Dale Yu: Castles by the Sea

Castles By The Sea

  • Designers: Jon Benjamin and Michael Xuereb
  • Publisher: Brotherwise Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 12+
  • Time: 30-45 minutes
  • Played with review copy provided by publisher

In Castles By The Sea, each player tries to lead their tribe of Shorelings to build the best kingdom of castles. To start, the board is created for the appropriate number of players, with sandy tiles placed around a central tide pool. Stone blocks and seaweed tokens are placed on the board on the grid spaces where their matching icon is found.

Three hazards (out of 6 available) are chosen, and one is placed on each of three sides of the board. The matching 6 card deck for each hazard is assembled and shuffled. Each player also takes their player board, and then the table agrees upon which Player cards will be used in the game; all players will use an identical set. Appropriate wooden bits are placed on the spaces at the top of these Player cards. Any bits not used are returned to the box. If you want a themed game, there are a number of predetermined sets of Player Cards and Hazards found in the rulebook. To complete setup, each player is dealt a facedown hand of three cards from the Castle card deck.

There are 5 steps to each player’s turn: Gather, Build, Piece, Score, and Hazard. When all 5 steps are complete, the next player does the same. When the last player in turn order takes their turn, they move the turn marker ahead one space and another round is played. If the turn order marker was already at the last space, the game instead ends.

Gather: Take 3 sand blocks plus additional blocks based on pieces destroyed on your previous turn.

rather than reinvent the wheel, this gif is from the publisher

Build: Build any number of sand blocks on the board. Each successive block placed this turn must touch a face of another block you’ve built this turn. You can start your build this turn almost anywhere. You can never place a block on top of another player’s colored piece. If you build on a space with a Seaweed token, you pick up that token – and it is worth 2 VPs. (If you meet the criteria on one of your Castle cards, you can reveal it and score it now.)

Place: Based on the criteria found on the Player cards for each piece, you may place as many of your player pieces as you can. Legal placement is when your piece matches the criteria on its card and it is connected to a block you built this turn. (If you meet the criteria on one of your Castle cards, you can reveal it and score it now.)

Score: Look at the Player cards in front of you and score a number of sand dollars that you can see (there are sand dollars in the empty boxes for each of your placed pieces).

Hazard: Choose any one Hazard and move it one board edge clockwise, putting it on any unoccupied location on that edge; Then flip the other two hazards- unless you’re playing a 4 player game where you flip just one of them.  Now look at all the cards for the Hazards which were flipped; if there are 3 or more alert (!) icons visible, that Hazard happens, and pieces likely get destroyed in the row or column where that hazard marker is currently sitting. The Hazard marker then moves clockwise to the next side of the board onto the same icon, and the deck for that hazard is reshuffled.

After the final round of play, there is a special final Hazard round. Each player in turn order gets to move one Hazard and then flip over the unchosen ones (only one in a 4p game) and then resolves any Hazards if triggered. After each player has done this, everyone collects Sand Blocks as normal and then has one final scoring. The player with the most points is the winner; ties broken by the player with the most Sand Blocks left.

My thoughts on the game

Castles by the Sea has been a fun and beautiful experience thus far, though a bit swingy, and a bit dog-pile on the leader-y, but for a quick playing game, it works for me. Let me explore each of those things a bit more.

Fun – well, I like the puzzle each turn of figuring out where to build my blocks and how to maximize the placement of pieces and scoring that comes from those placements. The restriction on building contiguously and then only being able to place on/next to those blocks makes it a challenge. Additionally, the board is constantly changing as the other players and hazards constantly modify the board.

Beautiful – the artwork is really nice. The overall graphic design is appealing, and the game looks great on the table as the cubes are built up and then torn down by the Hazards. The illustrations on the card and box are in a style I find very attractive.

Swingy – there is a fair bit of randomness to the game, and bad things will happen to you from time to time. The hazards happen at varying frequency due to luck of the draw; and you might be targeted more than others based on dumb luck. You might also be lucky to have Castle cards which score for easy criteria where your opponents get stuck with cards that are hard to accomplish and weirdly don’t score extra points for such a hard task. I would have liked those cards to maybe feel a bit more balanced. I’ll admit that we’ve only played a handful of times and perhaps I’m not seeing how easy/hard it is to accomplish certain cards; but man, a few of them really seem like they don’t give enough reward for the necessary effort.

Dogpile – Let’s just say it’s not healthy to be the perceived leader at the end of the game because I guarantee you that all the other opponents will try to hit you with a Hazard. In the end, the extra round at the end is no different than any other Hazard placement  in that the player gets to choose which Hazard token to move and which non-moving Hazard to trigger… but having to endure a final round of this can be brutal to the leading player. It’s a bit kingmaker-y, and that’s not my favorite way to end the game. As the scores are open (well, the rules don’t tell us to hide our sand dollars), the player to be targeted is pretty easy to figure out.

Quick – Once you know the rules, games can easily be played in 20-30 minutes. In a four player game, each player only gets four turns to place blocks and score – and even with the most AP prone players, it doesn’t take that long to take your turn. 

The rulebook seems to be clear and about half of it is devoted to explanations of the different Player card actions, Hazard rules and clarifications on Piece placement. That being said, we still find that we often have to refer to the rules to keep things clear. We also have to police each other when we play with pieces that require certain spaces on the board to remain permanently empty. It’s easy to forget to keep all the Structure based rules in your head when you’re working on your building and scoring plan.

The game should feel different each time based on the Hazards which are chosen as well as the Player cards used. The pre-built sets are nice and should provide you with a more cohesive theme, though I will say that the one time we chose everything completely randomly, the game still worked just fine and felt the same as with the proposed sets.

After my first few plays, I’m still having fun with it, though I’m not sure there is a lot of game space left to explore, even with the changing components and rules each time out. It is a fairly easy going puzzle game, though unfortunately, maybe not quite easy enough to break out with my non-gaming family or friends. The rules for placement and Hazard resolution are really too complex for that crowd, and maybe not quite meaty enough for my regular gaming group to call it to the table again and again. Trying to figure out the right audience for future plays may be the biggest challenge for me and Castles By The Sea.  It does work pretty well as a solo endeavor on a quiet day.

There is apparently a Riptide expansion which adds a bit more to the game, but this was only made available to the initial Kickstarter backers, and those components and rules were not included in the retail version that I have. It sounds like that may add the extra bit of complexity for veteran gamers.

I will probably end up bringing it to the lakehouse as we can see the beach from the porch there, and hope to play it on days where we’re looking for a themed game to match the backdrop. (Though I really hope there isn’t a Sandstorm nor a Dragon up on the lakeshore!) For now, until I can get my cousins into more serious games, it may be more for the solo version of the game which is included in the rules; but maybe as they see the game on the table, they’ll grow interested in it and want to learn how to play.

Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor

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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