By Briony, Lizzy and Bob.
Brutus rating: 6 knives in the back out of 10
Pairs well with: The best French wine that £4 can buy and a crushing sense of defeat.
Recently your friend Bob has been ‘Doing Exercise’. This is deeply unpleasant (and if you’d like to charitably sponsor her ill-advised half marathon you are welcome to do so here). Anyway, as part of this whole fitness drive she decided to give ‘Tough Mudder’ training a go. For those of you who don’t know what that is, congratulations. Nor did Bob until last Monday, when she found herself army-crawling across a muddy football pitch with the prospect of push-ups at the end of it, while a group of athletically-attired strangers whooped and cheered her on. The cheers straggled after a few minutes; it’s difficult to stay enthusiastic when you’re standing in the cold watching an overweight goth clumsily wriggle across some grass. It felt an awful lot like PE at school, and even ‘giving it your best shot’ did not make the experience of doing walking lunges while overhead-balancing a car tyre more pleasant.
It turns out that ‘Tough Mudder’ is just like Caylus. That is, just like crawling along a muddy pitch ‘Doing Exercise’ and wallowing in despair, particularly at yourself and your abilities. Caylus has a reputation that precedes it as being a particularly difficult and frustrating game. It is long, it is punishing, and it wants you to know that it’s all your own fault for getting yourself involved in the first place. And now you’ve fucked up your turn, well done you. “Those jumping jacks/turn order mechanics were just a bit too much for you, weren’t they?” says Caylus. Yup, they were. Once you’ve knobbled yourself over once there’s very little you can do to get your enthusiastic strategy back on track, and instead you’re left to be cynical and grumpy in the corner while everyone else carries on with a lovely evening, occasionally encouraging you not to give up and to stick it out. This introduction to the game might make a person think ‘why would I ever play something that makes me so disappointed in myself, not to mention cold and muddy?’ (OK the metaphor’s getting a bit stretched here), but it is impossible to stress enough how amazing that ‘eureka!’ moment feels when you get it RIGHT. Displacing water in a bath never felt this good.
And now for some game context – ‘The year is 1289. To strengthen the borders of the Kingdom of France, King Philip the Fair decided to have a new castle built. For the time being, Caylus is but a humble village, but soon workers and craftsmen will be flocking by the cartload, attracted by the great prospects and desire to please the King.’
Slowly but surely you and your fellow players will be building up the board with buildings and farming resources, turning the village into a thriving mercantile city with a glorious castle dominating the skyline. Also, the castle is going to be built out of pigs. Pigs and velvet. Honestly, you may as well wildly point at the nearest object to yourself and declare that it will become part of the castle. That, my friends, is how castles were build back in the day. Foolproof.
Alongside building the castle you can reap victory points by various other means: gold mining, collecting favours, exchanging money, etc. Going through each of these individually would be deeply tedious and abstract and therefore better left to ‘real’ board gaming blogs (or even (gasp!) the rulebook). Instead let’s talk you through some turns of the game using a recent game between Lizzy, Briony, Bob, and a generic white male gaming buddy (here known as ‘Gord’) as an example. This way you’ll hopefully get an idea of the mechanisms, type of play and how scoring works. From there we’ll highlight some particularly good strategies we’ve come across, and discuss some select ones in a bit more detail. We’ll also discuss the crushing misery of failure. Woo!
A turn of Caylus has a few different phases. Firstly, the worker placement phase in which each player places a worker in turn on an existing building. This lasts until you run out of workers (6), run out of money to place workers (it costs one franc per placement), or you choose to pass (i.e. if there is nothing more you want on the board). The meeples, by the way, are just disappointing cylinders. The pigs are just cubes. We take this to be an artistic statement about capitalism and despair in medieval France.
We’ve kicked off with Briony’s workers claiming a broad range of resources intended for castle building, while Lizzy’s workers are grabbing up some stone and wood and generally sturdy things (stone and wood? To build things with? Ridiculous. It’s almost like she’s seen a building before.) Gord has gone for a construction angle using some architecturally sound pig and wood, and Bob has got some velvet as it is the most flamboyant and least buildy resource available.
Secondly, there is the job phase. As all buildings are built along a road leading from the castle, the jobs are resolved in the same order as if we are travelling down the road ourselves (Fortunately we don’t actually have to move for the game, which is good because, ya know, moving). Each building will offer something like resources or the ability to build, and you take the things that your workers were placed on in the order of the road. Order in this game is extremely important, and worryingly easy to forget. To both generate resources and to build stuff you need to work out at what point you are receiving things, which must occur before building in the castle, or having enough resources to build other buildings. We advise the use of the medieval equivalent of a stock-checker at all times.
