Castles of Burgundy: The most broken tile in the game
Stefan Feld is known for his tight euro games which focus on precision and efficiency. One might think this would make his games impervious to issues of balance, but that hasn’t been the case. Over several editions, Castles of Burgundy had to be tweaked several times, strengthening some of its weaker pieces and toning down the strongest. But one small mistake gave way to the most broken tile in the game.
KNOWLEDGE TILE Nº6
The tile in question is Knowledge Nº6, one of the yellow tiles. It allows us to use workers, rather than silver, when buying tiles. And while it doesn’t work that way in Board Game Arena, it even allows us to do so in combination, spending one of each. What is more important, though, is how it extends our purchasing prowess to every tile in the board, rather than just the central depot.
Castles of Burgundy is composed of two parts. In the first, we take tiles; in the second, we place them. In both, we depend on the roll of the dice. Being able to ignore that to take anything we want breaks the game. It’s a classic example of a power that bypasses the very fabric of the design. While not immediately obvious, this little effect manages to ignore all restrictions placed on the first half of the game.
The trick is that we can always trade a die for two workers. Hence, instead of rolling and being at the whims of the result, we can simply trade for workers and then buy whatever we want. Sure, it’s just once per turn and it prevents us from making any other purchase, but it’s still an advantage to kill for.
After all, there’s already a tile that did something similar. Tile Nº12 made it so that our die could be changed to one more or one less of its value while picking up tiles. While not the strongest, it’s fairly good. It ensures we can pick tiles from three different supplies rather than just one. And yet, it’s laughably weak compared to Nº6. Taking tiles from two more depots is nothing compared to taking any tile on the board, even if it rests in the middle. It’s more than two times as powerful!
First of all, by taking any tiles we want, we no longer need to spend workers that way. This is functionally equivalent to having more actions. We have all had a game in which a bad roll prevented us from finishing one area or picking up the right tile. Thanks to Nº6, these situations rarely happen, making for a much smoother experience. In fact, we may store workers from previous turns and wait to see our roll before choosing.
Second, Tile Nº6 makes hate-drafting extremely easy. Every single turn its owner will be able to take the best tile, regardless of the roll of the die. This makes for an oppressive atmosphere where only one player is bound to stumble. Even if we are ahead in turn order, the pressure can still be enough to prevent us from whole areas. Trying to find the right scoring tiles becomes an ordeal once it hits the table. And, yet, this is not the full extent of its power.
Being able to exchange workers for tiles has a profound effect in how we approach the game. Anything that provides them is worth a second look. The humble Boarding House, already a solid tile, becomes an absolute monster once we can trade its workers for two tiles. Silver can now be spent to buy anything, not just the handful of tiles at the centre of the board. And it becomes easier to chain every little synergy and combo.
In practical terms, Nº6’s ability can be used to feed itself. We can begin each round by sniping anything that gives extra workers and, then, use those extra workers to get even more tiles. Each time we manage to get one without spending a die, that’s an extra action we have over our opponents. Given how limited they are over the course of the game and how many points early actions are worth, this is a massive advantage.
If you have been playing Castles of Burgundy for a while, you may have noticed it’s impossible to cover the whole board. Even if you pick up the best tiles, you’ll always have to forfeit one of the coloured spaces. And yet, tile Nº6 not only makes it trivial to cover most of the board. With the right combination of tiles you can cover the entire board. Here’s the proof:
This is a picture from a real game, with opponents that weren’t keen on sharing their Boarding Houses. The key? An additional knowledge tile that gives us four workers rather than two whenever we spend a die. Tile Nº14 pretty much doubles the number of tiles we can take by using a die, making a complete joke out of the mechanics. And while Tile Nº13 gives us one extra silver instead, it can be used in exactly the same manner.
Let’s not mince words, this combo is like having three (or two and half) dice. You may need to assemble it and play it tight, but it’s still an absurd advantage. In the game pictured above, I didn’t get the combo until the second round and I still won with 269 points. And that’s because I focused on covering the board. If I had focused on getting the most points, I would have broken 300. The only problem I had is that you take so many tiles that the game isn’t designed for it!
CAN IT BE FIXED?
One might wonder if it’s possible to tone tile Nº6 down. After all, in the first edition of the Castles of Burgundy, it was downright terrible. Rather than letting us substitute silver with workers, it simply extended the range of our purchases. Neat enough, but hardly worth the cardboard it’s printed on. So there is room to weaken it, the question is whether it can be done without reducing it to the uselessness of the first version.
Sadly, the design space for changes is small. The entire effect must fit within the meager area of the tile itself, without any additional abilities or effects. And it’s difficult to fix through numbers what is broken by design. Even a huge nerf, like increasing the cost to 1 silver and 1 worker and limiting it to the central tiles may still make it too strong. As long as the tile breaks the fundamental difference between workers and silvers, it may end up being too powerful.
If online play is an indication, most players don’t see the appeal, either. Besides a few combo addicts like myself, the average fan of Castles of Burgundy would rather take anything that gives points about it. Even those who know the power of the tile rarely get the most out of its power, choosing to play a fairly normal game rather than lean on obtaining as many workers as possible.
Since a fix may be difficult and it’s an unpopular tile, it might be better to just remove it entirely. In fact, fans of the game, who were aware of its power before I did, have already asked Awaken Realms not to include it in the next release of Castles. But before they do, why not give it a whirl? It is fun to break down the inherent barriers of the game and aim for what should be impossible. Everyone should try, at least once, to cover the whole board.