Unplugged: Castles of Burgundy puts dice to good use

June 29, 2012

It’s no secret that I have a serious distaste for dice getting in the way of my strategic decisions. Whenever the success or failure of my plans is reduced to the outcome of a roll, some part of me just turns away. I’m also not wild about my actions in a given turn being dictated by what numbers have been randomly produced. On the surface, Stefan Feld’s The Castles of Burgundy would appear to fall into the latter category, as the roll of a pair of dice has great sway over every turn.

Except not really. The dice determine from where you can claim tiles, where on your board you can place tiles, and what goods you can sell, but there’s still a remarkable degree of freedom regardless of your actual roll. Part of this is due to the presence of worker tokens, which can be spent to adjust the value of a die up or down one… and, crucially, Castles treats one and six as being adjacent so you are never more than three away from achieving whatever your plans for the round might have been.

A game of Castles lasts over five rounds of five turns each. At the beginning of each round, the central board is populated with various color-coded tiles representing buildings, pastures, castles, ships, mines, and innovations/knowledge. These tiles are seeded around the board in six positions around a central pool of special tiles that can come from any one of the previous categories. Each player has one castle tile placed on the appropriate space on their personal boards, along with three random goods, a silverling, and a number of workers dependent on player order. Each turn, players each roll two dice that will govern their actions as discussed above, or a die can be sacrificed to gain two additional worker tokens.

Players can hold up to three tiles at a time, and can place them only on the correspondingly-colored spaces on their board that are both adjacent to an already-placed tile and matched by the die you spend to place it. Bear in mind that a given region can only have one of a given type of building tile. Each tile has a corresponding effect when placed. Some score points, others give additional actions, and the special abilities granted by many of the knowledge tiles has earned them the nickname “cheating tiles” in my group. Placing a ship tile both moves your marker ahead in the turn order indicator as well as allowing you to claim all of the goods present on a port of your choice, which is filled each turn by an unaffiliated die rolled by one player in a mechanic that also serves as a turn/round indicator in a nice bit of design. Completing a region of like-colored tiles earns the player a bonus based on the size of the region and the round, and the first and second players to completely fill all of a given color’s spaces earns and additional bonus.

Opting to use an action to sell one of your three accumulated types of goods earns you a number of points per tile sold equal to the number of players as well as one silverling (regardless of how many tiles are sold). In addition to the two die-related actions each turn, players may turn in two silverlings to purchase one of the tiles from the central pool once per turn. After the fifth turn each round, any mines placed on a board each produce one silverling and then the unclaimed tiles in the center board are returned to their respective pools before new tiles are drawn to start the next round. The player with the most points at the end of the fifth round is the winner, with silverlings and every two worker tokens being worth a point each; any knowledge tiles that aren’t “cheating tiles” instead provide bonus points for specific criteria.

The combination of having four different uses for each die (pick up tile, place tile, sell goods, or get workers) really helps to mitigate the randomness, as do the worker tokens themselves and the ability to purchase a tile with silverlings once a turn if you have the cash. Everything else about Castles is similarly designed: several sub-options per choices. What tile(s) do you want from the areas from which you can select? Do you have to sacrifice a worker to achieve this goal, or can some combination of buildings and other special actions get the job done? Do you place that tile here or there, and how will that affect your future tile-placement options?

If I can find a failing with Castles, it is with the contents of the box. Or rather, the lack thereof. With about six different types of tiles that have to be kept sorted, including some small cloth bags would have been awesome. Using the traditional transparent plastic bags for storage is fine, but it makes the actual gameplay a bit awkward. I also found that the two-player game can be very dependent on who gets to go first; a couple of early ships can put one player out in the lead so far as to get first pick almost every time that it matters. This isn’t a huge issue, and I’ve only played two-player one time so I could be mistaken, but that’s how it felt.

Still, aside from those minor quibbles, I have great enjoyment every time I play Castles. Feld’s design is brilliant and elegant, and other than learning what the specific knowledge and building tiles actually do (which is easy enough, but will increase the play time for your first few sessions) simple to learn. It takes a lot for me to embrace a game that puts dice in control of my fate, and Castles achieves this mostly by making sure the dice don’t have veto power over. That’s all I ask for, really.

The Castles of Burgundy retails for around $40.