The Castles of Burgundy: A four-sided game review

Castles of Burgundy boxThe Castles of Burgundy is a dice rolling and tile placement/set collection board game from Stefan Feld originally released in 2011. It plays two to four (fine at all player counts, but great with two) and lasts somewhere between one and two hours.

I’d put off reviewing any more Feld games as I’ve done a few recently, but I couldn’t resist because: 1. this is one of my favourite games; and 2. it’s currently available for less than £20 (April 2015) from various sources (including Board Game Guru) – a proper bargain.

In the box you’ll find 250 small cardboard tiles, a game board and player boards and some dice. Alea tend to make perfectly serviceable yet unremarkable components and this is more of the same: no complaints, and while there’s nothing to write home about I do really like the incidental artwork on the tiles.

While Castles of Burgundy is as fiddly as you’d expect from a game with this many cardboard chits, it’s not actually a complicated game to play – or hard/long to set up and play once you get used to it. There are five rounds, each split into five pairs of turns for each player (so everyone will take 50 actions in a game), with scoring done both during and at the end of the game.

The main thrust is ‘buying’ tiles from a central board then matching them in sets on your own board to score points. Each colour of tile has its own special action, seeing clever play lead to strong combinations that can turn the tide of a game – and opening up a number of different strategies. But as only a small number of tiles are available each turn, and these randomly drawn, there is also a large amount of tactical nous required too.

Castles of Burgundy board and player board

Teaching

In terms of mechanism, Castles of Burgundy is a relatively simple game – as borne out by the 12-page rulebook which is really more like four pages of rules and six pages of tile explanations – a bare minimum of which you’ll need to reference after a play or so.

In each round players roll their two dice and use them to either take tiles from the main board to their depot; send them from their depot to their player board; export goods for points, or take tokens that can be used to manipulate the numbers on the dice rolled.

If a placed tile has a special effect, you do that too. Simple. These tend to be standard gaming ideas: manipulating turn order, giving free actions, multiplying points etc. I think anyone with a few gateway games under their belt will be at home with Castles of Burgundy, but that’s not to say there isn’t something here for more seasoned gamers.

As is so often the case with Feld’s games, the simple mechanisms hide a lot of small yet tricky decisions – in most turns you’ll want to do a lot more things than you have actions, so its all about prioritising. You’re taking tiles from a shared stock, remember, so anything you leave after your turn may not be there by the time it is your turn again. So while the game does not have direct interaction, it is alive with the indirect kind.

The four sides

Castles of Burgundy board close upThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Castles of Burgundy is currently my favourite Stefan Feld design, partly because of its broad appeal – it hasn’t made it into the Board Game Geek Top 10 (or my own) by accident. The theme is innocuous but the game looks good on the table; it fits well with both experienced and gateway gamers, and plays in that sweet ‘one-to-two hours’ slot. And while yes it has dice, meaning there will be luck involved, it does feel like good play wins you the game.
  • The thinker: I do tend to enjoy Stefan Feld’s heavier games, and would usually take the likes of Trajan or AquaSphere over this, but I certainly won’t turn down a game. Despite the randomness the game still packs some heft and much of the random can be mitigated by a canny player.The fact it comes with different player boards adds to the strategic choices too, allowing more advanced players to try different ideas from one game to the next. A solid mid-weight game.
  • The trasher: We’re not really in my territory here, but this is definitely a more palatable Feld game. Once you get past the boring theme/box/components there is some rich tactical play – but only with two. Especially in the timing of getting ahead in turn order and taking the right tiles, you have to watch your opponent like a hawk. And I have to admit I’m a sucker for a game that gradually pushes everyone up to scores around 200 but its still often really close, nip and tuck, all the way.
  • The dabbler: There’s a lot to like about Castles of Burgundy. It has dice! But its not blind luck and while they can kick you when you;re down, you never think they were to blame if you don’t win. It has cute animals! The farming tiles are gorgeous and a bit like Carcassonne, the board looks lovely at the end of the game. While it feels competitive, it never feels nasty – the perfect combo for me. And while people can be wary of it as it looks complex, its bark is much worse than its bite.

Key observations

Castles of Burgundy player boards(I first need to caveat that any criticisms need to be couched by the fact Castles of Burgundy is in the top 10 (voted by users) on the world’s most popular board gaming website.)

It’s fiddly. From setup to scoring (which can be easy to forget) to re-setup after every five rounds, this is very much a game of moving little bits of cardboard around. If this is truly off-putting to you, I’d suggest trying it online first: it is available to play at both Yucata and Boite a Jeux. I expect many will find the game play trumps the fiddliness.

Each extra player removes some strategy (as it takes longer to take your next tile, reducing planning potential), while adding downtime and game length – and very little on the positive side, if anything. This is definitely a better two player game and can feel slow with four, especially as interaction is limited to blocking tiles.

