Castles of Burgundy (2011)

Game Details
NameThe Castles of Burgundy (2011)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [3.01]
BGG Rank14 [8.13]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Stefan Feld
Artist(s)Julien Delval and Harald Lieske
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's great! You should probably try it if you can!

My first experience with Castles of Burgundy was traumatic. The rulebook is terrible and badly structured, the components cheap and shoddy, and there is so much setup that I eventually gave up in frustration and put the box back on the shelf for literal years. Any one of those problems would have been enough for me to cope with. Two would haven’t been a deal-breaker. All three together was enough for me to willingly abandon the damn thing forever. It was only the release of an app that got me to revisit the game and I’m very glad it did. Castles of Burgundy is a powerful cautionary tale in the importance of a frustration-free onboarding process. I almost never played it again. It came so close to being something that would end up recycled into a bring and buy or a big bin. Castles of Burgundy is a great game that I almost ejected from my life forever.

Castles of Burgundy box

The thing is, there’s a reason for all of the flaws in the Castles of Burgundy first-time experience. The rulebook isn’t terrible once all the different parts of the game click together. The components are cheap but they’re also the reason why it’s a perennial favourite that is almost universally well regarded and can be purchased for the same price as a copy of Monopoly. There is a massive amount of setup, but that’s what happens when a paper computer develops beyond a certain degree of complexity. It’s a singularly poor experience for a first-timer but it front-loads a lot of its awkwardness. Unfortunately, that means that the brunt of the pain is borne by those likely least willing to forgive its idiosyncrasies. First impressions matter, and the first hour you’ll spend with Castles of Burgundy is like having gravel spread into your toast. For a game that is widely purported to play as smoothly as butter, that’s probably not the texture you were expecting when you took a bite.

A mess of symbols

So, let’s get the obvious complaint out of the way. Castles of Burgundy is hideous. It has the most unforgivable colour scheme I have seen in any game and its use of colour is intensely important. Green, and a different kind of green. Beige, grey and yellow. Hex counters that feel like they should be poured into a bowl and smothered in milk. Thin player boards covered in iconographical data that look like they were clumsily spliced together using a line-printer data-dump of the Matrix. Nothing about Burgundy is inviting. It’s by a long way the ugliest game I own and that’s absolutely going to come up in the teardown. As a mere aesthetic objection though, of the kind we usually handle in our reviews, it’s horrible. If your least charitable friend had to draw a satirical sketch of what they imagined you playing of an evening it would look something like this.

The actual game though… well, that’s a different story. As a game, Castles of Burgundy is Pretty Great.

Every turn, you’ll roll two dice. Those control your destiny with all the inescapable gravitational pull of a black hole. They dictate what tiles you’ll be able to add to your steading. They dictate where you can place the tiles you have previously purchased from the central supply. They determine what goods you can sell to traders. You spend these dice to take advantage of opportunities, each face being weighed up for what it will enable and what it will prohibit. That would normally send warning klaxons blaring for a game being covered on Meeple Like Us. ‘Randomness’, we often say, ‘should be a spice. It shouldn’t be the main meal’.

Main board

The thing is, Castles of Burgundy makes this work by providing you with an astonishingly generous roster of uses to which you can put each of these dice and every one of them is desireable. You can use dice to buy tiles from the various depots dotted around the board, slipping them to your supply for later placement. If you place a ship tile you get to claim a cargo hold full of goods that you can later sell for victory points or money. Money lets you buy a tile from the centre of the board, which gives you a lot more control over the layout of your dominion. Importantly, every single one of the tiles that are available are worth having. While the dice restrict your choices, it’s mostly a case of being given only a subset of a menu that is serving nothing but the most delicious things.

On top of that, Castles of Burgundy gives you a secondary economy of workers, each of which can be spent to adjust a die face up or down by one. Sure, you rolled a six but you need a four. Terrible, but if you have a couple of workers you can spend them to get the die face you actually needed. It’s gambling with a safety net, letting you lay-off your terrible rolls with the reliable manipulation permitted by a serf class under your unremitting control. Not only is every menu full of delicious things, when you order you even get to focus exclusively on the ice-creams.

Board with placed tiles

I mean, look at what tiles you’ll be picking up in the course of the game. The beige tiles are buildings, each of which will give you instant bonuses that will be vital in ensuring you’re in a position to take advantage of every die you roll. Some give you points for having certain kinds of tiles already placed, others give you an instant bailout of cash or serfs. You can only ever place one of them in any region, but even then only maybe. You’ll want all of them.

Yellow tiles represent ‘knowledge’ and act like power-ups that you can slot into your board. These might supercharge your workers. They might double the amount of money you get from trade. Or they might allow you to ignore that annoying building placement rule. You’ll want all of these too.

