Review: ‘The Castles of Burgundy’ is Strategy Board Game Bliss

When it comes to European-style strategy board games, The Castles of Burgundy is one of the best I’ve played in recent memory. What exactly does that mean, you ask? OK, so it has been a while since we reviewed a serious Euro game here, so I’ll lead off with a refresher.

Euro games are known for: favoring skill over luck, taking 60-90 minutes to play (with no player elimination), avoiding direct conflict between players, and having short bite-sized turns that keep players interested in the game. The themes in Euros aren’t as strong as typical American designs, with players usually competing for the most points rather than to accomplish some story-driven objective. The playing pieces are generally abstract as well, with Euro games packing wooden cubes and discs rather than sculpted models.

But while thematic games are undoubtedly popular, not every title on store shelves has to be about Cthulhu, Star Wars, or zombies. Just look at the Euro shelf and you’ll find games that somehow manage to turn mundane tasks such as farming or construction into fiercely competitive experiences. It can sound odd to the outsider, but trust me, there’s a lot of fun to be had here and The Castles of Burgundy is a great place to start.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-4
Playing Time: 90 minutes
Age: 12 to adult
Publisher: Ravensburger
MSRP: $39.99
Release: January 2012 [English edition]

The Gameplay:

Players in The Castles of Burgundy are basically medieval city planners. They each receive a hexagonal player board that will be filled with smaller hexagonal tiles (representing castles, buildings, ships, etc.) as the game progresses. Points are earned by efficiently filling up that map with the proper tiles.

The Castles of Burgundy plays out over 5 phases, with each player getting 5 turns per phase. Bust out your calculators and that means every player will get 25 turns in a single game. The nice part about this game, though, is that turns are fast. Players roll two dice, and the results severely limit the possible actions that can be taken that turn.

In general there are four possible actions a player can choose from:

– Take a tile from the main board (available to all players) and move it to their personal board for later placement

– Place a tile they already possess onto a spot on their map

– Sell goods for money (which lets you buy extra tiles)

– Take “+1/-1″ worker tiles (essentially, a “pass” that lets you influence future die rolls)

The first two actions above are definitely the most important, as taking and placing tiles is the focus of this game. Here’s a practical example of how the dice factor into taking these actions, though:

On the main game board, there are six sections, one for each face of the die. Depending on the number of players, each 5-turn phase starts out with between 2 and 4 random tiles assigned to each die face. When a player wants to take a tile, they’ll have to select one from a section that matches the result of their die roll. As the turns progress, the stock of tiles starts to deplete, forcing players to make hard choices. If you roll a 4, and there is only a single tile left in that bin, it may not be of the type you a looking for, leading you to use your die to perform some other type of action. After a full game phase has completed, the board is restocked with tiles.

Get out your magnifying glass. See those dice printed on the board? Each of them is surrounded by spots where tiles will be stocked at the beginning of each phase. You’ll have to match the die faces with your rolls to take those tiles, though.

The second action, placing tiles, works similarly. Each hexagonal portion of your map has a die face and a color printed on it. For example, a dark green spot with a 5 means that you can only fill that spot if you roll a 5 and have already taken a castle (dark green) tile from the main game board during a previous action.

 

 

Castles of Burgundy player board. Photo by BoardGameGeek.com user verminose, used under Creative Commons License.

Still with me? Good, because it’s about to get even a wee bit more complicated. Players are limited to a 3-tile “holding area” where they can store tiles they’ve taken from the main game board but haven’t actually placed down on their map yet. This is where tough choices come in, as you’ll have to tightly manage these three spots to make sure you don’t waste any actions.

Lastly, each of the tiles triggers some special action when they are placed. Castles let you place another tile for free, ships let you collect goods, mines generate money, animals generate victory points if placed next to other animals of the same type, etc.

Points start to pile up later in the game, as players are awarded bonuses for filling up swaths of their player board. For each color of tile, the first player to fill a board section gets a hefty point bonus, while every player who does so afterwards earns a progressively smaller bonus.

