Castles of Tuscany Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2020
Playing Time: 45-60 Minutes
Castles of Tuscany is a problematic game. It’s actually a very straightforward Eurogame, and is streamlined more than many others of its type. But with its name, it’s directly linking itself to Castles of Burgundy, the modern classic Stefan Feld design with a ton of notoriety. As such, Tuscany inserts itself into this legacy, which will bring both expectations and baggage.
Tuscany is a tile-laying, set collection game that plays out over a few rounds. A handful of actions correspond to different ways to get points, and you’ll be collecting and building a small region of hexagonal land tiles, competing with others doing the same.
The short version of this review is that I think there are problems with Tuscany even for its core audience, but that it’s over quickly enough, and has low enough rules overhead, that it manages to sidestep some of the issues that could bury it. It’s serviceable but hardly transcendent.
Similar or Different to Burgundy? Yes.
The comparison to Burgundy is appropriate, at least. Burgundy’s fingerprints are all over Tuscany’s reimagined mechanics. This creates the first potential problem, not because the mechanics are bad, but because it’s going to create an Uncanny Valley effect compared to Burgundy. Mega-fans of that older game may chafe a bit in the new environment.
A common phrase I’ve heard from Feld fans once the game ends is “I like it, but it’s not as good as Burgundy.” My experience is anecdotal, but I think the reaction is somewhat predictable, given its pedigree.
The Perception of Imbalance
Many have remarked on the potential issue of a runaway leader in the game. Since many points you get in the first Round of the game will score in all three scoring rounds, whoever has the most points in the first scoring phase is likely to have the most at the end. Or so goes the claim.
I’m not arrogant enough to make this claim of a game without doing rigorous analysis and playtesting, especially when it’s designed by someone as experienced as Stefan Feld. So, ultimately, I suspect that these runaway leader claims aren’t true. Or perhaps they may be true at times, but deeper strategic analysis will reveal ways to mitigate the advantages held by an early leader.
But I still think this is a problem. Why? Because it’s incredibly easy for it to seem like there’s a runaway leader. Whether or not the imbalance is illusory doesn’t matter when the group feels as though there is one.
In practice, whoever was first or a close second after the first scoring phase has ended up the winner in each of our games. And because it’s a low-interaction game, it never feels like there’s much you can do to affect things in subsequent rounds. Our sessions have thus been characterized by a faint aura of frustration once we get past the first scoring phase.
So I’m not here to take a stance on whether or not the supposed problem is mathematically true. I’m here to say that it’s a gameplay problem regardless of its veracity.
As a result, I think the scoring system, regardless of its fairness, is set up poorly, because it imparts the perception of imbalance, which can be as damaging to a session as the real thing.
An Aside on Components and Art
I’m not a component junkie. If it’s serviceable, I’m good. The gameplay is the point.
But it’s mystifying to me that Tuscany had nearly a decade to listen to criticism and feedback on Burgundy…and then they made all the same mistakes.
The colors are bland and lifeless. There are two somewhat-similar greens, hard-to-parse agriculture tiles (“are those olives and wheat?!”), and a grey/beige color similarity that is almost comically bad. If you’re color-blind, I don’t think you can play this game. I’m not an expert in that area, but I can’t imagine it’s possible. This was released in 2020, a year in which it should be a no-brainer for a big-name title to be broadly accessible. Instead, we get more muted, brown-ish midtones than you can shake a too-tiny pig drawing at.
In a larger context, it almost seems as though they knew the “Castles of…” name would generate interest and sales, and updating the legibility or inclusivity in any meaningful sense wasn’t a priority. If anything, it’s a small step backward from Burgundy, which is hard to fathom.
Euro-style games of this sort traditionally haven’t needed a strong sense of setting or catchy components to be successful, but surely it would be nice if they made an effort, yeah? Anyway, I’m done piling on here. Let’s move on.
Breezy For the Right Audience
Christ, am I about to lead with “it’s over quickly” as my high point of the game? I didn’t expect this review to be quite so negative. I can do better than that.
Let me try to soften the above a little bit, though. First, I’m not the primary audience for this game. There’s exactly one Stefan Feld design I love, a couple others I enjoy to some extent, then a bunch that I’m either indifferent to or actively avoid. Burgundy is in the “indifferent” category, FWIW. So I didn’t come in with high expectations, and the game mostly met those lukewarm expectations.
I also need interaction with other players and/or some kind of narrative as told through the game’s mechanics to truly be invested, and those aren’t hallmarks of Feld designs. He specializes in more insular games with lots of interlocking mechanisms. These aren’t necessarily instant passes for me, but they struggle more frequently to enter my good graces.
On the plus side, there’s little-to-no analysis paralysis (AP) compared to many others in the genre, since it streamlines a lot of ideas first introduced in Burgundy. For most, it will play faster than Burgundy while scratching the same itch. And players of similar experience and skill may not have to worry as much about the scoring issues mentioned above.
There’s also some considerable variance in tile draws, the configuration of your starting board, and enough ways to build your engine and expand your action economy that it will reward repeat plays.
So there are elements to enjoy in this game, and even if you aren’t the biggest fan of point salad Euros, it’s not going to grate on you as thoroughly as many other examples of the genre since it’s pretty easy to learn and play.
Castles of Redundancy
Still, I question the need for this game in collections, especially given the buildup and hype it received prior to release. It’s a reimagining of Burgundy’s core mechanics, with the dice removed and some new scoring mechanics. It’s not hard to look at it and see something that won’t quite live up to Burgundy’s appeal, nor does it have quite the same strategic heft that leads me to believe it will be remembered as fondly or for as long as Burgundy has.
On balance, I think I’d prefer to play Burgundy. If you’re a pastoral points puzzle, at least layer it with a bunch of nuance so I can get lost in the puzzle. In its more streamlined form, Tuscany lacks even this consistent brain burn that caused so many to fall in love with Burgundy. If a famous, decorated designer wasn’t attached to this game, I couldn’t imagine it making an impact on the gaming landscape.
If you’re a fan of Feld and of Burgundy, though, you’ll probably enjoy this game. If you’ve gotten your mileage out of other Feld designs, I wish you well with this new one, which will undoubtedly reinvigorate things for a bit. But whether or not the world needed a game for the same audience, of mostly similar length and depth, and with similar mechanics and theming, is far more questionable in my mind.
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