The Castles of Burgundy ★★★ | Review
There are few designers whose sense of aesthetics is so diametrically opposed to mine as Stefan Feld. Where I prefer chatter, surprise and laughter, he keeps his players distant and staring down into the board. He makes seemingly dull, brown games of efficiency which bore me to tears. And yet, he’s a talented designer. The Castles of Burgundy is one of the two games of his I’ve ever liked and, perhaps, also his best.
The Castles of Burgundy is an efficiency game. Our goal is to make the most points by buying tiles from the supply and bringing them to our princedom. By raising new buildings, investigating technologies and digging out mines, we hope to build a nicer fief than our fellow aristocrats and come out as the victor. It’s the definition of beige; the kind of serious eurogame played head down and with our opponents at arm’s length.
Every turn we roll two dice. If their numbers match one of the supply spaces, we can spend them to get tiles. Then, if we have another dice and it matches with the numbers on the board, we can spend it to place the tile in our princedom. But with only three spaces in the reserve, there’s a bit of planning involved. We cannot get every tile when or where we want it to.
Now, since rolling the exact number would be overly restrictive, there’s a way out. Workers allow us to add or subtract one to our results, evening out the randomness. And, of course, each tile has a different ability. Ships get goods from the supply, the Warehouse sells them and the variety of Knowledge tiles give us different abilities, switching up the way we approach The Castles of Burgundy.
What makes Castles appealing is the level of microdecisions involved. On its own, picking up tiles and placing them on the board is simple. However, there’s an endless stream of small considerations we can keep in mind. For starters, we can make sure that we’ll always have something to do with our dice, no matter what we roll. But it’s not immediately obvious how because the boards have been devilishly designed to prevent such a thing.
We also get bonuses from filling in an entire area of the same colour. However, we get fewer points for it as the game goes on. Enclosing even the smallest area on the first turn is worth ten points. Doing it on the last, just two. It’s such a massive difference that one of the boards is commonly regarded as broken because it’s too easy to fill all the 1 and 2 tile spaces.
Some tiles are also better than others. While the points from a Watchtower are fine, they certainly less appealing than the extra tile from a Church or Market. Animals also get better if we cram more of the same type together. So there are clear priorities in play. On their own, they might not provide much depth, but together they create a textured play experience.
Surprisingly, these microdecisions also extend to other players. While The Castles of Burgundy isn’t Diplomacy, there’s a mean streak to it. We can take away valuable tiles from our opponents and even try to prevent them from completing an area. Whoever takes the most ships goes first and there may not be enough for everyone. It’s these features that put it in a higher rank than the average roll & write, which I would argue belong to the same genre.
Sadly, microdecisions are all that Castles provides. Humble and quaint, it’s content to limit itself to taking and placing titles from the board. For better or worse, it lacks any sort of message, stance or larger problem to solve. Like all Stefan Feld games, it is very much about being slightly more efficient than our opponents, lest you waste a third of a dice roll when you shouldn’t.
Even the interaction is simple. Taking the only Mine in the supply doesn’t take much in the way of strategy. Rather, good play revolves around picking up ships to go first in the turn order and then taking the best tiles before your opponent does. While enjoyable on its own terms, it’s not exactly nuanced. It’s not the kind of experience one remembers fondly, or at all.
In fact, my two most memorable plays of The Castles of Burgundy were one in which I got a bunch of cows and another in which my opponent left. Neither is going to leave a mark on me a couple months from now, even if they were fun at the time. At least, the latter match cemented the idea that Castles is best played with two, which is the lowest player count.
Is it unfair to ask more from The Castles of Burgundy? There’s nothing wrong with it as a design. And I like it enough so as to have played it a bunch either in person or on Board Game Arena. But it lacks the emotion, the thought provoking obstacles and the depth that makes our art form so worthwhile. It’s a fine game but, ultimately, the forgettable sort that I wouldn’t seek to play.
|THE CASTLES OF BURGUNDY (2011)|
|DESIGN||Stefan Feld||ART|| Julien Delval|
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||2-3 (Best with 2)||SCORE||★★★|
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It’s apparent that we have similar tastes in games.
I’m not alone!