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Friday, June 11, 2010

Review: Caylus - Fun Wrapped in Complexity

The man on the box seems angry you want to play...

Every once in a while, the Spiel des Jahres jury selects a game that, while awesome, doesn't quite fit into the Family Oriented type games generally in the running for the award.  In those cases, they will create a special prize.  Caylus was awarded the best Complex Game award by the Spiel jury in 2006.  Agricola also received that special designation. 

Caylus has several key methods to obtain points, immense interaction, and cutthroat competition.  On the plus side, this means every game plays a little differently, and allows for extreme strategic depth.  There are no dice in Caylus and no cards, so the game is a strong exercise in strategy.  However, Caylus also is one of the more complex games in my gaming closet, so this is not a game for the faint of heart. 

Buildings on the Right, Resources on the Left

The Basics:  In Caylus, the goal is to build the King's castle.  Each player is in charge of several workers that can contribute to the work.  Though the players can build parts of the castle directly, they can also build up the town surrounding the castle in order to allow more actions.  Some actions allow them to gain Kingly favor.  And they gain prestige by constructing certain buildings within the town. 

Other than determining who the starting player is, there are no elements of luck in Caylus.  After that, the turn order can be completely rearranged by player actions.  If the player uses a builder to get moved up in turn order, then he gets moved up.  Going over all of the actions and choices available in this game is well beyond this review, but I would be remiss not to call attention to two interesting mechanics.  

The first is the pass ability.  There are numbers on the board, 1 through 5.  The smallest number showing is the cost of playing a worker.  So, with the one showing, all the workers cost but one denier.  If a player passes (decides not to place any more workers) his token covers up the one.  Now everyone else must pay two deniers for the privilege of placing a worker.  And so on as each player passes.  This leads to interesting decisions where it may be better to sacrifice taking a turn in order to either bleed a rival's resources or prevent them from taking additional actions (because they can't afford the increased cost).  It also means that a player with fewer deniers, who passess early, helps to mitigate the other players' advantage from having higher resources. 

Close up of the start of the road, the favor track, and the castle

The second ability is the provost.  The little white disc is the overseer who makes sure none of the workers slack off  As you can see from the board, the town is created along one main road.  The provost travels down that road and only the workers before him actually work.  If the provost doesn't get to your worker, that worker takes the day off because the boss ain't watchin'.  The players also get the opportunity to move the provost, with an appropriate bribe.  So if you place a worker near the end of the road, you run the risk of the other players moving the provost back so that he doesn't reach your worker.  

Various actions on the board (building castle parts and hosting tournaments being the major ones) also result in favors from the King.  Favors take the form of deniers, victory points, resources, or the ability to build a building.  Gaining favors at the right time can be an important part of victory. 

The buildings that are constructed have a large impact on the game.  For example, there are two spaces from the start where players can move a worker and build a wood building.  But the mason must be built (which is itself a wood building) before any stone buildings can be built.  And the lawyer and the architect must be created before residential or monument buildings can be constructed.  Sometimes they come out early, sometimes late or never, and that alters the way players gain points and favor dramatically.  A player may choose which building he creates.  He does not simply draw a random tile. 
Wood Buildings, Stone Buildings, and Deniers

Components: 4.5 of 5.  The buildings are on sturdy stock and all the pieces are made of wood.  The board has excellent artwork.  Hidden around the board are reminders about how much it costs to build the castle, what actions give favors, bonuses and penalties when scoring castle parts, etc.  This limits the need to refer to the rules.  My one complaint is that the goods are all (very) little cubes.  A little variety would have been nice, or at a minimum, a little bit larger cubes.  God help you if you accidentally drop the cloth ones (deep blue/purple) onto a dark floor. 

Strategy/Luck Balance: 5 of 5.  This game is pure strategy.  Without introducing a chance element (such as dice or cards), there really needn't be a balance.  The player is in total control of his actions and must make decisions that will directly impact his standing. 

Mechanics: 4 of 5.  Mechanically, the game plays very well.  Once you have a firm grasp, everything falls into place and makes perfect sense.  Plus, the board contains numerous reminders, without being obtrusive, to keep you from having to refer to the rulebook.  However, the rulebook is written in small print and will take you a bit to go through it.  There's a lot going on, and there is a steep learning curve on the first play or two. 

Replayability: 4.5 of 5.  This game plays out differently every time.  Different players adopt different strategies to maximize their points.  Good strategies can focus on the castle, or they can focus on constructing buildings (which also give victory points).  And, depending on which route your opponents go, it'll impact your choices as well.  And, despite its complexity, I've never seen the game take more than two hours - even with five players.  So you don't have to commit an entire afternoon and evening to a single game.

Spite: 3.5 of 5. There are many ways to strongly take from your opponents in this game.  The provost is one good example.  If a player places a worker on the castle to build, but doesn't end up with enough resources (because another player starved him out), he'll actually lose points.  Residential buildings can build over the starting buildings, thus eliminating worker choices for other players.  While not the main focus of the game, these dastardly tactics are prevalent and effective.

Overall: 5 of 5.  If you enjoy a deeply complex game, I highly recommend Caylus.  It is always different, is entirely devoid of chance, and allows for some pretty hefty competition.  There are numerous paths to victory, and the player is free to focus on one strategy in particular (unlike some games where diversification is required -e.g., Agricola or Tigris & Euphrates).  In my view, the only negative is that the depth of the game keeps it from coming down when there are new players around, or when certain gamers who prefer lighter endeavors join us. 

You can grab it from Boards and Bits here.

You can also get it from FunAgain here


  1. Nice review! I love Caylus but for our group a five player game easily pushes into three hour territory; we typically take longer on pretty much all games we play. As much as I enjoy the game it just doesn't hit the table that often in part due to the length. We also have a couple of players in our group that played it to death online and in some ways sort of "solved" the game, taking the fun out of it.

    Caylus is great though and still probably my favorite worker placement game.

  2. Thanks!

    I had no idea Caylus was available to play online. I'll have to look that up. That way I can get my Caylus fix when it doesn't hit the table.

  3. Thanks!

    I had no idea Caylus was available to play online. I'll have to look that up. That way I can get my Caylus fix when it doesn't hit the table.