The grey tiles are mines, and at the end of every round you’ll get a coin for each mine you possess. Tiles in the central marketplace cost two coins each, and so you’ll want a lot of mines, very quickly, to focus your budding estate in the way most harmonious with your goals. So you’ll want all of those.

But you’ll also want the ships that give you the goods you can sell, especially because they also nudge you up the turn order. And you’ll definitely want the grassland tiles that give you ever increasing point values for the animals available for farming. Those points can rapidly add up. While you might want different tiles to the ones that are offered you are never in a position of picking a tile that does nothing for you. They’re all good, all the time.

The choice though has a balance baked into it – you have two dice, and buying a tile isn’t the same thing as placing it. You need to place each tile adjacent to something already in your empire and on a space that matches an available die. As such you’re often balancing up the thing you want and can’t place against a different thing you can get and place in a single turn. Tiles you’re holding but not using do you no good, so sometimes what you’re most interested in is a swift turnaround. On the other hand, maybe you can buy two tiles and then hope the next roll brings you the placement opportunities you need. Or maybe you can spend workers to nudge the dice in more agreeable directions and hope that you don’t find yourself disadvantaged later. Decisions, decisions.

It’s more interesting than even that though, because the tiles also determine your points according to how they are positioned in your land. Consider the player-board below, where a few things have been bought and put in place.

A growing steading

You get points for completing full regions of the board. The bigger the region, the more points you get. The building to the northwest of the central castle completed a one hex region for a single victory point. Castles of Burgundy though gives you a flat bonus for completing a region, regardless of size, depending on how early you managed to do it. That single hex region in the first round gets a bonus ten points, and that’s a lot. In the last round that bonus drops to a miserly two points. As such, not only are you incentivised to pick good tiles, you’re also incentivised to pick tiles that let you complete regions quickly and also to open up parts of the board where other regions can be quickly completed. You might want to invest in ships to access that single green tile at the far right of the map. Or not. It’ll be worth eight points in the next round, so why stress it? You’ve got plenty to be getting on with.

That’s really the magic of Burgundy – you’re always in a position to do something fun even though the dice are absolutely not on your side. In our review of Catan we spoke about the intense frustration that is baked into a game where the dice determine everything you can do. When they don’t go your way, it’s not clear as to how you have a route to having any fun. Burgundy deals with that with commendable elegance by making the mitigation of randomness an active decision rather than a passive strategy. You are never left with nothing meaningful to do in Castles of Burgundy and the effect isn’t to dilute the game but to intensify the quality of the decision space within the game. It’s best to think of the dice in Castles of Burgundy not as enablers of actions but a way of disabling certain courses of action. There’s always more you can do here than you can’t, and I think that’s an important feature of making a dangerous tool like hard-core randomness into something enjoyably tactical.

Setup board

What makes Castles of Burgundy especially satisfying then is that the dice don’t meaningfully limit your choices. What they do is enforce a spatial context on optimisation and it’s your job to work out how to solve it. Castles of Burgundy is a jigsaw where the shape of pieces change with every new round. It incentivises players to be pragmatic while also rewarding them for being optimistic. The right combination of tiles will have magical effects, but it might not be quite as effective a simply filling regions as quickly as possible to take immediate advantage of an increasingly parsimonious points bonus. It might be worth taking trade actions to build up the stocks of a good you have in abundance, but trading is an action in itself and as such it’s an opportunity cost. You get points for doing everything in Castles of Burgundy, but the higher echelons of score are available only for those that can make their choices in rhythm the ebb and flow of the game.

When we reviewed Race for the Galaxy I said it was an easy game to love but a difficult game to recommend. I wouldn’t play Race for the Galaxy with anyone that didn’t already know how to play and that’s a terrible trait for a game to possess. I don’t think it’s quite so bad as that with Castles of Burgundy – it’s actually a very intuitive game once you get past the information dump that is used in place of a coherent manual. The first hour you’ll play though will be frustrating. While the core game loop is deeply satisfying you still need to know what all the different knowledge and building tiles do before you make your choices. That results in a lot of puzzled cross-referencing and flow-breaking visits to the BGG rules forum. Even those without colour blindness will end up cursing the perverse palette. At the end of your first round of setup you’ll say ‘Maybe that’s enough for today’, and you’ll react with horror when you realise a similar process needs to be followed at the end of every round. There are a lot of reasons I’d caution someone to avoid Castles of Burgundy and pick up something more instantly approachable.

For those that persevere though – there’s a remarkably well-designed game in here. Castles of Burgundy is a game that constantly rewards you for your early investment of effort. Considering that it has a mass-market cost for a top-tier hobbyist game you really can’t go wrong in giving it a try should it pass your way at some point in the future.

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