I think we can agree that St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow is one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in the world. Built between 1555 and 1561 under the orders of the first Tsar of Russia the building is undoubtedly iconic. It also happens to be the setting for the game The Red Cathedral. Which happens to be the subject of this Board Game Review… some might say this is coincidence, me, I call it an introduction!
There is a suggested set up for your first play in the rulebook. Thereafter, unfold the market game board and randomly distribute cards in each corner and tokens in the relevant quadrants. Roll and place the dice on the board too. Then, depending on player count, build a ‘cathedral’ of cards and randomly place the relevant tokens on each section.
Give each player a board matching their colour and their tokens. These have their own place on the individual player boards. Finally, distribute Rubles based on turn order as per the rulebook. You are then ready to play The Red Cathedral!
On their turn, player’s will carry out one of three basic actions. The most common will be to gather resources by using the dice on the market board rondel. This is quite a fun mechanic. You move a die around the track according to the pip value displayed on it, where it stops, you get to take the resource in that zone. The resource is doubled or tripled if there are one or two other dice in the zone where you stop. You can also take the action of the card in that quadrant. You then reroll all dice in that section to give new pip values for the next player.
The second basic action is to claim a section of the cathedral to work on. In doing so you can choose to pay for the token on the card to upgrade your dice. Thereafter whenever you roll that specific colour die you will get an ongoing bonus. You are limited by the number of resources you can hold, but players can unlock more space by reserving cards in this way as flags are removed from your personal player board to claim the card.
Finally you can deliver goods or adornments to the cathedral. Placing up to three materials on any cards you’ve claimed, or decorating a card that has already been built with a fancy door, window or cupola.
As soon as a player completes their sixth card on the cathedral the game ends. During the game, points are recorded on the score track. There is the usual incremental points, but also Russian Imperial Eagle symbols that can be used to jump your score a little more throughout the game.
Scores are determined by dominance on each column of cards in a typical area control way. Taller and more completed towers offer the most points to those who help build it. Contribution is worked out by seeing who has the most cards and decorations in a tower. The player who contributes most, takes the full points. Points are halved thereafter for second, halved again for third and again for fourth. You will also get some points for left over material.
There is a solo mode included in the box. I haven’t tried it and honesty, I’m not sure I will! If I do though, my opinion will be inserted here. It’s nice that it’s got one though!
What it’s like
After playing The Red Cathedral quite a few times, I found myself counting to six in my sleep! Working out where each dice will land and what reward they will reap sees you counting pip after pip. However, this isn’t laborious, the rondel is a heck of a lot of fun to traverse and optimise. You can also advance some dice to help you out along the way too.
The area majority element on the towers is a delicately poised dilemma. At first you think it is all about the dice bonus a card offers. Then you realise it is also about what materials it requires to build too. This is all held in equilibrium by evaluating how many points might be on offer and indeed if dominance can be achieved.
I like the brain churning tug-o’-war of this decision-making process a lot. Especially as the landscape of the game changes with other players placement and ornamentation. Analysis of resources around the table can often help and is certainly encouraged.
The duel score tracker is a great concept and rushes your early game decisions in a really neat way as the rewards of the eagle track are much better in the early stages of the game when they are hardest to achieve.
There are all sorts of different setups too and so repetition shouldn’t be a factor. The Contractors Expansion has had a fantastic reception, but I haven’t added it in yet as I am still enjoying the base game plenty.
Players will have to prepare for a little analysis paralysis as other player’s turns will change your own turn often. Add to that, surprisingly crunchy decisions and there can be a little bit of downtime between turns. For that reason I like this one more at two or three players.
The age on the box is ten plus and I was a little surprised by this, I wouldn’t play this with someone younger than twelve.
There is no insert inside the little box of The Red Cathedral and you don’t need one as the components densely compact under the lid.
I really like the artwork throughout. It reminds me of the Russian folk tale illustrations by Ivan Bilibin from the golden age of book illustration. Chema Román and Pedro Soto have done a great job of setting the tone of the game.
The resource tokens are a little basic but serve their purpose. The gems however, dazzle in their sparkling beauty! The dice use a good colour palette and they feel a bit crisper on the edges than some other dice.
The player boards are fantastic, they may not be the most beautiful, but they serve as a player aid as well as a resource holder. I like that a lot as it makes it easy to teach and also helps if there has been a gap between plays.
I must confess I was lucky enough to be taught The Red Cathedral by Gareth (aka BoardGameMeeple on Instagram) so I never needed to rely too heavily on the rulebook. That said, a little time passed between the teach and this copy arriving, so I used it as a refresher and it all flowed nicely.
Other than the gems and the rondel artwork, there isn’t anything particularly deluxe about the contents. Equally though, the contents of the box are really good, sturdy and nice quality.
Final thoughts on The Red Cathedral
Don’t let the little box and MSRP deceive you. There is a heck of a lot of strategic gameplay packed inside The Red Cathedral. Decisions so meaty, vegetarians may not be able to play! (Not literally, it is probably even vegan friendly). I really admire how much game fits inside this box.
While what you can do on your turn is often intuitive, you will be thinking and rethinking every move as games are often close. There is a really good arc when playing the game from a slow and steady build up to a fast sprint to the finish. I enjoy how players race to complete as much as they can, as they approach the final stages of the game. It adds tensions and ramps the game up nicely.
What the kid thought
Harrison (14): I really like how the board works: using the dice and getting the materials and the card ability as you move around. Working out what and when to decorate the cards adds to the strategy. Overall, I think The Red Cathedral is really good.
Number of players: 1 to 4
Board Game Review Recommended Age: 12+
Publisher’s Recommended Age: 10+
Playing Time: 80 minutes
Setting Up and Take Down Time: 5 minutes
Designers: Isra C and Shel S
The Red Cathedral is a game that is heavier and crunchier than the small box suggests. The rondel mechanic and variable set-up will allow for plenty of plays. If you like area majority board games, then The Red Cathedral is an is easy one to recommend.
Artwork and Components
Value for Money
- Rondel mechanic
- Area control
- Lots of game in a small box
- Oodles of strategy
- Expansion available
- Thinking time slows down game
- The rondel may feel repetitive for some
- Age of 10+ is a bit low
Need more games?
If you already own The Red Cathedral and enjoy it, or are looking for other inspiration, you might also like these similar games:
- Viscounts of the West Kingdom
- The Wolves
- The King is Dead
- Power Plants
Buy The Red Cathedral
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