There’s also little here for the theme fan and again, interaction is at a minimum – although I’d argue that a two-player game can feel very tactical (hence my ‘thrasher’ above enjoying their plays). If you really don’t like Feld games, this will not convert you – I suggest you run for the hills. When I read the low score reviews for Feld games, it is always the same people moaning – why on earth do they play them?

I think claims the game has no focus or that the best player doesn’t win are groundless. I simply think these players haven’t given the game a chance, or paid enough attention, or played anyone any good – their prerogative, but I feel its in poor form to criticise the game on this point, as they’re in less than 1% minority of players. Ignore them.

Conclusion

Castles of Burgundy boardWhile I’m not sure I’d celebrate Castles of Burgundy as Stefan Feld’s best design, I think it’s his best two-player game  and one of my favourite two player games by anyone.

Turns are short and snappy, there are interesting/agonising decisions to be made on almost all of your goes, and while the game has some tactical and strategic depth it is accessible to both gateway and experienced gamers alike.

If you’re a couple that is starting to explore games, and have enjoyed the likes of Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne, I’d certainly suggest this as a step up the ladder. But if you prefer the interaction of Catan, or the combat of Small Worlds, you may want to look elsewhere.

My top 50 board and card games (2015 update)

Here we go again – nine new entries since last year’s début top 50 alongside plenty of ups and downs between top and bottom. I’ve kept the same format, except I’ve wittered on even more, so without further gibber jabber…

My Top 20 board and card games 2015 (last year’s position in brackets)

  1. Race for the Galaxy(1) Race for the Galaxy (2007) While my plays of this have dropped dramatically after I stopped attending my old regular midweek group, it still sits comfortably at the top of the tree. You may need to be tied to a chair and forced to play 10 games before you really ‘get’ it, but it is absolutely worth it.
  2. (3) Terra Mystica (2012) I have played some good medium/heavy euros over the past year, but none of them have come close to Terra Mystica. Pasted-on theme aside, this is a masterful mix of strategy and tactics that’s chock full of meaningful decisions from start to finish.
  3. (4) Ticket to Ride (2004) Thanks to its many maps adding just enough variety and rules tweaks to keep things interesting, Ticket to Ride remains my gateway game of choice. Few games can be so easily taught, then played while chatting, but still give you the feeling you’ve been doing something competitive.
  4. (2) Ra (1999) Like Race, my plays of Ra have dropped off since leaving my midweek group and, thanks to not feeling quite so satisfying in plays since, it has dropped a couple of positions. Three-player is its sweet spot for me and I just don’t enjoy it as much with four or five – which is how I’ve played most recently.
  5. (-) NEW Deus (2014) The stand-out game of 2014 for me, by miles. This is in a similar place for me as Race for the Galaxy, being tactical and card driven and playing out in under an hour and having several routes to victory. But it has a much lower barrier to entry, meaning it is easier to get to the table.
  6. (20+) Endeavor (2009) A big jump for Endeavor, which had been a little forgotten in 2013. I’ve had three hugely enjoyable games since and it is firmly back in the rotation, being enjoyed by everyone in my weekend group. It always feels too short, but that in itself adds to the excitement. And it can be really cut-throat.
  7. (6) The Downfall of Pompeii (2004) Gateway game number two – and the only thing holding it back from more plays is the fact it’s limited to four players. The switch in game style half way is genius and works brilliantly, moving from placement to mayhem and murder on one fun little step.
  8. (20+) The Castles of Burgundy (2011) Castles has risen to the position of number one Feld design on the list by dint of being one of Zoe’s favourites. It plays pretty fast for its weight, while two-player it feels very tactical as well as strategic. While a bit of a point salad, importantly it always feels like the best player on the day won.
  9. (8) Copycat (2012) While not the most popular game on this list, I enjoy the way Copycat uses mechanisms I love from other great games and really makes them compliment each other. It plays fast but also thinky, having a great mix of luck, strategy and tactics that I keep wanting to come back to.
  10. (5) Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012) While Castles and Endeavor have jumped up the table due to working in my regular groups, Tzolk’in has fallen a little for the opposite reason: some simply find it frustrating and it can be very punishing score-wise if you play poorly. But I’m still a big fan, so it’s staying in the top 10.
  11. Deus box(9) Through the Ages (2006) While I still really enjoy my plays of Through the Ages, I find the power of military in the game a little frustrating at times – but not as much as my inability to be any good at it! Still my favourite three-plus hour game, but there is definitely room in my life now for its successor.
  12. (14) Snowdonia (2012) While a few euros tumbled a few places due to tough competition (see below), Snowdonia has held its own thanks to the variety of tracks and its simply ingenious ‘game plays you’ mechanisms. The weather constantly ruins my life, players steal MY actions and I love it every stinking time.
  13. (20) Pizza Box Football (2005) I’ve had two more plays since last year’s top 50 – one an epic, crushing defeat and the other a close defeat after an oh-so-close onside kick failure. Both games were epic in their own way and no matter how stupid this game may be, it never fails to deliver.
  14. (16) Twilight Struggle (2005) I now own my own copy of this classic, but sadly it has only been played once – must try harder. I’m hoping I’ve found a regular playing partner, but h wasn’t 100 per cent convinced after our first play. But as this is a proper cold war card play classic, I’m sure someone else will step in if need be.
  15. (-) NEW Bora Bora (2013) I skipped this on its release as it looked like a day-glo dog’s breakfast, but one play and I was hooked. The dice mechanism is worth the entrance fee alone, but the agonising decisions of which bonuses to give up on as you move forward really makes it shine.
  16. (11) Notre Dame (2007) Despite being relegated from first to third Feld, I still love me some Notre Dame. Card drafting is a mechanism I love in theory but in truth this is the only game I own that really uses it well. And it plays fast, every decision counts, and you’ve never got quite enough to do exactly what you want.
  17. (-) NEW Navegador (2010) I’m not sure quite where Navegador will end up in the long run, but right now it is my favourite Mac Gerdts game. It’s super crunchy and right now I’m enjoying that – but the jury is out on whether it will become too dry or just right. I love that rondel, but it clearly hates me!
  18. (17) Can’t Stop (1980) The 80s are still being represented in the top 20 by this evergreen push-your-luck classic. Zoe thrashed me in our last two games but I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’m not sure hat says more about me or the game, but either way I’m still smitten by this daft family game.
  19. (7) Concordia (2013) Gerdts’ momentary meander away from his beloved rondel is still a game I love, but it isn’t drawing me to the table quite as much as it was a year ago. I still enjoy the tricky decisions you are forced into each round, but it may be a little too dry and a little too solitary to keep a place in my top 20.
  20. (13) The Manhattan Project (2012) The great integration of theme  and the clever, edgy worker placement have kept this in the top 20 despite me only getting it to the table once since last year’s top 50. And people like it too – what have I been playing at? A game that may well bounce back up in next year’s list.

