Rio Grande Games/Ystari Games, 2005, 2-5 players, ages 12 and up. In Caylus, the goal of the game is to simply earn more "influence points" than the rest of the players. It sounds simple, but actually trying to describe this game is a bit of a challenge. The "theme" of the game is that each player is trying to help the king build a castle. Buildiing the bits and pieces of said castle earns players influence points, but that is by no means the only way to earn influence with the king. The players also have to collectively build up all of the infrastructure that allows for the building of said castle.
The game is played out along "the road". The first 6 spaces along the road are permanant and never change. The second 6 spaces are part of the initial set-up, but are subject to change during the course of the game. As players add new buildings and resources to the game, they are placed along the road (in the first unoccupied space closest to the start of the road). Individual spaces along the road generally have radically different uses/purposes from the rest. One might earn a player some money, one might influence turn order, one might generate some sort of raw material, one might be a professional that offers some sort of service (an architect allows you to build wooden buildings, a mason allows you to build stone buildings, markets allow you to buy or sell resources, etc, etc). The game has a number of different types of raw materials, each becoming desireable depending on what you want to build.
There are two time-keeper pieces that move forward along the road, counting down to the end of the game. The position of the "provost" determines which spaces on the road can be used and which cannot (spaces further down the road than the provost has moved are not yet active). To make matters more interesting, players are afforded the opportunity of moving the provost forwards (or backwards) on the road, depending on what they've got up their sleeve. The other piece, the baliff, determines "scoring" rounds and the ultimate end of the game. Players cannot influence the baliff's inexorible forward march.
Game play goes something like this- at the beginning of each turn, players earn a small amount of money. This money is then used to place workers either on spaces along the road or on the nascent castle. Workers are placed in round robin fashion, with each worker "reserving" a given space and it's effect for later on in the turn. Next, players can pay to move the provost (and change what spaces will be active later this turn). After the provost's final position has been determined, players activate road spaces in order (starting with the first one) and reap the benefits thereon. Then, players who have opted to build onto the castle do that (hopefully having amassed the requisite raw materials). Finally, any scoring (as determined by the baliff's position along the road) takes place. Then it's back to the top of the stack (earn money, etc).
Adding a further wrinkle to the proceedings, players can earn "favors" from the king. These are doled out based on how well you've gone about contributing to the construction of the castle. Favors can, in turn, be translated into money, influence, raw materials or other desireable benefits.
OK, so that was a fairly lame stab at describing an indescribably elegant game. Very much reminescent of Puerto Rico (also from Rio Grande Games), Caylus is a well-oiled machine - endless options, all subtly interconnected. There are no dice in this game, nor any other random elements (other than the plots and plans of one's fellow players). Every decision, from the first to the last, has an incremental impact on the eventual outcome - an outcome which always seems to be in doubt right up until the very last turn.
Apart from passive-aggression (IE, moving the provost or blocking a particularly desireable space on the road), there is no direct player interaction in this game. So, put the brass knuckles away, it's not a war game.
The pieces are top-notch, and the rules are beautifully written - easy to buzz through upon the first reading, and easy to reference on subsequent playings. We never had a question that was not explicitly answered in the rules. And I'm telling you, that might just be a first when it comes to our group. Once the basic play is grasped by everyone, games go relatively quickly. A 3 or 4 player game shouldn't take longer than a two hours. In summary, Caylus is a sublime game of infinite intrigue - and one to which I give my highest rating.
OK, OK, I do have one complaint. The text on the "road" tiles is impossible to read. It's tri-lingual, printed in a barely legible gothic font, and broken up by the artwork. We wound up using a Sharpie to re-scribe each tile with it's title. My friends assure me that this flaw was purposely built into the game, staving off whatever anger the gaming gods might have had over its otherwise perfectousity.