Perambulating in Burano
Every so often, a game comes along that makes you say, “Well, that was charming.” Maybe that sounds like faint praise. Fair enough. Often it is.
Not in Walking in Burano, designed by Wei-Min Ling and illustrated by Maisherly Chan. This thing walks the line between charming and chewy just enough that I’ll forgive its first player marker being a cat standee.
For a game entitled Walking in Burano, you do very little actual perambulating. A more accurate title would have been Facilitating Walking in Burano. Each player is responsible for their own street, filling it with the painted houses that make the Venetian island so famous. Your goal is to draw the most interest, with shops, cats, fancy awnings, flowers — anything pretty, really — while avoiding boarded-up shanty windows. Nobody fresh off the vaporetto wants to tour a slum. Or a mismatched hodgepodge.
It works like this. Every turn, you take some combination of floors and funding. There are natural limitations to consider. You can’t take a middle floor without also taking the ground or roof below or above it, and although taking more floors means you get fewer coins, you can’t skip a turn to take nothing but coins. Then you’re allowed to build on your street, occasionally using your two scaffolding cards to skip a level. One floor costs one coin, a second costs two more, and a third costs two beyond that. In other words, building fast gets pricey.
Because this island is a tourist destination, it’s necessary to mind some regulatory restrictions. Houses must be a single color, and two adjacent houses can never be the same color. If that isn’t possible, you’re allowed to break the rule by spending a token that would otherwise be worth bonus points at the end of the game. In my experience, this has only once proved necessary.
There’s a gentle rhythm to this process of claiming and assembling houses. For better or for worse, that gentleness belies its true nature as a race. But in order to understand why, first we need to talk about scoring.
Here’s the deal. Whenever you finish a house, you also claim a character to visit that stretch of your street. There are two types, tourists and inhabitants, but their commonality is that they award points based on the arrangement of your street. A young woman tourist awards one point for every potted flower in the house she’s visiting, while her boyfriend is into leafy green plants and their scatterbrained friend likes any combination of cats, curtains, chimneys, and street lamps. Santa Claus wants to dive down as many chimneys as possible, but the mayor is only interested in the number of pedestrians mobbing your completed street. And on the complicated end, the flamboyant shopkeeper wants a wide array of shop types, the seamstress likes matching pairs of curtain colors, and the hot cop wants street lamps but not too many — apparently because although he doesn’t want the place poorly lit, he also doesn’t want the street so well illuminated that his job is eliminated alongside muggings.
Walking in Burano’s central trick is that each of these characters represents a minor gamble. Let’s say you get an early jump on street lamps and storefronts. That means you’ll likely claim the hot cop and flamboyant shopkeeper. But now you’re hunting for very specific floors. Not only do you need more street lamps and storefronts, you’re also looking for the right colors, and ideally colors and floors that also suit the other characters you’ve previously gambled on, like the florist who awards points for multiple adjacent floors with flower pots.
This, in turn, leads to dilly-dallying. When the right floor doesn’t appear in the housing market, you might opt to temporarily focus on funding. Meanwhile, your rivals are building their own streets. The danger is that they’ll finish all five of their houses, concluding the game before you get a chance to wrap up construction. Best of luck winning without a full roster of five characters. Because each guest is an entire scoring category, even a single unfinished house means you’ve given yourself eighty percent as many opportunities as those who completed their entire street. This doesn’t make victory impossible, but it’s a significant hurdle.
Which is why, when played well, Walking in Burano is surprisingly cutthroat. Oh, you’re never inflicting direct harm. Sure, you might nab a floor or character somebody’s eyeing. More likely, you’ll be too preoccupied with your own concerns to worry too much about snaking cards. But the simple act of building quickly, even if it means suffering a regulatory penalty, pushes everybody into making mistakes. Shuttered windows, mismatched icons, poor scoring decisions. Even a minor misstep can be major in the very serious business of painting your house lime-green in Burano.
Its sole problem is one of scale, in that at least its first micro-expansion feels necessary to round out the number of scoring opportunities and inject some much-needed variety across multiple plays. Where would we be without the potential challenges of appeasing the chimney-sweep and house painter? It’s a small thing, but like a missing fifth character it also makes the game feel only eighty percent complete.
That said, Walking in Burano reminds me of a less naturalistic but more robust Kodama: The Tree Spirits. Like Kodama, it’s a slight and visually appealing game that conceals a competitive core — and here, that core is sharpened and honed, producing a game that’s as much a nail-biting race as it is about putting very pretty houses in a tidy row.
A complimentary copy was provided.