Saturday, January 5, 2008

Caylus Magna Carta vs. Pillars of the Earth - who wins?

If you've been following board gaming for the last year or two, you have certainly heard the word "Caylus" from time to time. And if you were paying attention during last year's Essen fair, you could not have missed all the talk about Pillars of the Earth. And, if you listened carefully enough, you would have heard one or more comparisons between Caylus and Pillars of the Earth. Then, in 2007, Caylus Magna Carta came onto the scene. It was rumored to be a shorter, simpler, card-based version of Caylus.

Before I go on, let me mention that I have never played the original Caylus. I have avoided it because I have heard that it tends to take hours to play. I've heard it said that it can take 3 hours. This kind of game would never get played at home or in my gaming group at work. That said, I have played both Caylus Magna Carta (which I own), and Pillars of the Earth (which my friend owns). My purpose here is to compare the two games, sharing with you why I think one of them is a better game overall.

I'll start with a brief summary of each game.

Caylus Magna Carta (CMC)

As master builders, each player will construct buildings on the road winding up to the king's castle. Each player will also have a chance to contribute work to the castle itself, gaining prestige for doing so. A provost will travel up and down the road examining your work. If he doesn't come by your buildings, you don't gain any benefit from those buildings. Once the castle is completely built, players tally up their victory points to see who wins.

Pillars of the Earth

Pillars is based on a fiction novel of the same name. Players are essentially project managers overseeing the building of a cathedral. You will have to manage the gathering of resources, trading resources for money and victory points, and utilizing various abilities to be the most successful project manager.

So, why compare the two games? Here are the similar features found in each game:

- community building project
- workers you control
- utilization of raw materials such as wood and stone
- careful management of limited resources
- game rounds are played out in a number of phases
- the use of abilities which are available for any player to take

While I haven't played it, I understand that the original Caylus is similar as well.

First off, let me describe what I think are the strong points in CMC:

1. Players decide what abilities are available by the buildings they place. Each building has an ability, and this ability is available to every player. There is also a benefit for the building's owner if someone else uses their building.

2. There is a pretty good variety of building types. I would I have liked to have even more choices, but as it is, there is a reasonable selection to choose from.

3. The game is card based and so the cards serve multiple functions, which is always a cool feature. The cards contain buildings, they contain abilities, they contain victory points, they can be flipped to at as a prestige building, and they make up your game "board" as you play.

4. The game has a relatively short play time at 60 minutes or less, which typically earns high points in my book.

Now, I'm going to look at Pillars of the Earth in terms of what it does better than CMC.

1. Art and production: CMC is published by Rio Grande Games, who typically has some of the highest quality productions out there. In this case, they seem to have used Ystari's original design. The tokens, wooden bits, card stock are high quality. I would say the artwork is good. The color choices may not have been the best, but the building on the cards look pretty cool.

2. Pillars of the Earth is published by Mayfair Games and has art by my favorite game artist, Michael Menzel. I can say with confidence, Pillars has the most beautiful board I've ever seen in a game, in real life or in pictures. The game is almost worth playing just to look at the board. The art is actually the primary reason my friend Jack purchased this game. Menzel is a master of using light and shadows, as well as painting all the tiny goings-on of the people all over the region depicted on the board. The weakest components are the cards. The stock is not great, but it's good. The wooden bits are nice, and the worker meeples have a very cool shape, as opposed to the plain cylinders used in CMC.

3. While theme is pretty dry and unexciting in CMC, the theme is rich in Pillars. As I mentioned before, Pillars is based on a book, and you see characters and events from that book throughout the game. In CMC, you have to imagine that you are a builder - the only visuals are the buildings on the cards. In CMC, you have a card depicting the castle you are building. In Pillars, you have carved wooden pieces which, through the game, actual build a 3D cathedral in the center of the board. Your cards depict craftsmen working hard at their trade. You can also gain character cards depicting some unique figure from the story. The 13 different stations on the board offer a way to interact with the world, as you place workers in the quarry or the forest, or as you buy and sell at the market, or hire workers from the castle.

4. CMC rounds are played out in 6 short phases, while Pillars rounds are played out in 3 long phases. The result of CMC's method is that the game ends up feeling "fiddly". What I mean is, you begin to feel like you're constantly moving bits here, taking them from there, and all for little gain. In Pillars, the timing seems more smoothly paced, and the moving around of bits doesn't feel quite so awkward.

5. While I like the short length of CMC, it is the rare case in which I actually wish I had more time. This game feels like it ends too quickly. If no one buys a castle token, two castle tokens automatically go back into the box. Before you know it, the game is done and you've hardly accomplished anything. Resources are difficult to acquire and without resources you can't build much. So, you'll build a few buildings, always struggling to gain more resources, and WHAM! - the game is ended - count up your few meager points.