21-30 (alphabetical)

  • Archaeology The Card Game boxAcquire (1963) A steady hold for Acquire, which I still can’t believe is as old as it is and remains the granddaddy of the list. Luck, clever play and speculation all play their part in this light economic gateway game.
  • Archaeology: TCG (2007) A big two-division jump for this, which didn’t look likely a week or two ago as it hadn’t been played for ages. But a few funny, swingy games have reminded me just how good, light and fun it is.
  • Ingenious (2004) A drop from 12 for Ingenious, largely due to a lack of plays over the year. Still a favourite for sure and one that may head back up the chart if I find others who like to play more regularly.
  • Maori (2009) A one division jump for Maori, whose tile-laying charms continue to entice me despite my regular ineptitude at the game. Simple to teach, tough to master – well, it is for me anyway! The fourth and final Feld on the list.
  • Merchant of Venus (1988) A big drop from 10 for Merchant of Venus, again due to lack of plays. I love it, but not enough to set it up! I can’t help thinking a shiny new version may break that but I can’t justify pulling the trigger…
  • Port Royal (2013) A hold for Port Royal, although it is teetering on a division drop. I still enjoy it but almost feel as if I’m waiting for a slightly better push-your-luck card game to come along. Right now, Archaeology (above) has edged ahead of it.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) A small jump for this free Knizia game as I now tend to enjoy it a little more than Pickomino (below) if Zoe and me decide to go head to over the dice tower. I still mostly lose, but hey – that’s dice.
  • Rosenkönig (1997) A small drop from 15 for this fascinating two-player abstract, but nothing really to worry about. The thrill has gone a little now that I’ve finally found my own copy, but I still get a kick out of it when I get to play.
  • The Boss (2010) The Boss is hanging in there, no problem. I’ve played with several groups over recent months and everyone has been that great blend of initially baffled, then delighted, then crushed once more as they get their head around it.
  • NEW Yspahan (2006) Nine years old, outside the top 250 and I’ve never seen it on the table anywhere else – but it has captured the imagination with everyone I’ve played with so far. A very clever design and I look forward to exploring it more.

31-40 (alphabetical)

