Board Game Recap: Castle Panic
Castle Panic is one such game.
After viewing the TableTop video (which you can see here), I put the game on my Christmas list. Alas, I’m habitually late to submit my list to my family, so they did the best they could, and by the time I had passed on word, all my gifts were safely under the tree. No matter, as I used some Christmas money to buy the game online.
The same day I received it, I played a simulated two person game – with me controlling two hands – and winning, though I’m pretty sure in the process of confirming rules and performing the mechanics of the game, I probably rigged it (unintentionally, I swear) in my favor.
Tonight, I was able to test it out with others. And I had a blast.
The game itself is rather simple. You and up to five others are defending six towers in the center of the board. You start with six walls built in front of them. Along the way, goblins, orcs, trolls, and boss monsters will emerge from the forest and try to attack your towers. If you lose all your towers, you lose the game. If you get through all the monster tokens, you win.
To help you, you draw cards that allow you to attack in certain zones. The board is broken up into three zones – red, blue, and green – with three areas that you can target with specific cards. You can draw archers, knights, and swordsmen to aid in the defense of your towers. Some of those can only attack in the red zones, some can only attack in blue, some can only attack in green, and some can attack in any zone. You also can use heroes, who can attack in any level within a color zone (for instance, a blue hero can attack any monster and deliver one hit point no matter what level they’re at, whereas normally you may need a blue archer to hit someone). There’s also a barbarian, who can attack any one monster and wipe them completely out of hit points (goblins take one hit point, orcs take two, and trolls take three).
A player’s turn goes as follows – you draw up to five cards (and all players start with five), then you can discard one for a new card. Then you can trade with your other players and try to anticipate where you can attack. Then you can play any number of cards to attack monsters, build new walls, or play specialty cards that allow you to drive a monster back to the forest, skip drawing monsters, “tar” a monster (which halts their advance for one turn), dig through the discards to find the perfect card to play, or fortify your walls. After you’ve played all cards you can play or want to play, the monsters advance a level on your towers and you draw two new monsters (who are placed in one of six zones according to a roll of the die).
Oh, but here’s the catch: some monsters, like the Goblin King, have special powers, to either advance other monsters or make you draw other monster tokens. You can also draw boulders which careen through forest and kingdom alike, killing everything in their path until destroying a castle wall or tower.
Boulders are a motherfucker (more on this later).
Tonight, I played with B (who I had played Kemet with a couple weeks ago, and is sort of the board game Yoda to my board game Luke) and his wife A after a fine dinner of spicy pork sausage and tomato sauce over a bed of riced cauliflower (sounds weird but it was good).
The most notable thing about this game is that it has a number of things built in to balance itself. It seems as if you’d have an advantage playing with more players, as you’d have more available attack cards in play, but you’d also have more monsters to draw on a given round. There might be a bit of an advantage in a larger group because you can turn over the deck quicker (which would allow you to play Move Them Back or the barbarian more frequently), and that you’d pull monster tokens more quickly (with just over four rounds needed to pull all 49 with six players, but taking about nine rounds to do so with three players).
Our trio did a fine job of defending, rebuilding walls when it worked out (I think my personal philosophy would be more inclined towards attacking as much as you can, which means discarding the Brick cards and the Mortar cards), and trying to stage attacks while also aiding later moves.
Fate had different ideas though.
On three different occasions, we pulled a Giant Boulder token, which happened to travel through the field and through the sections that didn’t have a wall in front of the towers, so we lost three towers to boulders. At one point, we had made a trade to help on the next turn to kill off a monster that was going to be vulnerable, but a plague wiped out all of our swordsmen and the plan was foiled. We also (okay, it was me) drew a Draw 4 Monster Tokens token, which is exactly what it sounds like. So in resolving that draw, I also drew the Goblin King, which summons another three monsters to the forest, so we added eight monsters at once (one on the draw, three on the Draw Four, the Goblin King himself and the three monsters who joined him).
That really fucks up your plans.
We scrambled, plotted, and maneuvered, and with a combination of attacks and walls, we were able to defend. The board was clear and there were three tokens in the bag to draw from. All of our walls were gone. Monsters had taken three towers. Boulders had taken two more. The first token drawn was a troll – three points to kill, but he was in the forest and time was on our side.
The second token drawn that round was a Giant Boulder.
The way a boulder works is that you roll the die and it starts rolling from that spot. It doesn’t stop until it hits a wall or a tower. If it rolls through starting in zone one, but zone one has no wall or tower, it continues to roll, and if a tower is on the other side (zone four), it takes that tower.
Three noble defenders, one troll, and one monster lurking outside the forest, waiting. We had but to roll a 2 or 5 to survive and continue the defense. A 66% chance of success.
It was a 2.
A tower destroyed; a kingdom lost.
A tried to, well, panic, and flicked the die to make it show a different number. It turned up a 5. She flicked it again. It was a 2 once more.
We’d been doomed from the start.
But this was a fun game, and it went down to the wire. There was a lot of advanced planning involved to pass on the right card to the next player, and other conditions – like a dwindling draw deck nearing a reshuffle – would change circumstances. A decision that might be made one way at the start of the game in the same situation might have been different if you know that you’re going to turn the deck over again and unleash a new slew of options.
And that’s what made it interesting. There were many options involved. Many layers of decision making within a relatively simple structure. That’s what also makes it wildly replayable.
At one point, about halfway through, A said “I’m really enjoying this game”. After the Giant Boulder leveled our final tower, she said “this game is stupid”.
To me, a game that gets you invested and makes you juggle those kinds of decisions is a good game. There’s some bad luck involved, but there’s enough flex in the game to battle back from it, and when you care about actually winning, that makes a difference.
This is a difference I’m noticing from these types of board games and those like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity. Does anyone really stop in Apples to Apples after someone has won seven cards? I don’t even know the winning conditions for CAH. I just assume it’s to make the most inappropriate, vulgar combinations possible. But I’ve noticed that both games reach a point where you’re kind of playing to be playing. The last time my sisters and I played Apples to Apples, we hit a point where it was just tiring to continue. Not that the game itself or the idea isn’t fun – it has its place. But there’s less at stake, and the thrill of winning a card isn’t the same as the whimsy of seeing what connections come out of the cards played.
In Castle Panic, that just doesn’t happen. Things can change in one draw, and that potential for change challenges you to adjust on the fly. When it works, it’s very enjoyable. When it doesn’t, well, you end up cursing boulders and bad luck (but it’s still enjoyable).