Castles of Burgundy Review – Tons of Tiny Hexes!

Review by Doug Garrett of Garrett’s Games and Geekiness Podcast
Designer: Stephan Feld
Artists: Julien Delval and Harald Lieske
Publisher: Alea
Players: 2-4
Ages: 12+
Time: 30-90 minutes (more like 120 with 4 & new players)
Times Played: 6 (2 with 2, 2 with 3, 2 with 4)

I am on record as a game player who tends to look upon dice with a high degree of suspicion.  The phrase many employ is “dice hate me” and I have to agree.  Games that rely on dice often get mired in painful luck-driven aspects and last far too long given their randomness.  So what am I doing reviewing a dice-based game that lists as its game length 30-90 minutes, but often goes longer than that?  And will I lose credibility when, unlike some crankier Opinionated Gamers, I say that I enjoy Stephan Feld’s latest Alea release?  Let’s hope not, but you can be the judge.

The game is made up of a central board onto which a multitude of small hex tiles are placed each round. (I’m using terminology I would use to describe the game, as the rules awkwardly invoke the word ‘phase’ to describe what I’m calling a round).  Twenty-five square Goods tiles are also selected from the game’s 42 available, and placed into stacks of 5 that correspond to each of the five rounds.  Each player then receives three Goods from those remaining, along with a player mat (more on this momentarily), one coin (or Silverling), 1-4 workers depending on turn order, a castle (dark green hex) for an initial starting tile, and dice and playing pieces in his/her color.

The individual player mats establish a player’s ‘estate’ and work as a repository for the hex and Goods tiles one acquires over the course of the game.  Thirty-seven hexes are grouped together to make one’s estate on the right side of the mat.  The hexes are multi-colored and match (or match for the most part – more on this later) the colors of the various hexes available on the main board.  There are four #1 mats in the box, but every mat is 2-sided; there are nine different configurations of the hexes available in the game, and these vary markedly.  This variety expands the game’s possibilities as different boards require different strategies for scoring.  Each of the colored hexes has a corresponding die face within it.  One’s initial goods are grouped by color in the three holding spaces in the upper left of the player mat, and there are spots to hold money and used dice, as well as player aid information about the wide variety of hex tile actions.

Each turn, players roll their dice, then spend both dice in turn order to perform four possible actions.  Players can take hex tiles from the corresponding dice-face areas on the main board and place them in a holding area on their mat; they can place a tile from their mat’s holding area into their estate (though a new tile must touch one that is currently placed there); they can sell Goods of one type that corresponds to a die’s value; they can buy special hex tiles once per turn; and finally they can get workers.  I should say at this point that workers are one of the most important additions to this game.  They allow players to modify a die roll  +1 or -1 per worker – a very handy tool for those less than perfect die rolls!

A look at a portion of both the game board (top) and a player's mat.

The heart of the game lies in those hex tiles, however, and that is where the first barrier to entry for Castles of Burgundy may exist for some players.  With 41 different tiles in the game (I think I’m doing my math correctly here) that perform separate actions, the player aid on one’s mat helps, but doesn’t necessarily keep everything straight.  Sixteen to thirty-two of these tiles (depending on the number of players) get placed at the beginning of each of the five rounds in the game, so new players must take the time to study the myriad of possibilities available.  Yes, the tiles are colored which helps to some extent, but since there are eight brown building tiles and each of 26 yellow ‘knowledge’ tiles is different, there’s a lot of information to absorb.  Am I going to take a blue boat in order to advance on the turn order track and obtain a good?  Am I going to grab that field of sheep and score points for each sheep pictured?  Am I going to snap up that Church in order to get a different color tile for free when I build it?  These choices need to be pondered, and remember that it is a two-step process to first take, THEN place that tile on your mat.

Generating money (silverlings) is another important aspect of the game because as I mentioned above, there are hex tiles in the middle of the game board that can be purchased rather than having to use a die to obtain them.  When Goods are sold a single silvering is generated.  Money also comes at the end of a round from each mine a player has built.  Setting up the chance to buy the best special hex tile is very important, and the fact that there are only three slots in the queue to hold hex tiles while they wait to be placed in one’s estate can be a painful limitation as well.

