Must be pretty good, right? It is! It is a classic Eurogame, involving collecting hex-shaped tiles from a common pool, placing them on one’s private board (although it’s visible to all other players), and collecting victory points (VPs). Standard formula, but with enough nuance to remain interesting over many (many) playthroughs.
It surprised me to find limited literature on the web covering strategy/tips for playing CoB, given its popularity, so I figured I’d put together something based on my experiences. These are based on about 200 games at the time of writing but are still subject to revision! If you’re not fairly consistently scoring 200+ against average-to-competitive players yet, this post might help you get there!
Notes: I am going to assume throughout that you already know how to play CoB! If you don’t, start with a tutorial for the game instead. Also, much of what I have to say here is based on 2-player games, which are the most competitive and “cutthroat.” I’ll try to highlight some differences as I go between 2 and 3+ player strategies. Lastly, there are all kinds of guides out there covering the nuances of playing on certain boards (of which there are 10), so I won’t review those here. I’ve tried to order these tips in rough order of importance, but no guarantees! And that doesn’t mean the tips towards the end aren’t really important…
Tip #0. Time is of the essence. The most important concept first: The design of CoB is such that many things are worth more (in several senses) the sooner they are gotten/completed. We should interpret all other tips I give considering this! Region completion is worth more in earlier phases versus later phases. Being first to complete a color gets you a large bonus tile; completing it last gets you nothing (or, in 2-player, not nothing but less). Playing ships before someone else means you get goods (and an immediate turn-order boost) they don’t get. Selling goods means coins to spend on tiles. Putting down Yellow tiles early means you can take advantage of their quirks more often (or plan around their endgame benefits better). Even taking workers means having more options afterwards.
So, whatever else I say, remember–when advice conflicts (as it often will and must), ask yourself, “Well, what will enable me to do something I already want to do sooner?” In particular, ask yourself what will allow you to 1) grab more castles, mines, and premium yellow tiles (an extremely high priority, especially in 2-player games), 2) finish more (small) regions than my opponents, and 3) expand most from my starting location more quickly/earlier.
Tip #1. You are completing regions, right?? Completing regions is absolutely something all top players focus on! If you aren’t constantly thinking about which regions you will close and by when, you’re probably falling behind–I mean that. It is not uncommon for the winning player to net over 60% of their total points from region completion alone. Also, keep in mind that, because of the limited number of actions you can take in an entire game, you will probably end the game with about 8 empty spaces on your board. Try to ensure that these are in whole-region clumps.
Also, since this is something everyone should try to do, one of the best ways you can “foil” your opponents (if you’re that kind of person, and you will NEED to be in 2-player games!) is by taking the tiles your opponent(s) need(s) to finish key regions, especially right before the ends of phases (or the end of the game). It might not hurt to glance around the board(s) every turn to see 1) Who’s close to completing a region but still needs 1/2 more tiles they don’t already have and 2) Who rolled what? Can I deny them what they want (and still be able to use it myself)?
One other consideration: The step-down between Phases in region completion bonuses isn’t that huge. By all means, try to complete regions before the ends of Phases, but don’t do so at the expense of a lot of resources you won’t make back quickly or at the expense of expanding into new regions of the board often enough (or just emptying your pile to make room for new tiles!). Don’t sweat those 2 points irrationally. Think about region completion both at the immediate and whole-game levels.
Tip #2: Placing tiles > Taking tiles. It took me a while to appreciate this one, even though it sounds obvious when you spell it out–a tile taken but not placed is worth 0 points (beyond denying it to your opponent!). The next tip will add some nuance to this one, but, in general, if you have the option to place a tile or take a tile, placing a tile (especially if it completes a region or moves you that much closer to doing so) is *probably* the better play.
Placed tiles = banked points. That’s reason number 1. However, there are three other good reasons that placing is better than taking. Reason #2: When you take tiles, you are committing yourself (maybe) to using additional, later turns to also place them. You are creating additional “work” for yourself. This could be good, but it’s not guaranteed to be! By contrast, placed tiles are “work completed.” Reason #3: Taking tiles fills up your “tile pile” and, eventually, prevents itself as an action. Placing also prevents itself as an action (the two actions complement each other), but it has no negative effect on buying (and can have a positive effect on it) whereas taking tiles prevents buying them at some point (unless you are fine with discarding tiles). Reason #4: Placing often comes with immediate benefits. These include coins, workers, and extra actions, but an enormous benefit in the early game is simply more places to place future tiles. Taking tiles gives you no immediate benefits, by contrast.
