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Cathedral: a Strategy Game Building a Walled City

by: Rebecca Scudder ; edited by: Ronda Bowen ; updated: 5/25/2012 • Leave a comment

Cathedral is one of the most family-friendly strategy games around, but many families have never heard of it. Placing buildings inside a city wall around the cathedral sounds easy, but you will need to out plan your opponent at the same time.

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    Cathedral is a three-dimensional board game, and a family favorite. Wood blocks are stylized as the shapes of buildings in a medieval city, and you try to be the successful city planner. Younger players may treat it as a puzzle, while the more you play, the more strategy you will use. Game play takes place within a walled city with a cathedral inside.

    The game is pleasant to look at, even when not in use. You may end up putting it on a coffee table or a display shelf rather than packing it away when no one is playing it.

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    Concept

    Cathedral is a strategy game - with some similarities to Tanagrams, chess, and the game of Go. Players take turns placing light and dark shapes on the board after one puts the cathedral piece on the board. The board is a 10 x 10 grid, and the cathedral is a piece in the shape of a cross, taking up six places on the grid. Game pieces are block-shaped buildings that are placed on the grid-like puzzle pieces.

    Players take turns putting down their buildings after one places the cathedral somewhere on the board. Using the buildings, they attempt to surround their opponents' pieces, and remove them from the board, claiming the space for their own. The game ends when one player has placed all of his or her 14 pieces on the board.

    It sounds simple, and the concept is. But the strategy of placing buildings and claiming the territory can be involved and complex.

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    History of the Cathedral Game

    According to the official game site, Bob Moore was inspired to create the game through his observations of Christchurch cathedral in Dublin, while he was a pilot in the New Zealand Airforce. When he looked down at the cathedral, a building he used as a landmark, he noticed how the buildings surrounding the cathedral fit together with the cathedral and each other, like puzzle pieces.

    Several years and prototypes later, Moore created a game using block buildings on a grid within a city wall. Along the way there was a version that used shapes, not blocks, very much as if Tanagrams were placed on a grid. Game players who tried both versions overwhelmingly preferred the three-dimensional version.

    The game was first released in the early 80s, and it has stayed popular since its release. It has been named in the top 100 games a couple of times.

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    Family Friendliness

    Cathedral is a very family friendly game; more so than a number of other strategy games. Children of four or five are used to play activities where they fit pieces into the appropriate shaped slot.

    Many children seemed to have a natural bent toward puzzles, and the strategy of fitting the buildings onto the grid and making the spaces into their own puzzle - or thwarting you from placing your pieces - delighted my children.

    Explain that the buildings need to be fitted on to the grid - and watch your child build a city. As soon as they understand taking turns, they can start actively playing with you, and will quickly grasp the objective of claiming territory with the buildings.

    While children are often interested in chess pieces, they usually take a while to grasp how all the pieces move and how to start playing. Cathedral offers pieces that are interesting shapes, but the way the pieces move is consistent, making it much quicker for them to start actually using strategy to place their pieces. Most children have played with blocks, and many have played with Legos, so interlocking pieces is not a new concept.

    The game can be played as a strategy game as early as your child grasps the concept, and the 10 x 10 grid is close to 10 inches on a side, making even the single block tavern a fairly large piece to swallow. Children can surprise you, however, so keep a close eye on any child playing with the game if they habitually put things into their mouths.

    As a rule of thumb, the game is suitable and enjoyable for ages 5 to 99.

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    Ease of Play

    Cathedral is remarkably easy to learn to play, although the strategy of placing pieces can be almost Go like. A game can be played in 10 to 20 minutes, and a tournament in an hour or so.

    Once the cathedral is placed, players take turns putting down 11 different shapes of buildings, made from one to five blocks. The shapes of a couple of pieces are mirror images in the different colors.

    The player who did not place the cathedral starts, and they take turns. Land in the city is claimed by completely enclosing it, either completely with your pieces or using the wall or corner as a side. You can also take your opponent's pieces or the cathedral by surrounding the piece completely - no extra spaces inside the surround. You then can remove the player's piece. Removed pieces, except for the cathedral, can be put back into play if there is a space suitable on your turn. If there is more than one building in an enclosure, the pieces are not removed.

    You cannot enclose space or a piece with a corner to corner wall - you must have a sold boundary. You win if you set all of your pieces onto the board before the other player does. If neither player is able to place all their pieces, the player with the fewest total blocks left - the smallest footprint - wins.

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    Editions of Cathedral

    The game was first released with pieces made from light and dark wood. It had a wooden board with a grid, surrounded by city walls with turrets on each corner. A similar version is available today, both in some game stores and online.

    During the eighties, Mattel made a plastic edition with more detailed molded buildings. That version is occasionally available on sites like eBay.

    There is a polystone version currently available which also has intricate details molded into each building.

    A deluxe edition comes in a wood box, with the playing grid engraved on top and pieces stored inside the box. A similar but smaller version is available as a travel game, with a magnetized board and buildings.

    Any version is fun to play, and they all look nice when set up on the grid on a table or shelf.

    I first played it in the late 80’s in the Mattel plastic version. Since then, I have collected a wooden set on a board, a wooden set in a wood box, and a small travel version, also in a wood box, with magnetized board and pieces. I really enjoy the game.

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    Quality of Cathedral Build

    Cathedral is available with different materials and packaging, and some of the less expensive sets have blocks that may come unglued. Because they are wood, it is easy to fix, but can be frustrating if it happens during a game. The travel set has magnets on the bottoms of the blocks, and those too can come unglued. The pieces themselves, however, are as sturdy as any wooden block is.

    The polystone version has pieces that can break if dropped or treated roughly, so it is probably not the ideal set to use with younger children.

    Some Amazon reviewers complained that sets made in China were consistently plagued with these problems, and also that the pieces were not finished as smoothly as they should have been. Sets are made in four different locations around the globe, and therefore the blocks may be made from different woods, with different glues.

    The most common complaint I have heard from owners of the game is that it can be harder to fit the pieces back on the grid in the box than it is to play the game. Usually you can get them to fit with a couple tries, but if you are frustrated, the Cathedral site has a graphic showing you how to fit the back in the box in the factory configuration. A link to the page is given at the bottom of this article.

    Pieces get lost. This is a characteristic that all games with pieces share, and with the wooden versions of Cathedral the blocks can easily be replaced with wooden blocks from craft stores. I've replaced two of my single block taverns over the years. They do not have the more detailed roofs found on the other pieces, but do not detract from play.

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    Strategy

    To win regularly at Cathedral, you do need a plan of action. There are a few things you can do to increase your chances of winning.

    • When you start to play, use your most awkward and largest pieces first.
    • Save your taverns for filling in single odd spaces when you desperately need to.
    • Link your pieces together with a solid join - connected pieces cannot be removed from the board.
    • If you manage to wall off part of the city, do not start filling it until you cannot place any pieces outside your wall

    Keep playing. The strategy will make more sense when you try it.

References

  • http://www.cathedral-game.co.nz/about.htm
  • http://www.amazon.com/Family-Games-607-Cathedral-Classic/dp/B00000IZXG/ref=cm_cr_pr_pb_t
  • Directions for packing the pieces back on the board - if you are desperate.  http://www.cathedral-game.co.nz/hints.htm
  • The author has played the game many times with her family