This may sound like a complicated game, and that’s because when compared to the average board game, it frankly is. But among serious hobby games, Burgundy is a definite middle-weight, and you shouldn’t let the complexity scare you off. When you sit down at the table, you’ll see that having the dice drive your actions makes it a very streamlined experience. It will take a full play or two to actually become good at the game, where you understand the strategies behind how to fill your board up and leverage each tiles abilities effectively, but even on that first play, you won’t be left with that awkward feeling of not knowing what you can and can’t do.

The Components:

Keen eyes here can spot the game’s original German title, Die Burgen von Burgund, which sounds hilarious the more times you repeat it.
  • 164 hexagon tiles
  • 42 goods tiles
  • 20 “Silverlings”
  • 30 worker tiles
  • 12 bonus tiles
  • 4 victory pieces
  • 8 playing pieces
  • 9 dice
  • 1 game board & rule book
  • 6 double-sided player boards

Graphic design has its highs and lows with The Castles of Burgundy. Where it helps the game is in deciding which actions to take with your dice. Having to simply match your die roll with a printed die face on the board makes for a smooth experience. A quick visual scan of the board identifies your available options and helps cut down on think time.

The lowpoint of graphic design is the explanation of building and bonus tile abilities. The Castle of Burgundy tries to convey these abilities through symbology, but players will still want to have a reference handy for their first few plays. Using symbols is common in board games, where publishers don’t want to fund separate print runs for language-dependent components, so it’s not as though this is unexpected. It might slow the game down a bit during those first few plays, but it’s hardly a reason to avoid this title.

Likewise, artwork in this game is nothing to write home about. Having to cram everything onto those little hexagon tiles surely handicapped The Castles of Burgundy’s artist, but the end result is more than serviceable if a bit drab. Let’s be honest though, this isn’t the sort of game you play for the artwork. That being said, I do like the cover artwork, which thankfully does not have Angry European Dude on it.

As for component quality, The Castles of Burgundy doesn’t have any particularly flashy components to analyze; it’s all wood, cardboard and dice. There’s not a flimsy bit in the whole bunch though, so you’ll be happy with everything you get. Having double-sided printing on the player boards is a nice touch that adds an advanced play option without doubling the number of boards.

Final Thoughts:

One thing we’ve been seeing a lot of over the past year is games that successfully blend European and American styles of gameplay. While The Castles of Burgundy is squarely in the Euro camp, there are some uncharacteristic choices in the game’s design that cause it to be a refreshing experience. Players don’t engage in any direct conflict, but the art of screwing over your opponent by taking the tile they need is more important in Burgundy than in any other recent Euro I’ve played. And of course, you’ll have to carry out these actions after dealing with the luck of the dice, which while satisfying to roll, are not typically seen in Euro games.

Whenever I finalize an opinion on a game, I like to put it in its proper context. The Castles of Burgundy was designed by Stefan Feld, who apparently has made a boatload of popular Euro games, all of which I have managed to somehow avoid. To correct this grievous error in my gaming geek cred, I sought out a game of Feld’s latest hot title, Trajan, at a local convention.

Let’s just say that halfway through, it felt like someone had given me a concussion with a calculus textbook and convinced me that I had a great time. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but there were so many moving parts to manage that I enjoyed it from a point of admiration for the game’s beautiful complexity. I felt helpless as a player during Trajan, but never once experienced that with The Castles of Burgundy. This game is no doubt complex, but it hit a personal sweet spot, leaving me feeling that I was in control of my destiny throughout the entire game.

I’ll admit, a direct comparison to Trajan is a small sample size of Feld-designed games, so I’ll weight it in my mind with favorite Euro titles from Uwe Rosenberg and Martin Wallace. Burgundy is right up there with the best of them at three and four players, but I’m tempted to declare it top-of-the-class of Euro-style strategy games. The unexpected incorporation of dice also provides a great change of pace, ensuring that The Castles of Burgundy will hold a place in many player’s rotations for years to come.

Disclaimer: Publisher provided a complimentary review sample of this game