The original Caylus is important to the progression of the board gaming hobby for a variety reasons. First, it was one of the original worker placement games and it helped define and popularize the genre. Second, it’s also a poster child for the “boring medieval guy on the cover” trope so common among European strategy board games. Space Cowboys has worked with designer William Attia to greatly streamline the gameplay of Caylus, so much so that the game has a slightly different title. They also decided gender equity was important and now the cover has both a boring medieval guy and a boring medieval gal. But is the game any good? Let’s find out!
While the cover doesn’t inspire all that much confidence, this version of Caylus is clearly a graphical improvement over the general. The wooden bits are nice, the colors are vibrant, and the iconography is clear. Somehow the buildings still look classic enough that someone unfamiliar with the game, but knowledgeable of board gamers, might think it an older title, but somehow I mean that in a positive way.
Now, unfortunately I have never played the original Caylus, so I can’t make much of a comparison. But I’ve read both rulebooks, and I can appreciate the efforts to streamline the game. However, I struggle to find what makes either version of Caylus exciting. When I’m playing a board game, whether a card game, big American war game, or a point-grabbing Euro game, I look for those “big moments” that make everyone go around the table and say “wow, impressive!”. Caylus can have those, but not often, and the most common one is screwing someone over with the Provost. Let’s talk about him.
While it seems unfair to knock a founder of the genre for feeling unoriginal, in 2019 Caylus doesn’t have much pizzazz or uniqueness to separate it from the overwhelming number of worker placement games out there. Its unique hook is the Provost, who moves around the board and completely cancels any action ahead of him on the board. Players lose their workers and get nothing in return. There are places on the board, as well as sort of a bidding war early on each round, that let players move the Provost around, but the goal is ultimately to avoid getting your stuff ruined, and to completely ruin your opponents’ plans. I have two problems with this.
The first problem is that now that the worker placement genre has grown, it kind of feels out of place to have such a mean mechanism. The genre is defined by its indirect interaction – you mostly mess people up by taking the spot they wanted, but then they just go and do something else that they wanted less. With the Provost, you can absolute ruin the entire game for another player who is balancing their resources on a razor’s edge (which, typically, is a strategic way to play a game in this style). I feel like the genre has drifted far away from what Caylus 1303 brings to the table in this regard, and it feels out of place in 2020. The other issue is that I’m by no means opposed to “mean” direct interaction, but I think I’ve come to appreciate far more in a two-player game, rather than a multiplayer game where destroying someone simply leaves the other players at the table ahead of both of you. It’s the same out-of-place “bad feels” as Mandatory Quests in Lords of Waterdeep or Takeovers in Race for the Galaxy: Rebel vs. Imperium, but you can easily just remove those elements from those games. Here, the whole game is centered around it.
Without the appeal of that mechanism, Caylus 1303 doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from the wonderful, newer worker placement games like Everdell, Lords of Waterdeep or Viticulture. I can’t help but notice the three that came to mind use unique cards to inspire those big moments, while Caylus mostly uses meanness. There are special powers that move among players, which are a nice touch, but even those can be stolen at extremely inopportune moments to ruin a player’s day. You may notice that I haven’t really talked about resource management, or the buildings, or anything but the Provost and powers – that’s because, by 2020 standards, it’s all very basic and generic. In 2005, they may have been innovative breakthroughs, but not now.
It’s entirely possible that a player who enjoyed the original Caylus will find this new edition actually less mean, or more streamlined and interesting, but without that nostalgia, Caylus 1303 simply does not measure up to the amazing games we’ve gotten in the 15 (!) years since it was first designed.
Thank you to Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Caylus 1303.
The Bottom Line
Caylus 1303 is a nice refinement of one of the most important games of the 2000s, but it's just not interesting enough for the board game scene of 2019.