Time To Try a Classic?
The Castles of Burgundy is perhaps Stefan Feld’s most well known and most popular game. Coming in at such a relatively low price point must surely have helped increase its renown. But is it any good?
Feld is a game designer whose name prompts reactions of almost marmite-like polarity: some love his games, some find them dry and overblown. There is only one way to find out which group you belong to, and The Castles of Burgundy is as good a way as any of finding out.
The Castles of Burgundy is a tile placement game, about managing an estate in the (you’ve guessed it) Burgundy region of France. It plays over five rounds, so you know from the outset how finite it is. Players roll dice to see what actions may be available to them on each turn, whether this be trading, farming livestock, building and so on. As with many Stefan Feld games, it relies on a “point salad” mechanic, whereby the points earned (in many different ways) towards success in the game are not revealed until the end of the game. This has the advantage of keeping players focused, as no-one has the feeling of being left behind early on in the game. But for some players this can be frustrating, as you have no real measure of your progress.
The first thing you will notice about The Castles of Burgundy is the appearance; it isn’t pretty. In fact it is one of many euro games which seem to test a gamer’s resolve by trying to alienate gamers with uninspiring box art. And this continues inside the box, too – perhaps this explains the low price point. Coupled with the rather flimsy materials that the game is made from, you may at first feel a little disappointed. But if you can get over the aesthetics, you may find that there is more to this game than meets the eye.
The focal point of the game is a central board, on which the available tiles are initially located. Players also have their own board (analogous to their own estate). Dice are rolled, and the results of the dice can be used for a number of actions, such as purchasing tiles from the central board, placing previously purchased tiles onto a player’s own board, selling goods, hiring workers and so on. Of course where actions are determined by chance (such as the roll of a die) there is always the risk that an action which you are relying on will not be available to you. Frustrations such as this can be mitigated using workers, who allow players to adjust the roll of a die up or down by one. Alternatively, you may make use of “silverlings” (the in-game currency), which allow you to purchase tiles from a secondary supply. Silverlings are earned by selling goods, and goods are earned by using a roll of a die. Workers can be recruited by discarding a die – it is always helpful to have an action to take when you are really stuck, and workers can come in really useful.
The principal element of the player board is a grid of hexagonal spaces, representing your estate. These are where purchased tiles can be located, but each is coloured – and the colours correspond to tiles of a certain type – pale green are for livestock, brown for buildings, and so on. Each space is also numbered, so you can only place a livestock tile on a pale green space, and only if you have rolled the corresponding number on one of your dice. Now you can see why silverlings might be vital.
Each type of tile functions in a different way – livestock are purely good for victory points at the end, mines allow you to collect more silverlings, buildings allow you to have a further immediate impact on your estate (such as laying another tile for free), and knowledge tiles provide you with additional ways of earning victory points at the end of the game. There are also ship tiles, which allow you to add goods to your store (ready for trading), and castles, which allow you to take an extra action for free – any extra action.
I’m sure that, to the uninitiated, this all sounds very complicated. And, to be honest, the rulebook doesn’t do a great job of explaining it either, as it feels very poorly organised. A quick reference card would really help this game. Instead, there are charts dotted around the player boards, which can look a little intimidating. However, it is surprising how smoothly the game seems to flow, once you get started. Inevitably, there will be a few overlooked rules on a first run through, but with so many options on your turn, it isn’t surprising that you will miss something at first. But that just gives you motivation to try again, to get it right.
Overall, The Castles of Burgundy has strong gameplay. It is an enduring game, but it isn’t for everyone. Not everyone likes the loose theme, and not everyone is fond of dry euro games. However, if you like a game which has you planning ahead, with several options for your actions, and in which you don’t really know who has won until the end game scoring, then this might be the game for you.
Pros: Accessible euro game; a strong sense of achievement as your estate evolves; hidden scoring, so no-one feels left behind;
Cons: Not pretty; flimsy (jigsaw-like board) components; poorly organised rule book; would benefit from a help sheet.
Overall: an enjoyable, yet challenging, game, with some longer term planning required to increase your chances of success. Remarkably straightforward to play, but deeper than it at first appears. A good introduction to Stefan Feld’s games.