Full disclosure: A review copy of Castle Party was provided by Devir Games.
It’s getting close to Halloween, so let’s do more Spooky Games! I think I did a pretty good job last year with Betrayal at Mystery Mansion, MonsDRAWsity, and Dominion: Nocturne, so this week we’ve got Castle Party and Nine Ravens for y’all! They’re spooky (or at least vaguely horror-themed), so this all checks out. Castle Party is a new flip-and-write game from Devir. I don’t think we’ve still really agreed on the exact terminology for these games, but what can you do? Let’s see what it’s got in store for us!
In Castle Party, you’re throwing a bash for the Pumpkin King! Not Jack Skellington; he knows what he did. Either way, you’ve got a particularly motley crew in attendance — Frankenstein’s various monsters, ghosts, skeletons, vampires, witches, and … unicorns? You didn’t make the guest list. Unfortunately, it’s too hopping, and you’ve got too many people trying to get in. Thankfully, social distancing isn’t a problem for monsters. Will you be able to get everyone into the party?
Not a ton, here. Choose your board side, to start:
The second one, Rave Party, has a few gameplay differences that I’ll cover later. Next, shuffle the Monster (and Unicorn) cards together:
Finally, prep the Shape Cards by shuffling them and splitting them into four piles of five cards:
Shuffle a Clock card into three of the piles, and then stack those three piles on top of each other. Place the fourth pile on top (so that the clocks are each distributed in the bottom three fourths of the deck):
You should be good to start! Deal each player three Monster cards.
In Castle Party, players invite groups of monsters into the party together and get them situated so that as many people can fit into your increasingly crowded castle as possible! The problem is, with so many parallel parties to manage, success becomes all about perspective.
Each turn, the Start Player reveals a Shape Card from the top of the deck. If it’s a Clock, well, we’ll talk about the Clocks later.
When a shape is revealed, they can choose whatever orientation that they want the Shape Card to be in. Then, they play a Monster Card face-up. That Monster corresponds to the “X” on the card (unless the card is a 1×1 square, in which case, there’s no X). Each player in turn order must now play a Monster Card face-up and adjacent to a Monster Card creating that shape until the shape is completely made from Monster Cards. Note that this means that players may end up contributing more than one Monster Card to the shape, so as soon as a Monster Card is played, that player immediately draws a new Monster Card from the deck.
After the shape is finished, each player in turn order gets to either carry out a Special Action or pass. If any player chooses to use a Special Action, they mark the corresponding action off of their board and use it. No player after them gets to use a Special Action this turn. The three actions are:
- Lights Out: Rearrange the Monster Cards within the shape, but preserve the shape and orientation. You may not add or remove additional Monster Cards. This change will impact all players.
- Masked Ball: You may treat any one Monster Card as though it were another non-King, non-Queen, and non-Unicorn Monster Card. This change does not impact other players; this only is done on your board, this turn.
- Orientation Change: You may rotate the shape before it is drawn. This change will impact all players.
Once a Special Action is used or everyone passes, all players must now add the shape to their board by drawing the monsters in the group, in the shape and orientation seen on the table. Note that the orientation is relative to the player’s seat, so players will usually be drawing different rotations of the shapes on their board (since they’re sitting at different spots around the table). You may draw the shape anywhere on your board that it fits. You cannot cover existing monsters, but you may draw the shape such that it extends outside of the castle. Monsters outside of the castle will end up either in the Moat (and score you negative points at the end of the game) or on the Drawbridge (and score 0 points at the end of the game).
After all players finish drawing their Monsters, remove any Kings, Queens, and Unicorns in the shape from the game and discard the other cards. If the Monster Deck runs out before the game ends, shuffle the discard pile to form a new deck. Now, the next player takes their turn by revealing a new Shape Card.
Clocks and Special Events
If a Clock is drawn, each player must immediately use one of their three Special Events by checking it off on their board and immediately scoring it. Each Special Event must be used once and does not update; you get what you get when you use it.
- Fireworks!: You immediately score 1 point for each Monster adjacent to one of the nine Castle Window spaces.
- Conga!: You immediately score 1 point for each Monster in your largest group of Monsters of one type that are connected orthogonally (not diagonally).
- Toast to the Pumpkin King!: You immediately add a crown to an empty space on your board. Score one point for each distinct Monster Type adjacent to the crown (including diagonally). Note that Kings / Queens are counted as a distinct Monster Type from their standard monster (so Vampires and the Vampire Queen are considered two Monster Types).
After drawing a Clock, that player should draw a new Shape Card.
End of Game
Once the third Clock is drawn and the third Special Event is resolved, the game ends! Players score for various aspects of the party. Note that Monsters outside of the Castle walls cannot be counted for points, here.
- Monster Groups: Players score 1 point for each Monster in their largest group of each Monster type. If the King or Queen of that Monster type is present in the group, players also score 1 point for each Monster adjacent to the King or Queen of that Monster type (including diagonally).
- Unicorn Points: Players get points for the biggest set of orthogonally-adjacent Unicorns they have. 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 Unicorns earns -5 / 1 / 5 / 10 / 15 points.
