Dragon Castle Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2017
Playing Time: 30-45 Minutes
I play a lot of games once or twice. My gaming is done mostly in a couple large clubs, with rotating attendees. So it’s often easy to simply forget about a game and not suggest pulling it again unless it makes a really good first impression.
Dragon Castle almost fell into that bucket for me. I was ready to pass it off after a couple plays. There’s more here, though. It’s just not always obvious. Further, what is and isn’t present in terms of potential enjoyment shifts subtly but significantly depending on player count and game settings.
Gameplay of Dragon Castle
A “castle” of Mahjong-inspired tiles is arrayed on a board (variable depending on player count) and the tiles are piled in stacks of 1, 2 or 3 tiles atop on another. You draw tiles from this castle to build your own, smaller version wherein you are attempting to match colors in groups of 4+, at which point they are flipped, score you points, and allow you to place little shrines on the flipped tiles, scoring you more points.
On your turn, you’ll take one of three actions: 1) take a tile, then another matching tile; 2) take a tile and a shrine; or 3) take a tile and discard it for 1VP. Any tiles you collect are then placed in your personal space. The rub is that your first tile can only be one from the highest level available (at the beginning of the game, for example, only from those that are stacked 3 high), and the second has to match the symbol exactly (not just color), but can be from any level. Additionally, every tile taken must have an exposed long edge, which means many are closed off until more tiles are taken.
The game will usually end shortly after you remove all 2-high tiles and reach the lowest level, at which point a new action becomes available that will push the endgame rather quickly.
Optionally, there is a Spirit and Dragon card drawn from a pile. The Spirit card presents a new ability/action option, and the Dragon card is a new way to score endgame points.
Lovely and evocative. The player boards, Spirit/Dragon cards and tiles all seem quite beautiful to me. Full disclosure, most of my plays have been online since I got into this game during the heights of pandemic lockdowns. But my first couple plays were with the real thing, and it’s a delight.
The Nature of Puzzle Games
Puzzle-style games – by which I mean it’s the internal “thinky” elements that are the crux of a game – live and die based on a couple things. If the puzzle itself is engaging enough, nothing else need be added, and they can remain solitaire experiences (or nearly so) and still cultivate a sizable audience. On the other hand, if the puzzle isn’t engaging enough, it must be supplemented with enough narrow-eyed, clever player interactions to find adequate depth outside one’s personal player board. Many die on the vine because they are only marginally clever or marginally interactive in a sea of competition with better options.
Dragon Castle is a game that gets compared to Azul, for example, another puzzle game that has varying levels of interaction. Some sessions will feel entirely benign, while others can become downright mean from the onset when sticking other players with a soul-crushing number of tiles that they can’t use. Amidst that, though, the puzzle in Azul is clever enough that plenty are happy to play without those interpersonal elements. They’re building a gorgeous tableau, and that’s enough.
I think the combination of those elements in Dragon Castle is also “enough,” but there are some potential exceptions. But to talk about when the game works and when it doesn’t, we need to talk about…
Variables of Play
I like games that have “levers,” so to speak, that you can pull to create a meaningfully different experience, or cater it to your group. This is most obvious with difficulty levels in, say, co-op games. In Dragon Castle, the first lever is the Spirit and Dragon cards. These create a significant difference. Certain Dragon cards will lead you toward wildly different constructions to maximize your endgame scoring, while various Spirit cards add an extra layer of thought to your turn in the form of special abilities (at a cost). These cards are listed as optional in the rules, and the game is something far less without them.
The second lever here is setup. While there’s a default setup for each player count, the game comes with alternate setups with imposing and grandiose names like “Four Seasons,” “The Pillars of Creation,” and “The Forbidden City.” While each is just a different configuration of the tiles, these really do make the game feel very different. Some will give you earlier access to a larger number of tiles, so the game feels less constricted. Others will limit the number of tiles initially available, so building your early tableau needs to be much more calculated and cautious. You can even make your own castle configuration! The rulebook includes some tips and considerations for this, but adventurous gamers can build their own central castles from which to pluck, which is just awesome. One imagines playing with a child and spelling their name out as a surprise. Or fashioning some unmentionable body part (not with the child playing, ideally). Regardless, customization at this level is definitely a selling point for me.
Importantly, I think player count is another “lever,” and like many games, this one works best at a certain player count (spoiler: it’s 2P). I think there’s something to commend it even without the Spirit/Dragon cards, and even at higher player counts, but for a far, far smaller audience.
Solitaire…Until It’s Not
You’ll begin your first plays, and will quickly fall into a routine. When you can take two tiles, you will, and when you can’t, you’ll take one and a shrine. It’s tempting to say that the third action option, where you destroy a single tile for 1VP, can be used as a strategic blocking mechanism, and it definitely can. However, there are two caveats here: One, this tactic seems far less prudent at more than 2P, unless you find the perfect moment to block multiple opponents from a tile they want without seeing something clearly better for yourself. Such opportunities will be rare. More often, for example, you’ll confound player 2, while players 3 and/or 4 will gain the most as you slow your own construction for the sake of the block. The second caveat is that even at 2P, this won’t be a frequent action. You won’t want to ignore it, certainly, and it’s one of the only elements keeping this from being a very solitary puzzle. But it’s also not the heart of the thing.
