So what have you been up to lately? Well, if you’re Stefan Feld you’ve been dividing your time between designing your one-new-game-per-year (Merlin; Forum Trajanum; Carpe Diem; Revolution of 1828) and cranking out sequel/expansion/promo content for your older material (In The Year of the Dragon 10th Anniversary; Castles of Burgundy 10th Anniversary; Merlin expansions, Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game) with time left over for things like an Alhambra Expansion for the Designer Box that came out in 2019.
He’s a lazy S.O.B., that Feld.
And now here comes Castles of Tuscany (CoT hereinafter). By appearance it sure looks like a sequel, perhaps standalone, to Castles of Burgundy (CoB): the box cover mimics CoB’s look and layout, and a cursory glance at the back cover shows hexagonal grids and tiles in familiar colours.
But this is no mere knock-off or flimsy re-skin. While CoT obviously uses CoB as a departure point, it departs from the formula in several fundamental ways–enough ways that to even call it a sequel is, I think, misleading. Feld has in fact pulled a bit of a Rosenberg here, with CoB being the Agricola-like motif and CoT being the Glass Road variation on the theme.
Too metaphoric for you? Let me explain.
CoT plays out over three rounds. Each of up to players takes the role of generic Tuscan noble looking to develop and expand their unique region, formed from three geomorphic boards with individually-coloured hexes in eight shades. Each colour corresponds to a particular type of building or improvement tile.
Players begin with one dark-green castle placed on one of the three same-coloured hexes in their domain. The rest of their tiles begin shuffled face-down in three piles of seven, where they act as a timer for end of round and end of game scoring. While each player begins with the same set of 21 tiles, the twist is that the tiles they end up adding to their domain come from the market in the middle of the board, initially composed of eight face-up tiles of a neutral colour. When they draft a tile from the market, it is (usually) replaced not with another neutral tile, but with the top tile from their leftmost stack–which means over time that they will often be taking tiles that initially belonged to another player.
CoT departs from the usual Feldian practice of action drafting in all the various forms he’s used over the past decade. Instead he takes a page right out of Alan R. Moon: players take one of three actions, and that’s it. They can: (a) draft a tile from the market to their personal board (if they have space for it); (b) draw two Region cards from the centre pile, which they can use in a later turn to; (c) discard two cards of the same colour to add a tile of that colour from their personal board to an adjoining hex of that colour in their domain, after which they get the bonus corresponding to that colour.
There are two types of VP: green VP accumulate over the game, and the first time a player empties the next pile of tiles on their board, players pause to transfer accumulated green points onto a second, red track. And since green points do not reset between rounds, that means green points earned in the first round are three times as valuable as those accumulated in the final round–a very elegant way of incentivizing racking up points early.
And where do these green points come from? Well, like CoB you do get points for filling connected regions of like-coloured hexes and for filling all the hexes of each colour in your domain (the first player to do so getting a bigger reward). There are a couple of other ways to earn points (green and red), but it’s far from the usual Feld point-salad.
The only resources aside from Region cards are workers and marble. Without dice to modify, workers instead act as jokers, with players allowed to spend one in place of a required Region card when they add a tile to their domain. Much more powerful is marble, which lets players go again immediately, ie drawing more Region cards, drafting another tile, or placing another tile. The timely use of marble can be a game-changer.
The other aspect I’ll mention is the bonus tile system which effectively acts like a tech tree that players can level up over the course of the game, giving them extra tile and resource storage, ability to draw more Region cards, and so on.
At the top of the article I divided Feld’s recent work into two categories: new games vs. sequels/expansions/promos. So where does CoT fit in? It’s a platypus, being essentially a new take on Burgundy but not quite a sequel. Obviously they have a fair bit in common: players draft and cover individual hex-gridded maps with tiles of different kinds and score for completed regions. But the overlap really stops there. It goes beyond being merely a streamlined, “simpler” version.
It’s almost heresy to say this, but: turn order is fixed. That’s right, I’ll say it again. Turn order is fixed. In a Feld game. Okay, he’s done it before (e.g., Oracle of Delphi) but it’s pretty rare. The limited action palette is also unusual. The variety of buildings is there, but nothing like CoB’s town buildings or bonus tiles. In fact, had the game been given a theme (and title) that didn’t start with “Castles” I think Feld and Ravensburger could have claimed with justification that it was a new design.
So why did they purposefully set up the connection and expectation in players’ minds? Well, marketing probably. But I think this does CoT a disservice, because it stands on its own as an excellent introductory Euro, perhaps even a gateway game. It’s elegant simplicity belies the plentiful interesting decisions and cool combos you can pull off.
My only quibble is with the colour-scheme. The wagon spaces are easily mistaken for quarries and vice versa; there was plenty of room on the colour wheel available for wagons. I also always think it’s a mistake when player colours duplicate those used for all players in the game. I can’t comment on how well the colour choice works for various colour-blind folx.
The first time I played CoB was soon after it came out, and I was wowed by it. It embodied to me the state of the art in terms of Euro design. A couple more plays in I was bored by it–there wasn’t enough theme there to engage me. Since then I’ve come back around, especially once the app came out and I was able to play without worrying about other players’ analysis paralysis.
Now with Castles of Tuscany I feel once again that I am looking at a state-of-the-art game design, this time informed by the experience and wisdom of a designer who realized you don’t have to stuff your design full of mechanisms to provide a fun and challenging experience for your players.
Thanks to RavensburgerNA for providing a review copy of Castles of Tuscany for this article.