Epic Gumdrop Ep 34: Caylus
This episode Jeff and James look back at Caylus, the now classic worker placement game that never fails to tickle your brain. Regardless of your opinions on monarchy.
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(Length: approx 41min)
Here’s our notes from the show:
Today we’re looking at a now classic boardgame in what is known as the “worker placement” genre. No, you will not be running a real temporary labour service out of your home with a boardgame publisher taking a cut of your earnings. In a worker placement game you put those lazy little wooden meeple, or sometimes their cardboard relatives, to work. Hard work. Often performing grueling tasks in historical settings which reminds you that there is no way you would want to be doing this stuff yourself in real life. These games allow you to exercise your inner bureaucrat without actually yelling at anyone or breaking a sweat. Today we’ll talk about Caylus.
- “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. Around the building site, a city is slowly rising up…”
Goal of the game
- Each player is a master builder. By building the castle and city you earn prestige with the king. When the castle is completed at the end of the game the builder with the most prestige wins.
This game has two main areas that players focus on.
1) The City
This is the winding road down the game board. There are a few places already established that builders can rely on, as well as a bunch of blank spaces along the road that builders will work on throughout the game.
The City is where you acquire resources (food, wood, stone, cloth, gold), money (denier), or build new buildings. The new buildings then give you more of the above as well as prestige points.
There are a few more actions that can take place within the City, but we’ll get to those later.
2) The Castle
The Castle is the second area where players can focus their attentions to earn both prestige points and favours with the king. The decisions that take place in the Castle feel simpler (how many of your resources to contribute to how many sections?) and it is played each turn in conjunction with placing workers in the City. At the same time, the construction of the three sections of the Castle can prove to be important to your victory. As well, the completion of the Castle drives the timing of the game, so it acts as a bit of a game clock.
You might hear Caylus referred to as one of the first great worker placement games. While the concept doesn’t originate with Caylus, the game does a fine job of boiling everything down to the critical decisions that come with placing your worker here or there, now or later.
Here’s the basic gameplay.
- Collect income
- Place workers
- Activate special buildings
- Move the provost
- Activating regular buildings
- Building the Castle
- Moving the bailiff (turn end)
Let’s follow that to talk about each of the main concepts.
- How do you get income? 2 coins each round for everyone! +1 for each building you own. +1 if you own the library. And +2 if you own the hotel.
- Money comes and goes quickly in this game. And you never seem to entirely run out if you are at all competent at counting. Which is why I am always broke.
2) Place Workers
- Place that worker on an available building or at the castle by paying the cost (which is the smallest number appearing on the bridge). The advantageous exception to this is that your own buildings only cost 1 denier to place workers on or if you occupy the Inn.
- These are the excruciating decisions. You are trying to accomplish a multitude of things with your worker placement. Placing workers gets you resources, but you need to be careful – the buildings are activated along the road in order from the top to the bottom of the board. This Resolution Order will get you. In other words, if you needed specific resources from the bottom to build a building, but your option to build comes up first you will not have the resources in time. This order timing is where you brain starts spinning that extra 27 sets of gears you didn’t know you had. Wait – you don’t have those? Oh, you are done for.
- What about that prestige? If you place on another player’s building they get prestige! AAAARRRGGGHHHH! Prestige!
- Oh, and if you place on the Bridge you are “passing” this round. If you’re first to do this you get a denier for being an unproductive layabout. There’s a kingdom to be built, people, let’s get cracking.
3) Activate special buildings
- Placing a worker on a special building will get you some special fx – Smoke! Lights! Flames! 5000 watts of booming sound! A transdimensional creature crawls out of your chest! Oh, Special Effects. Never mind.
- I found I hesitated to use some of these special abilities at first, until I could remember what each building meant. It’s a bit abstract but fortunately there’s not that many of them.
- Gate: Place a worker at no cost. Do it. No, it’s not a trap. Or is it? Probably not.
- Merchant’s Guild: The player can move the Provost, who we’ll talk about in a bit, between 1 and 3 spaces down the road. Sounds boring, could be what wins you the game or just annoys the heck out of the person across the table from you. Sometimes those are the same thing.