Tip #3. Take, place, empty. There is a consistent ebb and flow to a typical phase in CoB, all else being equal. Most players come into each phase with an empty (or nearly empty) tile pile and spend their first turn or two mostly taking tiles. Then, they switch to a mix of taking and placing in turns 2-4, trying to maintain a large variety of options overall. Then, they move to mostly placing tiles in turns 4-5 to get ready to do it all over again in the next phase.
This means that they have plenty of room to take highly competitive tiles (without discarding tiles) early in phases, and they can deny key tiles to other players. By emptying the common tile pool, they may also force their opponents into less optimal plays. It also helps balance options for one’s dice actions–early in a phase, taking tiles is almost always good with any number, and, late in a phase, if you’ve taken well, placing tiles is almost always good with most numbers (and can be supplemented with buying tiles, workers, and selling goods). Besides, completing regions is worth the same number of points whether it’s done in turn 1 or turn 5 of a Phase, so you needn’t rush the process (unless you are racing someone to a bonus tile or ships or something). Also, regarding ships in particular, this allows depots to fill up with goods in the first couple of turns so that you can take more goods at once when you place your ship tiles.
One thing in particular talented players seem to avoid is ending a phase with 2+ tiles unplaced in their piles (or at least not 3)–holding this many tiles going into a new Phase means forfeited region completion bonuses AND limited room to buy competitive tiles at the beginning of the next phase. So, plan to empty out your pile as much as you can towards the end of a phase. Remember, you get no points for tiles you haven’t placed! Heck, even discarding a meh tile on turn 1 to make room for a new one could be viable if you find yourself in this predicament! But you shouldn’t find yourself there…
Tip #4. Taking workers is a mediocre action, BUT… In CoB, one action you can take with each die is “Take Workers,” which grants you two workers (a resource that allows you to fudge a die number by +/- 1). Consistently, the winning player takes relatively few of this action from what I’ve seen. The mediocrity of this action boils down to a few reasons. First, if you were to look at this action as a purely VP-earning action, it’s terrible–2 workers is worth 1 VP. If you were to hypothetically earn just 1 VP per die action throughout the game, you would score 50 points and get obliterated!
Obviously, though, workers are not principally about VPs. They are instead a resource used to accomplish other tasks, but that brings me to my second reason: Good players tend to be able to use their dice numbers just fine without using (many) workers to do it. CoB is absolutely a game wherein you can “make your own luck” to a degree. If you are developing your game state well, you should generally be able to do something worthwhile with most numbers that roll (doubles notwithstanding!), making workers less necessary (though not unhelpful!).
So, it is valuable to keep track of what depots in the common pool still have valuable tiles you could draw if you roll those numbers and to try to ensure that these numbers balance with those on spots where you’d like to place tiles and goods you have available to sell. That way, you are less likely to end up taking workers because you have no other valuable actions.
Reason number 3: Good players find other ways to earn the workers. Some yellow tiles will grant you extra workers for other actions. Many players often underrate those tiles; they are worth considering when they appear in early phases. Boarding houses are another really valuable tile since they produce 4 workers when placed, which is quite a lot (keep in mind that 3 would turn any die into a “wild” and that the normal “take workers” action only produces 2)! Couple these strategies with being “worker-thrifty,” and you should rarely need to take workers.
However, I put a “BUT…” in my “rule” here for a good reason. While Taking Workers is a mediocre action (I stand by that statement!), it isn’t a BAD action IF 1) it is taken in place of taking a different mediocre action (e.g., grabbing a tile from a depot you don’t really want) and/or 2) it is going to enable you to do things faster you really want to do from that point forward (including that turn!). In particular, it is really valuable to have a few workers in hand on the last turn of a Phase–this will let you clear your stockpile of tiles and complete more regions. It is also really valuable to have a few workers going into Turn 1 of a new phase, when it can facilitate grabbing premium tiles (i.e. castles, mines, and yellows) before opponents do. In short: Taking workers > Doing any other mediocre things. [In fact, one of the most valuable actions on the last turn of the game could be taking workers–it’s a guaranteed 1 point each time!]
