The Castles of Burgundy is a strategic board game about building up a French estate during the Middle Ages. Each round, players will roll dice and use the results to take actions allowing them to select tiles and place them onto their player boards. The tiles will be placed in an effort to complete colored regions and trigger various other effects specified by the tile types. After five phases of five rounds each, the player who has accumulated the most points will be the winner!
At the beginning of the game, each player is given their own player board and one green castle piece to place onto their estate. Each estate consists of a grid of hexagonal spaces, each specifying a color and a die result. Players will be filling these spaces with tiles throughout the game, expanding out from their initial castle. Players also receive three random goods tiles, a number of worker tiles based on the player order, and one silverling.
The game is played over five phases, where each phase has five rounds. The flow of each round is simple: players simultaneously roll their two dice, and then take turns using each die for an action. Additionally, one white die is rolled to determine which of the six depots accumulates a goods tile that round. On a player’s turn, there are several options for how they can use each of their dice:
- Take a Tile from the Game Board – The game board has six depots (each labeled with a die result, 1-6), and each depot contains tiles that were added at the beginning of the phase. A player can spend a die to take a tile from the depot that matches the die’s result, placing the tile in one of the three empty storage spaces at the bottom of their player board (it does not go onto their estate yet).
- Add a Tile onto Your Estate – If a player has at least one tile in their storage spaces, they can spend a die to move one tile onto their estate. The tile that is placed must match the color of the space, the die result must match the number shown on the space, and the space must be adjacent to a tile the player has already placed (just the green castle tile at the beginning of the game). In many cases, placing a tile will trigger another effect or score for completing a region, both of which will be discussed shortly.
- Sell Goods – Each player has three spaces on their board where they can accumulate goods of the same color. A stack of goods can be sold by spending a die with a result that matches the number shown on the goods tile. Each tile sold scores points equal to the number of players, and the player also gains one silverling (regardless of the number of goods sold).
- Take Worker Tiles – Regardless of what number is rolled, a die can always be spent to take two worker tiles. This is helpful because worker tiles can be used on future rolls to modify the result of a die by one.
Besides the actions from the two player dice, players may be able to take a tile from the central black depot if they spend two silverlings. This is the main advantage of acquiring silverlings throughout the game: extra opportunities to grab tiles that are normally off-limits without needing to use actions with their dice.
A lot of the interest of the game comes from the effects of playing different types of tiles. Here is a brief summary of the available tiles:
- Castle – Identical to the starting tile at the beginning of the game, placing a castle allows a player to take another action as if they had an extra die of any result.
- Ship – Playing a ship allows the player to move his piece forward on the turn order track, potentially improving their positioning for future rounds. Additionally, the player can take all of the goods that have accumulated on one of the depots, and add them to their player board (still limited to having three different types at one time).
- Animal – Animal tiles comes with one of four different types of animals on them. When placed, each animal on the tile scores one point, with an additional point for every animal of the same type that is already in that pasture (a region of connected light green spaces).
- Mine – While mines have no effect when initially placed, they will each produce one silverling at the end of every phase.
- Building – There are eight different types of buildings, each with their own special effect. I won’t go over all of them here, but they tend to let you combo extra abilities like taking a tile from a depot or playing onto your estate. Buildings of the same type can never be played in the same region (city).
- “Knowledge” – These yellow tiles all have unique effects, many of which provide special abilities that can be used for the rest of the game, or scoring bonuses for the end of the game.
This whole process of taking tiles and placing them onto your estate is with the goal of ultimately scoring victory points. Designer Stefan Feld’s games are famously categorized as “point salads,” highlighting how there are so many different ways to gain points. Here are the main ways that points are scored in The Castles of Burgundy:
- Completing Regions – This is really the primary goal of the game, and the main source of points. Whenever the final tile is placed in a group of the same color in a player’s estate, that region is scored. First, it scores points based on size, with larger regions scoring proportionally higher. Second, it scores points based on the current phase, gaining more points for completing the region earlier in the game. Third, if the player is the first or second player to complete a region of that color, they take a bonus tile that rewards them with additional points.
- Selling Goods – As mentioned before, a die can be used to sell a stack of goods for victory points and a silverling. More goods can be sold at once if the player has done a good job of using Ship tiles to acquire many of the same color.
- Animals – Besides scoring for completing regions, every animal tile will score points immediately for the number of animals in the region of the tile’s type.
- Watchtower Building – The Watchtower is the one building tile that provides points directly and immediately.
- Knowledge Tiles – Many of the yellow knowledge tiles provide an end game scoring bonus based on how well you met specific criteria such as having a lot of one building type in your estate. This is one of the few pieces of scoring that happens at the end of the game (extra resources and goods score minimally), so they often can cause a last minute swing in the standings and determine the winner.
The game ends once all five phases have completed, and after scoring knowledge tiles and extra resources, the player with the most points is the winner!
What Is It Like to Play?
