Dale Yu: Review of Dragon Castle

Dragon Castle

  • Designers: Lorenzo Silva, Hjalmar Hach, Luca Ricci
  • Publisher: Horrible Games
  • Players:2-4
  • Ages: 8+
  • Time: 40-60 minutes
  • Times played: 6, with review copy provided by Horrible Games

Prior to SPIEL 2017, Dragon Castle was high on my list of games to track down. All I had to go on was a few promotional pictures, but it showed a familiar tableau of Mahjongg tiles set up on a table – and I was immediately interested. I grew up playing a traditional Filipino form of Mahjongg, and I have also whiled away many an hour on my phone/computer playing the matching solitaire game that many of you are likely familiar with. The pictures looked to be more like the solitaire version, but I would be interested either way. I was also interested in the game when I saw the name Hjalmar Hach as one of the designers. I quite like his other 2017 release, Photosynthesis, and I was very intrigued to see what else he had to offer.

When I received my copy, I was a bit dismayed to find out that it was heavy – because, the new airline restrictions on weight make it more and more challenging to get the games home from Essen… When I opened the box, I found out that the weight was due to a 116-tile set of Mahjongg tiles – not a full Chinese set because the three suits only go up to six instead of nine.

examples of some of the different tiles

To start the game, the tiles are all shuffled and then placed in a pattern to form the Dragon Castle for the game. The rules have a few suggested layouts that can be used as well as rules for creating one of your own. The Castle is built on a central board, and there are spaces for Countdown tokens at the edge of this board. A full stack is placed on the left most space, and then one is placed on the spaces to the right until the number of players in the particular game is covered. A Dragon card is drawn at random and placed face up next to the board – this shows the bonus scoring objective for the game. Each player also gets a personal board and one plastic black Shrine to be put in the supply area. Finally, a Spirit card is dealt to each player, and this card will show the special ability available to each player for this game.

the basic castle – pic courtesy of Henk Rolleman

On a turn, a player takes one of the three action options (generally to gain a tile or two), and then the player must place the tiles onto his personal board.

– Remove a pair of tiles from the Castle – to do this, you must first take an Available tile from the uppermost level of the Castle, and then you may take any available tile (from anywhere in the Castle) that has the exact same symbol on it. An available tile is any tile that has a long side free.
– Take a Tile and a Shrine – Take any available tile from the uppermost level of the Dragon Castle, and take one Shrine to add to your personal board supply
– Discard a Tile – Discard any available tile from the uppermost level of the Dragon Castle, place this tile facedown next to your player board, and take 1VP.
Once you have taken one of these three actions, you then place any tiles you have acquired onto your player board. The new tiles must go on either an empty space on your board or onto a facedown tile. The new tile(s) cannot be placed on a faceup tile or on top of a Shrine.
Once the new tile or tiles have been placed, check to see if you must consolidate tiles. Any time that you have 4 or more tiles in an orthogonally adjacent grouping of the SAME suit, you MUST consolidate them. Note, the spaces have to be orthogonally adjacent, but the tiles can be on different levels. To do this, you flip over all of the like suited tiles in that group. You will score VPs based on the number of tiles you flipped over: 2/3/5/6/8/+1 for 4/5/6/7/8/+1 tiles flipped over.

Additionally, you are able to place some Shrines onto your board if you wish – and as long as you have them in your supply. The number of Shrines that you could place depends on the suit of tiles that you flipped over. If you flipped over a basic suit (red, yellow, green), you are allowed to place a single Shrine on top of any of the newly flipped over tiles. If you flipped a Season (blue) or Wind (Black) set, then you have to option to place up to two Shrines. Finally, if you flipped over a Dragon (Purple) set, you also get to place up to two Shrines, and you also get a 1VP bonus. These Shrines will score points at the end of the game based on the height of the stack of tiles that they are on – but you will also not be able to place any more tiles on that space for the rest of the game.

The four different player boards on the left – pic courtesy of Danchou @ BGG

At any point during your turn, you are allowed to discard a face up tile from your personal board or a Shrine from your personal supply in order to trigger the special ability from your Spirit card. The ten different Spirit cards have their specific rules outlined on a two page spread in the rules.

One of the spirit cards – pic courtesy of henk.rolleman @ BGG

The game enters the end-game phase once there are only tiles left on the bottom level of the castle. At the beginning of each player’s turn now, they have the choice to take one of the Countdown tokens from the central board. This Countdown token is worth 2VPs. The player then takes a turn like normal so long as there are tiles remaining in the Castle. If the exclamation point is revealed (this is the space directly to the right of the stack of tokens), the game continues only until the end of the current round – so that all players have the same number of turns in the game.
At the end of the game, four things are scored
– any VP tokens collected during play
– each Shrine is scored: 1/2/3 VPs for being on top of 1/2/3+ facedown tiles
– each Countdown token is worth 2VPs
– players each reckon the Dragon scoring card and take VPs based on how they meet the scoring criteria
The player with the most points wins. If there is a tie, the player with the most stacks topped with a facedown tile is the winner.

