This article is the eighth in a continuing series that analyzes the entire Alea line of games. For past articles you can read about: Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal in Part One; or Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa in Part Two; or Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico in Part Three; or Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Mammoth Hunters in Part Four; or San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV in Part Five; or Palazzo, Augsburg 1520, and Rum & Pirates in Part Six; Notre Dame, In The Year of the Dragon, and Witch’s Brew in Part Seven; or Macao, Alea Iacta Est, and Glen More in Part Eight.
By 2011 and 2012, Alea was deep in Stefan Feld land, but that was only the big box series. The medium boxes proved that they were still publishing very interesting games from other designers.
Medium Box #7: Artus (B+)
Author: Wolfgang Kramer, Michael Kiesling
Publisher: Ravensburger (2011), out-of-print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 2 or 4
My Plays: 3
Artus is a game of positioning and point manipulation. Each player has 4 or 5 knights seated around a round table. When they move, they score points. They’re worth positive points if they’re on the king’s right hand or negative points if they’re to his sinister (left) side. So the whole game is about moving knights, to earn their points, and also to improve their positioning — all while also knocking back opponents’ knights who are in good positions themselves.
There are three catches. First, the king can move. Second, the king can (somewhat oddly) change among the four nobles at the table. Third, if you play the advanced game (which is the one that has a difficulty score of 4 instead of 2, and the only way you should play), then you also have special scoring cards that you must play and which earn you big negative points if you can’t set them up just right.
Strengths: Tactical & Tough
Very Innovative. Though its game play has some precursors, Artus is quite an innovative game. It doesn’t fit into any of the standard categories of play and generally is quite unlike anything else. That can make it a really nice change of pace and something that’ll keep you on your toes.
Great Tactics. Artus is largely about tactics. You see where your pieces and the nobles are at the start of your turn, and you do your best to take advantage of that.Sometimes you’ll be able to immediately leap into playing great cards, sometimes you’ll need to use one card play to set up the other, and sometimes you’ll have to tread water. Like any great tactical game, Artus plays like a puzzle. If you can suss out a particularly clever solution to your current situation, you can really benefit from it.
Terrible Choices. Sometimes all of your choices will be bad. This is especially obvious in the Advanced game when you have scoring cards that are almost guaranteed to lose you points. However even the knight and noble movement cards can be troublesome if they all generate negative scores. Being able to choose which bad move to take and how to minimize it are decisions that aren’t seen enough in games, but the loss aversion they generate can be quite fun.
Weaknesses: Abstract & Chaotic
Abstract. Though it came out in 2011, Artus feels like a game from a decade earlier due to its high level of abstraction. The theming is paper thin. It’s just barely a Medieval feasting game, and it’s not an Arthurian game at all. Mostly it’s a game of tactical maneuvering to earn points.
Control. The biggest criticism about the game seems to be that people feel like they don’t have real control. Because the game is so tactical, you can’t make many long-term plans. In fact, you don’t really want to look at the board until your turn, lest you get excited about an opportunity that will be gone a moment later. The randomness of the cards you draw can also notably affect your ability to play well. Personally, I’m happy to focus on the tactics and to play to take best advantage of what I’m given each turn. But players who want to entirely determine their fate in a board game won’t like this one.
AP. The fact that Artus focuses on tactical play also means that it can generate serious Analysis Paralysis (AP). Not only can’t you make your decisions beforehand, but you might get frozen between the choices, as you look at six different cards in your hand, each multiplied by numerous ways to play them. The terrible choices of the game can freeze you up even more.
When I look at the other more abstract Alea games like Chinatown (1999) and Princes of Florence (2000), I can see some slight similarities to Artus. However it’s generally a very unique game, so rather than comparing it to other Alea games, I’ve opted to compare it to the few precursors I’m aware of.