Without question, workers are a valuable resource–you just don’t want to get stuck taking workers with a die action just to make ends meet or because you have literally nothing else worth doing. You only get 50 dice actions a game; make them each count! What this means in practice is trying to give yourself many viable options and taking (or earning) workers proactively (before you need them) rather than reactively.
(2-player notes: One difference between 2 and 3+ player games seems to be on the point of workers. It’s relatively easy to “stick” your opponent with no other worthy options but taking workers in 2 player games–this should absolutely be a goal so long as you don’t have to go too far out of your way to do it. Plus, it’s even more valuable to use workers in 2-player games to outflank your opponent in re: taking tiles, and it can be somewhat harder to earn workers in other ways because the tiles that enable this may come up less often. So, the take workers action seems to get used noticeably more often in 2 player games (but still as few times as possible).
Tip #5: Either avoid competition or be in it to win it. At most moments in CoB, there are two paths you can take. On the one hand, you can aim to collect tile types others are not interested in. On the other, you can aim to collect tile types many players are interested in and, by doing so, deny those tiles to your opponents. Because the latter is high-risk/high-reward, because it can depend on luck (i.e., rolling the right numbers to get those tiles first), and because it heavily depends on turn order, you should not view this as the “default strategy.” You should also not be reluctant to fall back to the former strategy even if you start out employing the latter! Keep in mind that if your opponents are all going for something, that means they are also not going for something else. You might be able to go for that thing and make a pretty penny! In fact, it’s not unusual for me to see the player who’s “doing their own thing” do well and even win, especially in 3+ player games.
(2-player game notes: This is another key difference–it is much harder to successfully “stay away from” your opponent in a 2-player game and still win. There are very limited tile options, it’s easier to keep track of what your opponent is doing, and it’s much easier to deny an opponent a choice play. Turn order is also especially important in 2-player games for this reason, so fall behind on ships at your peril!)
In particular, if 2+ opponents are going “boat-heavy” and you’re struggling to keep up, then don’t! Trying and failing to keep up on boats (or really anything else) means you’re still going last each turn AND not making up ground somewhere else. Besides, going hard into boats only to draw a handful of goods (because too many boats are being placed too quickly) is a lousy deal. If others are going boat-heavy and boxing you out, this usually means they are leaving behind animals, buildings, and/or knowledge tiles in particular. Turning your attentions there could net you enough points to stay competitive. Ideally, if you let them, your opponents who are all focused on one or two of the same things will eventually eliminate each other from contention by boxing each other out of completing key regions or shared colors!
All of this said…
Tip #6: Ships cannot be “ignored.” Compared with any other color in the game, ship tiles beg to not be ignored entirely. Blue is one of the most consistently-completed colors in the game, so these bonus tile points are almost always up for grabs. Besides their region and bonus-tile effects, though, they also control 1. turn order and 2. Goods acquisition (which can indirectly control buying). Thus, it’s critical to note that boats play three (four?) central roles in CoB compared to the 2 roles or even 1 role played by other tile types. I have seen three strategies employed regarding ships, and it seems to behoove you to carefully chose and then commit to one of them.
First: Go hard into ships early. This is hard on some boards, so it may not even be viable for you. The idea here is to finish blues way ahead of anyone else, netting you the region and bonus tile points ahead of your opponents and maybe denying them to your opponents entirely (and maybe blocking expansion routes at the same time!). It also means spending most of the game well out in first in terms of turn order, which helps you speed up this strategy and then move on to the next one. The downside to this strategy, though, is notable–you will draw fewer goods (because they aren’t accumulating fast enough and because you may not be able to sell goods as often as you’d like). So, you are forfeiting some points in that way, and you should play accordingly. For example, taking Warehouses (to get free selling actions) can balance this strategy well. You *may* also end up going last late in the game if your opponents keep up with you, but in my experience, this is actually rare–if you are going hard on boats, at least one opponent will probably take option 2 below (and, in 2-player games, so few boats are available that it’s usually not possible for this to happen).
Second: Largely ignore ships (until late). I choose this option sometimes on certain boards as well as when I am going last to start and can tell others are going to go ship-heavy (and at least one person almost certainly will!). As I noted earlier, it can be viable to focus on what others are not focusing on, and nowhere is this truer than with ships. Keep in mind that, later, when others are no longer focusing on ships, you can grab a few and, perhaps, scoop up a bunch of goods they left behind! That’s not a bad way to live. However, keep in mind that you may have access to fewer coins than usual going this route because you can’t just sell goods to get them, so getting coins some other way (silver mines, in particular) becomes much more valuable.
