Full disclosure: A review copy of Dragon Castle was provided by Luma Imports.
So there’s been a global shipping hiccup for … a while, and as a result a number of reviewers have been looking at games that aren’t necessarily just-released; more back-catalogue stuff. I think that’s a cool idea, so I’ve been trying to do a bit of that as well. This leads me to Dragon Castle, which came out a while ago (2017, I guess? I don’t perceive time anymore.), and the adventures therein! So let’s check it out.
In Dragon Castle, you’re building up your own realm and taking tiles from the majestic (and eponymous!) Dragon Castle to do so! As you consolidate power (literally and metaphorically, I guess), you’ll be placing shrines and appealing to spirits for inspiration. Your opponents will do the same, but only the best castle can win. Will that be yours?
Depending on your player count, you’ll need to set up the central Dragon Castle differently, so choose the Central Board that corresponds to your player count:
Once you’re familiar with the game, you can use the blank board and some of the various setups in the back of the rulebook:
Either way, stack the tiles up to form the indicated arrangement. On the standard boards, just place a stack of face-up tiles on a space equal to the number on that space:
Give each player a player board:
Set the Countdown Tokens on the board until the space with the number of players on it is covered:
Set aside the VP tokens:
And set aside the shrines, but give each player one to put on their board:
If you’re playing for the first time, don’t use the Dragon Cards, but otherwise reveal one:
Same goes for the Spirit Cards. Flip one if you’ve played before:
Interestingly, if you’ve played a bunch and really want to mix it up, you can use more than one Spirit card and more than one Dragon card. Knock yourself out. Either way, you should be ready to start!
A game of Dragon Castle isn’t too tough to get together. On your turn, you’ll Take an Action and potentially Add Tiles to Your Board. That’s about it! Let’s dig into it and see what’s up.
Take an Action
Before you take your action, you may optionally discard any face-up tile from your player area or any Shrine from your player board’s Shrine pool to use a Spirit ability. Whether you do that or not, you can take one of a few actions.
A lot of these actions deal with taking tiles, and you may take an Available tile. Available means that at least one long side of the tile is not touching any tile, and it is not below any other tile. Short sides being free doesn’t count.
- Take a matching pair of tiles: You may take an available tile from the topmost floor of the Castle and then immediately take another of the exact same tile from any floor, provided the second tile is also available. If two identical tiles (same color + number of shapes) are not available, you may not take this action, but you can take this action if taking the first tile causes the second tile to become available.
- Take a tile and a Shrine: You may take any available tile from the topmost floor of the Castle and a Shrine from the supply, adding that Shrine to your Shrine pool on your player board.
- Take and discard a tile: You may take any available tile from the topmost floor of the Castle and discard it, returning it to the box. After doing this, gain 1 VP.
- Summon the Dragon: You may only use this when there are no tiles remaining on top of other tiles (meaning the structure is down to its first floor). When Summoning the Dragon, take the rightmost-available Countdown Token and add it to your supply. It’s worth 2VP.
Add Tiles to Your Player Board
If you took tiles as your action, you now add them to your Player Board. Tiles may be placed anywhere as long as they’re either on top of the Player Board or on top of a face-down tile (up to a stack of three tiles total). If you took two tiles, they don’t have to be placed adjacent to each other, either.
If after placing tiles, you’ve created a group of at least four tiles that are the same color and orthogonally adjacent (regardless of level), you must Consolidate the tiles. When Consolidating, first, gain points for the number of tiles you’re Consolidating (you must Consolidate all tiles of the same color in a connected group):
- 4 tiles: 2VP
- 5 tiles: 3VP
- 6 tiles: 5VP
- 7 tiles: 6VP
- 8 tiles: 8VP
- Every tile after the 8th: +1 additional VP per tile.
Then, flip every tile you’re Consolidating face-down. After doing that, depending on the type of tile you consolidated, you may add Shrines from your Shrine pool, as long as you place them on top of tiles you Consolidated this turn. No going back after the fact.
- Faction Tile (red / yellow / green): You may add one shrine.
- Special Tile (black / blue): You may add two shrines.
- Dragon Tile (pink): You may add two shrines. Regardless, gain 1 additional VP.
End of Game
After a player Summons the Dragon and takes a Countdown token revealing the exclamation point underneath, the final round is in progress! The game will end at the conclusion of this round (so every player gets an equal number of turns).