Due to the fact that the results on your dice dictate what options you have available to you each turn, the game settles into a tactical rhythm where you are curious to see where the dice lead you each turn. There is definitely longer term strategy in how you plan to fill out your board, but the bulk of the decision-making in The Castles of Burgundy is figuring out how to best use the die results that you are given. The inclusion of worker tiles allows players to mitigate this reliance on luck and pursue their planned strategy regardless of the die results, but I find that good players can typically work out solutions that are effective while using their workers sparingly. Here are some samples of the kind of internal dialogue a player might experience:
I rolled a three and a four. Since it is early in the round, I should probably see if there are any tiles in the corresponding depots on the main game board since those could get taken by other players if I wait too long. I could take a ship tile which would allow me to nearly finish the small blue section on my board, but maybe it is better to wait until more goods tiles accumulate on one space (since placing a ship allows me to take goods from a depot). Instead, I could take this building that will end up letting me take the blue ship tile later, saving me an action. I could even take it and play the tile immediately by using both dice, but I think it is better to also pick up a green castle tile as it will help future combos and my opponents will probably take it if I don’t.
Unfortunately, I rolled double threes despite wanting to take a Mine tile from the “six” depot, and place it on my estate with a five. I don’t think it is worth the workers to modify it, so it is probably better to go a different route. Instead, I could take a building and play it on my estate, which would bring me adjacent to my yellow area, allowing me to play knowledge tiles in the future. In fact, by using just one worker, I could get the building that also lets me take a Mine, Castle, or Knowledge tile from a depot when placed, which would allow me to also get that Mine that I wanted to grab in the first place! Not to mention, none of my opponents are close to completing a region of buildings, so playing one would move me a step closer to getting the bonus for finishing it first.
Once players roll their dice at the beginning of each round, everyone is simultaneously thinking about all of the options that they have available to them, and how they can chain combos to accomplish more than just the two actions provided by the dice. There is no shortage of tradeoffs to be thinking about for any given decision. Do you complete a smaller region first to try to get the bonus tile and finish in an earlier round, or do you work on a larger region that will ultimately be worth more points? Do you take knowledge tiles that provide you with an ability such as always being able to select tiles from depots adjacent to your die result, or do you take a knowledge tile that will score bonus points for certain buildings at the end of the game? Do you play a ship tile to take a group of goods, or do you wait for someone else to do it first so that you can leapfrog them in turn order? The Castles of Burgundy is a game that never leaves the players bored or waiting, as there is such a high concentration of meaningful tactical decisions.
Most of the interesting decisions in the game are tactical, where those tactics are dictated by the results of the dice each round. Pairing that with the randomized order that tiles get revealed throughout the game and the different player boards, the replay value ends up being rather high. Each game is largely doing the same thing, but if you enjoy those basic mechanics, then the constant randomization will keep it fresh indefinitely.
In my experiences, The Castles of Burgundy works really well at all player counts from 2 to 4. At 2 players, it has the advantage of moving quickly with almost no downtime, and clocking in at an hour or less of total game time. While a 4 player game will certainly be more drawn out, I also think it adds interest with more tiles being available in the depots. Since players roll simultaneously at the beginning of the round, everyone can think about their decisions even if it isn’t their turn, which really helps reduce downtime in general.
I’ve mentioned the term “point salad,” and that really is the common point that links The Castles of Burgundy to other similar games. Strong comparisons can be made to Stefan Feld’s other designs, particularly ones that focus on dice manipulation such as Bora Bora and Macao. Similar games by other designers might include The Voyages of Marco Polo, La Granja, Lorenzo il Magnifico and Grand Austria Hotel.
Fairly minimal, especially if you have become familiar with the game. Each phase has some necessary bookkeeping as the board is cleared of tiles and new tiles are drawn for all the depots, but the initial setup can easily be ready to go in under five minutes.
Since there are only four main actions that you can do with each die, it is pretty easy for new players to understand their immediate options. Rolling the dice also helps because it naturally points them in a direction such as looking at the tiles available in the corresponding depot. There is some complexity that comes from understanding the different tile types and how to approach playing the game effectively, but fortunately those things can be learned by doing since the basic mechanics are still simple. The “point salad” nature of the game also helps new players to feel good even if they are losing, because they feel like they are still scoring often.
Things to Like
The game consists of five phases, each with five rounds, each of which involves rolling two dice. This adds up to fifty total actions over the course of the game, but what makes The Castles of Burgundy tactically exciting is the opportunity to make those actions go so much further by using various tile abilities. Between the Castle tiles providing a free action, many of the buildings activating an immediate effect, and silverlings available to gain extra tiles from the central black depot; there are many tools for efficiency, and it is very satisfying to figure out the best way to put the pieces together to accomplish more with less.
Until you roll your dice at the beginning of a turn, it is hard to plan with any certainty what exactly you will do that turn. There are definitely ways to mitigate the luck with workers and by keeping your plan flexible, but everything changes once you have those two die results. Some options now become more expensive as they would require modifying the dice with worker tiles, but other paths may emerge that you hadn’t even considered beforehand. This adds excitement to the beginning of every round as you wait to see what puzzle is revealed by a roll of the dice. It also keeps every turn engaging; there is no way you can plan out your next five turns and be stuck just waiting for other players to finish so that you can walk through the motions of your strategy.