- Stables: You don’t like the turn order? Change it with stables.
- Trading Post: Feeling poor? Take 3 denier. What? Those are money, remember?
- Joust Field: Want to impress the King and get a Royal Favour the sneaky way? Pay a denier and a cloth cube and get one. Not quite the same as risking having a wooden pole rammed through your chest, but whatever.
- Inn: As long as you stay there you pay only 1 denier to place workers (you get moved from right to left as more people stay at the inn)
4) Move the Provost
- So you think so-called euro-games lack player interaction, do you? You’ve been waiting all night to slightly impede the well-made plans of your neighbour with minor inconvenience, have you? Then the Provost is your guy.
- What makes the Provost annoying is that workers placed beyond the Provost’s current location are useless. They are those excited workers who showed up for their first day on a new job with a sense of purpose and vim only to discover too late that they are at the wrong building in the wrong part of the wrong city. They return, dejected, to their owner so they can polish up their résumé and orienteering skills until next round.
5) Activating buildings
- Regular buildings are special too, except when they aren’t which is always because they are just regular. Being regular can be dull.
- The buildings with workers on them are activated in order from the Castle to your bellybutton. The workers are then returned to their owners. One day they will take their freedom.
- For now, let’s take a quick look at the different kinds of buildings. When I first punched the game I panicked at the number of different buildings. Then I breathed and broke them into groups:
- Production buildings: Get you resources. Like stone or wood or self-esteem for being a good little worker.
- Carpenter: Build a wooden building on an empty spot.
- Mason: Express yourself through Brutalist architecture.
- Trade Buildings: Give an item, get an item.
- Lawyer: You can build a residential building (green background). These replace the neutral buildings that have pink backgrounds. Or replace one of your own buildings (except the lawyer’s own building. As much as you want to get rid of them they know people).
- Architect: Hire one of them and you get yourself a prestige building. But I can’t afford a Zaha Hadid or a Frank Gehry, you say. Don’t worry about it. Just place a building with a blue background over one of your residences and we’ll all squint and pretend it’s a Tadao Ando or Moshe Safdie design.
6) Building the castle
- The castle is where all the excitement is. Or so you’ve heard. But is it?
- If you decide to contribute to the castle and get all that Royal Favour you need to give a batch of goodies. Three different goods/cubes are what you need to hand over. Now if you didn’t time it right and find yourself short, don’t worry – the king won’t have your head. You just lose two points. Each turn, though, the player who provides the most batches gets a Royal Favour. Which doesn’t seem that great since you could have earned a Favour by Jousting. But at round end this might prove wise. If a section of a castle is completed the round scoring begins.
7) Round end (move the bailiff)
- You’re tired now, right? You just want to go home after a long day at work and have a shower and sit down and watch some Meeple TV. But you don’t get to yet. The bailiff is going to have a stroll down the road to see what’s up. If the provost is ahead of him, he only moves one space. If the provost is behind him then he moves two spaces.
- “So what?” you’re thinking. But now the provost has to catch up to the bailiff. Well, this might trigger round scoring if the bailiff is on or past a scoring space.
- Now that you’ve made a bunch of plans, sent people to work, tried to fulfill work orders in proper sequence, earn income, feed children, better the world – you can roll up those Gantt charts and see if you earned any Royal Favours this round or just incurred a bunch of contract penalties for not getting the job done on time.
Now that we’ve essentially run through a whole game in sequence let’s talk about a few of the concepts in more depth:
- If you want to focus on prestige points you can earn them via Royal Favours on the Royal Favours chart. It’s four rows with a variety of goodies including money, resources, buildings and those yummy prestige points (chew before swallowing, they are kind of pointy).
- As the Hints in the rules state: “Royal favors are a good way to refine your strategy… The deniers line allows the player to easily make up their losses. It also helps you get powerful effects if some buildings (the bank, the church) are built. The resource line allows you to find the cube that will help you get the upper hand. It also grants you access to gold cubes. Finally, the building line allows a player whose strategy is based on the building of the castle to have an impact on the city at a lower cost.”