- Special Actions: Players score 2 points for each Special Action they didn’t use during the game.
- Moat Penalty: Guests in your Moat are justifiably upset. You lose 1 point for each Monster in your Moat.
The player with the most points wins!
Rave Party Mode
The Rave Party Mode plays essentially identically to the base game, with one special exception! The Castle now has Gathering Points, where various monsters like to hang out. These are opportunities for additional points. Note that you cannot add monsters directly onto a Gathering Point; they can only be adjacent.
- Speakers (Top Left): Frankenstein’s monsters want to be adjacent to this one.
- Punch (Top Right): This is a classic vampire hangout. They like it because, like this sentence, there’s no punch line.
- Mirror Ball (Center): Ghosts like this one for some reason.
- DJ (Bottom Left): This is for Skeletons; no bones about it.
- Appetizer Table (Bottom Right): This is the witches’ preferred location. I also got lazy and didn’t want to type out “hors d’oeuvres”, so I just said appetizers instead. This is the price of writing at 2 AM.
Players score 1 point for each Monster adjacent (including diagonally) to their preferred Gathering Point, to a maximum of 4 additional points for each Monster Type. Beyond that, the game plays the same as the base game.
Player Count Differences
Generally, the biggest player count difference I note is that higher player count games tend to move a bit more slowly, since every player is trying to figure out what their planned monster to add to a configuration will be, and every player needs to uniquely decide every turn whether or not to use a special ability. Both things slow the game down a bit (the former more than the latter, being fair), but combined they can cause the game to drag a little at four. Personally, I like the game most at two players; it essentially guarantees that you can always add a monster to a shape (unless it’s the 1×1 card, of which there are several), which means you feel like you’re participating in every round rather than some rounds just happening to you. The game moves quicker, as well, since you can kind of pre-guess what monsters you’re planning to add where (and you often get to add more than one!). Either being first or second for the entire game is also nice, so, yeah, generally strongest preference for Castle Party at two players. Wouldn’t say three is bad, either, but four moves a bit slower than I would like for the length and weight of the game.
- Keep an eye on your opponents’ boards, since that may influence what position you want to put certain cards in. If you can break up your opponents’ clusters of monsters, you can probably stop them getting more points. Just … make sure you’re not spending too much time looking at their boards. That slows the game down and it’s generally kind of rude? I don’t know y’all’s table etiquette. Just keep in mind that playing to screw your opponents will undoubtedly see you reaping what you sow, at some point, and it might force your opponents to use their special abilities to really mess you up in the moment. Be careful!
- I do enjoy holding unicorns for a while, just so I can potentially get a couple and pin negative points on my opponents. Particularly, playing Unicorns towards the end of the game forces players to either dunk them all in the moat (guaranteed negative points) or try to potentially string a few together. Your ideal state is an opponent with exactly one unicorn in the castle and a bunch of others in the moat, so that they lose a ton of points, but that’s much easier said than done.
- Naturally, try to avoid putting guests in the moat. They’re worth negative points and it’s bad host etiquette, no matter how badly the party guests are behaving. Trust me; we’ve all been there. Sometimes you want to just dump the party guests in the moat. But, more generally, even if it messes up your strategy, it can sometimes be worth just trying to find spots to place monsters that works. Don’t forget that you have access to the drawbridge, which can host additional monsters, as well!
- I generally recommend trying to put guests near the windows early in the game so you can lock down that bonus early and focus on the others, which may require more work. Plus, adding the Pumpkin King can let you fill up an empty square that might not otherwise get filled over the course of the game, which is nice.
- Your other Kings and Queens matter a lot! They can be worth a ton if they’re placed correctly. Ideally, they’ll be at the core of the party surrounded by their fellow monsters, but nobody is going to let you pull that off unless you’re very lucky or they get it, too. If you can’t do that, try to get as many monsters near their monarch as you can; it can lead to a huge point swing.
- If you’re last to place a monster, that’s sometimes a great time to use a special ability and really mess things up for your opponents. That’s often the perfect time to use the ability that shuffles the monsters or changes the orientation of everything. It’s rude, since your opponents can’t counter it with their own abilities at this point, but, hey, you can’t always make friends if you want to win, I guess?
- Try not to cut off large groups of monsters too quickly, otherwise you won’t be able to expand them much. There’s a real temptation to just place everything where it works, but at some point you’re going to have to prioritize a bit. You likely won’t be able to get the absolutely perfect configuration of every monster on your board. That’s just … not a practical thing to plan around. So even if you can’t get skeletons to work for you, you might be able to get a huge cluster of Vampires around their Queen, so that might work out for you instead!
- In Rave Party Mode, it’s worth getting monsters near their favorite gathering points, even if they’re not actually part of the largest group. You still score points for monsters in those areas, so try to at least seed those locations with up to four monsters of those types so you can get an easy 20 points. Unfortunately, like everything else, that’s much easier said than done. Prioritization is tough!