  • Alhambra 004Alhambra (2003) The expansions are definitely keeping Alhambra fresh for me, pushing it up a division by giving a new lease of life to this classic tile buying/laying game. I’m not sure the original on its own would still be in the top 50.
  • Brass (2007) A drop in division for Brass, simply due to lack of plays. My opinion of the game hasn’t changed: its one of the best heavy euro games out there. But the fact I haven’t played it for months has to say something. It may well rebound up.
  • CV (2013) This is another title that’s expansion has helped it up a division, but its charm is still very much in tact either way. The Yahtzee style dice mechanism fits the theme really well, while the cards just pile on the charm.
  • Kingdom Builder (2011) The Android app of Kingdom Builder has helped it hold its own, as I haven’t played the ‘real’ version much. I’m still terrible at this clever and quick area scoring game, but love it all the same – even without expansions.
  • Macao (2009) I think Macao has largely dropped a division under the pure weight of Felds and other good euros. My opinion of it hasn’t dropped – its more that games are just slotting in above it in the medium weight category.
  • NEW Manhattan (1994) With three games under my belt now, this is now in my ‘must buy’ category. Fast, nasty, light on rules and deeply table talk inducing, it succeeds despite looking bloody awful and having no theme. A true classic.
  • Manila (2005) Manilla holds its own thanks to no other game I’ve played so perfectly blending the betting and racing genres. Lots of luck, sure, but also lots of interesting decisions to make each round.
  • NEW Oltre Mare (2004) This turned out to be a great acquisition, taking the ideas of Bohnanza and adding more strategy, some nastiness and more real thinking to the mix. Must… stop… thinking… about upgrading my perfectly adequate copy.
  • Pickomino (2005) Another hold, this time for one of Zoe’s favourites. We don’t play as often as we used to, and the chicken gods still hate me, but you can’t beat the look on Zoe’s face as she crushes me again and again. And again.
  • Power Grid (2004) Oddly this has gone up a division despite very few plays over the last year – where Brass has fallen for the same reason. I think they’ve found their level – I was just newer to Brass this time last year and a little jaded on Power Grid.

41-50 (alphabetical)

  • Ancient Terrible ThingsNEW Ancient Terrible Things (2014) Despite being a year older I’d still reach for CV before ATT, hence its lowly position here. But I do very much enjoy it and look forward to exploring its dice-rolling Cthulhu goodness more throughout the year.
  • Basari (1998) Basari has dropped two divisions largely due to a few lack lustre games, which have seen some of my friends fail to get into it at all. I’m still keen, but everyone needs to be on board to make this negotiation card game truly shine.
  • NEW El Gaucho (2014) Six months ago this clever dice/set collection game may have made the top 20, but multiple plays have become a trickle. Played out? Maybe, but its still in the 50 because I think a break will be enough to reinvigorate it for me.
  • NEW Johari (2014) While I love Johari’s mix of gem collection, action cards and turn order manipulation others have been less enthusiastic. I would rate this game higher if I could find some enthusiasm for it in others when we play!
  • Nefertiti (2008) This unique and clever bidding game has dropped down a division purely due to a lack of really fun plays. The game isn’t at its best with two and, like Basari, I’ve struggled to get it played with the right group of people.
  • Puerto Rico (2002) The game that just beat the drop. While I still very much enjoy a play it rarely rises to the top of the pile now and sometimes plays out very poorly, even with people who enjoy the game. A classic, but for me a slowly fading one.
  • Stone Age (2008) Anther ‘I love it but others fail to share my enthusiasm’ game. I like the random element and big points of this classic worker placement game, but it either baffles or bores most of my gaming pals. A big drop from number 19.
  • Thebes (2007) Another big drop, this time from 18, but for more gamerly reasons. I still enjoy a game of Thebes, but you can’t escape the fact that despite it being thematic there is far too much randomness for it to be a ‘good’ game. But I like it…
  • Tikal (1999) A two division drop for this great area control game, largely because it feels too long – while the ‘mini’ version we tried was too short. I’ll always enjoy it in the right mood, but not often enough for it to stay in my own top 30.
  • Uruk (2008) Another falling from the top 30, Uruk will always be in my collection but is fading a little because of its lack of variety; something that will never be fixed now that the inferior reprint has come along. Still great, but now just occasionally played.

The new entries

As you can probably tell, I didn’t think too much of 2014’s new releases. There was some real nonsense (Imperial Settlers and Madame Ching in particular), a massive pile of ‘OK’ games (Mad King Ludwig, Imperial Assault, Splendor, Star Realms, Istanbul, Mangrovia etc etc), one that flattered to deceive (Dead of Winter) and some that may yet make the grade (Roll for the Galaxy in particular) – but overall, I think it was a ‘meh’ year.

There were still nine new entries into the top 50 this year – but five of them were older games. Bora Bora was 2013, so is hardly old, but the likes of Manhattan, Yspahan, Oltre Mare and Navegador continue to show me there are decades worth of gems out there still waiting to be discovered and that I should never judge an old game by its cover (or nasty pink and pale blue pieces!).

