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Named for a small Venetian island, Burano might at first appear to be your standard euro. You fish for sets, make-lace in an area control contest, and try to win the day with victory points. But what really sets it apart is a unique “cube pyramid” mechanism that drives the action selection process.
The Basics. Players start with 18 chunky pastel cubes in six different colors. They’ll take 14 of those cubes to form a pyramid with a 3×3 base, a 2×2 middle, and a single cube on top. This pyramid will ultimately be responsible for how they take actions.
On their turn, a player may take between one and four actions. But these cost money. If you do only one action, you actually get a coin. But if you do more, you’ll have to spend. Do four actions and you might get a lot accomplished, but it’ll cost you a whopping nine coins. Actions include moving cubes from the pyramid to your ready area, using cubes from the ready area to build houses, and roofing houses that have already been placed.
It’s the cubes that turn into houses that really drive the game. There are three associated cube actions. Each turn, the two colors of cubes are assigned to each of those cube actions. When you build a house of that color, you can also take the associated cube action. Those actions allow you to fish, work in the lace factory, or get coins. And all are done in reference to a separate “schedule wheel” unique to each player.
In general, the fishing action allows you to move from island to island grabbing fish cards. You can also move to port and turn in those fish cards for points by completing various sets. As you move to the different islands, you can also drop off fishermen. For lace-making, there are workshops of various colors. When you make lace, you can drop off new workers so long as they match the colors on your schedule wheel and are adjacent to previously placed workers. And the income action allows you to get coins.
At the end of each round, there is an intermediate scoring where players get points for having the most fisherman on the islands or for powering lace-makers with cubes. At the end of four rounds, whoever has the most points wins.
The Feel. Burano is a really interesting title that comes together nicely. One of the more interesting aspects is managing how many actions you’re going to take on a turn. Taking one is easy, but inefficient. Taking four might get you a huge leap on your competition, but it is so expensive that you’ll end up taking more economy actions to make up for it.
But that doesn’t mean that there is always a happy medium. Sometimes, you’ll need to take one action just to keep from spending money. Other times, getting four actions down means you can grab a cube, build it out, take the related action, add a roof, and do an economy action so you’re ready for next turn. It all depends on your strategy.
That said, Burano is just a little bit too messy. The cube pyramid is actually really neat and interesting. I like the way it forces you to plan out your ideal round in advance – but you have to leave enough wiggle room to change gears if (and when) the other players get in your way or upset your goals.
But beyond that, there are a lot of mechanisms here. A lot. You have area majority competitions on the islands, set collection from fishing, area control in the lace-making, a “schedule wheel” that dictates the effectiveness of your actions and is rotated predictably (which makes it an integral part of your strategy), a separate “prestige point” currency that can be used for bonus abilities, roofing points that depend on what has been uncovered on your schedule wheel, and an economy that needs to be managed.
This isn’t to say that Burano is unwieldy. It’s not. And, as you get a play or two under your belt, you can see how the different systems interrelate. But I strongly suspect that the game would have been better overall if some of these ideas had been pruned from the design. Burano is definitely a good mid/heavy experience. But the impression remains that the design lacks focus.
But a lack of focus doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. In fact, Burano is pretty fun to play. It challenges you to plan ahead for the round, which is something I really like. It means that players know generally what they are trying to do and that helps to cut down on analysis paralysis.
It also allows for some pretty distinct strategies. A player might go full fisherman and try to win as many island majorities as possible. Fishermen frequently get bounced back to your board. The result is that you tend to have enough cubes to take whatever action you want, but struggle with the economy to actually take those actions from turn to turn. Lacemakers provide the opposite. You’ll see your cube pile slowly deplete over the turns, but you’ll have enough lacemakers to make a pretty good return on a single economy action. A blended strategy presents its own challenges.
Perhaps the only thing I didn’t like about Burano is the way that the cube color and corresponding action changes every season. This tended to make it a little more random than this kind of game should have. You couldn’t save up a particular color because it might be the wrong action next round. So you end up saving a little bit of everything and spreading out your strategy rather than focusing in. Since two colors apply to each action, perhaps it would have been better to do a swap on only one of them each round. That way, you could correctly predict at least half the cubes for the following season.
Components: 4.5 of 5. I love the bits from Burano. The pastel cubes are chunky and make pyramid-building easy. Plus, once they go on the board as houses, they look great. The game really provides a sense of building as the board evolves during the game. The worker discs and island colors are just a tad smaller than they need to be. But overall it’s a pretty fantastic production.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. With the exception of randomizing the cube/action correspondence, the game is entirely player driven. You are firmly in control of your fate as you decide where and when to take your actions.
Mechanics: 3.5 of 5. Even though the design is busy, it all comes together well. I like the unique cube pyramid method of making actions available. Managing an economy on top of the other activities you do is a nice challenge. And even though there is a lot to learn, it isn’t so complicated that it’ll detract from having a good experience even on a first play.
Replayability: 2.5 of 5. I’m not sure about this one. The schedule wheels are semi-randomizable. You have a lot of options for play. So, on paper, this game should be highly replayable. But somehow, for me and my group, it just wasn’t. After my first game, I really wanted to play again. I was quite taken with it. But after time went on, that desire to play really just bottomed out. That might be a quirk of my group, but worth calling out.
Spite: 3.5 of 5. There are a few “take that” actions in Burano. For instance, with the proper prestige you can oust someone from a lace-factory and take their spot. Or you can compete in the island majorities and kick their fishermen back to their board. Where there is heavy competition, you’ll see some aggressive moves.
Overall: 3 of 5. Burano is a solid title – and one with an absolutely unique action selection mechanism. It’s an interesting challenge to both play the cube colors you want for actions, as well as build they city with colors you can roof. But, I think the lack of focus turns it into a bit of a messier experience than it could have been. While I’m not sure this will make it into the pantheon of great games, it’s definitely worth a play or two so you can experience it.
(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)