“Viceroy! Their general is advancing on us, and they’ve sent an assassin as well! Should we bolster our scouting network, improve our army or mine for more gems? Will science, magic or defence save us? Can we pass a new law to get the populace on our side? We await your instructions, sir!”
Designer: Yuri Zhuravlev
Publisher: HobbyWorld, Mayday Games, others
Viceroy‘s a short civilization-themed tableau-building game, with the tableau taking the form of a pyramid of cards that you play in front of you, and one of the neat twists is that the character cards (most of the cards you’ll be obtaining and playing) have different powers depending on what level of the pyramid they’re on. You’re also building different economic engines, collecting various sets and competing in auctions, which can result in mutually-beneficial arrangements or tough jockeying for particular cards. The thematic idea is that you’re creating your own kingdom and going up against others in the fantasy world of Laar, generating resources, magic, science, offence and defence. All in all, it makes for a satisfying brain-burner that can be played in an hour or less, one with significant replay value and a solid solo game. However, while there’s a lot to love here, and while it’s a game that thoroughly works for me, it also feels like one that’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
This game is all about the cards, and they come in two main forms, character cards and law cards. Each player starts by choosing two character cards out of an initial hand of four, playing one in front of you to start the game and keeping the other in your hand while returning the unwanted ones to the deck. They also receive three law cards to their hand and take two gemstones in each of four colours behind their player screen, then return two gemstones to the supply. 48 of the overall 64 character cards are then shuffled and used as the large deck, with the remainder (eight to 14, depending on the number of players) shuffled and used as a small deck that’s available for further card draws. Four cards are then revealed from the character deck and placed at the base of the arrows by each colour of gem marker in the middle of the board; this is the initial auction supply.
(A word on the components: I backed this on Kickstarter and added plastic gems and a playmat to my pledge, so a non-Kickstarter version or a version without those add-ons may not look as pretty. However, the game’s just as functional without them, and should provide the same experience regardless of whether you have the upgrades or not.)
The gems play a crucial role in this game, both in the auctions and then later when building your pyramid. First, those auctions. They’re simultaneous blind-bids, with each player either putting a certain colour of gem in their hand to indicate that they want to take a character card next to that gem marker in the middle or revealing an empty hand to pass and regain some gems from the supply. In the first round, there’s only one card by each marker; after the first round, unbought cards move up, so there can often be two by a single marker. If there are no conflicts, each player pays their gem and takes their card. If two players bid the same gem and there are two cards available by the marker, they can decide on which to each take. If more than two players bid the same gem, if two players bid the same gem on two cards and can’t resolve the dispute, or if two or more players bid the same gem on a single card, their bids are lost and they move to a subsequent auction.
An interesting note here is that the rules permit pre-bid reveal negotiations, so you can arrange it so no gems are lost to conflict, but this may require players being willing to take their second- or third-choice card. Auctions can be as friendly or as cutthroat as your group desires, or change over the course of the game, and both approaches have their benefits. There can be up to three auctions in a round, but each player can only get one card at most.
After each round of acquiring cards, there are up to three rounds of playing them, with everyone selecting a card and revealing them simultaneously. The rules state they come into play in ascending numerical order; that mostly doesn’t seem to be necessary, as there don’t seem to be any cards that provide immediate interactions with others’ tableaus, but as cards can let you grab further cards (from the law deck or the small deck of characters) or can let you pick up gemstones (and there are a limited number of each type of gemstone), there may be a few times where order is necessary. Generally, though, this phase can progress pretty quickly. It should be noted that you likely won’t play three cards in each round, as you’re limited to acquiring one per round from the auction (at best; that’s if you don’t pass to regain gems or get locked out by others’ bids) and can only get further cards through some cards that reward you with bonus draws.
To play a character card, you choose a spot in your pyramid and pay the appropriate cost based on the level. Each higher-level card has to be supported by two cards below it, so your first play will have to be first-level next to your starting card; after that, you start to have more options. Placing a card on the lowest level is the cheapest, costing only one gemstone (it’s indicated on the card what colour of gem you have to pay), but the rewards are usually better for putting them higher. To place a card on the second, third, fourth or fifth level, though, you have to pay the cost of that level and every level below it, and you only get the reward for that level (lower rewards are generally not cumulative, with the exception that you do have the option when placing a fifth-level card of taking all the lower rewards on it instead of just taking 15 victory points). Thus, playing one character card into your pyramid costs you the number of gems of the level it’s on. Law cards can be a nice way around this; they’re free to play on any level, and some of them can be very powerful. However, you only start with three and can only get more by playing character cards that let you draw extra cards.
What sort of rewards are there for playing cards? Law cards have a variety of effects, and often let you choose between them, while character cards tend to have one single kind of reward per level (with the higher levels usually being better). The most basic reward is to take a number of gemstones of your choice. There also are infinite gemstones for each colour, which let you take a gem of that colour from the supply and put it on the card; it can then be used to cover that gemstone’s cost once per round (but only in one of the three development phases, not in the auction phase). Some cards just give you victory points, some let you draw extra cards, some give you science tokens (which increase the gems you gain from passing), some give you magic tokens or tokens that increase the value of your existing magic tokens (which score at the end of the game), some give you attack tokens (which can be used to win bids without gemstones, or subtract points from others at the end) or defence tokens (which protect you from game-end attack tokens), and some boost the value of your completed circles.
