Review: Burano



Leading the family business is not really difficult – that is as long as everyone knows their place.  That means the menfolk stick to manly work, while the womenfolk attend to more delicate tasks.  Both play important roles, just different, right?  As long as you efficiently manage this not-so-battle of the sexes, your extended brood can make quite the name for itself hauling in fish and sewing exquisite lace.  It’s all about traditional life on the island of Burano.  Not to be confused with nearby sister island Murano – they just blow glass.

How to Play

Players in Burano lead prominent local families directing their clan’s productive and domestic affairs.   While cooperatively building one of the more famously colorful communities in the world in the process, each patriarch/matriarch earns points by sending out men to do men’s work – like fishing – and women to do women’s work – like sewing.  It’s the rules, so remember, don’t shoot the reviewer.

The design employs a clever mix of mechanics driven by a singularly unique element – the cube pyramid!  A pyramid in Venice?  That’s okay, since it’s just a short skip and hop across the Med to Egypt!  A session lasts four seasons.  Spring and summer each comprise four turns, while fall and winter have three apiece.  During a turn, you conduct one to four moves, depending on how much you’re willing to pay.  Moves are powered by your cube pyramid which you’ll build on your personal player board with 14 colored cubes from an assortment collected to begin each season.  Thankfully, you’re mini-wonder doesn’t take as long to construct.  However, you still want to plan it carefully as it affects what you’re able to do during that season’s turns and when.

Instead of making lace, shouldn't the women make our fishing nets?
Instead of making lace, shouldn’t the women make our fishing nets?

Within a turn you may make up to four moves.  A move consists of performing one of three different actions and you are allowed to repeat any action.  The first move is free – indeed you collect one coin.  A second or third move will cost you three coins apiece, and if you’d like to take a fourth one it’ll set you back another four.  For one move you can remove a cube from your pyramid and place it in your prep area.  The cube must not have any other blocks on top of it or else the resulting collapse would make a mess.  And Burano is a pretty island.

The second option is to take a cube from your prep area and place it on the board to build a house.  Actually there are two boards which represent the town.  One smaller board has square slots in which to place cubes.  This one sits atop the main board.  The result is that individual houses stay put while the entire structure slides around a bit, which can be just as precarious as you’re also building up, not just spreading out.

The third move is to place a roof tile across two houses.  You only receive three tiles per season.  Utilizing them either requires great planning or another player conveniently, and generally unwittingly, setting it up for you.  That’s because there are a couple of strict building codes.  One, the two colors of your tile must match the two cubes you’re roofing.  Plus you can only go as much as two levels high.  When placing a roof tile you’ll typically earn some points based on which type of tile you laid and then you can either take privilege points or a building card, both of which give you particular benefits during play.

Another board! The bottom here lets you know which colors correspond to actions this season.
Another board! The bottom here lets you know which colors correspond to actions this season.

If you elect for the second option, building a house, you also take another action corresponding to the color of the cube you place.  There are six colors.  Every season, tokens matching each color are randomly assigned to one of three actions.  So there will be two hues associated each with fishing, lace-making and earning.  The earning action is very much what it sounds like – you’ll earn a number of coins based on your progress.

When fishing, you move your boat token to either an adjacent island or a port.  There are six islands ringing Burano and two ports at either end.  If you move to an island, you draw from 1-3 fish cards and leave a worker or two at the docks.  Worker tokens are double-sided – a man on one face, a woman on the reverse.  Behind every good man is a woman – and a surprised mother-in-law, right?  Tokens are placed on fishing isles male side up.  When in port, however, you simply trade in sets of fish cards for points.

The final chromatically induced action is lace-making.  Here you put the women to work.  The workshop titles are constructed Tetris-style during game set-up.  When you trigger this action, you will place up to three ladies in the shops.  You can gain a coin when claiming certain spots, but otherwise most benefits of lace-making accrue in later parts of play.

The real estate and fish markets?
Real estate and fish.

There are restrictions to both sailing around and working the shops.  However, it’s cumbersome to explain and would probably just confuse readers (I try to confuse readers a little more below).  You really have to play through a few turns to grok the system.  It involves a cleverly manipulative mechanism on your player board called a schedule ring which holds available workers, and a time wheel which indicates which islands you can fish and which shops you can work.  However, the bottom line with either is to achieve majorities on the islands and in the shops.  Establishing majorities earns points when laying certain roof tiles and during end of season scoring.