Kiesling, Kramer & Tactics. Artus designers Kiesling and Kramer are best known for their Mask trilogy of Tikal (1999), Java (2000), and Mexica (2002). Though it has different theming, Torres (2003) also fits in. They’re all very tactical action-point games. Each turn you assess what the situation is on the board, then you try to put your actions together to do something really clever. But wait, you might say, you only get two actions in Artus. Is it really an action-point game? For this we look toward Australia (2005), another tactical action-point game by Kiesling and Kramer, but one where you only get two action points. But two actions allow you to setup, then execute. In that context, Artus is a very obvious expansion of this tactical series of games.
Draco, Co. & Round Spinning Things. The most common use of round things in modern eurogames is probably as action roundels, where you constantly push a piece around a circle picking different actions on different turns. However, that’s a pretty far cry from Artus, which uses its own round circle to control the positioning of player tokens and their scoring. I’m aware of only one actual precursor, but it’s a pretty notable one: Michael Schacht & Bruno Faidutto’s Draco & Co (2001). There, Draco sits at a table, giving loot to the people on his cup side and taking it from those on his other side. Draco can move around and his cup can also be flipped left-to-right and of course the players’ cards on the table can move too. Sounds pretty darned similar to Artus? (Except a lot more chaotic!) It’s hard to believe it wasn’t an influence …
Large Box #14: The Castles of Burgundy (A+)
Author: Stefan Feld
Publisher: Ravensburger (2011)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 6
My Plays: 10
The Castles of Burgundy is a deceptively simple game. You roll dice, and use them to claim tiles from numbered depots, to place tiles in specifically numbered places on your board, or to sell goods of the numbered type.The whole game is about 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.
What gives the game complexity? Part of that is your own player board, which controls how you can expand (and what you need!) through simple physical constraint. Part of that is the intricate scoring, which rewards you for finishing up sections of your board quickly while simultaneously urging you to work on bigger sections.
Strengths: Tight, Tense, and Tactical
Sometimes You Don’t Get What You Want. The Castles of Burgundy is a classic luck-management game. That means that you’re given somewhat random resources (dice rolls), and then you have to figure out how to do what you want (which sounds somewhat similarly to being given a tactical puzzle in Artus). That’s the core tactical problem of the game, and it’s a very good one. Do you use workers to adjust your die roll? Do you turn in your dice for more workers? Or, do you figure out how to do something that’s not quite what you really wanted, but might be close enough?
An Ever-Ticking Clock. Hand in hand with that is an ever-ticking clock that maintains the tension of the game at a high level. You know you have a limited amount of time to fill in areas of the board. Every round of play that you fail to do so, you lose some points. And, if you don’t manage to do so by the end of the game, you wasted some of your work entirely. Meanwhile, you’re also competing with all the other players, to get certain bonuses before them.
Tight Constraints. The Castles of Burgundy could have APed very badly because there are so many options. However, Feld made sure it was very tightly constrained. You can only build into adjacent areas, which means your choices are going to be limited every turn. The results of the dice limit things even more. So each individual turn your options are a subset of a subset … but over the course of the game you have that much larger set to play with.
Tunnel Vision. The best dice games have two things: control and excitement. We’ve already seen the control: you have ways to get exactly what you want, but they may be costly. The excitement often goes hand in hand with a sort of tunnel vision. Before you throw your dice, there are usually one or two results that you really want to see — results that will allow you to grab a much desired tile or to place something that’s blocking up your board. You can then happily cheer when (if) you get those results, adding some really evocative joy to the game.
So Many Paths. Feld’s games have often been called “point spaghetti”, but the flip side of that is that you have many paths to victory. Do you try and close small areas quickly or work toward the large ones? Do you focus on buildings with great actions or with end-game bonuses? Do you trade lots of goods? Do you try to never waste a die result? There are enough different options for points that you can take your own path.
Repetitive for Length. The Castles of Burgundy can run somewhat long, often going to two hours if you play with four players. Sometimes, this length of play can feel a little long for the variety of actions you can take, particularly since the last few rounds can get a little longer, as you more frequently can get make extra (black market) purchase by spending resources.
