Sunday, April 22, 2018

Dave Reviews: Charlemagne Rolling In His Grave

The Castles of Burgundy

Burgundy is hexagonally-shaped district in northern France, laced with farms that grow six-sided dice and dye factories whose sole purpose is to add differentiation to the dice they buy from the farms. From there, those dice are packaged and shipped in large boxes to little boys and girls, who then give those boxes to their mothers and fathers because the games inside are way too fucking complicated for them to figure out, and they want to catch more Pokemon anyway.

The Castles of Burgundy is a game that can be viewed as an opposite to Rising Sun—one where the game clearly came first and, even if they had planned to use this medieval theme, they could have changed that theme if it didn't really fit the game. It's also a classic, despite being less than ten years old; sitting at the edge of BGG's top ten games of all time after this long means you've done something right. (Of course, doing something right means expanding on it ad nauseum; this review will only cover the base game, but there are nine expansions.)

Castles is representative of its time in board gaming's evolution: it does not have any reliance on pure dice rolling, a la Settlers of Catan, but neither does it eschew randomness altogether like many present-day strategic games. It's of that moment where risk management was popular, handing players dice but offering methods of manipulating those dice that could take almost all of the pure chance out of the game. \

Each of the game's five phases consists of five turns, so you have twenty-five turns to play with. Each turn, you roll two dice, with which you can do a handful of things: pick up a tile from the common board, play a tile to your estate, sell goods, or throw a die away in exchange for two workers. The first three all require your action to match the roll of the die; you can only take a tile from a space matching one of your dice, play to a space matching one of your dice, or sell the goods that match one of your dice. Likewise, workers allow you to nudge a die up or down by one, so if you have a die that's can't get you anything you need, you can use it to pick up the resources that let you manipulate dice later. It's not a great turn, but it ensures no die is ever completely wasted.

That's all you need to know to play, but playing well is an entirely different matter. There are a dozen different tiles that can hit the board, and that doesn't include the one-off rulebreaker (knowledge) tiles. All of them have a different effect; although their strengths are pretty well balanced, what gives you the most opportunity to score is tiles that let you trigger bonus actions you would normally need to use a die on.

For example, if you place a church on your board, you can take a mine, castle, or knowledge tile from the common board. That's one die saved, plus you can get it from any location without needing to roll the right number. Likewise, a city hall lets you add any tile you're holding to your estate without needing to roll the number for the space you're putting it in. Castles let you take any action for free, as though you had a third die with the result of your choice. Banks, meanwhile, give you two silverlings; buying tiles from the center area of the common board can only be done by paying two silverlings, and that's a bonus action on your turn, so banks effectively give you a free action as well.

Tiles that don't give you bonus actions tend to offer more points or other utility bonuses. Animals, for example, can be very lucrative if you get a good-sized pasture filled with as many of the same type as you can; watchtowers are a simple 4 VP per, but if you also get the knowledge tile that offers an extra four per at the end of the game, they're fantastic. Ships grab market goods, which are useful, but also move you ahead in the turn order; this sometimes has to be done carefully, though, as the person who reaches the same number of ships as you goes ahead of you in turn order. Boarding houses give you four workers, which don't spam actions but make sure you can do what you want on later turns. And knowledge tiles offer all sorts of effects; dice manipulation tiles are ones you want to grab early, point bonuses later when you know what will be most efficient (or what you most want to keep away from your opponents).

Of course, there are bonus points for being the first or second person to finish all of your tiles of a certain type, so that's a consideration above and beyond simply doing the most efficient thing every turn. Choices!

The reason this game is so classic is that it's so balanced. I've sat and annoyed the hell out of my opponents, who were very nice about it all the same, by going deep into the tank on some turns after somebody grabs the one thing I need and I don't have a backup plan. Advantageous moves are not obvious; they have to be built on top of what you've done previously. If your most advantageous move goes away, everything looks the same, because everything is the same. It can be paralyzing, but in the best way: the options are all things you want to do, rather than all things you want to avoid, leaving you to choose the least bad option.

There's definitely a learning curve; veteran gamers will probably feel comfortable partway through the game, since there are so many turns, but it's not something to introduce to casual or new board gamers unless you know they're ok with a game that has a lot of knowledge to sift through. Giving yourself the ability to take almost anything you need because your dice manipulation is strong creates an easier path forward, but unlike many games, there's a real opportunity cost involved—getting related tiles, or workers, takes turns you might otherwise have been able to spend on building your estate, and this is a game where you could always use another turn to get something done.

It's a classic for a reason. Play it.

Score: Nine castles, leaving the tenth to the filthy English.

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