2-4 players, 30-90 minutes
designed by Stefan Feld
reviewed by Stuart Dagger
The first thing to be made clear is that Stefan Feld’s new game for Alea has nothing to do with either castles or Burgundy. This is in contrast with his new game for Pegasus, which merely has nothing to do with Strasbourg. You get twice as much non-existent theme with this one. You also get a significantly better game.
Time was when part of the core brief for a German strategy game was “no dice”. but the constant pressure on designers for new ideas and new mechanisms mean that fashions change, and over the last year or two, dice have made a comeback. Last year’s big box Alea Game, Macao, was built around dice, so too was the big Essen hit, Troyes, and now Castles of Burgundy completes
the trio. The feature common to all three is that the dice are being used in a new way. The randomness is no longer just a means of generating the results of events which you don’t want to be entirely within a player’s control. Instead it has become a way of giving players choices and presenting them with something around which they can plan.
In the case of this game, the plan has to centre round how best to acquire a variety of different tiles, which then have to be placed onto a personal board. The dice narrow down your choices over which tiles you can take and where you can place them, but the effect of these restrictions is not to force you down set paths. You still have lots of strategic and tactical choice; all you have
really lost is the predictability that comes with perfect plans. The dice oblige you to be flexible.
The game has 5 rounds, in each of which everyone has five turns. The rulebook doesn’t actually call them “rounds” and “turns”, but that is what they are! The beginning of the round will see a central board being filled up with tiles. There will be four in each of six numbered areas and a further eight in a separate central one. This filling up is another instance of controlled randomness, in that an overall recipe is specified in order to get the right mix, but the individual tiles are not. For example, the area numbered 1 will be given one yellow tile, one beige, one blue and one green, but each of them will be chosen from a face-down pile. The tiles for the centre are of the same types as the others but come from a separate collection and aren’t chosen according
to a fixed recipe. Also placed at the start of each round is a collection of five “goods” tiles, one of which will be brought into play at the start of each turn.
Each player has a pair of 6-sided dice and a round begins with everyone rolling them. In addition there is a white die and the start player also rolls that. This white die determines which of six numbered depots will be given the goods tile for this round. Now, in player order, everyone decides how to use the numbers they have rolled. The choices are:
• Take a tile from the central board
• Place a tile onto your “estate”
• Sell goods
• Take worker tiles
Taking a tile from the central board is a matter of using one of the numbers you have rolled to take a tile from the correspondingly numbered area. So, a 4 enables you to take one of the still available tiles from area 4. You will then place this tile in one of the three “holding spaces” on your personal board. Each of these holding areas can contain at most one tile, so if all three are
full, taking a tile is not an option.
To place a tile onto your estate you move a tile from its holding area to its final position. This also requires the use of a die and there are restrictions governing what can go where. Your estate is subdivided into areas of different sizes and colours. A green tile has to be placed into a green area, and so on. The areas are subdivided into hexagons, each with the space for a single tile. Each hexagon also contains a number in the range 1 to 6, and the number in the hexagon you
are filling has to be the same as that on the die you are using. Finally, the tile has to be placed in a hexagon that is adjacent to one that has already been filled. A lot of boxes to be ticked, but giving yourself the flexibility that will help make it doable is part of the game’s skill factor.
It shouldn’t surprise you by now to be told that the goods tiles are also numbered and to make a sale you again have to match the die used to the number on the tiles you are selling. Selling goods gives you victory points and also a “silverling” (= coin). If you have two coins, you can use them to buy one of the tiles from the central area of the main board, an act that is in addition
to the basic actions from your two dice.
All this talk of exact matching of dice to tiles and to areas sounds like a recipe for frustration. You need a way of modifying the numbers you have rolled. This is done with the worker tiles. Any die can be used to take two worker tiles and each one can be used later to change the result of a die roll by one. (For the purposes of these modifications the numbers “wrap round”, so 6 is considered to be adjacent to 1 as well as to 5.)
Normally, when I am describing a game I try to avoid going into too much detail. That is not possible here, for it is in the detail that most of this game is to be found. So the next thing we need to look at is the tiles that you will be placing onto your estate. There are six types: ships, castles, mines, animals, buildings and knowledge. All the ship tiles are identical; likewise all the
castles and all the mines; but each of the other groups contains a wide variety. Each of the six types also has a different effect when it is placed:
Ship tiles move you along the track that determines player order and also entitle you to take goods tiles from one of the central board’s depots.
Castle tiles give you an extra action.
Mines have no immediate effect, but provide you with an income at the end of the round – important if you have your eyes on some of those extra tiles from the centre.
Animals are an instant source of victory points. Each tile shows 2-4 farm animals, which will be either cows, sheep, pigs or hens. When you place the tile you score 1 VP for each creature on it. You also rescore all the previous tiles you have placed in the same area of your board and which show the same animal. So, a field full of cow tiles, say, can be very profitable if you can achieve
Buildings come in eight types, each giving a different benefit when it is placed. For example, the Boarding House gives you 4 worker tiles, the Bank 2 coins and others entitle you to either take or place an extra tile.
The knowledge tiles have an even greater variety – there are 26 of them, all different. Some give in-game benefits; others end-of-game victory points.
Victory points are accumulated in four ways, two of which I have already mentioned – the animals and the end-of-game knowledge tiles. The third is from the completion of areas on your estate.
Whenever you completely fill one of the small areas on your estate you score points, with the number depending partly on the size of the area and partly on the round. For the size of the area, you follow the standard triangular series – 1 for size 1, 3 for size 2, 6 for size 3, and so on – and to this you add a bonus for the round – 10 for a completion in round 1, down to 2 for a completion in round 5. The fourth type of scoring comes from bonus tiles that you pick up if you are one of the first two players to complete all the areas on your board of a specified colour.
The game is, as you can see, a brew with many ingredients, and it is from this richness that the fun and the strategies stem. There are so many paths that you can take, and while pursuing your own ends you also need to keep an eye on what your rivals are doing so that you can assess how much competition there is likely to be for the tiles that you covet. It gives you a lot to think about and means that in your early games you should regard the playing times stated on the box as a future aspiration rather than an estimate. I presume that that 30 minute lower figure is for a 2-player game – for the game length is dependent on the number playing – but to achieve it both players would need to be both fast and experienced. In our four games to date we have yet to get under two hours. Not that anyone has been complaining, as the game has been a hit with
all the players in both my groups.
I passed on Stefan Feld’s first game for Alea (Rum and Pirates) but enjoyed all the other three (Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, Macao). However, in my view, Castles of Burgundy is his best game yet.
The components are language-free and the Alea edition comes complete with rulebooks in English and French as well as German. So, even if a Rio Grande or other American edition is planned, there is no need to wait for it. Certainly not if you live in Europe.