Monday, April 10, 2006

Review: Caylus

At the time of this writing, William Attia's game Caylus is currently ranked number 2 at Board Game Geek. That a game which has been available for only a few months (and widely available for only a few weeks) should be ranked so highly by the BGG community of gaming elitists (and I mean that as a compliment) should tell you something. This is not the kind of thing that comes along every day. This is indeed something special.

What's it all about?

Caylus is a game for 2-5 players. Playing time is roughly two hours. It's published by Ystari Games and distributed in the US by Rio Grande Games. The basic premise of the game is that King Philip wants a new castle and it's up to the players to see that he gets it. Players supervise the construction of the castle and the surrounding town. The town is necessary because it will provide the workers, quarries, and other supporting infrastructure that will enable the castle to be constructed.

This is a production style game. As the game progresses, players construct buildings for the town, which can then be used to produce resources or construct other, more powerful buildings and so on. As in all production games, the choices you make early in the game will determine the choices that become available to you later in the game. One of the things that makes this game different from other production games is that although new buildings generate a small reward for the builder (usually in the form of victory points), they become available for all players to use. This keeps games tight and extremely well balanced.

This is also a perfect information game. That means that no player is privy to any information that isn't available to all. There are no closed hands, no secret money, no hidden tiles. In fact, there isn't even any luck in the game other than the random ordering of six tiles during setup (which provides some variety) and the starting player order. Like a chess game, whether you win or lose depends almost entirely on how you play the game and what actions your opponents choose to take. This results in a highly satisfying gamer's game but it does mean that the game could be a little daunting to fledgling gamers.

How does the game work?

Each player has a small supply of money and a meagre income which he will collect at the start of each turn. Each player also has a set of six worker tokens and a resource pool. Resources are represented by colored cubes and come in the following flavors: pink/food, brown/wood, grey/stone, purple/cloth, and yellow/gold. The board depicts a castle at the top and a road that winds down the board from the castle. Along the road are a number of spaces, some permanently occupied, some occupied by building tiles, and some blank spaces which will be filled with building tiles as the game progresses. Each building is associated with an action. Some produce resources, some allow new buildings to be constructed, some affect turn order, some allow players to curry favor by adding to the castle's construction, and so on.

Players take turns placing their workers on buildings. With a few exceptions, no building can have more than one worker on it. Initially, each placement costs only one coin but as players pass, the cost increases. This acts as a governing mechanism that keeps players from taking too many extra actions on a given turn. When all players have passed, players get to take their actions. Beginning with the buildings nearest the castle and proceeding down the road, players retrieve their workers and execute the action of the building that their worker occupied.

The object of the game is to collect victory points and, like most good gamer's games, there are a number of different ways to do this. Each time a new building is constructed, the builder is rewarded with some amount of victory points, so a player could adopt a building strategy, racing to collect resources and turn them into new and more profitable buildings faster than the others. Also, any time a building is used by another player it generates victory points for its owner, so a player could try to build buildings which other players will want to use as part of their strategies. Players will also probably want to divert some of their resources to help build the castle. Each time a player contributes resources to the castle she is rewarded with some victory points and the potential to win royal favor. Royal favor allows a player to advance her status on one of four "favor tracks", each of which offers a different type of escalating reward which could be factored into the player's strategy.

What do I think of the game?

The deep game play, perfect information, lack of luck, and myriad potential strategies of this game make Caylus truly something special. There is also a lovely balance between strategy and tactics. Players can adopt a strategy early on and then circumstances may present tactical opportunities that were unforeseen. This is an extremely well balanced game that works well across its suggested player range. As a two-player game, it's a highly strategic game of maneuvering and resource management. With three or four players, the competition for available actions get a little tighter but the additional players makes it possible to pit your opponents against each other. Adding more players also introduces a little more unpredictability, shifting the emphasis a little bit from the strategic to the tactical. With five players, the game time goes up a bit and the downtime between actions goes up as well, but not so much as to render the game unenjoyable.

The production quality is superb, with a colorful linen finished board, sturdy tiles, high-quality wooden components, full-color instruction booklet, and extremely well thought out iconography that greatly simplifies what otherwise would be a relatively difficult game to play. Simply put, the components are flawless.

If the game has one flaw I would say that it tends to slow down a bit in the end game as players try to carefully think out their remaining moves to make sure that they can maximize their returns before the end of the final turn.

Caylus is not a difficult game to play but playing it well does require careful thought. This is probably not the best game for inexperienced gamers but every seasoned gamer will want a copy in their collection. If you buy only one game this year, this is the one to buy. You won't regret it.


At 7:41 AM, April 12, 2006, Blogger Phollower said...

Thanks Steve. I've been waiting to hear what you thought of Caylus. I'll have to pick up a copy!


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