Third: Stay competitive in ships. This is what I’d call the “default approach”–everyone is taking a few ships regularly and placing them sneakily to play leapfrog with turn order or grab a full depot of goods. In particular, it’s common to see players take a boat or two in turns 1-3 of a phase and then just sit on them until turns 4-5 in a gambit to go first at the start of the next phase. When you can pull off these maneuvers, that’s when this strategy is at its best. You can also keep your dice number options well-stocked by taking particular goods at strategic moments with this strategy.
It’s a middle of the road strategy, though–one that is best when you can balance it with other priorities and when others are not doing “heavy” strategies. It also requires keeping a constant lookout for what your opponents are up to–do they have a boat in hand they could play right after mine?? Is someone maybe going to take the goods I want to take? So, if you choose this route, you will absolutely want to keep tabs on who is taking how many boats and when!
The tips above are, I think, the most important ones–the remaining ones are less urgent, but you may still find them interesting!
Tip #7: Having coins at the end of the game is great! Coins are a resource in CoB that are worth 1 VP each at the end of the game and that you can spend 2 of to buy a tile from the “black market” in the center of the board once per turn. The best players can be surprisingly stingy with their coins. In my first couple of games, I was “buying-crazy.” Any time I had 2 coins to spend, I did. I thought: “Buying is a free, third action! Free actions are good!! I’m taking stuff away from my opponents! Blocking my opponents is good!!” But my first logical mistake was thinking that buying is a free action–No, buying costs you 2 VPs. [Actually, it’s 2 VPs plus a “hidden” die action, since you must still use a die action to place the tile you buy!] So, unless you can be confident that the tile you are buying is going to net you at least 4 VPs (2 for the coins you spent + 2ish for the die action you have committed to using), it’s a bad choice.
For example, buying a castle that gives you a free action when placed + finishes a region for 11 points? Splendid deal! Buying a bank to place in a brown region you’ll never finish? At best, you broke even there (and you accepted the opportunity cost of missing out on a potentially higher-return play).
There’s a second problem with my buying-hungry logic–“I’m taking something away from my opponent.” Well, yes and no. Remember that you need to spend 2 coins (plus a hidden action) to get and use a bought tile. Since coins (and actions) are scarce, you are only taking something away from your opponent IF you know your opponent has the coins and actions to spend on said thing AND the desire to do so. Besides, even if, in theory, your opponent has both the means and desire to buy a tile DOESN’T mean taking that tile just because of that is the right play! Sometimes, forcing your opponent to buy things they want is a good deal for you–it means they could miss out on plays with a better cost-benefit ratio!
One of the absolute biggest shifts I’ve made in my play since my first couple of games is that I am now a much more thoughtful buyer. I sometimes will go whole phases, 2+ coins in hand, buying nothing. I also have frequently seen winning players end with 10+ coins in hand! Keep in mind that while anyone can take a tile from the 6 depots with just a die, you have to spend 2 coins to take from the black central market–thus, preferentially taking tiles from the depots means forcing your opponents to spend coins just to get anything. That’s a good deal for you, so long as there is anything worth taking in any depot you can spend a die on!
That said, there’s no question that being able to buy tiles at the right moments is absolutely crucial and powerful–that actually makes being frugal more, not less, important! You will want to have the coins in hand for when those tiles arise, especially at the beginnings of phases when new tiles become available. It also means that yellow tiles that expand your ways to earn coins are worth considering when they appear in early phases! It also means early silver mines are precious–this is why they are very often the first tiles to disappear in a new phase (it doesn’t hurt that usually silver regions are small too!).
One other note here–there is a yellow tile in the newer version of the game that allows you to spend workers instead of coins to buy tiles. Even when I get this yellow, I do not buy tiles a lot more often. Remember that even though workers are only worth 1/2 a VP each (half of what a coin is worth), they are still essential and limited resources used to navigate otherwise tricky turns–you will want them for other purposes much of the time.
