Castles of Burgundy
Published by Alea - 2011
Designers: Stefan Feld
Head Artist: Julien Delval
2 - 4 players ~ 60 - 75 minutes
Review written by Luke Muench
At first glance, Castles of Burgundy is not a terribly appealing game. With a box cover that can’t help but force your eyes to glaze over, a pile of tiny, finicky pieces that you have to constantly reorganize, move around, and reset, an art style that isn’t particularly appealing, and a theme that’s as thin as the player boards, I could understand why a person might pass on a game of this. For a long time, I avoided the title like the plague, despite its status as one of the top ten games of all time on BoardGameGeek.
Fifteen games later, and this is perhaps one of my favorite board games of all time.
Seriously, Castles of Burgundy grips you from turn one and pushes you to make intelligent, thoughtful, and rewarding choices each and every turn, but never to the point that it feels overwhelming. With just enough luck to keep things from getting predictable, and enough ways to mitigate said luck so you rarely feel burnt, this design makes each session a memorable experience.
Each player starts the game with a castle, presumably filled to the brim with dark red tapestries and rugs, and a straightforward goal; fill your board with as many tiles as possible. Much like any tile-laying game, you have to build off of your starting tile, and different colors dotting your board indicate the tile type that can be placed there.
The game is separated into five rounds, with each round composed of five turns, with players completing two actions each turn. So, from the very start you’re aware that you have exactly 50 actions unless you play tiles or spend silverlings to activate more. (silverlings being the pre-eminent method of rushing your opponents base as they were busy focussing on harvesting vespene gas)
Before a round commences, everyone rolls their two dice; the determining factors of their actions. Then, in player order (dictated by your seafaring level), each individual may spend their dice in one of four ways; taking a tile from the board in your reserve, placing a tile from your reserve onto your board, selling a set of goods, or taking two workers.
To take a tile from the board, one must spend a die, taking said tile from the area that corresponds to the number on the die used. Depending on the number of players, there are a limited amount of tiles in each section, and once they’re taken, they won’t be replaced until the following round, pressuring you to rush to the tiles you’re desperately lusting after, even if no one else wants it.
This pressure is made all the more prevalent when you realize that, after five turns, the board will be completely wiped for the new round. So, within the next moves, you NEED to find a way to get that precious four-sheep tile, or, regardless of if anyone else wants it, it will be lost to the ether, potentially replaced by an awful two-chicken tile. Let’s be honest; four sheep are WAY better than two chickens.
Now, you can’t just place your tiles on your player board! That would be uncouth. Shame on you for even considering such a thing. We are nobles after all, meaning all of our tiles need to first be placed in our reserve. But not too many at once; we aren’t greedy after all. No, only three tiles can be held in your reserve at any time, meaning that, once again, you feel the tension of how far you can push yourself before you need to start moving those tiles to your board. Just like how you first obtained them, players send a die to place their tiles onto a spot that matches both the color of said tile and the number on the die, like a precious little puzzle piece.
Being the upstanding people we are, we pride ourselves on our collection of lands, so much so that just how quickly we gather them could mean how well our kingdoms will ultimately be scored. First, those who complete a colored section will receive points based on how many tiles are contained in that section and what round it is. So, in the first round, completing a tiny one tile gray section will earn you 11 points; one for your single tile and ten because it’s the first round. On the other hand, building up a six tile section until finishing it in the fourth round will earn you 25 points; 21 for the tiles and four because of the round.
On top of this, if you are so lucky as to be the first the collect all your tiles of a single color, you will earn a burst of bonus points, dependant on the player count, with whoever completes that color second earning a smaller amount of points. Thus, the hierarchy of “oh-god,-I-need-to-get-that-tile-NOW” came into being, and it was good. At least, for whoever is really good at optimizing their moves.
A large part of this is taking workers, tokens that can modify a die-roll by +1 or -1, thus widening your options turn-to-turn extensively. Are you going to take a tile, or spend any single die to hoard two more worker tokens to try and get the modifiers you need down the road? Quickly, players realize how precious these resources can be, fending off the RNG* demons and their nasty results. This also makes it so getting two of the same number isn’t immediately terrible, depending on the board state.