Out of the 50

  • Blueprints box contentsArkham Horror (2005) This was replaced by Dead of Winter earlier in the year – but after a few plays of that I came to the conclusion that Ameritrash games like this simply aren’t for me: too fiddly, too luck dependent, too ripe for a poor experience.
  • Blueprints (2013) A good game for sure, but it very rarely hits the table – making it hard to justify leaving in my top 50. I have no intention of getting rid of it though.
  • Bruges (2013) This burned brightly for a short time, but in the end the level of luck/frustration just outweighed the fun factor for me and it disappeared from my wishlist. I’d play it more, but don’t want to get my own copy.
  • Cards Against Humanity (2009) Another game I’m glad I own, and will play when the time is right, but that isn’t very often and in truth its just  bunch of rude words on some cards with a borrowed game mechanic. Top fun, but not top 50 material.
  • Escape From Atlantis (1986) This is another game I’ll play any time, and am happy with my £1 charity shop copy, but I need to play with some variants to really find its sweet spot. I like it, but it isn’t in the same league as Pompeii, for example.
  • Hamburgum (2007) Again, still a great game – but Navegador simply replaced it in this top 50 as the Gerdts rondel game of choice. Having more than one on the list felt like overkill, especially with Concordia on here too.
  • Le Havre (2008) I played this at the weekend, enjoyed it again, and even won – but it has fallen from my wishlist. For me the games goes just a little too long to fall in love with – the decision space gets a little too big, it becomes work, and I struggle.
  • Rialto (2013) Having had an enjoyable game of this over the weekend it almost snuck back onto the list, but like Blueprints I just find it a little hard to love. Fun on occasion, and very clever, but not quite a classic.
  • Revolution! (2009) Like Blueprints, a lack of plays has seen this fall below the 50. It’s a very silly, luck riddled game that I enjoy immensely despite its flaws but it needs three to play and just never seems to be the best choice available.

Top 50 potential

Red7Entdecker, Caverna, Age of Empires III, Africana and Lords of Vegas (both now owned), Sentinels of the Multiverse and Amun Re all impressed me after a single play.

They are all games I look forward to exploring more – hopefully sooner rather than later.

Roll for the Galaxy has been fun so far but the jury is definitely out. Maybe its too close to Race to make a big enough impression yet, but it has potential. Red7 I have enjoyed too, and own, but need to play more before deciding just how much I like it. But until next year… I’m out.

One play: Time of Soccer

Time of Soccer end gameHaving had a passion for football since my youth, and lost more days to PC football manager sims than I care to admit, I was excited to hear friends extolling the virtues of Time of Soccer – a football management board game.

I have no idea how they came up with the name – its terrible. I can only presume it was some sort of Google translate faux pas from the Spanish designers. But what’s in a name? I have games called Hamburgum, Banjooli Xeet and CV after all. More importantly it looks great – I had absolutely no complaints about the components. however I can’t comment on the rulebook as the game was taught to me (thanks Rocky!), but I didn’t hear great things. Also, apologies if I get any naming terminology wrong.

Putting the ‘euro’ into European football

In the early part of play, it becomes clear that Time of Soccer is very much built on a strategy game engine. Half of the main board is dedicated to a grid system onto which are placed tiles that represent players, agents, sponsorship deals and coaches.

The themeing here is a little odd, as the board is made to look like a city grid that you drive around trying to sign the deals you want before other players can get to them. This works in essence, representing the fight of agents to sign players etc before their rivals, but the roads/city just doesn’t work thematically. However, if you can get past this the routing, budgeting and risk taking mechanism itself works very well.

Players start with initial basic agents and deal makers who can be upgraded. Your agent represents the speed you can move around the board, while your deal maker allows you to try and sign a deal you can’t quite reach with your agent’s moves – but its dependent on a dice roll and even then a success will see you paying over the odds. This adds a nice tension, while giving some genuine options as you build your club.

Building the perfect team

Time of Soccer player boardEach team starts with a very poor journeyman team, so as managers you are all scrambling to sign some stars before the season begins. Players have a varying set of stats alongside possible connections with their team mates which give bonuses if you can connect them up with each other.

For example, in the image above you’ll notice the two central defenders have a blue triangle on their right and left sides respectively, facing towards each other. This represents a bond between them and will give them a bonus, while if you add a coach that works well with players with this symbol you’ll get further bonuses. This is a great way of introducing a very euro-style puzzle element to team building, while keeping on-theme.

In addition you’re trying to sign these players while also balancing the books, which can prove very difficult. It felt as if there was constant financial pressure, adding another classic euro trait to Time of Soccer’s mechanism arsenal (sorry, couldn’t help it).

A long hard season

Another thing Time of Soccer gets right is the season structure. It boils things down to a six-team league (so 10 games, home and away) and an eight-team cup, with the winner of the game overall needing to score points for both of these plus the quality of the team they’ve put together.

During each week you will have a league game and occasionally a cup game: each other week day is dedicated to going around town to either buy something or position yourself for the next round of tiles (better players, coaches, deals etc come out as the game goes on). You can also have friendlies, although these are abstracted out to a small cash gain.

I felt this was just about the right amount of games to make it feel like a ‘proper’ competition but also to make it feel as if the decisions you were making in the team had enough time to have an effect. But wow, this game was long. It says two to three hours but with four (three beginners) we went well over that.

A game of two halves

I was in for the long haul, and that in itself wouldn’t have put me off buying Time of Soccer – but there was a much bigger problem. Unfortunately the hard work achieved in the earlier euro mechanisms was – for me – undone by the matches themselves.