So how are points generated?  Well, the sale of goods generates 2-4 points per good tile sold (depending on whether there are 2-4 players playing).  Field pieces generate points based on the number of animals on them, then continue to add points if more of the same animal winds up in that particular field.  Filling colored areas of one’s play mat generates points depending upon the number of tiles in that area and which round the area fills.  Competition with opponents comes into play because being the first or second to fill up all of a particular color on one’s mat leads to another bonus chip.  And then there are the bonus tiles…another important aspect to know about beforehand, and which may not even come to fruition (more on this gripe later).  These yellow tiles (that are far too similar in color to the Field tile’s light green) give bonuses for buildings and Goods tiles.  Finally, left over money, unsold goods, and workers also add meager points as well.

Like his previous Alea title Macao, Stephan Feld once again employs the use of dice in a novel way.  Here, rather than using dice to generate supplies, each player rolls just two dice to generate his/her possible actions.  Can a player’s dice detract from his/her ability to play optimally?  Certainly, but planning for that likely occurrence by obtaining workers helps.  Some have critiqued the game’s length, but I have to agree with others who say that careful planning usually mitigates the plodding ending the former group describes.

That said, I do have my reservations about the game, both in terms of components and play.  One problem with the game lies in that color involving the yellow tiles.  It seems that some green was added to the mix at least in the copy I have, making the yellow and light green nearly indistinguishable.  Once the tiles are turned over (Field vs. Knowledge) it is easy to catch the problem, but given the number of tiles, an alternate color choice would have been nice.  Second, and probably my biggest concern with the game, is that planning can been a moot point in a 2- or 3-player game since some of the tiles never appear.  Yes, the game is faster with fewer people and I am usually a fan of speedy play, but when the 2-3 possible bonus options you have been planning for never materialize while those that your opponent has worked toward do, that can be very frustrating.  Yes, one must then resort to preventing those bonuses from winding up in that other player’s hands, but I find such situations less than satisfying.

Has Feld created another ‘must buy’ game in the Alea line?  I have to say I am happy to have the game on my shelf and will most likely get it to the table a few more times over the summer.  But when bad rolls and unrealized bonuses potentially leave a bitter taste behind, I may be less inclined to pull it off the shelf as the latest shiny box finds its way into our house.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Greg Schloesser:  A new big-box Alea game is impossible for me to resist.  As one should expect, Castles of Burgundy is a solid gamer’s strategy game, filled with tough choices and numerous options.  Note that I’ve only played once so far, so I am not ready to make a definitive assessment.  However, my concern from this one playing is that it seems to last one-half or one full turn too long.  By the final turn, nearly all players seemed to have accomplished the goals they were pursuing, and the final choices seemed anti-climactic.  Others have voiced the same concern.  Still, it is well worth investigating further, and this fear may abate with future playings.  The game is currently at the 7 level for me, but could rise if this concern does vanish.

Larry Levy:  After four games, my rating for this title continues to teeter a bit.  It’s definitely a good game, but my only concern is that it plays a little slower than I would like.  My suspicion is that if I can get a group of players together who are experienced with the design, this problem will go away and I’ll be left with a quick moving, enjoyable game.  I also haven’t tried using the advanced player mats yet and most reports are that they improve the experience.  Taking those two factors together, I’m going to tenuously say that I Love this game, even though that’s partially based on its potential rather than what I’ve experienced to date.

Let me address a couple of Doug’s complaints.  I haven’t really seen a problem with distinguishing between the light green and yellow tiles in any copy of the game I’ve played with.  They are perhaps a bit closer in hue than I would prefer, but I’ve always been able to tell them apart.  So maybe his copy of the game is slightly defective.  As for the problem of the tile mix when playing with fewer than four players, we just reveal the tiles that won’t be chosen that game prior to beginning play.  That way, all the players know from the start which scoring combinations will be in full force and which will be compromised.  So far, that’s worked fine.

My complaint about the components has to do with the Building tiles.  The graphics used on them give no real clue about their function.  Explaining the ability of each on the player mats is a nice touch, but wouldn’t it have been even better if those graphics had been on the tiles themselves, rather than the uninspiring (and sometimes hard to distinguish) pictures of the buildings?  I realize that Alea was trying to enhance the game’s theme, but this title was never going to have a strong theme anyway.  Meanwhile, having to constantly check the mats slows down the game for experienced players and provides yet another hurdle for those playing for the first time.  It’s not a critical error, but something I wish would have handled differently (and maybe Rio Grande will do something about this when they come up with their own version of the design).