This point is a little more dependent on personal taste and tolerance to mental exertion in games, but I have found The Castles of Burgundy to be a very relaxing experience. I think the main reason for this is the same as the last point: each turn is a tactical puzzle that is not defined until the dice have been rolled. This frees the player from feeling like they need to think way ahead and form a long-term strategy. In other games, players can get paralyzed in their decisions because they are thinking way ahead and how the decision they make will propagate into the future and affect whether they can reach their strategic goals. In The Castles of Burgundy, however, you really have to take it turn by turn, which takes a lot of the pressure off in terms of driving your long-term success. The gameplay falls into a nice rhythm: roll dice, solve a little optimization puzzle with those options; roll dice, solve a little optimization puzzle with those options… (rinse, repeat).
Almost everything you do in The Castles of Burgundy will result in you gaining points, just some options are more advantageous than others. This keeps the tactical decisions interesting (as there are always a lot of routes you could pursue), but also prevents the game from feeling like you are just doing the same thing repeatedly. Some games, I may score a lot of points shipping goods, but other games, I might almost ignore it entirely as I rack up most of my points from regions of animals. I find it enjoyable when there are variable paths to victory, but the game provides you with information (in this case the die rolls, tile allocation to depots, etc.) that you can use to pick the path you feel will be most effective. Some games do this well on a macro level, giving you some big parameters up front that you will base your entire strategy around (Agricola is a good example). The Castles of Burgundy achieves it, instead, on the micro level, with tons of small decision points and a shifting landscape that requires constant player adaptation.
Things to Dislike
I have emphasized The Castles of Burgundy‘s strengths lying in its tactical decisions from turn to turn, but this does come at the expense of the ability to form a larger strategic vision. There are a few key points of strategy for sure (where to expand your estate, which victory point paths to focus on), but it lacks a feeling of setting out with a strategic goal and then working to achieve it by the end of the game. The tradeoff is that it has a more relaxing quality as highlighted above, but some players would rather have a play space where they can plan their trajectory and experience the satisfaction of meeting it.
Even bad decisions in The Castles of Burgundy will lead to points, and this results in the end game scoring possibly not having much disparity between players of differing skill levels. There are enough small decisions that the better player will typically win, but it doesn’t ever feel like you made any specific, crucial decisions that led to your victory. There are some situations where this becomes a positive, for example, when playing with new players or players that are simply worse at the game. Losing players will often feel like they weren’t that far behind, because they still were able to acquire a fair amount of points. This can make everyone at the table feel good when the game ends. However, with all experienced players, you can feel constrained in your ability to separate yourself from the pack even if you play at a high level.
I don’t normally talk about components in my reviews because I am much more interested in the designs of games and how they play, but it is worth mentioning that The Castles of Burgundy looks, for lack of a better word, boring. The cover of the box looks boring, the board looks boring, and the tiles look boring. Players interested in the strategic/tactical experience won’t care about this, and everything works well functionally, but it also isn’t going to catch the eye of onlookers and may be harder to convince new players to try it. When picking games in my game group, it is a reality that The Castles of Burgundy gets chosen less frequently simply because it is easy to forget how fun the gameplay is when you are just looking at it on the shelf among other more flashy games.
Game Design Perspective
The whole genre of “point salad” Eurogames is rather interesting from a design standpoint. The primary appeal is that if there are a lot of ways to gain points, it results in a lot of interesting decisions as you contemplate the tradeoffs among the differing paths. It gives the player an opportunity to feel creative as they explore all of the different ways they could choose to approach a given situation. However, the side effect is that it almost feels like the strategy of the game is on training wheels. For a game to truly be strategically rich, there needs to be room to separate good play from bad play, with better players winning because of their superior decision making. But if all routes of decisions lead to points, and those routes are all balanced (which tends to be the goal of a design that provides multiple paths to victory), where is the opportunity for disparity in skill levels to show itself?
In The Castles of Burgundy, the answer is that at any given time, certain decisions are slightly more efficient or score slightly more points than others. So four different options might net 3, 3, 4, and 5 points respectively, and the players that can more consistently identify the 5-point play will separate themselves from the pack over time. Overall, I think The Castles of Burgundy does a good job of balancing this, but it is an interesting consideration to make when designing this sort of game. At first, assigning points to almost every action seems like a design cop-out, avoiding a singular vision and focused goal for the game. However, choosing the “point salad” path is not as easy as it seems, because it becomes paramount that certain strategies do not emerge as being dominant. A successful “point salad” game says, “there is no decision that is universally correct, but rather any decision might be the right one at any point in time given a variety of variables.” Perhaps this is true of any game design, but it is pushed to the forefront in these types of games that ask the player, “I am giving you points one way or another, but can you figure out how to get a little bit more?” And if that decision point is consistently interesting and varied, the rest of the design will fall into place.
Do you feel like you would enjoy a game that provides a high concentration of tactical efficiency puzzles in a relatively short amount of time? The Castles of Burgundy manages to pack in a lot of interesting mental processing without being a brain-burner, and I think that is part of why it is so popular.
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