Review: Castles of Burgundy

BGG Rank #10 – 4/17/2017

I’m constantly impressed by the way that new board games keep raising the bar. When you look at some of the biggest names to come out in the past couple of years, like Scythe and Gloomhaven, it’s not a matter of whether a board game needs to invest in art design and high-quality components– it’s how much. While both of those games are fantastic, the market is also flooded with games that look much better than they actually play. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I acquired a copy of The Castles of Burgundy. This 2011 release is the last of a dying breed, a modest looking game that relies on the fundamentals of solid mechanics. Let’s take a look at how this game stacks up against some of its flashier contemporaries.

Flexible Estate Planning

In Castles of Burgundy, the name of the game is flexibility. The overall goal is to earn the most victory points through building your estate and selling goods. But due to an element of chance, it’s not always easy to follow through on a specific plan.

Each player board features numbered spaces where estate tiles can be placed, by spending a matching die.

As you look at the various components, one thing you’ll immediately notice is a lot of images of die faces of values one through six. On the central board, there are six numbered warehouses. Every player’s board has a multi-colored map made up of individual hexagons, each one bearing a die face with a number of pips. Even the goods tiles feature dice in the bottom left hand corner, next to some nondescript crates.

Estate tiles can be purchased from a warehouse by spending a numbered die (or the middle by spending two silver).

All these dice play a central role in the game mechanics, because in order to take an action related to any of the aforementioned places or items, a player must spend a die of the corresponding value. The game lasts 25 turns, and players roll just two dice each turn. So on any given turn, you’ve got two 1-in-6 chances to get the number you want most.

There are six types of goods tiles, all of equal value when sold.

While the roll of a die inherently involves chance, Castles of Burgundy is not a game of luck– in fact, it requires great skill. Here’s the reason: it’s not about trying to get one specific outcome when you roll. Rather, it’s about turning the odds in your favor, by planning ahead to maximize the number of outcomes that will be beneficial to you.

How is this done? Well, that’s another great thing about Castles of Burgundy: there are many valid strategies. A lot of these strategies revolve around placing the colored estate tiles, which unlocks the tile’s benefit.

  • Dark green castle tiles are powerful when wielded correctly, as they give an immediate bonus action of any die value. Thus, they’re particularly helpful when there’s a must-have item that is out of reach due to an unfortunate roll.
  • There are also grey mine tiles, which help a player earn “silverlings”, which is a fancy term for chunks of silver. Silver can be spent to buy tiles from the special center depot of the main board. Thus, even if you don’t roll for the right warehouse, if you’ve got some silver in your pocket you may still be able to acquire the tile you want.
  • Blue ship tiles allow players to obtain goods. These goods can later be sold by spending a corresponding action die, allowing the player to earn both silver and victory points. Additionally, the player with the most ship tiles in her estate is the first player, which means that she’ll get first pick of the available options each turn (until someone else catches up in the ship count, of course).
  • Yellow ‘knowledge’ tiles each offer a specific bonus. No need to memorize them ahead of time- you can reference the back of the rulebook to learn what each one does as it comes up. It’s not vital to specialize in yellow tiles, but it is extremely helpful to grab one or two near the beginning of the game, as they can really shape your strategy from that point forward. Some yellow tiles offer victory point bonuses for certain achievements, while others give extra abilities each time a specific action is performed. I’m particularly fond of any knowledge tile that allows you to adjust a die roll by +/- 1 each time a certain action is performed.
  • Light green farm tiles don’t increase flexibility, but they do allow players to bank big sums of victory points, particularly if they focus on one of the four types of farm tiles. So if you’re flexible elsewhere, it can enable you to be picky about your farm tiles and ride these points to victory. I’ve rarely seen someone win in Castles of Burgundy without making use of farms.
  • Lastly, my favorite tiles are the brown building tiles. There are eight types of buildings, each having its own unique benefit. Most confer an immediate action (such as “pick another brown tile from any numbered warehouse” or “play a tile of any color”), while others offer silver, workers, or victory points. Stringing several of these ‘extra-action’ tiles together can lead to some seriously epic turns.
Workers can be used to adjust die rolls by +/- 1.

Speaking of workers, these little guys can really come in handy in a pinch. For each one spent, you can adjust a die roll by one in either direction (including going around the horn between 6 and 1). It’s always good to hold onto one for a rainy day when you roll doubles of a number that does you absolutely no good. If you roll so poorly that you have no other options, you can simply ‘spend’ one of your dice that turn to receive two workers.

It’s All About the Fundamentals

Castles of Burgundy is without a doubt a mechanically excellent game. It’s a satisfying puzzle that keeps players on their toes from start to finish. There doesn’t seem to be just one strategy that always beats others, and I really appreciate the way they’ve incorporated the randomness of the dice without making the game feel luck-based at all.

Castles can take a bit longer than a lightweight game, but the rules are not overly complex and the pace of play generally does not get too bogged down. I particularly like that everyone rolls at once each turn, so that players can plan their move while waiting for their turn.

Any given day I’d absolutely take a technically sound game that looks a bit bland over an artistically beautiful one that lacks solid mechanics. However, with so many games today that are beautiful and well-designed, can Castles of Burgundy hold its own?

In my opinion, yes. While it’s not flashy, it’s just so fundamentally sound that it is deserving of a spot among the greats. Castles of Burgundy is the Tim Duncan of board games.

I’d recommend Castles of Burgundy to anyone, but particularly as a gateway to medium-weight games. If you’ve got a friend who loves Ticket to Ride and Catan but shies away from anything heavier, Castles of Burgundy is a great next step.

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