A sort of special request from one of my only readers, here”s the “long awaited” review of the wacky co-op/competitive/ team zaniness of Castle Panic! Read on to discover why you just might want to get this thing – no matter what your level of board gaming experience.Castle Panic is the inaugural game of Fireside Games and designer Justin De Witt. The game sees our players as the hapless defenders of the unluckiest castle in existence in a fantasy world of orcs, trolls, and goblins who throw wave after wave of expendable troops, massive Indiana Jones style rolling boulders, and plagues of disease at the fortress in an attempt to destroy the keep within.
On a player”s turn he or she starts out by drawing from the deck of Castle Cards to fill their hand to maximum (hand size is determined by the number of players in the game.) Next, the player can dump one card they don”t like into the discard pile like so much moldy peas; but instead of just ending up with a stinky trashcan, he or she can draw a new card to replace it (although sometimes the new card is just as much moldy peas as the old one.) Next, our player can trade one card, one-for-one with another player.
Dumping the right card and figuring out the right trade are key concepts toward progress in the game due to the clever way you attack the monsters – the next step in the turn. Our player now gets to bring on the pain! He or she can play as many cards as they want, but with certain restrictions. The board itself is laid out as a circle with the castle in the center and four concentric circles (called “rings” in game terms) surrounding. The closest in is the “Swordsman Ring” – only swordsman cards can hit the monsters in this ring. Next is the “Knight Ring” – only Knights can be played here, followed by the “Archer Ring” (Archer cards) and the “Forest Ring” (very few cards can be used on the monsters lurking here – this is also where every monster starts its slog toward the castle.) As if that wasn”t enough, each ring is broken into three colors with two spaces for each color in each ring. So this means that a goblin in the red Knight ring can only be hit by a red Knight card. There are also some special cards like “Heroes” who can hit any monster in the Swordsman, Knight, or Archer ring of their color or the “Any-Color” cards of each type who can only hit in their ring, but in any color. This mechanic is SUPER SIMPLE in practice and devilishly clever. One key to the game play is using your trades and discards to make sure the right players have the right cards to hit the right monsters.
After playing cards, the tide of evil begins. Each monster moves one ring closer to the castle. When a monster in the swordsman ring moves, it throws itself bodily at the protective wall surrounding to castle like an overexcited kid on the Legends of the Hidden Temple obstacle course. This destroys the wall but also causes the monster to take a point of damage. (A quick aside here about tracking the monsters” hit points in the game: this again is so simple as to be puredeadbrilliant. Each monster tile is triangular and has numbers printed in the corners. The number pointing toward the castle is the monster”s current health; when it is injured, just turn it to the next lower number, and remove it when it is dead. Genius.) If the wall the monster is advancing through is already destroyed, it waltzes inside the castle and starts blowing up the castle tower. If all six pieces of the tower are destroyed, it is game-over-Charlie, and there are VERY few cards that can do anything to a monster once it is inside.
The last thing a player does on their turn is to draw two new random monsters from the pile/bag/cup of unused monster tiles and add them to the board in a random location. In addition to regular monsters there are also special monsters that have an additional effect when they enter the board as well as one-time events that just do something ranging from “not a problem” to “bowel-quiveringly awful,” depending on your current situation, and then are discarded away.
The next player to the left then goes, rinse and repeat until either the players lose or they defeat every monster on the board and in the monster cup/pile/whatever.
One of the great draws of the game you”ll encounter is the variety of play modes: you can treat this as a co-op hippy love-in, a cut throat competitive rage-inducing battle, or as a one against all slug-fest. I”ll cover the pros and cons of each in turn.
The full co-op version of the game is really pretty simplistic and we found it very easy to beat from our very first game. With players who consider themselves board gamers, the challenge is akin to a pit bull taking on a blind, one-legged tabby – so one-sided as to be completely pitiful. For getting people who DON”T play board games interested in playing more, this mode is perfect. In board gaming parlance this is known as a gateway game – it opens the gates to the wonderful world of board gaming (TM). For children and game-o-phobes, this can be a very rewarding experience. For a really basic introduction, you can even play with everyone”s hand revealed – just make sure not be an Alpha Player: let everyone make their own decisions on their turn with perhaps a hint here or there to get them thinking.
The polar opposite to the full co-op mode is the semi-co-op competitive version of the game. In this mode, you all still lose if the castle is destroyed, however at the end there is only one winner: the player who killed the most hit points worth of monsters. We have NEVER successfully completed the game in this mode. Perhaps it is the group of a-holes I normally play games with, I don”t know, but when we play this version of the game, nobody helps out. “Why would I damage that troll twice when you”ll just kill it and get three points. I”d rather see this castle burn to the ground before I give you three fucking points.” And so the castle burns to the ground. Every. Single. Game. Maybe for some less competitive groups out there this mode might work. Maybe.
The last mode is, I feel, the most balanced and most rewarding and completely saves this game from being just a family game-style filler. In this one-vs-all mode called Overlord, one player takes on the role of the titular raging jerk and plays against all of the other players. The Overlord basically takes over steps five and six of each player”s turn, moving and drawing new monsters. The Overlord also has some decisions to make by playing from a hand of monster tiles rather than completely random draws each turn, and having the ability to forgo playing two tiles in order to play just one wherever he or she can cause the most headaches to the players. This version of the rules is fun. It is challenging for both sides. Every time we try it, it is a nail biter. It is particularly fun, as the Overlord, to draw the perfect tile and watch the worried faces of the players turn even more sour as your mouth twists into a corkscrewing Grinch-like smile of wicked proportion.
So the co-op play of this game makes it great for an intro to new players and the Overlord mode saves it from Parker Brothers hell, and that alone is reason enough to buy it. AND this game is cheap! $35 US MSRP, $22.99 at CSI! What”s that, like one meal out at a crappy restaurant? And this has much less chance of giving you the Tennessee Two-Step (still some chance, I guess.)
And did I mention the expansion?
Yes, the Wizard”s Tower expansion (used in all of the above photos) adds TONS of new content: new monsters, new castle cards, boss monsters like the powerful dragon, setting things on fire, wizard spell cards with crazy, powerful effects – it is basically packed with content, and again it is silly cheap – $16.49 at CSI. So what does all of this content do for you? It makes Castle Panic into a gamer”s game. Suddenly, the co-op version is actually a challenge. Reclaiming what was basically a lost play mode for advanced gamers is a BIG DEAL. It is almost like buying a new game. That”s the mark of a great expansion.
So, conclusion: are you looking for a game to get your non-gaming friends hooked? Try Castle Panic. Are you looking for a fun and light challenge? Get it and try the Overlord rules. Are you looking for a hyper clever and fun gamer”s game with what is still a very reasonable price tag? Get it and the Wizard”s Tower, and may you always draw the Barbarian, exactly when you need him.