- It might be tempting to just focus on building, but there are some pretty powerful things to unlock here. In a two player game, where resources are not as scarce, this might not be such a big deal. But if you are playing more than two players suddenly the game shifts. That gold you need that you thought you’d get? Not so easy now.
- Placing workers on another player’s building earns them a prestige point.
- But, as the Hints in the rules suggest, sometimes placing a worker on their building is an excellent trade-off of gaining much needed resources even though they will get that prestige point.
- At the end of the game you turn just about everything into prestige. Four denier get you one. Three cubes (except gold) get you one. One gold cube gets you three.
- As we noted above, the Royal Favours chart can get you prestige points as well. There are prestige points hiding almost everywhere. Get up from your chair for a moment, turn around and look down. See? Prestige point. Also, you might have finally introduced too much fibre into your diet.
In the rules they give a section of hints. It’s worth talking about these as they hit on some of what makes this game so great. Some of them we’ve already discussed. Here’s the rest:
- “Caylus is an evolutive game [and I learned a new word today]. Depending on the players’ choices (which buildings should they build first? Will there be a lawyer? When will the mason arrive on the board?), the game will develop in different ways. Some games will see huge resources, others won’t. Some games will see the construction of prestige buildings, others won’t. However, the players will have to take advantage of the tough situations they will face. Here is some advice to help them make the most of their first games.
- “Passing order: the later you pass, the more you will influence the provost’s move (if you have deniers, of course). The provost is extremely important to determine which workers will be activated and how fast the counts will come. A player who passes early and whose workers are too far on the road will probably be the victim of his opponents, who won’t hesitate to club together to make the provost go backward! On the contrary, a player who passes late can spend the deniers needed to activate all of his workers.
- “Special buildings: It is necessary to use special buildings cleverly if you want to win the game. The gate allows you to temporize [I want to use this word all the time now. Well, not just yet], and pass later to hide your intentions. The trading post provides money at the best moment (that is right before the provost moves). The guild is an economical way to move the provost. The joust field allows you to take advantage of the King’s favor without having to build the castle. The first place in the stables allows you to ensure an important action for the next turn. The inn, especially in games with numerous players, allows you to save money or place more workers.
- “The lawyer: You must choose carefully which building will be transformed by the lawyer. A player can destroy a neutral building which challenges one of their own buildings, or even destroy the marketplace to deprive all the players of a source of income.”
- The scarcity of resources is not as severe. You won’t have to think so much about earning Royal Favours.
- In a 2 player game you don’t have to fear the other players ganging up on you after you passed early and destroying your plans with the provost.
- But a 2 player game is still very fun. I will play this game at any head count permitted. I’m home alone, save for the cat? Get your furry butt up on the chair Hodge, we’re playing Caylus. Stop pawing at your workers, there’s denier everywhere now! Is this my money or yours? No, it’s not real money. Well, I don’t give you an allowance any more because we both remember what happened with the whole Online Gambling Addiction thing, correct? Ok. Anyway, your move.
Why we love this game
- Like any satisfying brain burner, this game comes down to agonizing decisions. Decisions that must be made quickly because there are other people waiting to make the painful choices that will rupture their prefrontal cortex.
- The theme is light, but not entirely abstract. It’s 1289? We’re in France? Alright. The decisions in the game don’t feel life and death, but that also allows you to make them fairly quickly. Also, there’s more than 3 decisions so you don’t feel the paralyzing fear of making the wrong one. It’s OK. Breathe. You’ll get to place another worker. You can catch up. No, you ate all the catnip last week Hodge. Go back to sleep.
The Caylus App
- While it doesn’t capture the feel of the physical game, not many apps do. Besides, oftentimes the cat is napping or refuses to play due to some intra-house territory dispute and one is forced to play alone or not play at all. To the tablet, I say!
- But do the decisions feel as critical as when you are sitting around with a group of people? Does the AI threaten to crush you? I don’t know about that, but it’s still somewhat satisfying.