In Trump’s America, the Dice Play You. With any dice game, you have to ask whether you’re controlling the luck of the dice or you’re reacting to the luck of the dice. It’s certainly possible when playing Castles for the dice to direct you away from your preferred course of action. But, again, you ultimately get to decide whether to spend the resources to control that luck or not.
There are a slew of expansions out for The Castles of Burgundy, all released as promos and unfortunately hard to get (well, except expansion #2 which is in the BGG store). I’ve got two of them, and am surprisingly not thrilled with them. Expansion #2 has new tiles, but they seemed like more stuff to explain in a game that already has too much explaining; while expansion #4 has new boards, but they have new rules too, so I never use them. Perhaps The Castles is an example of a game that really doesn’t benefit from expansions (unless you frequently play the game with the same group).
Rum & Pirates (#10), Notre Dame (#11), In The Year of the Dragon (#12), Macao (#13), The Castles of Burgundy (#14) & Feldisms. Stefan Feld loves dice, but this was his first really comprehensive dice-management game in the Alea series. Rum & Pirates offered dicing subgames, but they weren’t integrated into the core mechanics like they are here. Macao used dice to produce future-goods, but players aren’t managing the dice, those managing those future goods. So, in three Alea games, Feld offered three different ways to use dice in games, with Rum & Pirates being the most similar, but the integration of The Castles of Burgundy makes it superior.
Other Feldisms that appear in Castles include: the use of a who-goes-first/who-breaks-ties track (already seen in In the Year of the Dragon and Macao), the use of dice-control resources (already seen in Rum & Pirates), spaghetti scoring (but better integrated here, with just the three main methodologies: goods, tile placement, and end-game bonuses), goods sales (already seen in Macao), and unique tiles that do cool things (also seen in Macao). Someday, I should chart out Feld tropes across his games.
The Castles of Burgundy would have even more similarities with future game Bora Bora, to the point that I’m somewhat reluctant to have them both in my collection, but that’s a story for a different day (article).
Medium Box #8: Las Vegas (B+)
Author: Rüdiger Dorn
Publisher: Ravensburger (2012)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 1
My Plays: 6
Las Vegas is a pure dice-rolling game. Each turn, you lay out a random assortment of monies in different denominations on six casinos, numbered 1-6. Then, on your turn, you roll a handful of your colored dice, choose a number, and place all the dice of that number on the casino of that number. You keep the next to roll again on your next turn, repeating until you’re out of dice. At the end of the round, you count up the dice on each casino. The player with the most dice gets the best denomination bill, the second most the second, and so on. But tied dice are totally thrown out!
If you play the super-advanced version of the game, you also get some white dice and you put those down along with your others on a per-number basis, but they just act as spoilers for all players.(You should always play the super-advanced version.)
Strengths: Simple, Fast, and Easy
It’s Simple! Las Vegas is a game that you can teach in a couple of minutes’ time.
It’s Easy! New players not only learn the game quickly, but they can also play decently well. Besides the mechanics being easy, the strategies are also easy: you just have to assess how much your lead is in a casino and whether other people are likely to overcome that with their remaining dice.
It’s Fast! Las Vegas is a filler game that plays quickly, so you can not only play it at the end of the night, but you can play it a couple of times at the end of the night.
It’s Tense! Appropriately, you have to take lots of chances in Las Vegas, as you’re putting down dice to win casinos, and hoping that other players won’t roll well enough to beat you on later turns. Meanwhile, every dice roll you watch can be stressful, as your opponent could roll something that would mess you up.
It’s Tricky! Thanks to the punishing ties, there’s just a bit of trickiness to the game; you can stop a player from winning a casino even if you can’t win it yourself. The use of the white die makes this trickiness even more possible (and is pretty much de rigueur if you want to play this game).