As for Greg’s concern about the game length, in my four games I’ve only seen one player who didn’t have more than enough to do during the last round and that was one of those aforementioned cranky Opinionated Gamers.  Given my own experiences, combined with the trust I have in designer Feld and developer Brueck, I am completely confident that Burgen is pitched at just the right length.

There’s one other thing I’d like to mention and that is a comparison with Macao.  Doug isn’t the first to mention these two games in the same breath and it’s not surprising:  both are Alea big-boxers, both are by Feld, and both use dice in innovative ways.  But I find the dice mechanic in Macao to be much more elegant than the one used in Burgen.  Literally everyone who learns Macao is immediately struck by the clever way the dice are used:  the die value equals both number of cubes and time to arrival, so that you can address immediate concerns, but have to deal with a small number of cubes, or wait a while, but get a bumper crop when they do arrive.  It’s just a very nice system and the height of elegance.  This mechanic used in Burgen, on the other hand, is effective but anything but elegant.  Essentially, Feld decided to come up with a game where there would be multiple ways of using every die and then just forced the issue.  Tiles are arbitrarily assigned to numbered areas, the player mats are a hodgepodge of numbered hexes, and goods each have a designer-assigned number for no particular reason except to make the game work.  I’m not saying a good deal of thought didn’t go into the design, just that it feels like a brute force approach as compared to the sleekness of the central mechanic in Macao.  And while an elegant approach doesn’t necessarily make a game play better, I do feel that it’s a plus, particularly for more experienced gamers.  Beautiful components are a delight to the eye and a beautiful mechanic is equally pleasing to the mind.  It represents an edge for Macao for me, although I enjoy both games quite a bit.

Joe Huber: I am reviewing Die Burgen von Burgund for Herb Levy, so I’ll just note: neither of the main concerns I’ve heard about the game (being a bit too long, and doubles being too weak) has proven to be any problem in the games I’ve played, and with a half dozen plays I’m sold on the game as being at least a minor favorite for me, with the possibility of gaining further favor.  Since Macao did continue to grow on me, I’m optimistic that Die Burgen von Burgund might do the same.

Brian Leet: I must also preface my comments by noting that they are based upon a single play. I want to try this one again, but it seems a very solid title. It is a game of doing the best you can with what you have in the moment, while balancing for long term possibilities. You can set yourself up for a situation where you need the perfect roll to make a good move, but that is a function of risky play and not necessary for the game.

An interesting aspect of the game is that it seems to have two phases (not using game terminology), at least for those of us with few plays under our belts. Everyone set an early goal that they began achieving about halfway through the game. Then you need to soberly assess what you can achieve by the end of the game and start heading for that finish line. I suspect that, like Agricola, with more plays you’ll begin having head’s up and paying attention much more to what other players want and are likely to do, adding to the strategic richness.

Length was problematic in my first play, but not a deal-breaker. Given the clear balance of tiles and actions I think I’d prefer to play with four. So, my final assessment will depend on how much play time can be brought down with experience.

Dale Yu: I’ve played Burgund over ten times now, so I think that I’m fairly familiar with it.  At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of it as there are a lot of things that you need to be watching: which spaces you can build on, what buildings are available and what their powers are, what the current turn order is, etc.  After playing it a few times and becoming more familiar with the tiles and the options open to me, I’ve found that the game is well balanced and offers a lot of depth in a short playing time.

The game is quite tactical, as your choices are very much dictated by which tiles are left to you by your opponents.  This allows you to do some broad planning, but the decisions for each turn usually have to wait until you have finished the previous turn.  I try to keep things moving by working on my next turn while my opponents are playing.  This usually works if I’m only concentrating on my own board, though sometimes I’ll need to stop and see if I need to buy a tile defensively (i.e. the next player already has 10 chickens in his pasture area and there is another chicken tile available).

My usual group is three players, and we can get a normal game done in under an hour.  Surely, part of this stems from the fact that we’re all naturally quick players and that we have all played the game multiple times.  Some others have noted that a game with less than four players is sub-optimal because not all the tiles come into play – but I haven’t seen that as a problem.  In fact, my group actually likes the fact that this adds to the variance in the game.  We’re all familiar with the tiles, so we know what could be coming… but not knowing for sure what will be available makes things a bit more exciting.  It also puts a little bit more premium on the turn order and the silverling collection — as it is always helpful to go first in a round and be able to buy one of the black tiles if you’re waiting for one specific tile.