Once the final round is over, total your scores:
- Add up your VP tokens;
- Any Shrines on your player board are worth 1 point per tile they’re on top of;
- Add in your Countdown Tokens (2VP per Countdown Token);
- And add any points gained from Dragon Cards.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Given that it’s a bit difficult to directly interact with your opponents beyond taking tiles that you think they want, I’d say there aren’t player count differences as much as there are variable setup differences. There’s some capacity for multiple players to fight over the same tile type (and that capacity increases as the number of players increases), but there are frequently enough available tile types that everyone can kind of grab their own thing if they want. I’d generally recommend not stealing another player’s tiles unless you have to just because it doesn’t really help you and it only mildly hurts them. But, given a finite number of tiles and more players, I generally expect scores to be a bit lower at higher player counts since the tiles are distributed a bit more. This, of course, depends on your setup; not every setup uses all the tiles, so fewer tiles can sometimes make for a shorter game. It really is up to the players, as once you get to the first level players can Summon the Dragon and end the game themselves (eventually). That does gently push me away from four players, but I wouldn’t say I have any real problem with it; I just like it being my turn. So my general preference is two to three players for Dragon Castle.
- Choosing which tile to take is as much an art as it is a strategy; look for what other players need and want and either deny them by taking the tile or strand them by making other tiles unreachable. You can see pretty easily who’s collecting Dragon Tiles. I wouldn’t necessarily start collecting them myself out of spite (unless I need fodder for a Spirit Power), but it might behoove me to not necessarily make them super available, either. Just taking tiles from the Dragon Castle with reckless abandon can sometimes open up unintended opportunities for opponents, and we don’t like that; we want them to struggle.
- Also, don’t forget to get Shrines. Everyone forgets this. There’s nothing more unsatisfying than completing a Storm or Flower set and then noticing that you only have one Shrine (or zero, ouch) to place. Try to keep two in stock, if you’re planning to consolidate the higher-value sets, otherwise you’ll miss out on big placement opportunities (and likely additional points from the Dragon Card).
- Don’t always just Consolidate as soon as you can. This is not your best strategy, since you’re really limiting your scoring potential to just a few points per set. At the highest tier of tile counts, you’re scoring a point per tile, so you’re doubling your score output over what you get at four tiles (half a point per tile). It’s worth the investment.
- If you’re trying to hold off on Consolidating, you need to structure your play area such that you are never connecting sets of four tiles. Remember, you must Consolidate if you can, and as such you need to make sure you keep your tiles separated so that you can easily make big consolidations quickly but aren’t forced to make small ones. Essentially, almost-connected groups of three tiles that you can quickly connect can get you a group of eight tiles with one good turn, so try to do things like that. Diagonals are also your friend, here, since they’re not considered to be adjacent in Dragon Castle.
- Keep in mind that not Consolidating leaves you vulnerable to your opponents taking the tiles you want. If I see a player going for eight Dragon tiles, you bet I’ll probably grab a couple that I can see so that their options are reduced. The best possible outcome is sticking them with two unconsolidated sets that they end up not being able to score. Is it rude? Yes. Profitable? Of course. So, a good combination.
- While Dragons are often the most lucrative tiles to Consolidate, they also are the least-frequently occurring tile, so be mindful of that. Like I said, this leaves you vulnerable to getting sniped by an opponent, but it’s also just hard to Consolidate eight Dragon Tiles. You’re much better off with other tile types. That said, if a lot are available, it might be worth it. Plus, with the extra VP you get from them, you essentially get a free tile added no matter what tier you Consolidate at.
- Try to layer your tiles as you place them so that you can build Shrines on particularly high peaks, but remember that you can only place Shrines on tiles you previously Consolidated. This throws a lot of players off. Creating peaks is cool, but you need to place Shrines on them as as soon as you Consolidate. You don’t want to accidentally make a three-tile rise that you can’t place a Shrine on; then it’s just a useless point on your board.
- The Dragon Card in play is usually worth pursuing; extra points count for a lot. I wouldn’t call Dragon Castle a particularly high-scoring game; scores tend to be around 40 (in my games) and winners tend to have a bit over 40 points. This means if you’re pulling an extra 6 or 8 points from something, you might be able to swing the game in your favor. So keep the Dragon Card in mind when you’re making moves and try to appease it.
