Review: Die Burgen von Burgund (Castles of Burgundy)

America is great. We have a lot of cool stuff. But every hobby I’ve taken up in my life has found America playing second fiddle to another region of the world. I can’t begin to name all the Japanese role-playing games that never made it to my Super Nintendo or PlayStation. Here in the board game world, it’s Europe (specifically Germany) that’s center stage. Fortunately for me, much unlike Japanese RPGs, a lot of European games are language independent or multilingual (since there are so many different language markets in Europe alone), which means that importing a board game makes a lot more sense. It isn’t cheap – but when the right game comes along, it can be worth it. Is Castles of Burgundy such a game?

Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Components: The point of Castles of Burgundy is to build your own personal estate, which means placing a bunch of hexagonal tiles on your player board in a nice pattern. Each player receives a personal board, and the hexes are made available for purchase on a central board. In addition there are cardboard money chits, goods and bonus tiles, and some dice and player markers. The tiles have a lot of symbols on them, with further (also symbolic) explanations on your player board, but after you’ve learned them once the symbols are pretty intuitive reminders. Although at game end your board hardly looks like an “estate”, it does look pretty cool. My primary complaint is that the colors of the hexes are far, far too similar. The fact that it has the typical washed-out alea look doesn’t help matters at all.

However, these components are apparently so bad that they’ve kept Rio Grande Games from bringing the game to the U.S. through regular channels (which is why it’s currently only available via import). I think this is a bit unfair. Their primary complaint was not the color but the quality of the hexes. Yes, they are somewhat thin, and they have some white around the edges where they don’t come cleanly off the punchboard. (I don’t mean tearing in the actual art, but just little fuzzy areas on the edge.) I’ve noticed it in pictures of the game, but it never bothers me during play with our own copy.  I’ve also heard players complain that the player boards are not actual boards, but rather just thick sheets. I don’t mind this at all, considering how many there are and how much actual boards would have cost. While the components could have been considerably better, I think they are serviceable as long as you don’t play in low light. If you’ve held off on the game because of the component quality, you’re mistaken to do so.

Accessibility: Castles of Burgundy is not a simple game at all. However, it is my favorite kind of complex game: one where the complexity is hidden within the game and not within the rules. The basic rules of the game are quite simple: roll two dice, and use them to take two actions among the available four (possibly the same one twice). The actions are basic: take a tile into your reserve, place a tile from your reserve, sell goods, or take some “workers” (die modifiers). The game also can be explained very simply with broader goals than just “earn VPs”: immediately players understand that they want to fill colored regions of their estate to earn the points for completing them. Right off the bat the game gives a player direction for his play, which is something I always want in a game.

What makes the game complex is that the different types of tiles all have different actions, varying in complexity. Furthermore, while each of the light green, dark green, silver, and blue tiles all have the same general function as other tiles that share its color, there are many different types of beige tiles and all of the yellow tiles are unique. Fortunately, that complexity is buried within the game, and for the first few games you can simply explain the tiles as they appear, instead of overwhelming beginners. Because it is such a clever design, hiding its complexity in the right parts of the game, this is the most complex game that I’ve had an easy time teaching.

Depth: A complex game hopefully means deeper strategy, and this game does have quite a bit. Don’t be discouraged by the use of dice. They add excitement to the game, but don’t take away from the strategy. There are many ways to correct them to get what you want, but certainly you cannot gamble on them always giving what you need. If a dice roll has ever resulted in a major problem for me, it’s always been a situation where I know that earlier in the  game I took an unnecessary risk. The trick is to be able to work with any dice roll, and yet still be able to fully maximize the best rolls when they appear.

A lot of the strategy is subtle, but there is enough obvious strategy to get a player going and the deeper layers reveal themselves upon repeated play. It takes a few games to fully appreciate the importance of when you place your tiles, not only to maximize your points but also to vie for turn order and deny your opponent opportunities. The game has some agonizing decisions that only become tougher once you begin to more fully understand what is going on. A lot of games become boring or simplistic once you’ve mostly “solved” them – a game that opens itself up to more strategy with repeated play is a rare treasure.

Theme: In typical Euro style, the theme of this game is just a veneer. I have no idea how the dice relate to you somehow randomly building your estate. Or why if you “buy” a mine this turn (what does that even mean?), your opponent somehow can no longer “buy” a mine for his own estate. In a loose sense, the mechanics do give a sense of growing and building, as you work towards completing your board (estate). It looks that way as well, despite the bland colors and the hexagonal shape of the tiles. If you’re looking for a game to whisk you away to another world, this isn’t it – not only because the theme isn’t there, but because you’re going to be too busy thinking to enjoy it even if it was.

Fun: If you like deep strategy games with low interaction, this is about as good as they come. The randomness of the dice makes the game more exciting than others, but they’re never off-putting. The main concern about the game is actually its length. Our first two-player game took over two hours, and it took several plays for us to shave it to 65-75 minutes. You can imagine how much worse it gets with three or four players. The game should have been four phases of four rounds instead of five of five, but that would not make for a good variant since the board sizes are balanced around the normal rule.

However, even after the first game, we had so much fun we wanted to play again – it makes an excellent two-player game (possibly the best with two players). I would not introduce players through a four-player game, and ideally only introduce it to one new player at a time – not because it is confusing, but because those beginners are going to take their time, and this game is already quite long. If your first session takes four hours, you might get a sour impression of the game and miss out on a real gem.

Castles of Burgundy is long, low on interaction, has a terrible color palette, and it’s expensive. It’s certainly not for everyone. But if you can get past those flaws, you’ll find one of the greatest games of its style.

Rating:

3 out of 5

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