Dice on Fire Review: Cathedral

I figured I'd be a little different and review something you don't normally see at the kind of boardgame clubs that I frequent. Cathedral is an oldie but a goodie. A simple classic for two players. Each game takes around 5 to 10 minutes.

This is the portable, magnetic set of Cathedral. You get a load of brown tiles, a load of white tiles, a cathedral tile and a nice wooden case to keep them all in.

The Basics

So the gameplay of Cathedral is very straightforward. Two players simply take it in turns to place a tile from their collection of the board and try to gain territorial control. This gives the game a similar feel to Blockus or even Tetris. The board is a ten by ten grid and if you manage to pen an area with pieces of your own colour, your win that area. The game ends when no player can take any more moves and the player with the lowest number of remaining pieces is the winner. That's more or less it. 

The pieces are abstract representations of town buildings. I've heard stories of components becoming unglued and breaking in this edition, but I've had no trouble.

The Deeper Stuff

This game isn't incredibly strategic and often takes on more of a puzzle quality, with each player trying to figure out the optimal way to fit their oddly shaped pieces on the grid. Players need to predict how their opponent may move and figure out ways of penning in sections. Misguided aggression is often punished -- if your opponent manages to pen in an area which contains one of your pieces, your piece is returned to your hand and will need to be placed elsewhere, which becomes increasingly difficult. If you manage to land two pieces in an area before it is penned in, then that area remains open to both players. It's a very simple mechanic and only takes a few turns to get used to.

The cathedral piece is placed randomly at the beginning of the game and provides some unpredictable variety. Subsequently there shouldn't be an optimal opening move to be used across games. (I've heard that this game is solved, meaning there is an optimal solution that will lead to the first player always winning, but it looks to me that the solution relies on placing the cathedral after the first player makes their first move, which is wrong.)

Towards the endgame, the board gets very busy. That empty area in the rear has been penned in by the brown player so that white can no longer place there.

How it Plays Out

I've had a bunch of mixed responses to this game. A couple of my friends found it incredibly boring -- not enough conflict and too much puzzling over such a simple mechanic. One friend of mine in particular though, absolutely loved the game. He's not a regular boardgamer, but he knows hundreds of strange and obscure games played with a standard deck of cards -- one of those guys! Over the course of one weekend, we must have played twenty or thirty games of Cathedral, and it was this experience that led me to find my own  simple love for the game. We found particular glee, when winning, pointing to where we are placing our gardens and parks and gloating that our citizens have the most fulfilling lives. "Look, this is where my Lords and Ladies get to ride their horses -- this great big stretch of park land that belongs to me! What do you have, oh, those cramped slums in the corner? Sucker!"

The game is easy to follow and to understand who is in the lead -- they have fewer of the large pieces. In fact, both players can often understand who the winner is four or five turns before the game concludes, simply by counting remaining pieces and available squares for placement.

Both players are fighting for control of the right corner. It's the brown player's turn and they will win the section when they play a piece. White will have their piece returned to them once the white piece on the right is penned in. The bottom corner has been penned in by white and is under that player's control. The white player can use that corner to place its excess pieces in their later turns.

Component Quality

Cathedral has been published a bunch of times by different publishers, but the travel edition I have seems to be quite common. The pieces are visually appealing and sturdy. I've heard stories of the pieces becoming unglued, but it hasn't happened to me yet, and I live in a humid climate, where you would expect such things to happen. The travel board is actually pretty sophisticated -- a wooden box which clips together in two halves -- but the finish gets scratched up easily.


So the rules are simple and the strategy, though not particularly deep, is enough to remain engaging for brief plays. The kind of game for a couple on a Sunday morning over coffee. It's particularly nice for non-gamers and I'll keep it in my collection. I wanted to give a copy to my friend but it's incredibly difficult to get hold of back home in the UK, or here in Singapore. In fact, I'm incredibly embarrassed to admit how much I paid for it in a Singaporean toy store, so I wont! It's worth no more than any other filler game, unless you're a fan and want a fancy collectors edition or something similar.

Colour Blind Info

Pieces are brown and white. I've no idea what colour of the cathedral piece is, but it's distinctive, so I have no trouble with this game at all.