Expectations can be insidious. A little over a year ago, a game called The Red Cathedral came to my attention. Its concept and presentation piqued my interest, so I kept an eye on it. Since then, a great many reviews of the game have been released and they have been consistently positive. Some reviewers were enthusiastic, others merely happily surprised. Consensus seemed to be that this game was actually pretty good.
Now The Red Cathedral has also found its way to me and the positive criticism coupled with my initial curiosity, led to a certain level of anticipation when I finally sat down to play.
The Red Cathedral is a tinkerer’s game. Unlike games that you tend to win through eye-squinting mental gymnastics, bold decision-making, or relentless bullheadedness, here you have to plan meticulously, weigh your options carefully and continually find new combinations to get to your goal. Above all, The Red Cathedral is defined by its attention to detail. Something I consider well communicated through its graphic design. Lines are drawn clearly and precisely. You will find intricate details even on the back of cards, that you only ever see face-up in the game. The care with which you are expected to play, is evident in the game itself. If you play things by ear or trust on your good fortune to see you through, you will always lose out to the well thought-out plans of your resident project coordinator.
The game’s basic structure seems quite simple. Each turn you choose from one of three available actions. You can either claim a building project for yourself (i.e. the individual floors of the eponymous cathedral), collect building materials, or place collected materials on any of your unfinished projects. However, each of those actions incurs follow-up decisions to be completed. So despite appearing clear and simple at first, your decision-making process quickly grows and becomes fragmented. To make matters worse, those follow-up decisions bring long-term effects with them, too. After all, if the consequences of our decisions were to fizzle out after a short time, The Red Cathedral wouldn’t have left much of an impression with veteran gamers.
The game’s biggest challenge doesn’t lie with simply building the cathedral better than others. Instead it’s about thoroughly analyzing the options available to you before making a decision. The biggest challenge of The Red Cathedral lies in not falling prey to analysis paralysis, while also not blundering into a bad move. Because the game’s attention to detail is also evident in its scoring mechanisms. When it gets to end game scoring, seemingly insignificant “ornamentations” that were placed previously, may determine who gets the full amount of victory points, instead of only half or even a quarter of that. There are many ways in which an action can benefit you now or later in the game.
The game’s clever design reveals itself in the casual way that constraints, restrictions and incentives are woven into every round. Once you claim a building section, you may improve your material collection action in turn. The dice on the board, as well as bonus actions on individual areas of it, lend themselves to beneficial synergies, you want to take advantage of. If you complete one of your building sections quickly enough, it might lead to other players losing victory points.
There’s hardly a decision in the game, that is self-contained. Throughout the design, there are subtle benefits and incentives to encourage a deeper engagement with the game. You’re drawn into the intricate interplay of consequences for each action. For all of this to work, the various effects and bonus abilities must be carefully limited. If there is a flaw to The Red Cathedral, it is this. While the label of expert game can forgive all manner of imperfections, The Red Cathedral asks quite a bit of memorization and careful rules study before you can start to really delve into the game itself.
Not only do you have to carefully plan your moves, playing the game requires a very firm grasp of all the individual steps and processes in the game. While a minor rules mistake won’t necessarily mess up the experience, it does diminish the sense of achievement you’re playing towards. Because as you pick up on the care and attention that went into the game, you find yourself become more ambitious to play the game exactly right.
It seems that this above average density of the rules did not escape the designers’ attention. Your individual game board comes with a language-independent overview, the hieroglyphics of which you first need to internalize before you can use them with any confidence. It’s a noticeable hurdle you have to take, if you want to enjoy the game as it is meant to be played; but it’s not immediately obvious if the effort is worth it.
Setup and gameplay, for example, leads you through a number of steps you have to go through, before you can get to the actual game. But that is The Red Cathedral in a nutshell. It assumes an appreciation and enjoyment of details, subtleties but also precise execution of steps and sequences. Players who look to board games to exhibit their high degree of attention and careful decision-making will find The Red Cathedral the perfect vehicle for this. I’ve often found myself reminded of eurogames from my early gaming days, when I too loved to scrutinize the intricacies of a game’s design.
Nowadays, though, I prefer games that create interesting situations out of light and elegant rules. I don’t want to fault the game or its designers, though. Games aren’t tailored to satisfy individual preferences, after all. Still, The Red Cathedral has an aura of coming to us from another time. For that reason alone, it should be worth a try.
Whether this confidently out of fashion design will convince groups may have a lot to do with expectations. I expected to be surprised by The Red Cathedral, and I wasn’t. At most the box size being no bigger than it needs to be to signal the kind of experience that awaits you, is an unexpected pleasure.
Some veteran gamers may have commended The Red Cathedral for having a box that wasn’t filled with air. Other games that demand a similar amount of attention and brainpower usually need twice as much space on your shelf, and three times as long on your table. If you’re the type of gamer who can arrange their gaming collection alphabetically, autobiographically or chromatically, this might put a delighted smile on your face. To everyone else, The Red Cathedral is what it looks like: a carefully arranged, quietly dignified gaming experience that never runs the risk of getting out of hand.