After four seasons, fourteen rounds and thus a maximum of fifty-six moves – though in reality likely quite less – players add up of all their points like good Euro gamers. The family chief with the most points wins.  You can celebrate by rubbing your accomplishments in your opponents’ faces.  Or use your newfound prestige to make a difference and change the world – like tell women they can do other things besides sew.

Reticulating splines!
Reticulating splines!

Behind Every Good Man, There’s A Good Woman?

Have you ever seen one of those puzzles full of gears?  It tells you which direction one will spin and you have to figure out which direction all the others will.  Burano reminds me of that.  Its individual gears aren’t necessarily complex.  A couple can be fiddly, but it’s not debilitating by any means, and overall its mechanics are largely familiar.  The problem is setting things in motion so that all the individual parts not only spin how you want them to, but when you want them to!

The genius of Burano is best captured through play.  It’s one of the more difficult games to actually explain that I’ve ever reviewed.  I haven’t adequately captured it all in the rules recap above.  A synopsis will suffice, though.  Once you absorb it all – which could take a couple plays – you can appreciate its clever mix of familiar and new mechanisms.  Just be prepared for a complex interrelation of moving parts.  And to undo the victories won by generations of women’s rights warriors.  But we are talking about the 17th century here, so…

Not the deadliest catch, that's for sure.
Not the deadliest catch, that’s for sure.

And really the rules complexity is short-lived for experienced gamers.  Once you’ve notched a game or two, its workings definitely become clearer.  However, it’s still not a wholly intuitive design because its mechanisms are completely divorced from its setting.  Repeated plays help, but new and casual gamers will be in for a rough experience.  One, it is a Euro game built around those mechanics in which the setting is largely irrelevant, even if nice to look at.  Two, it is a heavy Euro because of its two unique elements.

The cube pyramid is certainly clever and feels unique, even if an odd concept for a game set on a Northern Italian island famous for its doilies.  And with a loose theme about family production and household roles, it’s even more incongruous justifying the mechanism as a logical directive for action.  The closest similarity to this idea that I can think of is the pyramidal drafting in Valley of the Kings.  At least that’s an Egyptian setting.

That said, it is an intriguing device requiring forethought that will please and reward analytical minds.  You are aware beforehand of which colors correspond to fishing, lace-making and earning each season so that you can plan accordingly.  But building your pyramid isn’t as straight-forward as stacking colors in the order you wish to take certain actions.  That’s because you have those three roof tiles each season that may only top matching colored cubes.  Therefore your little structure must account for actions you’d like to take, plus roofs you’d like to score, plus a bit of leeway for any contingency plans.

The shops are hiring.
The shops are hiring.

Meanwhile the schedule ring and time wheel prove promising, but end up a bit unnecessarily convoluted.  Though they do actually resemble something more like gears.  Your ring is created randomly with four pie-shaped tiles.  Each slice has three colored points corresponding to the same hues in which the cubes are painted, along with either a coin or fountain symbol, for a total of twelve points.  You begin the game with nine workers covering nine coin/fountain icons around the ring – the other three begin revealed.  The time wheel sits inside this circle and also has twelve sectors, although the only relevant ones have red arrows which point to three empty points on your ring.

As you remove workers to fish or make lace, you’ll rotate the time wheel inside the ring so that the first arrow aims at the point just to the right of the first available worker.  If you ever replace a worker on your ring, which you can do to earn coins, you spin the wheel back however many clicks necessary.  Clicks in the figurative sense.  The wheel just lays there.  The significance of the ring and wheel are they stipulate earnings and where you can work.  Whenever you select the earnings move, you collect one coin per visible coin icon on your ring – so the more your family produces, the more you’ll collect, modeling your family’s labors.  Money is really tight in this game, especially early on.  So getting workers out into the docks and shops clears off your ring, uncovers coins and rakes in bigger paydays.  Also, when you lay a roof tile with the fountain symbol, you collect points for uncovered fountains.

Additionally, the three arrows on your time wheel will always point to three different colored points on your schedule ring.  These influence the fishing and lace-making actions.  In fishing, you can only move to an island that has at least one dock house matching one of your available blocks on your ring.  More bits to randomly seed the board and fiddle with and more gears to spin!  The more points from your ring that match an island’s dock houses, the more fish cards you draw.  If you match all three you get to drop off two workers.  For the sewing shops, you must place your three workers in the shop tiles matching the color of your current ring blocks – and they all must be adjacent.

