Caylus is something of a milestone game in the development of eurogaming. As an historical note it effectively cemented worker placement as a mechanic within the realm of board games. So for old players its nostalgia, for new players it’s a history lesson. Caylus is not a short game, and depending on the number of players you can anticipate a game halfway between 30 minutes to an hour and a half.
The year is 1289 and the good King Philip the Fair of France has decided to bolster his defenses and expand his borders. You play one of five master builders that seek to gain the favour of the good king by working on his castle and otherwise expanding the surrounding countryside.
As a worker placement game, your job will be to try and place your team of six workers across the available buildings for fun and profit. You will take it in turns to place a worker, at the cost of one money. However, when a player passes the cost of placing a worker increases by one. This intrinsic balancing mechanism not only affects choice of placement but how many you will eventually be able to place.
Throughout most of the game you will be attempting to collect one of five different types of resources, including food, wood, cloth, stone, and gold (distinct from money). Resources are used for building other buildings as well as contributing towards the castle, both will get you prestige points. What is particularly unique about this game, however, is that all the buildings are placed along a road that winds back and forth down from the castle off the bottom of the board. All the buildings are activated in order each turn, starting with a number of ‘powered’ buildings, moving through basic resource buildings. To build the castle, you must place a worker before it and send a batch of three different resources, which includes one food. It is the last action of any round, and you will lose points if you have placed a worker there and cannot supply a batch of goods.
What this means is that new buildings are added to the end of this chain almost every turn, opening up more and more powerful options of buildings. There is also a building that will convert the starting neutral buildings into a money generator for the player who selected it. This means that as the game goes on, the cheaper neutral buildings are removed from choice and the more complex and more profitable buildings replace then (sort of). Since you get prestige points if another player uses a building you built this is a key and crucial strategy. An example being if you have built the only quarry and then use the removal mechanism to remove the neutral quarry, you end up bottlenecking stone and getting a constant supply in.
The other unique feature to the game is a figure known as the provost. This figure advances along the road and only those buildings that lay behind him are able to be used. If you select a building too far down the chain, there is a chance the provost could be moved back making your placement a wasted resource. It also means that new buildings aren’t always immediately available for choice the next turn. This is a lovely mechanic because it means there is an implicit risk in the newer and more advanced buildings that eventually peters out.
The other figure of significance is the bailiff, which progresses steadily throughout the game. He will move either one or two steps each turn depending on whether the provost is before or after him. When he reaches on of three pre-determined spaces he triggers the end of a cycle of construction for the castle. When the bailiff reaches the third space, the game is over. If you’re paying attention, the placement of the provost not only influences what buildings get used, but also how quickly the game progresses.
A round in Caylus consists of the following 8 phases: get income (base 2 money); placement of workers according to turn order; activation of special buildings (ones with powers); move the provost; activation of other buildings in order; building of the castle; round end where the bailiff moves along the road.
There is much to love about this implementation. There is a lot of care and detail give to the artwork, which tries to strike a balance between fidelity to the board game and to using the power of the iPad. So rather than tiles placed on the board, the vacant lots are simply overlaid with a building design. It makes the experience that slightly more immersive. The game is accompanied by an assortment of woodland, farm, and construction noises, but not much of a musical score to speak of. These are mere embellishments though.
Overall the user interface is quite good. It is intuitive and allows you to jump in. Unfortunately, the complexity of this game means that while you can very easily know what choices are available it is more difficult to comprehend their impact. This is partly because you cannot see the entire board at a glance. You can scroll around but in trying to mentally calculate some of the risks involved you’re trying to keep a bunch of information in your head at once, which can only be hampered by the need to scroll around. Additionally, I had hoped that I could get basic info about a building by tapping on it and for a pop-up menu to show. This information is there to be found, but it is not intuitively accessible.
There is not much to say about the tutorial. I am not sure it really deserves the name. It’s more of a rules prompt at the appropriate juncture. With the tutorial mode on, the screen will become immediately filled with the section on the rules relevant to the scenario whenever it’s first encountered. It’s only saving grace is that the rules are illustrated and not too difficulty to follow. Having never played the game prior to now I was able to get the game right after a false start with my first game. It might still take newbies such a dry run to get their handle on the game.
Lastly, the biggest issue in my opinion has to be the semi-constant crashes. The game crashes enough that it’s noticeable, but not enough that it’s unplayable. Granted that might be because I’m on a ‘semi-obsolete’ iPad 1, which doesn’t seem to receive nearly as much testing and support as the latest model, however I don’t think that should be an excuse. In fact, I can typically rely on the program to crash when I start a new game, forcing me to reopen the program and resume the game.
8/10: The game itself more than makes up for the implementation errors. I think they made a few design choices that were wrong, particularly around critical things like the tutorial, but you can still sink your teeth into the game.