*RNG being Random Number Generation. To go down the RNG rabbit hole, please see here
The last action, selling goods, allow you to spend a die to sell a pile of goods from your board of the same number. In doing so, you will both get points based on the number of goods collected and a silverling.
“What are silverlings?” you may ask. Well, just the best and most precious currency in the lands of Burgundy. Two of these bad boys will allow you to purchase from an exclusive store in the center of the board, selling tiles only obtainable through this action. What’s more, this is a FREE action, meaning you get both a difficult-to-obtain tile, potentially with little competition, while also getting an extra action out of your turn.
Now, there’s a lot to unpack here already, but wait! We haven’t even talked about each of the tile types and what they do:
Castles, immediately after being played, allow you to take any action as if you played a die of any value.
Mines generate one silverling at the end of every round.
Ships adjust the player order and allow you to take all the goods at a single location.
Livestock gives you straight points, which can be built upon if you consistently obtain the same livestock type in a contiguous area.
Buildings provide points, extra workers, or may allow you to immediate take or play tiles of specific types. You may only have one of each type of building in a given colored section (“town”).
Knowledge gives you special abilities, ignoring rules, empowering certain actions, or providing bonus points for collecting specific buildings over the course of the game.
Needless to say, Castles of Burgundy is a game of deep, thoughtful strategy that feels rewarding regardless of whether or not you win. Much of this boils down to the fact that,no matter what your point total is, you built your little board. That’s YOURS, and more often than not, you’ll feel attached to it, proud of what you’ve made. It’s an aspect that keeps you invested, regardless of the score.
But even still, the scores are often incredibly close, within a handful of points of one another. At certain moments, it may appear that someone has the lead, but someone will inevitably complete a massive seven-tile section that will bring them barrelling up the points track as if they just activated a jetpack fueled by their patience and the smug looks they give everyone else present.
That said, this same mechanic can cause despair in the hearts and minds of a newer player. If, within the first few turns of a game, a player sees that they’re already 20 points behind, some might throw in the towel then and there, not understanding the general flow or pace of the game. And, for some, I can appreciate why they might feel that way, but I also know that this can rob people of having a fantastic gaming moment of leaping from last to first in a single action.
Similarly, others will see the bland artstyle, dominated by uninteresting structures and washed-out colors, and walk away from the table, requiring only the best of art to adorn their games. And, in some ways, I can see where they are coming from. Castles of Burgundy isn’t a pretty game, but its art has grown on me over time, with a certain rustic feel all its own.
The number of tiles present may also send some running, as the box “insert” is abysmal, and with very few, see-through baggies being included, it becomes a chore to organize and randomly select the tiles each round without investing in some form of organizational system. The lack of felt bags is a HUGE oversight, and makes the game less enjoyable until a satisfactory solution is found, a task that shouldn’t be put on the players.
And there are those who will hear just how many rules and details there are, paw through the rules briefly, and rush back to the safety of Codenames, and that’s equally valid. While the play cycle is rather simple and never burdens you with too many options, the details to keep in mind can feel overwhelming. This can be particularly prevalent with the building and knowledge tiles, as each have more unique and specific rules. After the first few games, these will become easily identified, but when you first pull this out, they can feel like hieroglyphics.
Castles of Burgundy isn’t a perfect game. No game is. But it’s perhaps the perfect game for me; a game that consistently challenges me mentally, features elements of luck manipulation, is easy to teach but difficult to master, provides a unique experience every game, and is a joy to play with any of its player counts. It’s a game that is clearly well-loved by the community, and with good reason. What the game lacks in flavor and style, it more than makes up for with one of the best gaming experiences to date.
Who Should Get This Game: Those who are looking for a deep, engaging puzzle that rewards patience and attention to detail.
Who Shouldn’t Get This Game: Those value aesthetics and theme over a tight gameplay system, easily overwhelmed by choice and rules.
Luke Muench is a regular contributor to The Cardboard Herald and host of the Budget Board Gamer youtube channel.