Tip #8: Free actions are great! But… This tip hails from the Kingdom of Duh. Several buildings (e.g., Churches) as well as Castles grant you “Advantage,” meaning you can take some kind of free action (one that doesn’t require a die of a specific number and that is besides your two die actions) after you place them. In a game in which actions (aka die rolls) are limited (you get just 50 die actions a game), free, additional actions are SUPER good! Winning players are consistently among those that take the most free actions. However, the keywords in that previous sentence were “among those.” Top players usually get their fair share of free actions, but I rarely see them blow their competition out of the water on them.
Why? A free action in CoB is only valuable if it is used to positive effect. Remember that you have to spend a die (or, worse, 2 coins) to collect a tile and then another die to place the tile that grants you the free action. This description should make it obvious that no free action is really “free” at all. You’ve already sunk 2 dice actions by the time you even get the advantage! That means that whatever you intend to do with that advantage better net you a good return on your investment by being something you already wanted to do.
Here’s where we will get math-y for a second. If we consider that winning players consistently score 200+ points, you should have the goal of netting ~4 points per die spent. That means between the tile you bought and placed that granted you the advantage and then the advantage itself, you’re hoping to net 8+ points. This is easy to do–one Castle taken and then placed will often net more than that by itself (part of why Castles are highly valuable tiles!). However, a church taken and then placed in an unfinished region + a yellow tile collected that doesn’t grant VPs? Hmm–harder to see how you’re getting 8+ points out of that play! So, when free actions are “on your way,” they are absolutely worth pursuing–when they are “out of your way,” they very well might not be. Outstanding players can tell that difference.
Tip #9: Selling goods is a strong action. In my first couple games, I viewed selling goods as a meh action, one on a par with taking workers. My view on this has transformed. While I often still rank taking and placing tiles ahead of selling, selling is a strong 3rd. Selling goods is a strong action, and a MUCH stronger action than taking workers, because it’s a multi-part action. First, it gets you a nice VP return–this is good in the long run even though it doesn’t net you any tangible benefits immediately. You get 2/3/4 VPs per good sold depending on player count–much better than the 1 you get for unsold goods at the end of the game. Second, and this is subtle but important–it frees up space for you to collect more goods. Boats are a KEY part of CoB strategy, and they become even more valuable the more goods you are able to collect as you place them.
(2-player game notes: Here is another potential difference. Notice that you only get 50% more for sold versus unsold goods in a 2-player game. Selling is a little undervalued in 2-player games, and I worry less about selling in 2-player games unless I need coins or we’re late in the current phase).
Third, you earn one coin when you sell (regardless of how many goods you sold). Coins are also VPs, so you can think of this as, at worst, netting you 1 additional VP per sell action. Any yellow tile that might enhance your selling power is worth considering in early phases for this reason! So, while selling goods may not give you a lot of any one benefit, it gives you three smaller benefits rolled into one–that’s pretty good!
Tip #10: Consider starting turn order before placing your starting castle. This is a narrowly defined tip. The first action you must take in the game is choosing which of 4 starting locations you will place your first castle on. There’re all kinds of nuances to this decision, and I will summarize a few of the finer points below, but one thing you absolutely want to do is see who is going first. I can’t stress this enough. If you are starting out last, expect to have many Castles/mines/choice yellows (and/or boats) ripped out from under you before you even get to draw your first tile! As such, I will select entirely different starting locations on the same board if I am going first vs. last.
The other starting castle placement considerations you will want to make (not a comprehensive list!):
–Starting near small regions is fantastic–you can prioritize finishing these early for mad points!
–Starting surrounded by coveted tile colors (green, silver, and yellow–sometimes blue) can be meh–you may fail to collect enough of these to expand outward quickly, which can really cost you. Savvy opponents might even shaft you on purpose! CoB is a game of acceleration–slowing someone’s start can be a really effective tactic.
–Starting near at least some water can be crucial to stay competitive on boats.
–Starting in places where you have two options to place certain colors (e.g., 2 open spots of different numbers for blue, yellow, or brown–sometimes even silver) can be nice. Bonus points if this is a color you suspect you will be able to easily acquire tiles of early on! Options for rapid early expansion are never a bad thing! So, relatedly, being surrounded by a diversity of colors can also be good, since it is often easy to collect a diversity of tiles in early turns (but don’t forget to finish regions you start!).
