I like games where I get to build cathedrals. Hamburgum was the first game I played that let me do it, and there have been plenty since, including another Essen ’22 game – Tiletum – which I featured in my recent Essen Spiel ’22 hot list preview. Basilica is new game which puts you in the role of cathedral builder extraordinaire. It’s a game where two of you battle to be the best builder, and when I say battle, I mean battle. Things are going to get feisty.
Pointing and painting
If you’ve been into board games for a while, there’s a chance you’ve heard of Basilica before. When it was originally released in 2010 it was warmly received, but failed to make a big splash. For this revised version Portal have given the game a little bit of a spruce up, but the core mechanisms are the same. Even the tile artwork remains unchanged.
The idea of the game is to help build a cathedral between the two of you, taking actions, placing builders, and trying to make the most of the colourful ceilings. You do it by placing a succession of square tiles into one of the five columns on offer, trying to create areas of contiguous colours. If you’ve got more builders in a coloured area than your opponent, you control it, and you get the points when scoring is triggered.
There are two rows of three tiles in the market area. If you take one from the top row you carry out the action on it e.g. place a builder, upgrade one, move a builder. If you take a coloured one from the bottom row you add it to the other tiles, making the cathedral bigger. Any time a coloured tile is taken, the action tile above it flips over, taking its place. If it sounds simple, it’s because it is. Turns are fast and fluid, and there’s nothing obfuscated or overly complicated. It’s perfect for a two-player-only game, where mind games are meant to take centre stage.
Let’s get the niggles out of the way first. First is the theme, which is as thin as a partition wall. There’s no feeling of constructing a cathedral at all. This is an abstract game at heart, and any number of themes could have been applied just as easily. Adding flowers to a garden, building a disco floor, or making stained glass windows would have worked just as well. It doesn’t really matter when you get down to brass tacks – it’s just an abstract game that didn’t want to be naked.
The other thing I find frustrating is a practical problem more than a setting or aesthetic one. The two rows of tiles sit in gaps on either side of a centre cardboard bar. The problem is that the gaps only just fit three tiles side-by-side, and when you either take one, flip one to the bottom row, or add a fresh one to the top row, it’s almost impossible to not mess the display up. The original version of Basilica had both rows sat on top of a board, which – although prone to tiles moving – is still preferable to having the whole display and the tiles moving.
Fortunately, those are the only negatives I have with Basilica, and the game itself more than makes up for those shortcomings.
The competition over control of areas in Basilica is great. It’s like someone played Carcassonne, loved the Farmer scoring mechanism from it, and decided to make a whole game from it. There are times when you’re sitting pretty, your builders commanding a sea of tiles, and it feels like you’ve got the game in the bag, only for the other player to bring your glorious vaulted ceilings crashing down around you.
There are actions which let you slide builders from one tile to an adjacent one, which can completely swing the board state. The Confuse action lets you take one of your builders back off the tiles, into your supply, while moving an opposing builder to another tile, whereas Disaster actions let you completely remove a tile. The way things swing back and forth is a lot of fun, and it never devolves into complete chaos.
There’s a really clever feature which gives each player a coin to begin with. Most of the actions available have an optional paid action that the inactive player can do, either benefitting from the same action or mitigating the ill effects of others. To take one of these paid actions, that player has to give the other person their coin, giving that person twice the spending power they had before. It’s a really clever idea, and I love the bitter taste of money not going to the supply, but instead to the last person in the world you want to have it.
The two-colour tiles are another little piece of genius that blow the whole game open. There are times when you’ll drop one on the table, linking two previously unconnected areas, and dominating them with builders who otherwise would have had no influence. Again, none of these situations is unforeseeable. Everything is right there, on the table, in plain sight, so when something goes wrong for you, you’ve no one to blame but yourself and your own magnificent ineptitude.
Basilica finds itself in a pigeonhole I happen to be a big fan of: tactical, rules-light, two-player games full of interaction. I’ve reviewed Targi and Watergate here before, and both have permanent places in my collection. Basilica is another example of how to make a two-player game well. The tile holder/board thing does annoy me, but it’s far from a show-stopper. I just don’t play with it at all now.
Elbowing one another out of the way, actions full of spite, and glorious gloating might not actually sound like a recipe for friendship. In fact, now that I write it, it really isn’t, is it? But between friends, or even better, partners, it’s great. There’s something therapeutic about having an hour put aside to engage in something so competitive with someone you know. Games where you can directly screw someone over, don’t make for good icebreakers with people you don’t know.
There’s a small expansion included which adds a new type of tile, and it offers enough variety to spice things up a bit, without making it any more complicated. Honestly, after playing the base game once or twice, I’d suggest adding the expansion every time you play. My wife isn’t the biggest gamer in the world, but even she was saying how much she was enjoying it during our first play, which makes it a winner in my book. Basilica is a great choice if two-player games are your thing, and you’re looking for something to add to the likes of 7 Wonders: Duel in your collection. I just hope it doesn’t get lost in the Essen noise.
Review copy kindly provided by Portal Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
Designer: Łukasz M. Pogoda
Publisher: Portal Games
Art: Juan Pablo Fuentes Ruiz
Playing time: 45 mins