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Castles of Burgundy

[Joe Huber is one of the few: a recognized voice in the worldwide gaming community as well as a published game designer whose credits include Ice Cream, Scream Machine and Burger Joint (the latter receiving an International Gamers Award nomination for best 2 player game of the year and cited as “Best In Category” for family games in the December 2010 issue of GAMES Magazine). Joe first appeared in these pages in the Fall 2006 issue with a review of Indonesia. This review is Joe’s 18th for GA Report and, in helping us celebrate issue 100, he tells us how he feels about the latest from Feld.]

(Alea/Ravensburger, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 30-120 minutes; $54.99)

 

Reviewed by Joe Huber

castlesboxStefan Feld has gained a reputation as being the house designer for Alea, as he has designed the last five “big box” games published by Alea. First up was Rum & Pirates, the lightest of his games for Alea and, not surprisingly, the lowest ranked on BoardGameGeek. Then came Notre Dame, which was very well received and featured one of the most clever board designs I’ve seen. In the Year of the Dragon (Spring 2008 Gamers Alliance Report), while oneof the more punishing games around, is actually the highest rated of the series. Macao (Spring 2010 GA Report) introduced a very clever use of standard dice, forcing players to choose between receiving fewer resources sooner or more resources later. With The Castles of Burgundy (Die Burgen von Burgund), Feld again turns to dice as a central mechanism, but here with the tradeoffs centered around which of many desired choices is to be selected for each die.

The game consists of five rounds with five turns each round. Each turn, everyone rolls two dice with four available choices for each die.

The first choice is to collect a tile. However, only three may be stored; if a fourth is taken, one must be discarded.

The second choice is to play a previously collected tile onto your board. Each tile has a limited number of possible spaces, each marked with a number of pips. Playing a tile gives various benefits: immediate victory points, end of game victory points for various accomplishments, income, extra actions, going earlier in the turn order and collecting goods or, in the case of buildings, one of a group of eight special abilities depending upon the type of building. If a section (consisting of between one and eight connected spaces) is completely covered, bonus victory points are earned. In addition, bonus chips are awarded to the first and second person to cover all spaces of each color.

The third choice is to sell goods, earning victory points and some money.

Finally, any die may be used to collect two counters, each of which may be used to adjust a die by one pip including adjusting from 1 pip to 6 pips or vice-versa. In addition, players may buy a tile for two silver, which are available as income, for selling goods, or via one type of building. At the end of the final turn of the final round, the player who has earned the most total victory points wins.

The very most important thing a game can offer, in my opinion, is options. There must be multiple ways to approach a game, interesting things to do (both individually and collectively) and the choices one makes must have an impact. This is a place where The Castles of Burgundy excels. While there are more options at the start of each round after new tiles have been put out, even late in a round there are often many options – particularly since in the worst case a player can use onedie to gain two counters. For any given single die needed, the only case in which two dice can’t gain the action is when the roll is doubles of the exact opposite required. For example, if a 4 is needed, it can be managed with any roll except for 1 – 1. With 1 – 2, the next worst case, the 1 can be used for two counters, and the two counters applied to the 2 to make it a 4.

What makes this work well is the fact that any type of tile can be collected or ignored. Mines, which generate income, have significant use in the purchase of tiles, including some tiles which are particularly valuable. But I’ve seen players win with no mines, or with a full complement of mines; either can work. I’ve seen players do well by collecting many goods of one type, so as to most efficiently convert them into victory points, or selling single goods so as to make more money. It’s very useful to go early in the turn order – but again, I’ve seen players do just fine always going last. As with a number of games, I’ve seen claims that particular aspects of the game are too strong. When those claims all point to the same element, that concerns me. But when, as with The Castles of Burgundy, I see the claims point to many different elements, my expectation is that the game is balanced with many elements which can be used very effectively.

Another criticism I’ve heard of the game is that it’s too tactical. Good tactical play is obviously important but I’d argue that the game is in fact primarily strategic; filling sections of the estate is critical, as are the bonus chips and the tiles which provide bonus victory points at the end of the game. I’ve never seen a relentless focus on optimal tactical choices win the game. Complaints about not having enough to think about when not your turn and the game going on too long suggest to me that folks aren’t paying enough attention to the strategic side of the game.

castlesburpcsOther complaints I’ve heard are more a matter of taste. The Castles of Burgundy has been described as multi-player solitaire and does have much in common with other games so described. The only interactions are in claiming tiles, claiming goods, and in claiming bonus chips. Those who insist upon direct interaction in their games are likely to be disappointed. Another complaint is that the game isn’t closely tied to the theme and it’s a fair criticism. All of the game mechanisms work well but nothing really evokes the theme.

While not a complaint, I’ve heard a number of folks note that they much prefer the game with three players and others note that they prefer the game with four. One of the brilliant choices in Macao was the inclusion of significantly more cards than will be seen in any game, regardless of the number of players. The Castles of Burgundy makes a different choice; there are exactly enough tiles for a four player game, such that anyone familiar with the game can count on a tile of particular interest showing up at some point. With three players, this isn’t the case; a quarter of the tiles won’t be seen. I’ve heard from some who strongly prefer the certainty of the four player game, and others who enjoy the unknown distribution of the three player game. While I agree that they have a different feel, I personally enjoy the game with either number.

The Castles of Burgundy is well produced but by no means lavish. The tiles are both rather thin and a bit small; I’ve seen many players have difficulty in telling the difference between the buildings, in particular. The colors are also not ideal; the yellow tiles do not seem to be the same color yellow as on the player boards; I’ve seen this cause confusion a number of times. The player boards are card stock thickness, rather than cardboard which is sufficient but not up to the standard of Puerto Rico. The inclusion of English (as well as French) instructions in the standard edition of the game is a very welcome development. Otherwise, the production is average; functional but with nothing to distinguish it.

Finally, while there are basic player boards for each player, there are eight additional player boards, one on the back of each player board and one on each side of two additional boards. The inclusion of these additional boards is a nice addition for the variety it offers. I’ve only played with them once and they definitely change the game – but those who have tried them more often claim that this isn’t always an improvement. The basic board pushes players to compete in ways that don’t occur with the variant boards. On the whole, I suspect they’re a nice addition for those who enjoy variety but unlikely to hold long-term interest for serious players.

Alea has been around as Ravensburger’s gamer’s label for over a decade now but the gaming landscape has changed a lot over that time. Today, there are far more publishers aimed at the “gamer” market, providing much more competition for top designs. It’s impressive, then, that Stefan Brück has continued to find such interesting designs for Alea. In the case of The Castles of Burgundy (Die Burgen von Burgund), however, I’m even more impressed by the impact he had on the game. I had the opportunity to play the game as a prototype nearly a year before its release and the phrase that came to mind to describe the game was “untapped promise”. The game was too long, and not a clean design. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover how much the game had changed; it is now a strong game, and one of my favorites of the past year.

I understand that there are currently no plans to publish an English-specific edition but instead for Alea/Ravensburger to directly distribute the game. It is not difficult to obtain imported copies, though somewhat more expensive. Because of that, and the fact that I’ve not seen many folks who really love the game (though most seem to enjoy it), it’s a game I must recommend seeking out the opportunity to play before purchasing or waiting until the game is more readily acquired. Those who aren’t fond of Macao or who don’t like the uncertainty of dice rolling, might be safest avoiding the game altogether. But closing in on completing my first ten plays, I’m very much looking forward to the next ten.

 


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