The Castles Of Burgundy looks like Stone Age, plays a little like Glen More, but in terms of getting into it, it reminds me of 7 Wonders: The rules are complex and not that well-written, but gameplay is quick and strategy manages to be deep without becoming too much like work. It’s also one of the best uses of dice I’ve seen in a strategy game, utilizing them in a way that introduces a small element of randomness without throwing the game off balance or becoming a game of too much luck. The game plays two to four, with two-player games taking 30-45 minutes, and at just under $30 it’s one of the best values in German-style games.
So here’s a warning – I’m going to walk through all of the rules, which will make this game seem more complicated than it actually is. If you want the review stuff, skip down to the break.
In Castles of Burgundy, each player has a game board of hexagonal spaces that s/he will try to fill over the course of the game by acquiring various tiles from six different depots on the central board. On a turn, each player rolls two dice in his own color, with each one representing a potential action associated with the number rolled. (Therefore, you get two actions on each turn.) Possible actions include:
* Taking a hexagonal tile from the depot bearing the same number that the player rolled.
* Placing a previously-acquired hexagonal tile on a space on the player’s own game board that bears the number of the die and has the same color as the tile.
* Selling goods of the type indicated by the number on that die.
* Acquiring two worker tiles. Playing a worker tile allows the player to add or subtract one from any rolled die, including going from 6 to 1 or 1 to 6.
On each turn, a player may also spend two Silverings (coins) to buy one of the tiles in the black market, a central depot of four to eight tiles of all colors, not tied to any die rolls. This is critical to completing regions or maximizing point values, so getting Silverlings along the way is also critical; most of your silverlings will come from selling trade goods, adding mine hex tiles, and adding bank building tiles.
The purpose of the game is to earn the most victory points, and the variety of possible strategies in Castles of Burgundy comes from the myriad ways in which to earn points. There’s no single, ideal strategy, at least not that I’ve found, but the best approach is to build whatever you can early and then go for hex tiles later that add the most value to what you’ve already placed. In other words, what you play in the first round or two should determine what you do in rounds three through five. (The game comprises five rounds of five turns each.) The main ways to earn points, either during the game or at its end, are:
* Filling a contiguous region of one color on your board. This earns you a bonus tied to the number of hexes in that region, equal to (x2+x)/2 if you’re math-inclined, as well as a bonus tied to the round in which you fill the region, with the latter bonus declining as the game goes on. So filling a five-hex region in round two gets you 15 points for the region, plus 8 points for filling it in the second round.
* Filling every hex of a specific color on your board before your opponents. There’s a bonus of 5-7 points for doing it first, and 2-4 points for doing it second, depending on how many players there are.
* Placing pasture tiles with animals on them. These bonuses repeat themselves if you place more tiles with an animal type you’ve already placed. So if you place a tile with four cows on it, you get four points; if, in the same region, you later place a tile with three cows, you earn seven points.
* Selling goods. When you sell a stack of goods, you get two points per good sold, plus one silverling coin.
* Placing watchtower buildings, which are worth four points apiece. One beige region, used for buildings, may not contain two buildings of the same type, so there’s a cap on this bonus, unless you place the yellow tile that waives this restriction.
* Placing yellow “knowledge” tiles that provide additional bonuses at the end of the game, such as four points per bank placed, or four points per different animal type on your board.
If that feels a little dry, it looked that way when I first cracked the rule book, but the actual game play is far quicker and smoother than you’d think. Your set of possible decisions is broad, but not overwhelming, and once you’ve played the game a little bit, you will find it easier to zero in on the set of sensible moves. The fundamental pair of actions in the game is taking a tile and placing it on your board, and since you only have three spaces to store a tile you’ve acquired but not placed, you have to balance those two actions – often just by using your two allotted actions to take a tile and then place it. There are numerous ways to get bonus actions as well, such as placing castle tiles or placing certain building tiles, allowing you to extend your turn, but the main conceit is the same: You want to fill up most of that hex board, and do it in a way that’s internally consistent to max out your points. With two players, you won’t find yourself competing much with your partner for tiles or goods you want, but with three or four the competition for specific moves will be more severe.
I’m not thrilled with the physical design of the game or its box, which doesn’t allow for easy storage. (Small World remains the champion there). The theme is mostly irrelevant here and not that well integrated to gameplay; you’re supposed to be a medieval land baron filling out cities or regions on an estate, but there’s very little sense to what buildings or tiles go on certain regions, and no sense that you’re building a cohesive unit on your board. There are a lot of small hexagonal tiles, some of which need to be shuffled for each game, and shuffling small cardboard tiles is like herding cats. I also found the rules to be a bit unclear, especially with the various building and knowledge tiles that have special functions that required us to keep the rulebook handy throughout the game.
The best aspect of the game is the tension between what you know you want or need to do to increase your points and what the dice and the random supply of tiles will allow you to do. That tension will be increased with more players; the supply of tiles scales to the number of people playing, but also increases the chances that one of your competitors will take the tile you want, forcing you to spend more time considering the timing element of your moves, which isn’t as present when playing with two players. Replay value here is fairly high, thanks to the dice element and to the inclusion of several different player boards – everyone can play on the basic board, or you can use one of the four alternative boards included in the base game, meaning each player would have a different estate to fill. It’s more complex than Stone Age, less so than Le Havre, on par with Glen More, and like the latter game it’s much easier to play once you’ve stumbled through a game or two. I’d also compare it in complexity to Puerto Rico, but without the one semi-dominant strategy (shipping) of that particular title, and a little more fun to play because it moves faster once you’ve got everyone on board.
Just a heads-up – I’m hoping to review three more games before doing this year’s rankings: Navegador, Yspahan, and Oregon. If time doesn’t permit that, I’ll post the rankings the week before Thanksgiving no matter what.