Some board game designers have their moment in the sun, but fade away when the Big New Something appears over the horizon. Not Bruno Cathala. This French maestro has a board game résumé so big, you could stack all his games up and they’d stand taller than you!
Does the name ring any bells? It might tinkle some kind of memory, the recollection of glimpsing a box lid in passing. Someone could have recommended you one of his games. Or have you read about his titles on other Zatu blogs? Chances are, if you like family-weight board games, you’ve played one designed by Bruno Cathala. Some might sit on your own shelf, or you might covet others that are part of his repertoire.
So, join me in an ode to monsieur Cathala, as we take a browse through some of his greatest hits. Welcome, board game fans, to The Cathala Show…
A Two-Player Triumph: 7 Wonders Duel
Repos Production must have known they’d struck gold when Cathala signed on for 7 Wonders Duel. It’s ranked as the 16th best game of all time! (On Board Game Geek, at the time of writing: September 2020.)
BGG is where the gaming aficionados flock, so games don’t climb the ranks there by accident. It’s ranked that high because it’s a phenomenal two-player game. In fact, ‘7WD’ is head and shoulders above its bestselling forefather, 7 Wonders.
In Duel, as in the original 7 Wonders, you’re still aiming to ‘build’ wonders of civilisation – albeit in a different manner. You’ll still construct and upgrade buildings (and up to four wonders). Again, players need to accrue resources in the first place to afford other cards. You’ll invest in science and partake in warfare here and there. There’s similar-but-different engine building and set collection. There’s no direct card pass-and-draft mechanism as seen in 7 Wonders, though. Here, there’s something different.
Over three ‘ages’ cards get fanned out like a pyramid, with access only to those with none on top of them. You’ll draft cards from here, instead. As you and your opponent claim cards, you’ll start to reveal more underneath them. Some are visible from the start, others are face-down. The latter only flip once the two beneath them get taken. Will you draft to lure your opponent into revealing the real card you desire?
This isn’t a mere case of out-scoring your rival, though. There’s two other ways to win, which could cause a premature ending (no giggling at the back). Collecting military strength moves the conflict pawn back and forth. If it ever reaches your opponent’s capital city, you win. Or, if ever you collect six (out of seven) different science cards, you take the victory. 7 Wonders Duel is a triumph of a two-player game!
The Marvellous Mancala: Five Tribes
In Five Tribes, Bruno Cathala invites you to the broken Sultanate of Naqala. Here you’ll move and influence the five tribes that cover the land. If all else fails, you can always try to invoke the powerful djinns to grant you wishes…
A modular 6x5 grid of tiles represents the kingdom. Three coloured meeples start on each tile (so 90 in total!). Five different colours, five different tribes. You’ll bid for turn order, and then move these tribesmeeeple in a mancala style. This means you’ll pick up all meeples from one tile and then move to one adjacent, dropping a meeple off one by one. Wherever you end up, you remove all meeples of one colour ‘tribe’ from this tile and activate that tribe’s power. Then you trigger the tile’s action too. You can combo this to epic proportions!
Each tribe offers different rewards. Builders earn you money; Merchants help you obtain rare goods, set-collection-style. Elders help summon djinns – powerful genies who help you bend the rules in your favour. Viziers provide big end-game point-scoring promises – if you own the majority. But keep an eye on the red tribe… They’re assassins, and they kill other meeples!
If you empty a tile territory of meeples, you claim that section of the Naqala, which is worth points. When there are no legal mancala moves left, or if someone claims their final territory tile, it’s time to add up. Most points wins!
Wrapped up in a 1001 Nights theme, Five Tribes is a superb offering from Days of Wonder. Known for their outstanding family-weight games, DoW provide top quality artwork and components. Five Tribes ticks these boxes, but sits at the advanced end of being ‘family-weight’. It’s a definite step up in complexity from, say, Ticket To Ride.
Want to read more about Five Tribes? Check out my detailed review here!
Pleasure-Cruisin’ Pirates: Jamaica
One glance at Bruno Cathala’s Jamaica, and you’d assume it’s a full-on race around the island. But in this pirate game, the ship that crosses the finish line first isn’t guaranteed a win…
Jamaica features hand management and supports up to six players. You’ll control a galleon with a hold that can store a limited number of goods. Players take turns being the ‘captain’ (first player), where they roll two regular D6 dice. They decide which die to play in the ‘morning’ and which in the ‘evening’. Then everyone else follows suit.
Among your hand of three cards sit a variety of icons. These correspond to morning and evening actions. The dice chosen by the captain determine the quantity of these actions. These are either: sail forward (x spaces), sail backwards (x spaces), take x gold, take x gunpowder, or take x food. Everyone picks one of their cards to play (then draws back up to hand size).