In theory it’s a good system. Your team building gives you both an offensive and a defensive stat, which is used to decide how many chances you will both create and defend against in each match. So if you create five chances but your opponent only defends three, you score two goals. The team at ‘home’ in the game attacks second, giving them a slight advantage as they know how many they need to score to win.

The problem lies in the way chances are determined. It is of course with dice – and it wouldn’t feel right without them – but for me they have injected too much randomness. Teams always roll the same amount of standard six-sided dice, with fives and sixes adding to the amount of chances you have either created or thwarted. For example, if my team is at level two and I roll four successes that would be five chances – but at level eight those four successes would be nine chances.

This sounds OK, until you note that zero successes is always zero chances no matter what your team’s level. While this gives very poor sides a chance to win any game, it feels like a massive misstep – you can’t expect euro gamers (and trust me, this is 80% euro) to be happy to lose a game after four hours of play simply because they rolled no fives or sixes. This isn’t a war game after all – and I think it could quite easily be fixed.

A hollow victory

For full disclosure, my team of all-conquering heroes did the league and cup double and I walked away from Time of Soccer as the victor by a pretty comfortable margin. However, the victory felt hollow. At no point during play did I feel as if I was the superior player, nor that I had the superior team. I simply had more luck on the dice.

And to make things worse, despite each of us taking different routes with how we created our teams, in the end we all had almost the same stats – in fact Rocky, who came second, just had the better team on paper. While we’d taken different routes, in the end we had all ended up in the same place – making the whole dice fest feel even more empty.

what the game lacked here was a meaning to the stats and some personality to the players; it didn’t feel as if one player had a long ball team, another a slick passing unit, another a lot of tough tacklers. It became an ameritrash dice game but lacked the personality to pull it off, while letting down its euro heart at the same time. Our teams were, frankly, boring. I wanted red cards, crap refs, diving – something less mechanical.

But despite all this, I had fun. This was helped by good beer, being by the seaside and playing in good company and if we sit down again soon I’d play again – once at least, and as long as a better football management board game hasn’t come along before then. What promised to be a title contended at the start of the evening slowly lost touch and slipped into mid-table, if entertaining, mediocrity – the Swansea of board gaming, I guess.

Navegador: A four-sided game review

Navegador_Schachtel-Deckel3.inddNavegador is a medium complexity board game for two to five players from designer Mac Gerdts that plays out in around two hours. You should be able to find it for around £30.

Typical of Gerdts’ games, players use a shared rondel mechanism (more on this below) to sail their ships from Lisbon to Nagasaki, buying and selling goods and expanding their business empires in the 15th/16th Century Portuguese colonies.

The game is awash with all the typical ‘euro’ stereotypes: a dour looking man on the cover, a washed-out brown board and a trading in the Age of Discovery theme. But as Navegador is most definitely a euro game, why shouldn’t it wear its credentials on its sleeve?

In fact I think the board itself is evocative of the theme and lovely to look at, while the rest of the game’s components (around 100 small wooden pieces, a few bag-fulls of cardboard money/chits and five sturdy player boards) are above average if not remarkable. And as always with Gerdts’ games, the eight-page rulebook is complimented by both a handy setup/action description reference sheet and a great little booklet full of historical facts about the famous Portuguese figures of the time that are represented in the game.

In terms of game play, Navegador is one part exploring, two parts empire building and three parts buying cheap and selling high. Exploring lets you set up colonies – and subsequently sell their goods. You can also buy shipyards, churches and factories to process these goods, with the player who can most successfully time and manage its investments the most likely to come out of Navegador on top.

Teaching

Navegador rondelNavegador is a pretty easy game to teach, but a tough one for some players to get a handle on – especially if they’re not used to games with a commodities market.

The rulebook is a mere six pages of A4 with more examples and pictures than rules, while the game has no hidden information – making it simple to help players that are struggling.

Gameplay revolves around the board’s ‘rondel’ – a circle split into eight sections, each of which contains one of the game’s seven possible actions (the ‘market’ action appears twice on opposite sides of the rondel).

Players decide which action to take at the start of the game by placing their player piece on the appropriate rondel space. On subsequent turns a player will move their piece up to three spaces clockwise around the rondel, limiting their options dramatically. You can push further round the rondel, but only at the cost of one of your ships – which don’t come cheap. But if another player beats you to that spot, will it hurt even more…?

Navegador rulesMost actions in and of themselves are straightforward: buying ships, privileges (for end game scoring), buildings, workers; sailing or founding colonies: but the market can be the tricky part to teach.

Each colony founded and factory purchased will trade one of the game’s three goods (sugar, gold and spices). When landing on a market action on the rondel a player may deal in each of these goods, but only in one direction – so if they choose to sell sugar from a colony they could not use any sugar factories they own.

Unfortunately the market on the board isn’t as clear as it could be for new players, with factories given a solitary column which has never failed to confuse at least one player if I’m teaching the game. But overall this is a very small barrier to entry and as mentioned earlier, it is easy to help new players with this action as all of their factories and colonies will be in full view of everyone.