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I love the theme of this game. It’s a monster mash! Et cetera. But party-themed games are always fun, and I think this one does a really nice job of capturing how frenetic a party feels and how crowded it is in a positive way. That said, I haven’t been to a party in like, two years, so maybe I just don’t know. I’m also not sure how the unicorns got invited, but here we are.
- I also really like the art style! It’s bouncy, colorful, and fun. I really like that it’s a horror / spooky aesthetic that doesn’t feel the need to be intense. It has a “kids’ Halloween party” vibe to it, and that’s fun.
- Having two different board option styles is fun, as well. It gives experienced players something to do in another game, but I find the base game challenging enough to work for me.
- Fairly portable! It’s a relatively small box. Not as much as, say, something Oink, but not much bigger than your standard small-box game.
- The Kings / Queens and their special effects are both fun and strategically interesting. I like that they have unique art and that their shapes aren’t too much more challenging to draw (you just add a dot to the shape, which is simple enough). They make the game more complicated in an interesting way, as well, so I’m just overall a fan of them.
- I actually like the idea of a flip-and-write where you collaboratively make the shapes quite a bit. It’s clever. It’s only semi-collaborative, to be fair, since your opponents’ shape choices directly impact you, but it’s a really neat concept! It sort of adds an extra layer of challenge on top of the more typical flip-and-write with shapes, since the contents of the shapes matters as much as the shape itself. It’s a bit like Cartographers, in that sense, but you’re actually constructing the contents rather than just getting a couple choices.
- Giving players about 25% of the game at least before they have to do any Special Actions is a nice way to give players some lead buffer (and it makes sure that the game can take a bit of time to end, which is good). That’s just generally wise; it’s sort of how Pandemic and other games give the feeling of a timer. That said, I particularly appreciate that this one has you create four piles and bury the clocks in the bottom three; this way, players have time to build up their parties before they’re forced to use one of their special scoring options.
- Square cards are always the bane of my existence, especially since these are usually rotated and spun around. It takes me a while to get the cards into the correct orientation when shuffling or discarding, and I think my co-players think there’s something wrong with me when I’m shifting the cards right before I discard them all. I’m just … particular about having all the cards face the same way, when I can; it makes photography nicer.
- The boards and markers don’t interact well, so you don’t really get clear, bold lines when you write on them. I’m not really sure what the materials problem is, here, but the markers tend to not adhere properly so they kind of dry weird, and the board looks a bit crummy. You may be able to see it in some of the photos that I took, but I tried to use a bit more ink so that it dries a bit more cleanly. Not really sure what happened.
- Having players declare in turn order if they’re planning to use a special ability is clunky and somewhat interferes with the game’s flow. I think the problem is that each player needs to technically choose not to use one before the next player does, and players typically don’t pay attention to that flow. They partially don’t pay attention to it because, yeah, it’s clunky. It doesn’t fit within the standard flow of a turn, and the rulebook’s description that each player has an opportunity to use a special action or pass is a bit hard to parse on first pass. It almost seems like multiple players can use one in a given turn, but really, it’s just that one player can use a special action or all players can pass. They’re nice abilities, but this phase doesn’t really feel like it fits because it slows the transition between building the shape and placing the shape with an almost-interrupting phase.
- Similarly, players collaboratively building the shape can be pretty slow. More generally, analysis paralysis can hit pretty hard with this game. I think that players are challenged by spatial puzzles already, but adding in rotations and shuffling and player powers happening potentially in turn order, well, it can cause players to overanalyze what needs to be played where and how they’d rotate it to make that happen, and the whole process can be pretty slow. Even placement can take a bit, so the game kind of lags if you have players who are stressed about making sure they always make the best possible move.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I think Castle Party is a lot of fun! I think that it works nicely in my “Spooky Games”-adjacent corner, though I think I slightly prefer the horrible cruelty of Sweets Stack, when I’m thinking about my “Halloweenish flip-and-write games”. Wild that we’re in that deep with those subgenres, though the candy corn-collecting antics of the Welcome To Halloween map is also pretty cute. This is all to say that there’s a cornucopia of options, even that’s more commonly associated with the next holiday. I think that what sets Castle Party apart is its commitment to its aesthetic. Castle Party’s not saying that monsters are scary or bad; rather, they’re cute, colorful, and they’re just trying to have a party that they sent out too many invites to. Less relatable, these days, but I can see how that could happen. I always appreciate games with multiple modes, as well. I think I really like the theory of creating a shape out of players all contributing monsters, but I think that inevitably causes a decent amount of analysis paralysis as players are trying to rotate and flip shapes around so that they can do something that is great for them and nobody else. Add in players getting special abilities that can change the shape for other players and you’ve got a bit of a mess on your hands, if your players aren’t committed to swift play. I think the art sells it really well (and they smartly made all the symbols relatively distinct and easy to draw), so this is a bit easier to teach than, say, Sweets Stack. Either way, if you’re looking for more spooky games, you’re a fan of monsters, or you just love that flip-and-write genre, Castle Party is a solidly fun entry in that space! I’d recommend it.
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