If you want to sail to an ocean space, you have to pay the designated food or gold fee. Some cost more than others! Certain spaces offer hidden ‘treasure’ to the first galleon to dock there. Treasure comes in a blind card draw. It could be secret victory points, unique abilities, or ‘cursed’ – minus points. Also, if you land on the same spot of ocean as another player, you fight using your gunpowder. The victor plunders the loser (or palms them cursed treasure)!
The game end triggers once someone completes a lap. Add up how much gold you have, plus any treasure values (including minus points for cursed gold). You’ll also earn points depending on how far around the island you sailed. Herein lies the genius of Cathala. Sometimes you want to delay the race ending, if you’re not the current, richest pirate…
Greek Gods And Monsters: Cyclades
Sticking with the nautical theme – albeit on a different continent and set thousands of years earlier – let’s talk Cyclades. This is one of Bruno Cathala’s more conflict-heavy games. (For a title that’s seeped in Greek mythology, Cyclades might have fallen flat had it not involved any combat!) In this game, you try to control – and construct buildings on – a Greek archipelago. Cyclades often gets tied into an unofficial trilogy of fantastic Matagot games, along with Kemet and Inis.
Area majority/influence plays its part here. Cyclades comes with army units and ship miniatures. If you control islands at the start of the round, this contributes towards your income. You’ll spend this in auctions, where you’ll try to outbid each other to gain favour from the gods!
Depending on which Greek god you bid highest on, you’ll earn a different reward. If you want to buy/move your ships or build a port, Poseidon’s your man. If soldiers and fortresses are more your thing, give Ares a call. Feeling frugal? Zeus offers priests temples and discounts off future auctions. Athena, meanwhile, grants a philosopher card and a university.
You win Cyclades by building two metropolises on two islands large enough to house them. How do you do this? Trade in one of each building type (or four philosophers), and you can convert them into a metropolis. This means you’ll need to suck up to all four gods if you want to get ahead!
The question is: are you going to do all the hard work yourself? Or conquer someone else’s island and claim it for your own? Any game set in Ancient Greece has to feature the infamous mythological creatures. Sure enough, you can use the likes of the cyclops or the kraken to your advantage! Bruno Cathala designed an expansion too – Cyclades: Hades – to enhance the experience even further. In that, you get to bid on Hades himself and summon undead armies!
A Rattle Through The Rest
Bruno Cathala has designed too many games for me to list them all in this blog! Some titles – like Shadows Over Camelot, or Yamataï – are rather hard to find due to being out of print. Both are by Days of Wonder, much like Five Tribes. Lucky for you, Zatu Games stock and sell a whole bunch of Cathala’s other games! Here’s a whizz through some other Bruno brilliance…
Raptor is a two-player hand-management action points game. One player controls a Mama velociraptor. The other plays as a team of scientists trying to capture baby raptors.
Game of Thrones: Hand of the King is a set-collection game based on George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. Manipulate the movement of Varys ‘The Spider’ to collect family members from the famous houses.
Scarabya is a ‘multiplayer-solitaire’ tile-placement puzzle about archaeologists. Players each have their own board and place duplicate tiles. The aim is to enclose golden scarabs. A bit of forward planning goes a long way in that spacial challenge!
Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon is about converting a barren desert into (surprise, surprise) the Lost Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Award-Winning Awesomeness: Kingdomino
Still not impressed? Time for me to roll up my sleeves. How about a Spiel des Jahres winner? Bruno Cathala was behind the winner of the ‘Family Game of the Year’ award in 2017 with Kingdomino.
This gong is one of the most coveted among all board games designers and publishers alike.
Imagine a game where you build a kingdom out of domino-like tiles. A kingdom-ino! The concept is devilishly simple. You start with a central square castle. You take turns drafting one 2x1 tile (like a domino) from a public flop. Instead of numbers, the tiles have different terrains on them. And, unlike the numbers in Dominoes, not all terrains are created equal. Some are rarer than others.
Players' kingdoms comprise of a 5x5 ‘square’ grid of these tiles. In an ideal scenario, you’ll place tiles adjacent to same-terrain types. Building up humongous, contiguous sectors becomes the goal. Why? You score terrains by their size, multiplied by the number of crown symbols in each terrain.
Many regard Kingdomino as one of the best 10-15 minute, ‘filler’ games of its kind. You’ll end up playing two or three games of it back-to-back, I guarantee it! In fact, click here if you want to read my guide for How To Play… Kingdomino.
Such was the phenomenal success of Kingdomino, it spawned superb sequels. Queendomino takes the core the original and flexes its muscles a little, making it a ‘bigger’ game. Kingdomino Duel is a two-player version of the game with a roll-and-write mechanism. Bruno Cathala has covered every possible angle with his majestic masterpiece!
Fancy learning more about award-winning games? Click here to read my History of the Spiel des Jahres series. It covers winners going back to 1979, featuring over 40 games!