Table of Contents
|The Castles of Burgundy (2011)
|Meeple Like Us
I’m not going into this teardown with a great deal of optimism. While Castles of Burgundy is a genuinely great game it is also one that is renowned for being an aesthetic mess. However, it’s not as simple as saying ‘This is a game that needs a new edition’ because the relatively low production values mean that it’s one of the most affordable games we’ve looked at on Meeple Like Us. A copy of Monopoly costs about £22 at full RRP, and that’s the same price as Castles of Burgundy. I suspect a lavish new edition, or even the same edition with better art, would also come with a bump to the kind of eye-watering price-tags that we tend to associate with hobby games. There’s value to be had in value. This is a four star game at a tremendously good price point and you need to bear that in mind when going forward.
Enough of that though, let’s get our hands dirty.
The ironic thing here is that I’d say that Castles of Burgundy is probably no harder to play for people with colour blindness. The problem there is that it’s hard to play for everyone because the palette choice is baffling. I mean, they don’t even use the colour burgundy. What’s that all about?
We’ve played Castles of Burgundy primarily in our kitchen, which during the dark Scottish evenings (which start in approximately 10am in the morning during the winter) is lit with fluorescent lights. In those circumstances we often have to peer intensely at hexes to see what colour they actually are. You can see from the image above that you can tell the difference between tiles for all categories of colour blindness but this is easiest to do in comparison. As in, you can tell the greens from the beige from the yellow. I’d be less inclined though to say you could pick up one of those tiles and tell which it is as an isolated piece.
Colour is really important in Castles of Burgundy, but it’s not used in a way that is likely to be a massive problem to anyone with colour blindness. There are definitely areas of trouble, but the design of hexes also compensates to a degree. Each tile has its own art, and this is usually contextual. Buildings are on beige, animals on green, and more esoteric iconography is on yellow. As such, you can inspect a tile and be able to tell the category to which it belongs. There are markings on the player board too that show a number of contextual clues – for example, green has a grassy texture. Yellow has a kind of crater like texture and beige is largely undifferentiated against the background. The location of individual regions will become familiar with time, and in any case there is no risk that comes with asking for support from the table.
Goods tiles also make use of some problematic colours, but this doesn’t impact on anything except identification of their associated die face at a distance.
This said, it’s not that the game is colour-blind friendly, but primarily because it’s not friendly to anyone as far as the colours go. While no information is lost in the main game loop as a result of colour choice, it is going to have an impact on game flow for everyone, especially under poor lighting conditions. For severe manifestations of colour blindness, memory is going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting with regards to valid placements on player mats.
We’ll very tentatively recommend Castles of Burgundy in this category.
There is a huge amount of visual information in the game, and all of it is problematic. The tiles are tiny and often presented to the player in aggregates. When choosing to spend a die for example a player must be aware of what valid placements they can make (determined by their player board and dice) and what tiles they can buy (determined by the main board and dice). That’s in addition to any alternative options permitted by workers and special powers. A canny player will also be keeping an eye on other players to make sure they aren’t given opportunities that are disproportionately good for them. It’s a lot.
Consider the main board shown above – there’s a central depot of tiles that can be bought with money. There are also goods tiles that are available for collection and those will become increasingly more valuable as time goes by. There are markers that indicate whether someone has completed every tile in their region. No matter what way the board is oriented, there is going to be important information and the far end of it, as well as a lot of the tiles,. will be very difficult to tell apart without close inspection.
The player boards suffer from extremely poor contrast, with this being especially bad for the dark green tiles. The boards too are extremely information dense although this is primarily intended to be an aide memoire for the effect that different tiles have. If playing with a consistent board the patterns will eventually become second nature, but the game comes with several alternates for these. The good news is that close inspection will likely be sufficient in most cases and there’s no danger that comes from inquiring of the table when necessary. Nobody will be able to take advantage of your question because in the end the only competition is over resources and if you’re asking it’s because you’re in a position to take advantage.
The game uses standard D6s, and these aren’t used in any way that would prohibit more accessible alternatives. A section of the player board is made available for storing dice but it doesn’t have to be used. Ideally players with visual impairments would have a pair of these, but you could get by with a single one and a decent memory.
For those with total blindness, the situation is predictably considerably bleaker. While accessible dice will serve as a suitable engine for play, there’s such a large number of things that need to be taken into account that I suspect it would be largely unplayable without a prodigious memory. The decision space gets easier to navigate as time goes by and the choices diminish, but at the end of every round new choices are dealt out. The best that can be said is that as the player board fills up there’s less in front of them that a player need deal with but that seems like scant comfort.
We don’t recommend Castles of Burgundy in this category.