Thirdly, there is the castle building phase. This can only be done if you place your worker in the castle position during the worker placement phase. A vital part of this is actually having the right resources to build, which sounds simple, but when you’re collecting multiple different things in the previous phase and having to plan out steps far in advance then it’s very easy to accidently pick up a velvet when you really needed a goddamn pig (One of the few games that can trigger the lesser known phenomenon ‘pig-rage’). In order to build in the castle you must have 3 resources, one of which must be a pig, and each of the others must be different types (why, why is a pig a major building resource? This is never addressed anywhere in the rules. This sounds like an extremely inefficient and wriggly way to build a castle. Does anyone have any theories?). Again, a simple premise, but if you organise your stock slightly wrong or spend something you weren’t intending to then it’s pretty easy to rock up to the castle with two pigs and a stone and be disappointed when the king laughs at you. Foolish peon, bringing two pigs with which to build a castle, he needs only one pig! And some velvet! And a rock of indeterminate size!
Another important aspect to bear in mind with castle-building is the extremes that it produces.
If you build the most castle in the turn then you receive a favour (which is spent in the favour-reward track of your choosing), however if you place a worker and don’t have the resources to build then you immediately receive minus points. His royal highness is mightily pissed. Bob has demonstrated this consequence beautifully in her very first attempt at getting some victory points, and is now sat sulkily at -2 points, hoarding velvet.
As with many worker-placement games, a viable early strategy is to simply farm resources until they dribble (painfully – in this game they’re represented by wooden cubes) out of your ears. Making more resources happen more easily is therefore an even better strategy, but difficult to do consistently. The very best strategy (that we’ve found), is to be given resources as an idle tax while other players are trying to gather their own. There are three buildings which have this effect, and if you manage to construct all three of them you have effectively broken the game. It’s ridiculous. Especially when you combine it with building green buildings (which have to be built on top of existing non-taxed resources, therefore forcing players to give you extra resources AND generating extra income from green buildings).
This is the only real mechanical issue we’ve found with Caylus, but it’s a biggie and is very difficult to stop. No strategy should be that OP, unless there are other big earners that we’ve somehow missed (entirely possible, somehow we don’t get round to playing Caylus all that often). And no, we’re not going to tell you which buildings they are; that would be cheating.
As the game progresses and other players’ strategies become clearer, the daggers come out. Let’s be clear: the biggest dick in this game undoubtedly belongs to you, and it’s aimed at yourself. Even people who are normally competent in their everyday lives can just repeatedly screw themselves over in this game, more than seems statistically probable. You’ll miscount your resources, you’ll forget how to build anything, you’ll even forget when the game ends.
Having said that, there are some excellent ways for other players to knobble you over too, such as by taking the resources that you can see other players eyeing, muscling in on their share of the castle, or by moving a little white token called the Provost. This little guy, combined with the Bailiff (upon whose head the Provost gently sits), determines how far down the ‘road’ your workers can be placed and have effects, as well as when the game ends. If you can end someone’s turn before they’ve got all the resources or victory points they want, then you can really make their day unpleasant. Luckily, despite the constant shifty eyes and threat of skulduggery as pacts get made and broken, players are often far too focussed on their own misery to try and inflict it on others. That’s what keeps the Brutus Rating at a 6/10.
Despite its typical Uwe Rosenberg-patented Agricola-esque misery this game is, in many ways, perfect. It’s an incredibly ‘pure’ game, in that it relies on a strategic understanding of the mechanics’ abstract interplay. In fact it’s so computational that Chris* maintains it’s not actually a game. We would disagree; its dry strategy, intricate game scenarios and yet almost absurd lack of flexibility makes playing it surprisingly intense. It brings out serious turn-narcissism** as you desperately and meticulously line up your strategy. And when it works… oh god, when it works…. The feeling of relief, pride, and joy is, we imagine, much like giving birth. No exaggeration. This game is definitely not for everyone, requiring a fair amount of time and dedicated concentration, but it’s so very worth it, and makes you genuinely feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end of it.
As a final tip we strongly advise keeping tabs on the timing and resources you have at all times, and be aware of when the round, or even game, will end. Briony has solved this in a rather eloquent way on her copy of Caylus. The kind of eloquent way that was triggered by in-game anger and a sharpie. Be warned, folks, but also enjoy trying new strategies.
We recommend it more highly than Tough Mudder training, at least.
** There’s a fairly well-known concept in the psychology of narcissism called ‘conversational narcissism’, in which a speaker in a conversation pays almost zero attention to the other speakers, instead focussing entirely on what they want to say and simply waiting until a moment when they can take their turn to talk. Bob insists that ‘turn-narcissism’ is the same and totally real, but applies to when you’re waiting to take your turn in a tense game.