- I don’t usually discard tiles for points, but I suppose you can if you’d prefer. There are times where it’s worth doing, especially if it’s the last tile of its kind and your opponent needs it to Consolidate. It’s again, a very mean thing to do, but it might tilt the game in your favor, so it may be worth it? Largely, however, I see benefitting myself in this game to be slightly more efficient than attacking my opponents.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The tiles are really the star of this game, and they’re excellent. They’ve got a very ideal weight and texture to them, and the depth of the design enhances the tactile experience of playing with them. They’re just all-around well-made tiles, and I really like them. It does make me slightly worried (see later) that the game had to skimp on some other quality components to stay in a decent price range on the tiles, but given that the game centers around them, it might have been the right call.
- I love that the game gives you additional starting configurations and instructions on how to make your own. Half of the fun is just building the starting castle, I think. I like planning out what makes sense for our player count and getting the other players to help. There are a ton of interesting variant setups in the rulebook, but them giving you their guidelines for making your own is a really nice touch, as well. It lets players really make the game their own, and I appreciate that.
- Building your own little tile castle is quite fun. I like it! It gives me a real sense of progress as the game goes on and I enjoy getting to strategize about what goes where and how high some things should be versus others.
- The game, overall, is pretty soothing. I would call it only gently competitive; you’re never destroying things that other players have built; you’re just occasionally blocking their plans to get something that they want by taking it for yourself. There’s still some opportunity for hate-drafting (taking a tile someone else needs and discarding it for points), but in my games I haven’t seen a ton of that. It might be the group that we play with.
- The Spirit and the Dragon art are both pretty great, as well. I like it! I’m generally a fan of unlined art, since I like the edge-to-edge color contrast (see Samurai Jack for examples), but I think it really pops here and looks solid. There’s a nice use of color everywhere in the game, as well; I really like how the player boards turned out (and I like that they all connect to form a pseudo-panorama!).
- The game doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome at any point, which is nice. The nice thing about Dragon Castle is that if you start getting bored or wanting the game to end, you can just start Summoning the Dragon on your turn. By the time the game starts nearing its final phase, the second floor has usually been completely deconstructed anyways, so you can just start accelerating the end of the game.
- The core turn loop is pretty straightforward, which I appreciate. There’s occasionally some confusion about whether two tiles are the same (it mostly happens with the swords), but it’s quickly resolved. I think players almost always feel like they can make progress on their turn, which is a nice feeling.
- Having some symbol on the Spirits to indicate that you have to discard a tile or Shrine to use their ability would be helpful. It’s just a commonly-forgotten rule, I’ve found. Players don’t immediately remember it and then they want to use the ability they may not be in the right place to do so. Just a quick icon would go a long way.
- I do keep worrying that I’m going to knock over some major part of the game and render it unplayable, especially with the more precarious setups. I just get nervous around precarious games where the dexterity isn’t immediately part of the gameplay itself. Thankfully, we haven’t had any major incidents, though the Forbidden City setup is very precarious, itself. I guess part of the art of the game is the implications of danger?
- The player boards and main board are surprisingly flimsy? Flimsy to the point of mildly warping during our first game? I’m not sure if that was a humidity thing or something, but the corners were bowing upwards by the end of it and we had to place the boards below other games for the rest of our game day to flatten them out.
- Having to flip tiles over once you’ve placed them in complicated arrangements can be annoying. It just takes a while. We do tell players when we play that as long as the tiles go back into the spots they were in, we don’t really care which tiles get placed where, so consolidation can go a bit faster since you’re not returning the tiles to their exact starting positions. It doesn’t super matter once they’re face-down.
- I’m still trying to figure out how to efficiently set up the tiles. The stacks can be a bit wobbly and prone to occasionally falling over (they’re not the most structurally-secure things in the world), so getting the starting setup together can take a minute. Even longer if you’re just doing it by yourself, like I had to for my photography game of this. Never the ideal, but there’s not much you can do given that the center “board” is essentially just cardstock.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I’ve been pretty impressed with Dragon Castle! Sure, setup can take a minute since you have to build the thing, but from start to finish, I think the game is a nice, relaxing, only mildly-competitive experience! I find the destruction-construction conversion process soothing, and I think it’s a lot of fun choosing the initial layout for the game. As with many games, I’m a big fan of structuring the game so that at the end of it, you feel like you’ve built something interesting, and even without the Dragon challenges for extra points, I think that I end up with a neat-looking castle area and shrines. The levelled nature of the game works really well for that; the tiles have a good thickness to them, so the player boards really get a 3D effect as the game progresses (and the shrines help a lot with that effect). I worry occasionally about knocking the central structure over, but that’s just my anxious energy, I think. If you’re looking for something that lets you build and collect sets and has a little bit of competition to it, I’d recommend checking out Dragon Castle! I had a nice time with it.
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