As your wheel turns...
As your wheel turns…

After all of that manipulating and spinning, I’m left to conclude that the whole element is really cool – but also largely unnecessary.  It works and it’s even fun to fiddle with at first.  But the novelty wears after a game as you hope you remember to spin it back and forth when required and avoid knocking your workers around in the process.

As Burano spreads out and rises before you it’s wonderfully eye-catching and pretty – and serves an interesting function in the game.  There’s no real point to how the town develops.  When looking at the game and perhaps even cursorily reading about it, you’d think the building aspect would be the central idea.  I mean, a 3-D city rising before you!  Sweet!  And it looks as much.  However, in practice it’s merely a catalyst in that laying out cubes triggers actions.  There’s no end-goal amongst the structure itself or any pattern in laying them.  Instead it rewards you for placing in certain ways.  You can arrange houses to get one of your roof tiles on.  That likely scores points and garners privilege or a building card.  And if you place a cube on top of a roof tile of the same color, you can snag another privilege point.

The fish market may be a smelly place, but you can earn lots of points there!
The fish market may be a smelly place, but you can earn lots of points there!

Any good Euro provides ways to bend the rules or boost your efforts, here and there.  Burano provides that with its privilege points and building cards.  You can spend privilege during your turn in several ways, as often as you like and can afford.  You can expend one to swap dock houses on adjacent islands hoping to match more colors from your ring.  You can spend a point to place a worker in the lace shops without meeting the adjacency requirement.  You can spend one to grab a certain colored cube from your reserve and place it atop your pyramid.  Or you can simply exchange one for a coin.

All of those are extremely helpful, which makes choosing between privilege points or a building card sometimes agonizing.  But not always.  The buildings are random and situational.  Some really aid in laying roofs, others enhance fishing, while still more go a long way in boosting lace production.  If one appears that lines up conveniently with your current progress or planned strategy, it can be tempting.  On the other hand, those privilege points are hard to pass up since they’re so versatile.  More gears spinning in your mind.

The double-sided worker tokens are also curious.  Yes, the men fished and the women sewed.  I get it.  Historically it makes sense.  Yet it’s the only element that really weds game play to its setting/theme – so it sort of sticks out.  I just think it’s funny bothering with the distinction.  And it’s not as if there is a fixed amount in either gender, which could force some strategic re-thinking if you could only do some much fishing or so much lace-making before running out of men and/or women.  Generic bits would take nothing away.

The rest of the components are just as generic.  The top-laying city board stands out.  The slots functionally keep houses from sliding around, but the whole structure can easily get jarred, defeating the purpose.  The cubes are solid, big and colorfully painted, but just cubes and tend to drive up the price.  The components are standard Euro fare – nothing to complain about or impress.

Sweatin' in the sweat shops...
Sweatin’ in the sweat shops…

Burano is neither friendly to casual gamers nor reformers of traditional gender roles.  It is, however, a distinctive feeling and uniquely looking design.  The three dimensional build up is satisfying to construct and visually appealing.  Even though its more complex elements seem misplaced and unnecessary, the pyramid activation, schedule ring and time wheel are certainly inventive components.  They inarguably inject some fresh pop to its mix of standard action point allowance, set collection and area majority.  It’s definitely a heavy Euro.  It requires careful planning, rewards optimization, restricts your resources to create tension and involves zero spiteful interaction.  And the European city title and Renaissance era man gracing its box immediately clue you in that setting and theme will be irrelevant.  Aimed at hardcore hobbyists, Burano succeeds as both a compelling and novel design – even though it may appear the same as any other at first sight.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank QSF Games for providing a review copy of Burano.

Two stories out three

  • Rating 7.0
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 10
    Your Rating:


Couple clever new elements
Fresh approach with mix of familiar mechanisms
Strategically tight
Good brain burner, but not time consumer
Really eye-catching


Hard to explain, really requires a play-through to grok
Can often set up opponents for optimal move
Slotted board good in theory, but not in practice
Schedule ring and time wheel unnecessary convoluted
Setting doesn't inform game play
A bit pricey

7.0 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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