While Castles of Burgundy is remarkably collegiate in how it handles randomness, you can’t get past the fact this is a game that needs you to make tricky decisions at the right time. Everything you do in Castles of Burgundy is likely to earn you points, but there can be massive differences associated with when you do it. For example, placing a pig tile in grassland will give you a point for every pig you already have. Placing a sheep tile will give you a point for every sheep. But while you will probably be able to get a grassland tile, you have to get the one that scores you best before someone else takes it. The problem with everything being worth points is that even the indifference of an opponent doesn’t prohibit you being disadvantaged. As such, buying the right tiles, at the right time, to place in the right places, is hugely important and this stresses tactical thinking.
However, those with issues around more strategic thinking are likely to be better served because Castles of Burgundy stresses reaction as opposed to laying down a plan and working towards it. You’re at the mercy of the dice, and while you can alter them you can’t ever fully control them.
Arithmetic isn’t heavily stressed, but still comes into play in a number of areas. Certain tiles offer point bonuses and addition is a regular part of scoring. Interestingly this is a game about dice that isn’t particularly driven by probability – you roll two dice but you use them independently meaning that you rarely need to consider the likelihood of numbers coming up. Risk management as a result isn’t a major part of the game. Literacy isn’t stressed either, although the iconographic language used to represent the varying special effect tiles isn’t the most instantly understandable representational system. Cross reference with the manual will be required, and more often than is usually the case. This can be awkward too – despite many of the buildings having unique art, the art is rarely much of a clue as to what the building actually is. You often have to check all the tiles in the manual to find out what’s even being offered.
There isn’t a lot of synergy in Castles of Burgundy but the knowledge tiles introduce an element of combo-building. There are some tiles that work especially well together, and some tiles that work especially well on particular boards or at particular player counts. The reasons for this are often non-intuitive. Some of the tiles have powers that subvert the core of the game, such as the tile that permits a player to buy from anywhere on the board. Knowledge of the available buildings, power-ups and how they interact with board and player-count is important.
As far as memory is concerned, there’s nothing in the game that is hidden once play begins – the only secret information that has real game impact are the tiles still to be revealed. Knowing what might appear is useful to know, but this awareness is fragile and difficult to translate into meaningful game advantage. That difficulty is driven by how availability is limited by dice, turn order and a range of other factors. Other than this, simply remembering what each tile does is a memory burden in itself and will likely require lots of cross-referencing with the manual during play.
We can tentatively recommend Castles of Burgundy in the memory category, but we don’t recommend it for people with fluid intelligence impairments.
Castles of Burgundy is an intensely solitary game, with no option for players to undermine the plans of others except to take tiles before them. Since that’s par for the course with a game like this, and indeed a large majority of all games in some form, that’s unlikely to be a trigger issue specific to this game. Even in this, dice make it difficult to reliable execute on a plan of this nature without spending workers. If a player has the tile that permits them to buy from anywhere on the board this can be more of a targeted issue but it depends on having a reliable flow of money in a game where money is very tight. It’s a possible issue, but not one likely to manifest very often.
Points disparities can be high in Castles of Burgundy but I think it’s likely to be relatively rare that they will have a sting. Scores are almost always, in my experience, high enough to feel like everyone was in with a chance and even being behind in early rounds can change later on. That does mean that someone that has built up a seemingly unassailable lead may find that they unexpectedly lose, but it’s never out of nowhere. There’s a definite link between skill and score, but you’re never in a position where you can’t do well.
We’ll recommend Castles of Burgundy in this category.
Oh dear. The tiles are tiny and light and incredibly easy to dislodge. The main board has tiny, tight constraints for goods on sale and even picking a tile out of a depot can result in everything being knocked about. The player mats are incredibly flimsy and a nudge of the table can put everything out of alignment. That, and you have to place the tiles you buy very precisely to make sure you don’t obscure key game information. The board gets very busy before too much time has passed.
In most circumstances, there’s enough space between the different compartments of the game that dislodging an element isn’t the end of the world – it just makes everything untidy. Small perturbations in the player board likewise are reasonably easy to repair, but larger disturbances can effectively randomise the board. At least in this respect it doesn’t matter particularly where tiles are – there are no positional effects that will be impacted. However, it’s important to make sure when the board is restored all the correct hexes are covered even if not necessarily with the correct tiles.
The worker and money tiles are very small and fiddly, and direct manipulation of dice by rotating them to a modified face will be required regularly.
It’s a bit of a nightmare really if physical agency is an element to be preserved.
As far as verbalisation goes, the situation gets a bit better. While the boards don’t explicitly offer any indicators that would assist they do have regions that are reliably describable. ‘Place the three sheep in my right most green two tile’. ‘I’d like to buy the silverling mine from the market’. ‘I’ll use my two to buy a church’. The link between die face and action is solidly reliable and massively reduces the difficulty of playing through verbal instruction. Unfortunately the fragility of the game state is likely to be an issue in circumstances where one player has to reach across a table to enact changes on a player board. Passing the board around the table too is largely a non-starter unless everyone involved has hands of steel.