You’ll also have to put me firmly in the camp that the game’s length of 25 turns is just right.  While there are plenty of folks who seem to be “out of things to do” by the time the fifth phase rolls around, I think that this is just due to poor planning — often in a player’s first attempt at playing the game.  In my 10+ games of Burgund, I have yet to see anyone completely fill their board with tiles (though I once only had 2 empty spaces left), and as I see it, as long as you have hexes to build on, there are opportunities for you to score points.  Furthermore, the ability for players to play defensively is increased in the last round as you have a much better idea what the other players are going for (generally for the +4 bonus tiles or for large animal bonuses in the pastures).  The last round is also the time to try to finish out specific colors to get the bonus tiles for finishing those off first or second.

Finally, I’d like to comment on the “advanced” game (which I find less appealing than the “standard” game).  In the standard game, all players have an identical mat, and each starts with their initial castle placed in the center.  The result of this setup is that all players are vying for the same tiles from the start.  Generally, the dice rolls and the player choices will cause the players to head out in different directions — but the fact remains that all players are competing for the same things.

In the advanced game, players use the backside of the player mats which have different arrangements of the hexes.  Additionally, players get to choose which dark green space they would like to start from.  The advantage of this is that the different setups (including which space you choose to start from) can radically change how you approach the game.  For example, some boards may have all the water spaces far away from where you start – and if you choose this route, you have to be prepared to be near the end in turn order for the early parts of the game.  Other boards may have a single area of 8 spaces (of pastures or buildings) which will be hard to complete, but offer huge bonuses for finishing.  The disadvantage of this is that players have different needs at different times, and this takes away from the competition for the tiles.  While this doesn’t take away from the potential blocking near the end of the game, it does seem to take away some of the tension in the earlier portions.  Scores tend to be higher when players are playing with the different boards as each player is able to determine their own strategy from the start of the game, and they are often unimpeded early on in setting things up.

In the end, though, I love this game.  It has provided a great deal of replay value, and I’m still looking forward to my next game of it (which is a rare thing after 10 plays).

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it!…Larry Levy, John Palagyi, Dale Yu
I like it…Doug Garrett, Greg Schloesser, Erik Arneson, Ted Cheatham, Joe Huber, Brian Leet
Neutral…Tom Rosen
Not for me

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5 Responses to Castles of Burgundy Review – Tons of Tiny Hexes!

  1. Larry Rice says:

    According to a post on BGG, Jay won’t be publishing this one here in North America. (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/6909682#6909682)

    I’m with Dale after 3-4 plays that I think the game length is fine. I picture the game as a bit of a marathon where you have to maintain your endurance and staying power and not extend yourself too soon. As you play in the earlier rounds, one needs to keep the end in mind and plan accordingly. My only semi-frustration is that the group with whom I play most tends towards very deliberative play which means my games have averaged 3-3.5 hours – that can be painful but I don’t have much choice.

  2. Dale Yu says:

    Wow… 3 hours for Burgund? That would almost be enough to turn me off of the game!
    Larry – BTW – have you played with the advanced boards yet? What did you think?
    Dale

  3. Doug Garrett says:

    Our first couple of games were 2+ hours with 3 & 4 players, and that’s fairly easy to do as there are A LOT of tiles to figure out. The Player Aid on the ‘Geek (2-page itemized list with graphics) helps, but you still need that time to process everything for the first couple of plays. That said, Dale’s right that it DOES speed up.

  4. Larry Rice says:

    Dale – I did play with the advanced boards for the first time on Sunday. I enjoyed the difference in that it forced me to approach the game a bit differently as I had to be careful not to select a mine right away since it was three spaces away and such. Two of us in the game were experienced so we tried the advanced boards and we both scored high (250s). The two newbies played basic game and scored just under 200. I can see where I might get to the point in that the basic board for everyone makes a more competitive game in fighting for the tiles but the advanced boards still are fresh enough that I want to try an advanced board again. I must admit that I didn’t see much fighting over the tiles with three different boards being used in the game – makes me wonder if we actually disadvantaged the newbies by having the two of them use the basic board…:-)

  5. Larry Rice says:

    BTW, I found that a GMT counter tray works wonderfully for storing this game! I got rid of the insert and just use one GMT counter tray to keep all the cardboard bits and the dice. Makes setup and tear down easy. The black tiles, building tiles, and the goods tiles each need two compartments, but all the components fit!

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