The four sides

Navegador player boardThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Gerdts’ games are renowned for their short, snappy yet agonising decisions and Navegador is no different. Despite having just one action per go, especially at higher player counts your best laid plans can be scuppered between turns, forcing you in a completely different direction. And the game is beautifully paced, arcing from an initial land-grab through consolidation to the final race to either end the game or get ahead before someone else does.
  • The thinker: While this isn’t my favourite Gerdts game (I’d go for Imperial 2030) there is a lot to like. To play well you need to be thinking about the long game from your very first move, with the limited end-game scoring tiles up for grabs at very specific moments. But then there are tactics required too, as the play of others can certainly force you to change tack anywhere up to the start of the game’s third and final movement. I’d prefer a little more depth and crunchiness, but enjoy my plays.
  • The trasher: Much like Gerdts’ Concordia, Navegador is a game I’d play at a (big) push but wouldn’t seek another play of. There is some competition for scoring tiles, colonies and cheap factories but its more of a race than having proper interaction and for me it all felt very dry and, well, brown – I’m the kind of player that can see a spreadsheet when others can see a game and I’m not here to work, I’m here to roll dice, get dirty and mess with your head!
  • The dabbler: I found this surprisingly enjoyable and the turns zip along super fast, meaning there is practically no down time. The theme isn’t great but the board is gorgeous, the rules simple and there are lots of ways to get points. You really have to keep an eye on what other people are doing, and we tend to find someone is always moaning about this or that or demanding we stop the perceived leader from getting a cheap colony or building. Just avoiding playing with AP people!

Key observations

Navegador marketCriticisms – and there are plenty – should be taken in context of Navegador being in the top 100 games on Board Game Geek (as of April 2015). The game certainly doesn’t have universal appeal, but as a fan of euro games I could predict these from a mile off.

The majority of detractors say the game is ‘boring’ or ‘dry’; that it’s like filling out a spreadsheet or solving a puzzle – especially as there is no direct interaction. As always there are merits to these arguments and if you have tried and hated Gerdts games such as Concordia and Hamburgum, or generally don’t like euro games with little interaction, it is highly unlikely you will be a fan of Navegador.

A bigger concern is the accusation that the winner will be the player who simply follows the road less travelled; the old adage of ‘do what the other players aren’t doing’. Again there is truth in this, as this is a game with several paths to victory points and if the players let one of their number exploit one of these alone it is likely they will prosper. However, it really is the responsibility of the other players to spot and stop this and personally I don’t see it as a flaw in the design – but some will.

Conclusion

Navegador mapHaving discovered and fallen in love with the rondel games of Mac Gerds through his earlier title Hamburgum, I’ve found Navegador to be a refreshing and fulfilling small step up in complexity and enjoyment.

The rondel works in a similar way in both games, but I find both the end game scoring and (admittedly abstracted) player interaction more enjoyable, while overall the game simply looks a hell of a lot better on the table.

If you enjoy euro games from designers such as Stefan Feld or Ted Alspach, or are looking for a step up in complexity from lighter weight games such as Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Catan, I’d highly recommend Navegador – with the caveats mentioned above around player interaction. for those seeking a more interactive experience, but are intrigued by the rondel idea, check out other Gerds classics Antike and Imperial 2013 which feature combat/area control and stocks/area control respectively.

Through the Ages: A four-sided game review

Through the Ages boxThrough the Ages is a civilisation building card game by Vlaada Chvatil that takes players on an epic ride from antiquity to the present day.

While war plays a large and important part in the game* there is no actual map, or dice – interaction is instead played out through card play.

There are three versions of the game in the rulebook, ranging from simple through to full, but the first two are really just warming you up (in terms of understanding the rules) for the main event. Through the Ages is a serious time investment (four-plus hours, even two-player) but if you’re willing to give it a try you’ll find a hugely rewarding tactical and strategic gem waiting for you.

While it’s not the biggest game box in the world, there’s a ton of game packed into it: there are more than 340 small-sized cards, 300 small wooden counters and cubes, plus boards and reference cards. It will set you back £45+, but I think it’s a fair price both in terms of components and play value. The art is pretty poor, but the card stock is great and the graphic design efficient and simple to understand.

It’s not for the feint of heart, but nor is it a war game – you’ll draft leader, wonder, building, government, technology, military and action cards and manage your resources as you advance your civilisation; all the time trying to score points while keeping your opponents in check by staying close to them in the race for military domination. It’s an impossible balancing act, giving the game a marvellous ebb and flow.

Teaching

TTA allAs mentioned earlier, the game has three versions which slowly introduce different rules and card types as you move forward. This makes it easy to teach experienced gamers, especially as the game concepts are pretty familiar.

Each round (after the first) players may use their political action to play a ‘future event’ for later, triggering a current event which will reward and/or punish players who are doing well/poorly in a particular way – for example the player with the strongest civilisation may get to produce extra goods. They can also use the political action to start an aggression or war, or offer a pact.