Pillars is a game that is likely to always go over an hour. My guess is that two experienced players could finish in an hour. 3 experienced players could probably finish in an hour and 20 minutes. Usually, I don't like game to go over an hour - I just don't have many large time chunks in my schedule to allow for that. But, Pillars is a game that wants to be played until the end. It wants a full 6 rounds. When we play at work, we always have to cut the game short after 3 or 4 rounds, which leaves us really wanting to play to the end. So, just as CMC is an exception to my normal game length rules, so is Pillars, in a positive way. It doesn't drag on like some games (as is my unfortunate experience with Settlers of Catan).

6. As I mentioned above, everything you do in CMC involves gaining or spending resources - food, wood, stone, and gold. It takes a long time to accumulate very many resources. Then, when you have a few, you must choose to spend them on adding another building to the road, or to contribute to the building of the castle (which earns you victory points). Sometimes I like tough decisions in games, when they feel meaningful. In the case of CMC, this isn't an enjoyably tough decision. Good game designs allow you to feel like you are accomplishing something, always progressing. CMC makes it feel like an upward climb on a hot day - "Am I ever going to feel like my work is paying off?" The tough decisions don't feel enjoyable or stimulating to me. Add in the Provost, who can rob you of your benefits, and the game becomes even more restricting.

Pillars, on the other hand, guarantees that every player can gain an adequate number of resources each round. Rather than forcing you to agonize over where and how to place your workers, you get to choose how to distribute 10 or more worker meeples. Where you gather your resources is determined by a card draft. You might not get exactly what you want, but you will always get something. Any unused workers can even be utilized to gain you more money! Neither game allows you to easily stockpile resources, but Pillars sure takes away the pointless headache of resource collection found in CMC.

7. I am always a fan of abilities in games. These can be offered in any number of ways. In CMC, they are offered as the benefit of a certain type of building, as in games like San Juan. In Pillars, you gain abilities from your craftsmen (which can change during the game), through various character cards, and through the 13 stations on the board. In CMC, the abilities are utilitarian and somewhat limited, but work fine with the game's mechanics. In Pillars, you have so many useful options to choose from, and they present a wide variety of advantages. In terms of abilities, Pillars is much more intriguing and varied, often based on some aspect of the story.

As you can see, having played both CMC and Pillars of the Earth a few times, I prefer Pillars by a long shot. Pillars seems to do everything better. The two potential downsides of playing Pillars are that it will take a bit longer, and it is likely to feel heavier for new players. There are a lot of options and things to track in Pillars. But, once you have played 2 or 3 times, you should feel comfortable with the workings of the game.

I finally ordered a copy of Pillars for myself. With Mayfair's new restrictions on pricing, I was very hesitant to buy it. Also, I was wary of ordering since my wife hasn't yet played the game. As I thought about Pillars more and more, in relation to CMC, I realized how much I enjoyed the game. Because some sellers were still offering deals beyond Mayfair's 20% restriction, I faced a gamer's dilemma: if I didn't buy now, and decided to grab this great game later, I'd have to pay too high a price, which I wasn't willing to do. So, there it is. Pillars is on the way, and I'm looking forward to teaching my wife.

On the other hand, my wife and I both decided early on that we were ready to trade away CMC. There are too many more enjoyable games in our collection to waste time playing CMC as a 2-player game.

Now, certainly CMC will have many fans, and I must admit that I have only played the 2-player version of CMC. I imagine that the game would improve with every added player. This way you would have more options of abilities to use, but you would also be more threatened by the provost. I I do much of my gaming with my wife, so I prefer all of our games to work well in 2-player format. I might have a great time with 4-player CMC, but the likelihood of that happening is not high enough to hang onto the game. As much as some players love CMC, I just can't get into it. As a test, I'm playing in a 4-player game of CMC on Des Jeux Sur un Plateau. We'll see how that affects my perspective.

If you haven't played Pillars, and you're willing to learn a slightly heavier game, I must recommend you give it a try. If you buy it and don't like it after a few plays, just frame the game board and hang it on your wall!


Anonymous said...

Dude, what are you doing writing about games you don't own?!

TimothyP said...

I do own both games. At the time of writing, I had played Pillars enough to write about it, even though I didn't own it. Playing the game and owning the game are two different things.

Angry Troll said...

Good comparison. I also own CMC and have played Pillars. Most of my gaming is also with my wife, and I too will be trading CMC for the same reason! The game always ends with a feeling that not a whole lot was accomplished. I'm also a little concerned about the length of Pillars. One new concern is also the soon to be released Agricola. I'm wondering if it's worth it to own both.