We’ll tentatively recommend Castles of Burgundy in this category – even while playable with verbalisation it’s still very easy to upset parts of the game state. It’s unlikely to be a critical problem but it is probably going to be measurably aggravating.
There aren’t a lot of people shown in the art of Castles of Burgundy save for the… burgher?… shown on the cover. However, the manual does default to masculinity throughout.
However, where Castles of Burgundy shines is in the cost, which is currently about £21 on Amazon. I recently tweeted about a new copy of Monopoly I had bought (shut up) and how I got it for £13. It was on sale, but its actual RRP is £22. I pointed out that, unfortunate as it is for the hobby, this is the frame of reference people have for how much a board game should cost. When Mrs Meeple and I play games with my mother, which we do semi-regularly, she almost always asks about the price of the game we’re playing in a tone of fascinated horror. ‘So… how much did this one cost?’. I’ll often have to reply something like £40 or £50 and she’ll savour that like someone probing a loose tooth with their tongue. Price is a massive accessibility barrier in this hobby, and the simple fact is that games exist on a spectrum. You can have production values or you can have a reasonable price. You can’t get both.
Occasionally on the blog I complain about component quality of games, but that’s almost always in a context of fair comparison. For example, the cost of Terraforming Mars still puts it firmly into the hobbyist bracket and in comparison to other games of a similar number of components the quality is notably lower than would be expected. Castles of Burgundy’s frame of reference isn’t with the beautiful hobby games that we regularly see paraded before us. Its price puts it squarely in the mainstream comparison bracket and on that basis I think it represents astonishing value. Yes, it looks ugly. Yes, it feels cheap. That’s because it is cheap and it’s remarkable you can get one of the best games in the world for this price. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better at the same price point, but for what you’re getting I think it’s reasonable to say complaints aren’t at all fair.
We’ll recommend Castles of Burgundy in this category because of the representational issues but if we were grading it on price along it would be the strongest of strong recommendations.
Castles of Burgundy is completely language independent, but I’d be surprised if you could play it without repeated consultations of a dense and complex manual. Even once you get the rules in mind, you’ll almost always still have to check out the effect that buildings and knowledge tiles have on play.
We’ll still recommend Castles of Burgundy in this category.
I’ve mentioned several times here that I think a lot of cross-referencing with regards to the manual is going to be necessary – that would have an impact in circumstances where memory and communication impairments intersect. We already don’t recommend the game for those with visual impairments but if colour blindness was also an issue we’d be inclined to say that even minor visual impairments would likely be enough to interfere with enjoyable play. Similarly if colour blindness intersects with physical impairment – so much close inspection of the board is going to be needed that gross motor control issues are likely to become impactful. Physical impairment that intersects with a memory impairment would also have a big impact on following game state – remembering the results of close inspection would become fraught given how much would need to be remembered.
Castles of Burgundy also has a large amount of setup and inter-round setup that is likely to be an accessibility issue of its own across the board. It’s intricate, precise, and requires fine-grained control. You set up the main board five times during the course of play and while it’s not true you spend more time setting up than playing it can certainly feel like that.
Games tend to drag on at large player counts. With two players it can be as brisk as forty-five minutes. With four it’s closer to two hours. There can be a lot of time between turns, and as such it could be difficult to keep players focused on the game. Worse than this, there’s nothing to do on an opponent’s turn – what they do doesn’t matter except with regards to the tiles they take and how they impact on your board. You only need this information at the start of your turn in any case and can only actually use the information when you know the dice you will have. Most players agree that you should roll your dice ahead of time for that reason, to give adequate thinking time and to remove some of the tedium of waiting.
Honestly I was expecting worse. While Castles of Burgundy isn’t going to win any awards for its performance here I was kind of expecting this to be a horror story. Most interesting I think is the colour blindness section, where in some respects colour blindness might even make it easier to play – sure, some hexes are difficult to tell apart but in a way that is different than it is for the rest of us.
Part of the issue here is that I think Castles of Burgundy is at a very fragile price point set before the average cost of a board game rose into the plateaus of intense sticker shock. We’ve kind of gotten used to the poor aesthetics and shoddy components because it’s a game that is, in comparison to so many other games we look at, remarkable value for money. There’s a lot that could change for the better in the design of Castles of Burgundy. I suspect though even simply changing the colour scheme would be taken as an opportunity to jack the price up to something more in line with the average for a game of its standing. That would be a massive shame.
We like Castles of Burgundy a lot, although our introduction to it was traumatic. If you can get past its crusty exterior, and then its crustier interior, you’ll find a game that plays just as well as everyone says. While it’s accessibility isn’t what we might hope, the game itself, and the its value for money, is certainly something to be admired.
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
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Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.