This is the reason why the Spirit and Dragon cards are so important. They deepen the puzzle to give you a new way to earn victory points, and the Spirit cards also (sometimes) ramp up the interactive elements. One lets you sacrifice one of your already-played tiles to destroy any tile on the main board (again, with the prereq that it has an exposed long edge). I methodically prevented one opponent from completing a purple (a very rare color worth lots of shrine-points) set by utilizing this Spirit card ability multiple times. That session went from light interaction to an abstract form of karate, where I was drafting tiles as much to thwart him as I was to help myself. This is good, because it means you’re engaged on a level that’s deeper than “hm, what are the matching sets I can take?” Another Spirit card allows you to sacrifice a shrine or face-up tile to allow the second tile you take to be the same color, but not perfectly matching, which adds considerations for you personally, and can also be used to strategically deny your opponent a particular color at key moments. Other examples abound.
The downside of those sessions is that they probably wouldn’t have been possible at more than 2P. Or rather, they wouldn’t have been as nuanced.
The Player Count Conundrum in Dragon Castle
I do think the game is best at 2P, but I’ve seen this same sort of tactical counter-drafting work at higher player counts. Usually it comes at points where there isn’t a “best” option for you. Say, when you’ve just flipped a large number of tiles and are beginning in on a new set. With no best option, why not be a thorn in someone’s side? It’s not a constant consideration, but still exists.
For reference, I’ve also been in a 4P contest that became absolutely cutthroat, but that was more to do with the players involved. So it’s possible, just not as likely. I’m also not sure it paid off; I took part the least in the hate-drafting shenanigans, and ultimately won despite being ganged up on a bit more than some others. I’m not sure it proves my earlier points, but I still see less strategic justification for spiteful moves at higher player counts. Additionally, in a 2P contest the counter-drafting is expected and thus somewhat cordial, like a friendly duel. If there are more players playing viciously, one or more is going to be at the receiving end of a disproportionate number of bad beats, which is often the difference between ending with a respectful regard for your opponent or a bitter taste in your mouth.
At 2P, however, after I absorbed the mechanics of the game enough to broaden my view, I found myself considering my opponent’s potential moves almost as much as my own. This practice invariably led to a few alterations of my strategy throughout games. This is sadly missing in a ton of puzzle-style games in the hobby, games that forget that the players should be a variable of the puzzle in all but the most austere experiences.
I don’t mean to paint this game as one of constant antagonism. You’ll still occasionally have a more-or-less solitary session, regardless of players count, especially depending on how the tiles fall and which Spirit/Dragon cards you get. And in any game, most of your turns will be spent building your own castle. But there’s always at least one more level of thought available to you beyond your player board, which is excellent.
A Comparison to Euchre
An odd comparison, no? Allow me to explain. There’s a classical beauty to some games. Mahjong is one of them, and Dragon Castle tries to evoke an aspect of that. In Euchre, though, there’s rarely a ton to think about. You have a couple potentially important decisions, and everything else plays out as it must according to the rules of the game. Yet, some of my fondest memories are doing what was prescribed of me by the cards I was dealt in Euchre, flanked by family members or friends.
There’s something akin to this in Dragon Castle. Maybe it carries just enough of Mahjong’s mystique to grant it a lazy, eternal quality. But I could see myself playing with my now-dead grandfathers, idly chatting while we scan for matching tiles that we can take. “Hey, I wanted that pair,” one of them says to me as I take a matching set, a comment with no real vitriol and a smile behind it, one which I return. No one’s worried about the win. We’re simply scanning this delightful tower of tiles and enjoying each other’s company.
We often talk about the heights this hobby can ascend to, but rarely about the relaxed social atmosphere games can create when they aren’t demanding every ounce of our attention.
Dragon Castle has this quality, a quality of being simple enough, but just visually and/or cognitively engaging enough, that a player is both paying attention and able to divert their attention without sacrificing the quality of their play in the game. It’s an impossible balance. If you tried to design for it, you’d probably fail. Euchre has it. A handful of others I can think of from my youth have it, like Mancala or various other card games (Spades, Pinochle, etc.). Or low-stakes Poker, where everyone is invested enough that there’s tension, but no one’s so serious that anyone worries about losing a hand. I think it’s why card games continue to thrive. So many games I play today require my immediate and complete investment. Euchre only requires that I know the rules and don’t take too long on my turns. It’s great for that, and Dragon Castle has something of it.
But the kicker is, I think it only has this quality without the Spirit and Dragon cards, cards that, by any modern standard, make it a better game. I also think this atmosphere is only truly created with more players. It’s not a “better” game at 4P in the way we judge games in hobby gaming, but if you have kids, other family or casual gamer friends that may be enamored with the stacking and colors, I think it’s great at these counts. It can also work for some gamers, though I’ll still contend that at that point, it’s best at 2P.
So, to contradict myself a touch, I most want to play this game at 2P with a fellow gamer, complete with a Spirit and Dragon Card, or at 4P with family or non-gamer friends over drinks, and no Spirit/Dragon cards. I’ll happily play it in nearly any context, though.
Dragon Castle is a fine game. At its best it approaches and, in my opinion, even matches the puzzly, mathematical heights of the best games of this style in the entire hobby. But it won’t hit those heights in every group context. There’s an element of the timeless in it, though, and it has enough structure to create a nuanced duel that is fought in the margins of the page as opposed to the body copy, so to speak, but is no less satisfying for it.