Monday, July 09, 2007

Review: Caylus Magna Carta

One of last year's biggest games was Caylus from Ystari games so when I heard they were coming out with a card game version called Caylus Magna Carta I was very interested. Caylus Magna Carta is also by William Attia. It plays in about an hour and it supports 2-4 players. Like its big brother, Caylus Magna Carta is a deep strategy game where players take on the role of master builders building a castle but this time things have been simplified a little, shortened up a bit, and just a smidgeon of luck has been tossed in the mix for good measure. The results are… well read on.


Caylus Magna Carta comes in the Ystari small box format, which means it comes in a box that's similar in size to Mykerinos: about 11 by 7 by 2 inches. Inside the box you'll find 100 wooden resource cubes (representing food, wood, stone and gold) a wooden provost disc, a deck of cards, wooden workers, assorted coins, and prestige tokens. Each player gets a passing marker, four workers, and their own set of 12 building cards in their own color. There are also 12 common building cards (5 pink neutral buildings and 7 blue prestige buildings), a bridge card and a castle card. In the Rio Grande Games (English market) edition you'll also find one bonus prestige building: the Library, which wasn't available in the original version.

As with the original game, all of the artwork is superb and the iconography is quite good. The rule book is beautifully illustrated and well organized. In fact, the rule book is actually double-sided. Reading from one side you'll learn the "Beginner rules". Reading from the other side you'll learn the "Standard rules". The major difference between the two is that the beginner rules leave out rules relating to residences and the provost. I would imagine that most seasoned gamers will want to go straight to the standard rules but the beginner rules are a little simpler and lead to a gentler and faster game.


Each player starts with 2 food cubes (pink), 2 wood cubes (brown), 4 denier (coins) and their 4 worker pawns. Each player's deck of 12 building cards is shuffled and the top three cards are drawn to make up that player's starting hand. A number of pink cards (which depends on the number of players), the castle card and the bridge card are laid out on the table so that the pink cards form a road leading from the castle and the bridge. The blue prestige buildings are laid out face up on the table, along with the piles of resource cubes, coins, and castle tokens, where all players can have access to them.

At the start of most turns, each player collects two coins as income and then players take turns executing actions until all players pass. An action consists of either paying a coin to take a new building card into your hand, paying a coin to refresh your hand (discard all your cards and draw the same number from your deck), paying a coin to put a worker token somewhere on the road, or erecting a building by paying its construction cost and placing it at the end of the road, thereby extending the length of the road by one card.

Once all players have passed, each building in the road that has a worker token on it is executed in turn. Most buildings produce resource cubes. Some buildings produce coins. Some let you exchange cubes or coins for different cubes or coins. Many buildings offer a primary effect for the person who put their token on the building and a secondary effect for the player who built the building. All buildings are worth a certain amount of victory points at the end of the game for whichever player built the building.

After all of the building effects are executed players may choose to contribute batches of cubes toward the construction of the castle. Each batch of three cubes (1 food, 1 wood, 1 stone, with gold acting as a wild card) contributed to the castle earns a castle token. Castle tokens are divided into Dungeon tokens (worth 4 prestige points), Wall tokens (worth 3), and Tower tokens (worth 2). Since the Dungeon tokens are taken first, contributing to the castle early is more valuable than contributing late. In each round, whoever offers the most batches to the castle (ties broken by passing order) earns a bonus of one gold cube.

Finally, the start player rotates clockwise and the next turn begins.

The game ends when all of the building tokens have been claimed.

Differences From Caylus

Caylus Magna Carta does a fantastic job of distilling the essence of its big brother into a shorter game but naturally you can't simplify and shorten the game without changing it. Here are some of the more important changes.

The most obvious change is that there is no board. Instead, building cards are played directly to the table and the road leading to the castle is built from those cards. One side effect of this is that there is no scoring track. This really isn't a problem since the score is easy to calculate from the collected tokens and points listed on the cards. In fact, it's something of an improvement since it's no longer possible to tell at a glance who is leading and who is trailing.

Another, more subtle change is that there is no bailiff. Instead, the provost simply marches two cards down the track each turn. That means that it's common for the provost to be at the end of the road after every turn. Of course, by using your turn at the bridge you can move the provost forward and back just as in the original game. (For those unfamiliar with Caylus, the provost marks the last active building on the road. If there are buildings with worker markers beyond the provost, they won't take effect. You have to move the provost out far enough for them to activate.)

Another major change is that there is no concept of "favor" in Caylus Magna Carta. The favor tracks and their special privileges are gone.

But perhaps the biggest change of all is that there are no carpenters or stone quarries. If you want to construct a building, you simply pay the cost and build it. This streamlines the play significantly but it also eliminates some of the cutthroat strategy from the original game where it was possible to prevent players from constructing new buildings by denying them access to the appropriate building. Instead, construction is limited to the buildings players have in their hands and the blue prestige buildings. Furthermore, since buildings on the road come from the players' individual decks, which are color coded, there is no need for house tokens (which in Caylus identify which player constructed the building).

The hand management aspect has got to be one of the more controversial changes because it introduces luck and hidden information into what was originally a perfect information game. In Caylus, the only luck in the game was in the initial setup and it affected all players equally. In Caylus Magna Carta, each player is subject to the luck of the cards drawn into the various players' hands. It's not an overwhelming factor and for many it will add enjoyment to the game but it is still a pretty big change.


I was very impressed with Caylus Magna Carta. I really loved Caylus but its length (often two or three hours) was sometimes a barrier to getting it to the table. Also, Caylus is a relatively complicated game and therefore it's not something that I'm likely to introduce to my more casual game playing friends. Caylus Magna Carta on the other hand, is much simpler and therefore much more approachable. Its shorter length (about an hour) makes it much easier to get to the table. And as a bonus, its smaller box makes it easier to lug around. Caylus Magna Carta does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of its bigger brother and distilling it into something that's much more palatable for the casual game player. I still prefer Caylus because I love the challenge of a deep, perfect information game; but I can see myself playing Caylus Magna Carta more often because it's nearly as good and it's much easier to bring to the table. I'm quite happy to own both and, in my opinion, everyone should own at least one or the other. If you happen to own neither of them, then Caylus Magna Carta would be a wonderful place to start.


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