Designer Spotlight: Bruno Cathala

Like Antoine Bauza, Bruno Cathala frequently collaborates with other (typically French) designers such as Serge Laget and Ludovic Maublanc.  He has a host of well-known games to his name, but due to his many collaborations, I often struggle to remember which games are actually his!  Let’s take a look.

Bruno CathalaName: Bruno Cathala

Age: 54

Nationality: French

Year of first published game: 2002

Highest ranked game on BGG: 7 Wonders Duel

Known for:

Selected Awards:

  • 2006 Spiel des Jahres “Fantasy Game” (Shadows Over Camelot)
  • 2014 Tric Trac d’Or (Five Tribes)
  • 2014 Golden Geek Best Strategy Board Game (Five Tribes)
  • 2015 Tric Trac d’Or (7 Wonders Duel)
  • 2015 Golden Geek Best Card Game (7 Wonders Duel)
  • 2017 Spiel des Jahres (Kingdomino)

Bruno Cathala has designed such a wide range of games, from big-box games like Conan to two-player card games like 7 Wonders: Duel, that identifying a style of design in difficult.  His collaborations also make it hard to work out which contributions are his.

His most notable solo-designed games are Five Tribes and Kingdomino, both of which won prestigious awards, so he’s clearly not riding on the coattails of others!  He seems to focus on light- to medium-weight strategy games, often hitting the family-weight perfectly.

He also seems to like interesting mechanisms.  Many of his games feature interesting twists on existing mechanisms, if not outright original ones.

Shadows Over CamelotShadows Over Camelot

Players: 3 – 7

Time: 60 – 90 mins

Shadows Over Camelot was one of the first co-operative games and possibly the first to introduce a traitor mechanic.  It was certainly the game that made the traitor mechanic famous.  Even today it is held in high regard – it has aged remarkably well.

The mechanisms in Shadows Over Camelot are simple and familiar, as you are essentially trying to build Poker hands with cards.  There is a bit of a thematic disconnect for me – the Poker hands don’t make any sense in the context of the theme – but the means by which you achieve the various goals isn’t really the point.

The key idea is that everyone is working together (by playing cards) to accomplish the required Arthurian quests and minimise the effect of the ‘evil actions’ that each player is forced to perform on their turn.  However, one player is a traitor and is secretly working against the other players.

This was a revolutionary idea at the time.  The traitor may say they don’t have the cards needed for a particular quest when they actually do, or may outright choose the worst ‘evil action’ later on in the game if they think they can end it, but it generally pays for them to remain secret for as long as they can.

If you’ve played any hidden traitor games, you will know if you’re going to like this one.  I’m not a huge fan myself as it always feels like something of a let-down when the traitor wins (even when you’re the traitor), but if you like hidden traitor games, this is as good as any of them.

Its two big advantages are in the simplicity of gameplay and the length: it is one of the shorter games of its genre.  Many hidden traitor games can go on for hours.


Players: 2 – 6

Time: 30 – 60 mins

Jamaica is a fantastic family-weight race around the Caribbean in pirate ships.  Each player is attempting to gain as much gold as they can.  Players gain gold according to their position at the end of the race: the further behind the winner you are when they cross the finish line, the less gold you get.

But you also get gold by taking detours to search for treasure, or by outright stealing it from an opponent.  This can slow you down though, so there’s a tension between grabbing the treasure and making progress in the race.

Actions are taken through innovative card play.  Each card has two actions on it: a ‘day’ action and a ‘night’ action.  The actions will have different strengths each turn, as determined by rolling dice.

Part of the skill in the game consists of maximising the positive actions in the good times and minimising the negative actions when the dice don’t go your way.  However, another key component is trying to work out what your opponents will do.

I love that aspect of the game.  Any game that makes me care about what other people are doing with their actions is immediately onto a winner.

Jamaica is short, has an engaging theme, plays up to six players and has enough strategy to be interesting without being over complex.  A classic family game.

Five TribesFive Tribes

Players: 2 – 4

Time: 40 – 80 mins

Five Tribes is a Euro, through and through.  And a brain-burner of a Euro at that.  The game begins with lots of different coloured meeples all over a grid of actions.  Each turn you pick up all the meeples from one tile and drop them off, Mancala-style, on other tiles nearby.

If you’re not familiar with Mancala, the mechanism involves you picking a route (via orthogonally adjacent tiles) and dropping off one meeple on each tile of the route until you run out of meeples.  The last tile you drop a meeple on is where you take actions.

You always take two actions: one action relates to the colour of the last meeple you dropped; the other action is displayed on the tile where you dropped the last meeple.

There is a wide variety of actions, from gaining meeples that score you points, to obtaining special ability cards (Djinns), to acquiring sets of resources that can be handed in for points.  It’s a point-salad: there are lots of ways to score points.

There is a nice Arabian theme pasted over the top, but it’s a very abstract game at heart.  The difficulty comes from all the possible moves that can be made on your turn.  The game is very prone to AP (Analysis Paralysis).

I like it, but I find it exhausting to play.  Each turn has you rapidly trying as many permutations of dropping off meeples as you can to find the best option for you at the time.  Some people love it though.  If you like abstract games with an exponentially increasing set of possible moves (like Chess), then you’re going to like Five Tribes.

It’s from Days of Wonder so the production quality is great and the special ability cards really add some flavour for me – otherwise I think I would find it a bit dry.  Overall though, it’s a very solid game.

I find it really difficult to nail Bruno Cathala down.  If you consider Shadows Over Camelot, Jamaica and Five Tribes, they’re just so different from each other.  And yet, they’re all streamlined, feature simple rule sets and provide you with interesting decisions to make.

He really is an excellent designer.  I’m not always sold on his games: they can be a bit light for me sometimes, but I can’t deny how well-designed they are.  Whether I like them or not, Bruno Cathala really knows his stuff.

Which Bruno Cathala game is your favourite?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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