Love live the Empress!
For the Motherland!
Overview: Players represent master builders competing for prestige in helping the king build his newest castle, as well as the growing surrounding town. The most prestigious builder at game’s end wins.
Components: There are a fair amount of them. Not a lot as in Fantasy Flight Games terms, but a lot that it’ll take a while to set up. Thankfully, Rio Grande did a nice job keeping them small enough to play on a normal sized table, but big enough to see easily. The board is not only functional, but the artwork is actually used in game-play (see Mechanics below). In addition, after you are familiar with the rules in a beginner sort of way, the board itself has the rules “written into it”. There are “notes” next to each space that tell you what to do on what the costs, benefits, and penalties are. This is great in that you don’t have to keep referring to the rulebook, since there are a lot of rules.. The buildings are on square plasticized thick cardstock with easy to read symbols and lettering. The buildings are also the actual spaces for pieces to move on. The only downside is the buildings' names are hard to read on the background and the English name is sometimes covered by the art, although it’s usually easy to figure out what they are based on their action (e.g. the jeweler turns money into gold, or the quarry produces stone). The resources are the typical German “meeple” wooden pieces. They are tiny cubes that sit in nice piles, although the use of ramekins or other small bowls is preferred. They are brightly colored and no 2 colors are easily confused.
Pros: The board has all the rules on it and you actually “use” the artwork. Small enough to be manageable.
Cons: Names of buildings hard to read (more for fluff). Tiny wooden pieces without containers.
Mechanics: As I’ve stated above, there are a lot of rules. A lot! But it’s sort of like golf. The rules are long when you look at all of them. The explanation seems complex. But once you play, it’s actually very easy. This is a refreshing surprise in that most games that have a lot of rules make little logical sense or require the player to refer to the book quite a bit. Caylus is the opposite. While it will take 20 minutes to explain the rules (and the whole of the game won’t make sense to the end of it), once you sit down to play, it’s quite easy and flows smoothly. Again, the board makes that easy. Which leads us to the board:
The board *is* the mechanics. Each player has 6 workers. Your job as a master builder (i.e. contractor) is to hire out these workers either in town to gather supplies or work with help various townsfolk (e.g. go to the carpenter and get some wood), or to go to the castle and work on building it. You do this by putting 1 worker on a town building (as above, buildings are also the spaces of the board) or the castle. Then you are done and the next player goes. When it comes back to you, you place another worker, if you want. And so on until everyone passes. Sounds easy? Well, the idea is that as each player distributed his workers, there can only be one worker per building/space (except the castle). And it gets progressively more expensive to place workers once players start passing. Plus, you may want to, say, build/hire a church. But you need cloth to do it. You can put your worker on the church to ensure you can do that this turn, but you have to wait until your turn again until putting a worker on the tailor. And if someone else has taken the tailor…too bad; no church. Once every one has placed their workers, you go “down the road” through the town activating buildings with workers in them; hence using the board’s art in the game-play. Each worker in a building completes their action. This may be to collect supplies (most common), or build new buildings in the town, or collect king’s favor (see below), or a variety of other actions. Once the town’s workers have gone, the castle workers get to build a piece of castle. All workers are removed, and a new round of play starts. The ultimate goal is to get the most prestige points when the castle is built. But there are a few quirks:
-When you (as a player) build a building in town, it is YOURS. When you have the only lawyer in town to build residential buildings, and people need to use the lawyer, they have to use YOUR lawyer. Every time they do this, you get prestige points. So that’s a strategy to win…build the buildings and force players to use them.
-There is a piece called the bailiff. He advances down the road 1-2 buildings per turn, but is basically a piece to determine how far along the castle is. Once he reaches the “dungeon” square, the dungeon of the castle is done. Players that contributed the most to the dungeon get rewards (i.e. prestige and more!). If you didn’t build any part of the dungeon, you are penalized. Same with the walls and towers of the castle.
-King’s favor, which can be won by putting a worker on the jousting space/building, or by contributing to the castle the most THAT TURN, can be used to get money, prestige, cheaper buildings, and more. It is useful in getting around using other players’ buildings.
-There are more detailed rules, but that’s the gist of it.
Pros: Logical rule set that lends to a lot of different ways to win. The board makes it so you do not have to memorize all the rules.
Con: Rules take a long time to explain the first time.
Strategy: Hands down, one of the best strategy games of all time, if not *the* best. I will argue that easily. There are so many ways to win: castle building, building monopoly, king’s favor, money, gold (not the same as money), denial, or just a combination thereof. Because it’s an action-reaction style game, your strategy will change even in mid-turn. And because there is almost no luck to the game (the only luck in the set-up of the initial 7-8 buildings and the initial turn order), this makes the replay value high. You can almost never win the same way 2 times in a row. One player building the building you really need is going to make you completely re-think how you will place your workers. I wish I could say more here, but I think the Mechanics section really sums it up. In short, this game’s strategy could be best summed up with “There’s always something better to build.” I give Joey Jo Jo (on this board) credit for that one.
Pros: Many, many, many ways to win. Changing strategy in mid-turn.
Cons: Need to think well ahead and realize you cannot have it all.
Will this game work with few (i.e. 2-3) players as well as many (i.e. 4-5 players)?: Like many Rio Grande games, the rules change with 2 players compared with 3+ players. Mostly, the way turn order is determined. In 2-player, it alternates. In 3+, you have to pay for it with a worker in the stables. However, since there is no luck at all, the only difference you are seeing is the amount of distortion you are going to have to your initial strategy plan. In 2-3 player games, there’s a good chance to will be able to place a worker on a few specific buildings you need. In more players, you may only get 1, maybe 2 buildings you desire, so you have to pick carefully. Still, even in 2-player I’ve found you have to really prioritize since money runs out very, VERY fast (since you can place more workers easily), and believe me that’s a strategy in and of itself. Just be prepared: more players, the more you are going to alter your plan as you go.
Will my non-gaming spouse/friends like it?: If you can get through the rule explanation and have them interested, then that’s 90% of the battle. Once the game is played, they should understand it quite easily. It’s going to involve more thinking ahead than, say, Ticket to Ride, as you plan your buildings/castle workers placement. So you’re going to need someone that has patience to listen to the rules, and doesn’t mind wracking their brain to win.
Good for kids?: In a nutshell, no. It’s too complex with too many rules. And there are times when you have to think backwards (if I need a church, I need a quarry; if I need a quarry, I need a carpenter; if I need a carpenter…). I would stick to teenagers or adults .
Should I buy it?: Criteria include: Can you read through a lot of rules to play a game that, once played, will breeze by? Do you mind changing plans as you go, or does that just infuriate you? Are you a fan of European strategy games? If so, then buy it.
Overview: This has become nearly hands-down my favorite competitive board game. It has gotten such rave reviews, but I heard it was a little complex so I almost didn’t take a look at Gen Con. I’m glad I did, and plan on playing this over and over again.