possible that we just haven’t unlocked the strategic potential around those cards, but for the first few games at least, while players are getting used to the way all the actions on their player boards affect what they can do and how they can do it, the mechanics around the Inquisition feel far less intuitive than the rest of it.

The double-sided Debt cards and the shifty character on the back of the Suspicion cards, which are the one element of pure, unmitigated random chance.

Games that involve a lot of upkeep between rounds can sometimes be overinflated in terms of complexity and length, but Paladins manages to just skirt the edge of that. Getting the board reset for each subsequent round can involve an annoying amount of card sliding at times, especially if no one has claimed any Townspeople or dealt with any Outsiders during that round, but overall it doesn’t do too much to interrupt the flow of the game. In addition, the upkeep required for Paladins is logical, something which can’t always be taken for granted. Remembering what needs to be done and ensuring everything is addressed between rounds is therefore a simple task.

The reason that the relative length of time spent on upkeep is important is because, for all that this is a complex, meaty game, it really isn’t overly long. The box suggests 90 minutes to 2 hours, but the two of us have cranked out games in as little as an hour. Once you’re familiar with how the game plays, what you’re doing and where everything is located, it really does tick along at a good pace; and even when the number of players expands the play time, it never feels like it’s dragging along. There is a good deal of potential for analysis paralysis, however, because of the equal viability of the options and the fact that one miscalculation can derail the flow of a player’s entire round, which means that the downtime between turns can end up extended by the frantic recalculating of an opponent who has just realized that they forgot to account for something in their well-laid plan.

Because of how well-balanced the game is, with every single strategy presenting viable options, it’s really difficult for any one player to surge ahead in victory points. Our matches haven’t been as tightly raced as in some other games in our collection, but we’ve yet to have a moment where one of us looks across the table at the other’s player board and feels like giving up. This is a game that does certainly reward long-term planning, but it’s not really possible to make bad decisions as much as less-optimal ones, which means that even an imbalance in strategic ability doesn’t preclude any one player from giving the others a run for their money.

Mid-game central board–it is literally impossible to get it all in one photo!

Pros

  • A well-balanced cornucopia of action and scoring opportunities;
  • Dynamic gameplay where every action has an impact on multiple other options;
  • Well-made components and unique artwork, in an economical box.

Cons

  • A very large table footprint (you’re going to need some space for this one);
  • The Tax mechanic, including Debts, Suspicion, and Inquisition, has yet to really cement for us as a part of the game;
  • Representation is somewhat lacking, although efforts were obviously made in some aspects.

Final Thoughts

Paladins of the West Kingdom is undoubtedly a gamer’s game–it’s accessible, but this style of strategy is something that might be intimidating to players more used to making just one or two decisions on their turn, or choosing between a handful of static options. We definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a first time game, or even for a group looking for the next level after the more usual gateway fare.

However, this game kind of exemplifies everything–or, almost everything–that we really love about modern board games. All of the various parts are well-integrated and flow smoothly, and despite the beefiness of the rule book, the game itself is relatively straight-forward to learn and teach. The dynamic impact each and every decision can make lends it a layer of well-crafted complexity. At no point does gameplay feel rote or routine; there’s a low current of tension from start to finish as players seek to maintain a balance of workers, resources, and actions, and a rewarding sense of excitement when you manage to pull off a well-executed plan.

It still has its problems, because as close as this may feel in some regards, we have yet to find a “perfect” game. But though imperfect, Paladins of the West Kingdom is a delight to play, and as mentioned in the beginning of this review, has rocketed its way into our own personal Top 10 in a very short period of time.

Those three Northern Outsiders are judging us for not having played their game.

So: which [Blank] of the [Direction] [Blank] should we play next?

Paladins of the West Kingdom is the fifth standalone game in the series, and the second set in West Francia. It was released on October 9th and is available from your FLGS!

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