Players then use ‘civil’ actions to advance mining, science, farming and religion to increase building materials and technology (allowing building upgrades), population size and happiness (allowing population growth) and military might. Governments give extra actions, while leaders, technologies, ‘action’ cards and wonders give a variety of bonuses.

Civil actions are also used to increase population, lay technology, wonder and leader cards, put your population to work or upgrade them. Military actions – you guessed it – do the same with your military units.

TTA tracksEverything to do with civil and military actions is done openly, so it’s simple to watch and help new players through their turns.

Through the Ages has relatively little hidden information, so its simple for the teacher to explain cards as they come up.

New cards are ‘bought’ (with actions) from a shared conveyor belt-style track, with newly added cards costing more actions (from one to three). Military cards do go straight into your hand blind, but aren’t terribly varied and can be roughly explained before you begin.

Game concepts fit well into the theme, while the central game board lets you keep information on your military strength, science (for advancing technologies) and culture (victory) points. Each player also has a player aid listing all of the actions available in each phase of each round.

Player boards are well set out, and the wording on the cards leads to very few grey areas. The only real problem area is the Territory cards, which tend to contain rather obscure icons which aren’t explained in the rulebook. However there is a good Excel doc available from Board Game Geek which explains them in plain English.

The four sides

TTA eventsThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Through the Ages is the board gaming equivalent of spinning plates; just as you get your science points going, you realise you’re running out of food – but by the time you have that back on track you’re falling behind on military – but getting that up to speed means you have to forgo a materials upgrade. It’s a delicious, epic and challenging balancing act that tells a different story every time.
  • The thinker: Its rare you find a game that has the perfect mix of tactics and strategy, but this is one of them. You’d think it impossible to create a ‘civ’ game without a board, but Vlada has managed it with aplomb. Specialise at your peril, but spread the wealth at your peril too – your long term plans are constantly being altered by both the actions of your competitors and the run of available cards.
  • The trasher: Through the Ages is a bit much for me, but is clearly a great game. I love the future events: you play cards, predicting the later game state and hoping you can be in the right position when they’re triggered. So satisfying when it works, but devastating when your own cards blow up in your face! But overall, the short game doesn’t offer enough military fun and the long game is simply too long for me.
  • The dabbler: no way! No no no. I tried it once – you can’t make me play it again! It has great flavour, carries the theme well, but I am not playing a game that takes longer than the entire games evening on its own!

Key observations

TTA player boardOf well over 3,000 Board Game Geek comments, Through the Ages has 500+ perfect 10 scores – which should be enough to convince you its a great game. Even by half way through the comments, people are still rating it 8. However, it’s certainly not for everyone. Not by a long chalk!

Game length is clearly an issue for many, but another problem is downtime – especially in a four-player game (which I wouldn’t attempt again). I enjoy a two-player game but three is definitely the sweet spot, which adds quite a bit to the play time. One plus side is the fantastic Through the Ages online version. Initially the layout looks troublesome and weak, but it actually plays really smoothly once you get to grips with it.

Another problem is the importance of the military aspect of the game*. Players who aren’t keen on confrontation need not apply, but its not just them: others think the military aspect is either tacked on as a balancing mechanism or is overpowered. It’s true that if someone falls behind on military and is picked on by the other players, it can be impossible for them to recover – particularly punishing in such a long game.

Finally, some describe Through the Ages as nothing more than  a spread sheet rather than a game – a dry, themeless affair that is way too fiddly for its own good. The fiddly criticism is true, and there is a lot of bookkeeping, but this can be done by a player at the end of their turn while the next player gets on with theirs, so it’s not so bad. But again, if you don’t like fiddly bookkeeping games you may want to avoid it.

Conclusion

TTA card trackThrough the Ages is the last game in my all-time top 10 that I’ve tackled for review and I’ve definitely been reluctant to do so.

It feels impossible to do such an epic game justice in 1,500 words – especially when you know many people simply won’t like it.

But if you like civ and/or engine building games – or more specifically ‘engine building and then maintaining aggh god I can’t do everything at once’ games – and are happy to be in for the long haul, this is a must-try.

I definitely lose more games of TtA than I win and I’m not sure I’ll ever be a good player. There’s so much to think about, so much to plan, so many options – and that’s before you’ve even started to think about what your opponents have planned for you. But even in defeat I tend to walk away from the table thoroughly gamed-out and satisfied.

Is downtime an issue? Sure, a bit. Is military overpowered? Probably. Are some combos simply too good to stop? Sometimes. Will this game be staying on my shelves for the foreseeable future, even if I only get to play once or twice a year and I lose every time?

Absolutely.

* There is a ‘peaceful’ variant of the game some people play, but personally I can’t see the point. It’s such a huge part of Through the Ages that to take it out seems ridiculous – if you don’t want any player conflict in your games, I’d highly advise you to look elsewhere.