The complex strategy game Caylus is one of the top-rated games on Boardgamegeek, a site where voters tend to favor intricate games with pages upon pages of rules and little to no luck involved. It’s the kind of game I can’t imagine playing as a rookie against someone who’s played a few times – an experience I had with Agricola that ended up with me getting my ass handed to me by a slightly more seasoned player (who is, most likely, about to read this review). It’s also the kind of game that makes me say I’m not a “serious” boardgamer – I love smart games, but the complexity and length of games like Caylus (and Agricola, and Le Havre, for which I still owe everyone a review) keeps them off the top tier of my own list.
So I’m pleased to report that the Caylus app for iOS is very strong, with outstanding graphics, a very easy-to-use layout (no mean feat given the amount of information a player might need midgame), and, after a recent update, no issues with stability. The AIs could be better, and the rules included in the app are not sufficient, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to play and keeps you thinking the entire time – 15-20 minutes for a game against AI players. (I have yet to try this multiplayer, but that is available through GameCenter.)
Caylus is a worker-placement game: Each player has a small number of workers to place each turn on buildings that might return money, resources, or points; allow the exchange of some of those things for others; or allow him/her to construct something of value. Caylus operates around five resources, the value and supply of which fluctuate as the game progresses, and offers multiple paths to victory (although I found one the AIs just can’t seem to beat*). There’s really no luck involved, and because most buildings on the board allow just one worker per turn, each decision, from small to large, requires the player to consider not just his own future moves but those of every opponent as well.
* The strategy requires gold, the scarcest resource in the game. A human player would see that I was stockpiling gold and certain other resources and would at least try to made it harder for me to get gold from the gold mine, the one place to get gold for no cost beyond the cost of the worker. A human player would be trying to get gold for himself anyway. But the AI players don’t do either of these things, and I don’t think the AI players are that good at pursuing points via multiple, simultaneous strategies. I’ll come back to that.
The centerpiece of the game is the castle, which players build in blocks during three separate phases, after which their contributions to the castle are scored. Building certain numbers of blocks, or just building the most in any particular turn, grants the player one or more “royal favors” – money, a resource, victory points, or the ability to build a building at a discount. Failing to build at all in any of the three phases costs a player two victory points, but the opportunity cost is just as significant.
The graphics in this app are the best I’ve seen for any boardgame app so far, clear, bright, and very easy to look at for the length of a game. The layout is another strength, with critical information available in a left-hand sidebar that the player can rotate through several screens or can shrink to half its size to see more of the board. Moving workers is straightforward, and in the banner on the right from where the player drags a worker the app displays key info like money remaining (since placing a worker costs at least one unit of money).
I found the AI players all pretty easy to beat, working my way up from a two-player game against the easiest AI opponent to a five-player game against the two strongest AI players and two more from the next level of difficulty. The primary problem is that the AI players can’t detect a human player’s long-term strategy – an issue evident in other apps and one I expect to see in the upcoming implementations of Agricola and Le Havre. The simpler the game, generally the simpler it is to program a strong AI, either because it can pursue an optimal strategy that’s hard to beat or because the tree of potential human-player moves isn’t that wide.
The lack of in-game information is the other flaw here, one that creates a steeper-than-necessary learning curve for new players. The rules and tutorial show you how to use the app more than they show you how to successfully play the game. Buildings aren’t marked on the board; their icons are unique, so a player can look in the building directory in the left-hand sidebar and try to match them up, but allowing a player to tap any building and see its identity would be an easy addition. The app will also allow a player to select a favor that s/he can’t afford, with no opportunity to undo it as a player would have when playing the physical game.
For $4.99, I’ve already gotten my money’s worth from Caylus, spending close to three hours total across all games I’ve played so far. I’ll still play it occasionally, but they’ll need to offer a better AI for this to be something I continue to play regularly without GameCenter (and since I play on planes, that’s a key issue for me). The weaker AI makes the app more of a Caylus tutorial, or even an advertisement for the physical game – albeit a very slick, easy to use one, once you figure out the rules, which you might have to do outside of the app. It’s really well done, and if they can offer a stronger AI player down the line, it’ll join that top tier of boardgame apps.