Circles? Yes, that’s one of this game’s neatest twists. The character cards and law cards also have coloured quarter-circles in the top left and right corners and a coloured half-circle at the bottom. If you can get those to align for a complete circle (for example, red in the top right of a level-one card, red in the top left of its right-most neighbour, and red in the bottom of the level-two card above them), you instantly get a gemstone of that colour, and you’ll get further rewards at the end of the game. Completed circles are worth as many points as their highest level (so the preceding one’s worth two), but there are also tokens you can get from cards that boost the value of certain circles. This brings a whole different level of spatial thinking into which cards you obtain and where you play them. It doesn’t have to be perfect, either, as you can “paint” incomplete circles with leftover gems of the appropriate colour, so getting close can be rewarding too.
The end-game scoring of Viceroy shows how many different possible paths to victory there are. You’re rewarded for completed circles, for infinite gemstones (which count as completed circles on the level they’re at), for law cards that provide victory points, for victory point tokens on your cards, for magic (but you need to have both magic tokens and tokens that make magic tokens valuable), and for completed sets (each set of a science, magic and defence token gets you 12 points). Many of these different rewards can be a viable strategy to focus on, as can being a generalist with some points in each category.
This is also where some of the player interaction comes in; it’s useful to keep an eye on what opponents are doing, either to potentially deny them valuable cards or to make sure you’re not competing with them. A magic-heavy strategy is much simpler if others aren’t pursuing it, as is focusing on particular colours of completed circles. If others aren’t stockpiling attack tokens, defence won’t help you much, but if they are, defence can be crucial.
Overall, I find Viceroy a lot of fun. The tableau-building experience has some similarities to games like San Juan or Race For The Galaxy, but this doesn’t have the role-selection of those titles, and instead incorporates clever auctions and even more different ways to use cards. Where you play cards matters, both for the differing reward levels and for trying to get completed circles. This also means that the same card can have different value to you from game to game, depending on what resource you need at the moment and how it lines up with the other cards you have. That, plus the different point-generating strategies, reminds me a bit of 7 Wonders; card value can be highly situational, and taking cards others may desire or focusing on cards they’re likely to ignore can both be viable strategies.
The costs aren’t static, either, especially once you get a couple of infinite gemstones. That can make cards with those gems as costs much more attractive, whereas otherwise-cheap cards that don’t line up with your gem supply or infinite gemstones may not be worth it for you. There are other notable elements here, too, such as when to shift from a resource-producing engine to a point-generating one (also seen in games like Race For The Galaxy and Dominion, plus many others). This isn’t the most thematic civilization game out there, but it does have elements of those, and it plays much more quickly. There’s a lot to think about in Viceroy, especially for a 45- to 60-minute game, and if that sounds good to you, this may be a great game for you to seek out.
Something else that’s strongly in Viceroy‘s favour is the well-constructed solo game. The solo game plays pretty much the same as the main one except for the auction element, which is replicated by making your bid, then randomly drawing a gem from the reserve for the AI opponent (I use the base game’s central gem cards that were replaced by the playmat, as the actual gems can be differentiated by touch pretty easily). If their gem is different than yours, you get your card and their card is discarded; if it’s the same, you lose your gem and can proceed to a second auction (handled the same way) and a third one if they again match your card. It reproduces some of the auction’s tension without adding a lot of complexity. Beyond that, it’s just as much fun to build a pyramid without opponents. There’s no goal beyond “get a high score,” but that’s challenging enough, especially if played against yourself over multiple games, and for the minimal setup, cleanup, and play time, this can be an excellent title for solo gamers.
So, who isn’t going to like this game? Well, first off, those looking for a full thematic and immersive experience may want to go elsewhere. The game’s storyline of running an empire in the world of Laar, which combines magic and steampunk-style technology, works for me and makes it more interesting than just collecting generic cards, and the card art is very well-done and can help draw you into the world, but some imagination is required to make it feel thematic. The pyramid placement (how prominent each advisor is) and law cards can feel thematic, but some definitely will consider the theme not to be a strong part of this game. If you really want to run an empire, some civilization-building games may be a better bet.
Beyond that, it should be noted that there are plenty of ways to go wrong in this game, especially if you don’t build a strong-enough engine near the start. That can leave you having to pass frequently in auctions without getting much back, and that can be frustrating. It’s not a terribly-long game, so at least the frustration doesn’t last forever, but I’d recommend trying to give new players an idea of the importance of engine-building (and of infinite gemstones in particular). There are some excellent beginner tips along those lines in the rulebook. Players also should be advised that they’re often going to have a scarcity of gems, cards, or both. It’s not a game where you get to feel continuously-powerful; it’s a game of maximizing what you can do with limited resources. This is another challenge, too; experience does seem to help in Viceroy, so if you play it a lot and others don’t, they may not be thrilled with going up against you.
Another reason some may not like this game is the inability to interact directly with others’ tableaus, which some have said makes this feel like multiplayer solitaire. I tend to like interaction-limited games that let me focus on building an empire without substantial interference, so this isn’t an issue for me, and I feel like there’s plenty of interaction in the auction phase and in the collection of attack and defence tokens, but not everyone will agree. If you want to play a long civilization game that lets you rain destruction on your rivals, Viceroy isn’t it.
Overall, Viceroy‘s a game I quite like and one I’m very happy to own. It’s great as a solitaire game, and it can be a lot of fun with a group that enjoys it. It’s not going to be the right fit for every player or every group, though. I’d generally recommend it, but if you want a fully-thematic, interaction-heavy civilization game, you may want to look elsewhere.
Thoughts on Viceroy? Thoughts on what you liked and didn’t like about this review? What you’d like to see more of in the future? Leave them in the comments, or discuss them with us on Twitter or Facebook.