It’s Shallow! Las Vegas is a pretty simple game. There’s not a lot of depth to it, and the choices are very simplistic.
It’s Now What You Expect! Moreso, if you were expecting an Alea game, this really doesn’t meet the criteria. Oh, it’s still got the superior design and polishing, but it doesn’t have any of the elements of the games that made Alea really popular.
I’ve always thought it very sad that Alea was putting out some of the industry’s top games but never expanding them. Well, other than mini-expansions, which were produced as promos or as part of the Treasure Chest (2009). And those were generally my least favorite type of expansion. They almost all tended to add new rules to their games with really minimal outlay of components, so they tended to added complexity without a lot of depth while simultaneously forcing you to decide whether to incorporate them every time you played. So, I was really thrilled when Las Vegas Boulevard (M#8.5) came out as the first real Alea expansion, in a box or everything. And then Ravensburger, who had taken over their own US distribution after Rio Grande began to fade away, never brought it over to the US.
So I went ahead and imported a copy of the expansion, Las Vegas Boulevard (Medium Box #8.5), solely that I could write this article. And I was severely disappointed. Because it turns out to more of the same: mini-expansions, except you get a number of them in the same box. Some were badly produced (like the ugly action cards) and some increased the randomness of the game (like the bonus cards). So, there were losses. Oh, some of the mini-expansions are probably worthwhile (like the knock-out purple dice and the free-placement slot machine card), because they decrease the randomness or increase the control. But to just get a handful of different mini-expansions that muddy the game and that you have to choose between every game … is really not worth the effort, especially with Ravensburger’s annoying decision to keep it in the EU.
Chinatown (#2), Rum & Pirates (#10), Witch’s Brew (M#4), Alea Iacta Est (M#5), Royal Turf (S#1), Edel, Stein & Reich (S#4), and Simplicity. I think this is pretty obviously the simplest Alea game in print. Royal Turf was the other game that was also ranked a “1”, and it’s pretty similarly a game of just rolling dice. But it feels like it has more depth because of the moving pieces and their board positions and the hidden bets. In contrast, Las Vegas has its spoiler dice, and that’s about all the extra depth. Of the other games, Chinatown is the one that feels similarly shallow, despite the use of its board. With that said, Las Vegas seems like it’s much better balanced than the others. Yes, it’s simple, but it plays really quickly too and it’s easy to learn, and that’s the correct balance for a simple game. Some of the others don’t manage that.
Royal Turf (S#1), Macao (#13), The Castles of Burgundy (#14), Alea Iacta Est (M#5), and Dice Games. After not publishing many dice games in its early life, Alea was suddenly on a roll, with four among their last six publications. And, they really did use dice for a lot of different reasons.
To use my classic definitions of dice mechanics:
- Royal Turf is a number (symbol) matching game, but it adds control: you can decide which match to use.
- Macao just uses dice as a pure randomizer, but it adds control: you decide which randomizers to use.
- The Castles of Burgundy is another number matching game with actions, where you’re trying to get certain numbers that you need to take or use tiles, but it adds control: you can use the matched numbers in a variety of different ways.
- Alea Iacta Est is a very traditional pattern matching game: you try to make sets or sequences (or to match specific numbers). There is control here, but it’s much more limited: you can freely use your dice in different ways, but can only do so within the limitations of the patterns you rolled. Control also comes from being able to choose different dice to use from what you rolled.
- Las Vegas is a number matching game with majority-control. It has the same sort of control as Alea Iacta Est: you roll a bunch of dice and get to decide which ones to use.
Obviously, control is the defining aspect that makes these random games good. You either decide which dice to use from a larger set (Alea Iacta Est, Las Vegas, or Macao), or you decide how to use your results, when then can be used in multiple ways (The Castles of Burgundy, Royal Turf).
Castles of Burgundy picture is courtesy George Parker (texasgeoker at BGG), Las Vegas picture is drawn from Alea’s web site.