-You may also consider which directions are open to expansion–how far away are my other mines/castles, etc.? Is a color I start close to also really far away from me (this would make it hard to finish that color)? Also, expanding through “straight line” regions is harder than through “blobby” regions because you will need more particular dice numbers, and some boards have starting locations near a LOT of linear regions…
Tip #11: Those hard-to-value things... There are a few things worth VPs in this game that can be harder to value objectively. In particular, these are: 1) Bonus tiles (for completing colors), 2) VPs from yellow tiles, and 3) animals. What I can say about all three things is that they all have their places but that they are inferior to focus on compared to completing regions. The one exception here is Yellow VP tiles–getting a few of these can easily mean the difference between winning and losing (and this seems especially true in 2-player games). However, depending on turn order, your board, your starting place on said board, luck of the draw on what Yellow tiles come out early, etc., yellows can be a situational way to earn points. Of the three, they are the most reliable way, but not one I ever come into a game counting on.
As for bonus tiles, it is my humble opinion that the game undervalues them (they aren’t worth as many points as I think they should be [and this is even worse in 2-player games]). I guess the game calls them “bonuses” after all, and that’s how you should think of them. Completing colors is often (though not always) something you would have to do instead of finishing more regions overall. When you can do both at once, great! But if you are going to either finish regions or finish colors, finishing regions is generally the better return. For one thing, opponents can’t as easily block you from finishing regions! Also, this is especially true early in the game as well as when the available bonus tile is a small tile (i.e., someone has already finished that color first). To get math-y again, consider also that you will often have to fill at least 1 3+-sized region to complete a color. That’s 6 actions (plus maybe resources) for, if you’re lucky, a 6-point bonus. That’s a 1 VP per action return–meh!
Lastly, animals–it is my humble opinion that animals are the least valuable tile type in the game. Consider taking and placing a 2-pig tile. Two actions, 2 VPs in return. That, again, is that trash-tier minimum of 1 VP/action (it’s on par with taking 2 workers, except it takes 2 actions instead of 1! Oof!). Ok, yes, you can stack up multiples of the same animal in the same farm. Yes, you can complete farm regions and get bonus tiles by doing so. Yes, some yellow tiles enhance the value of farms a bit. All these things are true! And yet, I am factoring all of them into my calculation when I say, despite and considering these truths, animals are still the least valuable tile type. They are nice, quick points late in the game when there’s not much else, and they are a reasonable focus on certain boards if you are trying to stay away from what others are focused on, but there’s a reason that, in most games, animal tiles are the least taken and most available tiles, sticking around to the ends of phases disproportionately. Simply put, you can (almost) always get animals because most players don’t want them. That should make you suspicious.
(2-player game notes: Ok, this is an important difference! In 2-player games, the depots only have 2 goods each, and, in several depots, this will include 1 animal tile guaranteed. In such a cutthroat setting and when tiles (and expansion) are at such a premium, animal tiles shine a *little* more. I have gotten spanked by shirking animal tiles too much… Still, see my two points below, which nonetheless apply).
Consider two additional factors: 1) Animal tiles do absolutely nothing for you when placed other than earn you VPs. Mines, castles, many buildings, ships, even some yellows–ALL these do something for you right away, even if it isn’t producing VPs (remember, VPs are critical resources but they AREN’T spendable resources!). 2) By luck of the draw, you are NOT guaranteed to get offered many animals of the same type, nor are you guaranteed to be offered them on numbers you actually roll, nor are you guaranteed to be offered the 4-animal vs. 2-animal tiles, etc.! Considering that animals clearly become better the more heavily you lean into them, I DON’T like it that doing so is so often punished by plain bad luck.
In fact, while I think CoB is a cleverly balanced game, I would argue that if there were any one thing I were allowed to change about the game, it would be the imbalance of animals. I suspect it could be easily adjusted–either reduce the ratio of 2-animal tiles (which really reduce the average return on investment), increase the ratio of 4-animal tiles, and/or remove one of the four animal types from the game. Any of these actions (especially the last one) would improve animals a lot! I doubt this would make them OP either; high immediate VP returns but no other immediate advantages (aka what animals would then represent) is an archetype strategy that exists in many similar games…
There you have it! Those are my thoughts so far on this fun little game! I hope they are helpful to you. Did I miss something? Do you question one of my points? Let me know in the comments, and happy playing!