So it seems that at the moment, golden boy of boardgaming Stefan Feld can do no wrong. We’ve extolled the merits of a few of his games over the last couple of months here on littlemetaldog.com and – surprise surprise – here’s another glowing write up. This time we’re journeying into medieval era France as we take on the tricksy and delightful The Castles of Burgundy, a game that combines a little bit of chance with more options than a high-end car showroom.
From the start, I’ll say that Castles is not for everybody – if you’re the kind of person who complains that Dominion is nothing more than multiplayer solitaire, I’d avoid even picking up the box. What little interaction there is in the game is limited to someone snatching away a tile that you had your eye on before play managed to get around to you. It’s an exercise in brain burning where you’re constantly having to change your plans depending on what kind of things are available for do.
So, how does it work? Despite the multitude of choices, the way the game is played is simple. Each player has a board comprising of thirty seven hexagonal spaces, themselves formed into a large hexagon that represents the land you’re trying to build on. A central board is filled with tiles that are split into six groups and refreshed at the beginning at each of the game’s five phases. By rolling two dice at the beginning of your turn, you’re given the chance to spend whatever you roll and pick up a tile from that area – so, roll a 5 and you get to choose something from the space marked with the same number.
Taking one of those tiles doesn’t mean that you get to add it to your board immediately, though. Three spaces are found at the bottom left of your playmat where you must put a tile first – sort of holding it in transit for a while – before it gets to become a part of your settlement. Again, a dice must be used to ‘build’ the tile, as each space is also numbered. You may think this is limiting in the extreme, and you’d be right in thinking that. Thankfully, players have worker tiles that can be spent to add or subtract from whatever you rolled, allowing for a bit of manipulation.
Those tiles come in many different types, each one offering a little boost or way to skew the rules in your favour. Grey tiles represent mines, giving you an extra silverling (the game’s currency) at the start of each phase that you can spend on a selection of more randomly selected tiles found in the centre of the communal board. Yellows are all about bonuses, screwing with the rules and generally boosting your powers. Greens are farm animals and can prove an immense boost as each time you add one of the same type – sheep next to another sheep for example – the points stack.
The Blue tiles add to your rivers, meaning that you take goods from the central board for you to sell; the more you sell of the same type, the higher the points return. Dark Green tiles are the Castles that give the game its name, and these allow an extra play of… well, whatever you like. They’re incredibly powerful and should be used wisely. Finally, the Brown Building tiles offer the widest variety of options as each type gives you a different ability.
Some bestow money or extra workers on you, while others allow for the immediate grab of another tile from the board or the placement of extra ones to your play area. A true master of Castles of Burgundy will be able to put together a truly impressive chain of these, transforming the two standard actions that you normally get in a turn into a parade of hexes being taken from here and added to there, all of which sending that final score into the stratosphere.
It can feel that pretty much everything gives you points in Castles; selling goods, finishing off areas of land, getting animals… keeping track of everything that’s going on with your board as well as what’s available (and what’s been taken!) from the central area requires a sharp mind and plenty of focus. Managing to do so is a valuable skill, and it’s that skill that will raise you above other players of this game. As with all of Stefan Feld’s creations, Castles is a game that rewards multiple plays and the investment of your time. While you learn and develop your strategies, you’ll also have to cope with the luck of the dice rolls and the random element of what tiles will actually get pulled out at the start of the phases. Adaptability is key – if something isn’t working for you, a change of plan can often be a better choice than sticking desperately to course.
If I were to have any criticism, it’d be the downtime you get with three or four player games. It’s far from a dealbreaker, of course, but I much prefer to break out Castles of Burgundy as a two-player effort. Not only does it mean that you’re almost always engaged, it gets the play time down to a very manageable thirty to forty minutes – ideal if you’re filling time while waiting for others to arrive. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy playing with more than two though – it’s still an excellent game with three or four around the table, but for a speedy yet deep experience, Castles of Burgundy is hard to beat.
The Castles of Burgundy was originally released in 2011 by Ravensburger / Alea and is designed by Stefan Feld. Between two and four can play with games taking between 30 – 60 minutes. Copies from Gameslore are a bargainous £24.99, so head on over and grab yourself a truly great game.