Unplugged: The Castles of Burgundy (Boardgame)

As with all entertainment, some things just seem to settle into the role of a classic. The Castles of Burgundy, a boardgame released in 2011, is one such game. Released in 2011, it remains high on many boardgame favorite lists and is currently ranked 14th overall at the popular web site, Boardgamegeek.com. The game centers around a set of dice and each player’s personal game board, displaying a hexagonal grid. Players roll dice and then use them to place tiles on their board. Each type of tile grants special abilities and players must make the best use of these special abilities to score points over the course of the game. Turns are quick and, once grasped, the rules are straightforward making this a richly rewarding game to play. The game has also spawned other versions, such as a simpler, fully dice based roll & write style game called The Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game.

The Castles of Burgundy (& The Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game)
Publisher: Alea
Ages: 12+ (10+)
Players: 2-4 (1-5)
Time: 30-90 mins (15-30 min)
(Review copy provided by Alea)

Play begins with everyone starting with an identical play mat composed of a large hexagon broken down into many individual hexagons. These hexagons are colored (important later) and grouped into same-color sets on the board. Play begins with everyone rolling two dice. Players then take turns using their two dice to choose actions, based on the numbers shown. The main way to earn points is by placing tiles onto one’s own board, filling up complete same-color groups whenever possible. Players use dice to draw tiles, chosen from a pile of tiles of the matching number. Players also use dice to place their tiles on their board with their possible placement location also limited by the number on the die. The game plays over five phases, restocking the supply of available tiles each time. Each phase consists of five rounds, where each player gets a turn. Thus, every player will have 25 actions in total during the game.

The basic rules are straightforward, but where the game gets its depth is through the various interactions of the tiles when placed on the game board. Each tile must be placed on its own color on the board, and each color provides a different effect when placed. Green tiles give a player another action. Blue tiles improve a player’s turn order but also accumulate goods that can be sold later as sets for points. Grey tiles provide income. Light green tiles score points based on adjacent light green tiles. Brown tiles provide a building which gives a player an immediate bonus (like more points or bonus actions.) Yellow tiles are each unique and provide a player with bonus points or a powerful ongoing ability. A player board has hexagons grouped by color and completing a complete set of similar-colored hexagons also earns a player bonus points, one of the primary sources of points in the game.

The heart of the game is managing your present options due to the dice you rolled in order to leave open the possibility of achieving long-term goals. Thankfully, players can accumulate Worker chips which can be used to modify a dice by one pip. Timely use of a worker can mean the difference between a highly productive turn and a wasted opportunity. My favorite part of the game lies in the buildings (brown) and knowledge (yellow) tiles. Each of them grant a special ability and because all players start with matching game boards, mixing and matching these abilities are key to a successful strategy. There are a number of things that make this game great. I love that I play on my own board and while players can draft tiles or goods from the center that I want, no one can mess with what’s already on my board. There are several ways to earn points (such as filling in same-color areas, earning and selling goods, going for end-game scoring.) I love the decisions of when to grab a tile, when to place it, and which buildings and knowledge tiles are best for my strategy. The knowledge tiles in particular deserve a mention. Depending on when they become available, they can change one’s overall plan. Even though the game involves dice, much of the randomness can be mitigated, so even if you can’t do exactly what you want, planning ahead will at least leave you several good options. Finally, for a game with such a nice set of decisions, it is easy to explain and plays quick – making it much easier to get to the table when people aren’t willing to play a several-hour game.

The 20th Anniversary Edition:
Of note, Castles of Burgundy has just come out in a 20th Anniversary edition. This is not the anniversary of the game, but of the company. Unlike some of the other anniversary games out there, this edition doesn’t have particularly fancy bits and pieces. Instead, it contains all the various expansions to the game that have been released so far. As an award-winning and still popular game there have been quite a few. Some change the game in little ways, but most of the expansions are completely new player boards. While it may not seem important, switching around the locations of the various colors can have a big effect on the overall play of the game. One of my favorites is an expansion where players play against each other in two teams, with each player controlling half of a linked-hexagon pair. For fans of the game who only have one or two expansions, this is a great deal. For gamers who already own the expansions of interest, it is not really worth an upgrade to the collector’s edition.

Bonus Review: The Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game
Following recent trends, The Castles of Burgundy has also been reimplemented in a much simplified dice game. Here, each player starts with their own player board as before. However, players roll the dice and then use them to fill in spaces on their board, no tiles or special powers are used. Two dice are numbered and two are colored and one must combine the two in order to write down a specific number in a particular colored spot on the scorecard. Filling in groups of the same color again earns players points (more points for managing to fill them in earlier in the game) but completing a color also earns a player a bonus ability. One type simply earns more points while others typically grant resources that can be used later to adjust the color or number on the dice – a key tool in one’s arsenal to avoid unlucky rolls. I much prefer the full game but the dice game stands on its own as a pretty fun game in the “roll & write” genre that is extremely portable – 5 dice, one notecard-sized scorecard per player, and a pencil. It serves a dual purpose as many of the main game’s mechanics are simplified in the dice game. Learning the dice game is an excellent stepping stone to understanding the full game.

Kid Factor:
The dice version is a great family-friendly title. No reading required and while a bit of strategy definitely helps, even a younger child can feel like they’re accomplishing something while they play. The full game requires more of a commitment but is still very approachable, something I’d place solidly in the family-friendly category. Playable by a young kid, but I’d expect it would work best for pre-teens on up.

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