My thoughts on the game
I was interested in this one from the start due to a previous affinity for Mahjongg. Dragon Castle takes the well known solitaire variety of this game and adds a new dimension to it be giving players a second objective to deal with rather than just finding matching tiles to remove from the structure.
The solitaire part is nothing new – really the only change from the traditional game is that you must take a tile off the top-most level with each action. But, the addition of the player board is what makes this game shine. You have a interesting geometry puzzle to construct and solve here – you are trying to get similar suited tiles near each other, but maybe not as fast as you can, because you will be rewarded for scoring larger groups. As the game forces you to consolidate as soon as you connect four or more tiles, you have to score, so you really need to have good planning skills to maximize your score.

You may also need to keep an eye on the board and what your opponents are doing to make sure that you would be able to draw the tiles you will need to complete a set in a timely fashion. As you have a somewhat limited number of open spaces (which further reduces as Shrines get placed), planning is paramount. Further, to maximize the scoring of your Shrines, you might be required to consolidate sooner in order to provide facedown blocks on which to build on top of in later turns. The other thing to always consider is the bonus scoring offered by the Dragon tile. As you can see, there is plenty to think about when placing your tiles on your board.
Our first games felt like more simultaneous solitaire, but as we gained experience with the game, we did find that there is a fair amount of defensive play which can be undertaken – whether its taking a tile from the tableau which an opponent would really need OR choosing amongst different options as to not make a tile available for an opponent OR sometimes choosing to discard a tile from the supply for the 1VP bonus (and also hopefully to deny an opponent from a particular tile).
The components are nicely done. The tiles are nice and hefty in the hand, and they are a little smaller than my traditional Mahjongg tiles which helps keep the size of the game manageable on the table. I also was given a nice neoprene player mat which has the template grid for the Dragon Castle printed upon it. It’s a nice premium plus, but not necessary for the game.

the neoprene mat

The rules are quite simple to teach, and there is a small player aid which concisely recaps the action choices as well as the scoring rules. I have found that most players are able to learn the game within the first few rounds.

Really, the only complaint I have with the game is that it doesn’t come with some sort of robot to set up the tiles for me… I’m so used to just hitting the “shuffle” button on my computer game! 😊 But, the construction of the Castle is a good group activity, and we have had some interesting games with different layouts. The different shapes and contours of the varying setups change how many tiles may be available on the top-most level of the structure as well as how many tiles might be available at any given time. Clearly, the shape of the Castle should modify how you approach each particular game.
Thus far, the game has been well received here, and for me, the different Spirit cards, Dragon scoring cards and tableau setups have kept the game from feeling too same-y. Each game that I’ve played thus far has given me something different to consider, and at this point, I’m feeling that this one will become part of the permanent game collection.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dan Blum (2 plays): I wanted to like this game, but I am just not seeing where the interesting decision-making comes in. Dale refers to the puzzling aspect of your player board, but I found this very simple and uninteresting as there are no constraints worth mentioning. Since you can play wherever you want it’s trivial to get groups of eight if the tiles are available, so most of the game comes down to counting tiles taken and looking at the castle to figure out how likely it is you will get more of a type. The rest of it is deciding when to use your shrines, which is an actual decision, but not that difficult.

My games were with four players so it’s possible that the game is much better with fewer; players will get significantly more tiles which may mean that actual planning has to be done on the player boards. I’m rating it “neutral” partly in hope that this is true and partly because it’s short and inoffensive.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue (more than 10 plays): I really like this game. Actually I think is one of the best 2-players game published this year. I’m not really into chess-like games but Dragon Castle was able to hit me. What I really like is the mix of known-unknown: you always have a non-perfect knowledge of the available pieces. I like the way cards are changing the course of the game making any single play different. Dragon Castle is also a good 3-4 players game but with more than 2 players you lose some control of the game making it a bit more random. It is really a good gateway game because it is simple, not too much long and it use a well known set of pieces.

Patrick Brennan (2 plays):I had hopes that this might be a nice relaxing game to play with my Mum, who’s played a fair share of Mahjong Titans in her day, but it turns out to be further evidence that attempts to turn solitaire ventures into multi-player games rarely turn out well. See Sudoku. The game-play is much the same as the computer game – slide a pair of identical tiles to the sides to claim them (but one must be on the top row). Then place them into your personal tableau, and either choose to score them (if you have enough in that colour), or choose to place them in such a way so as to enable the formation of a scoring group later at a more effective points/turn ratio. If you do the former, you get the chance to build upwards (on top of previously scored groups), and higher columns can score more points. In the advanced game, you’ll also want to build towards the bonuses, so there’s some planning and choices involved. This is the best feature, because turns are bland – claim the tiles you need for your plan, and if you can’t, check out what other people are collecting and either pick what they want if it’s a one-off, or go in a separate direction in an attempt to build more later. There’s some satisfaction in executing your building plan, but it’s a quiet game and that’s what you’ll want to be after, because otherwise it’s without a lot of joy, tension, or excitement.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, Andrea “Liga” Ligabue, Craig V
  • I like it. Eric M
  • Neutral. Dan Blum, Patrick Brennan
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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4 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Dragon Castle

  1. Pingback: Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots – Mar 2018 (Part 1) | The Opinionated Gamers

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  3. Nick says:

    From who did you get the playmat if I may ask? I am looking for those as that would greatly improve upon the current thin versions.

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