Board Game Night: Castle Panic

Number of players: 1-6 (7 possible, best: 4)
Playing time: 60 minutes
By: Justin De Witt / Fireside Games
Rank on BoardGameGeek: 719th

Castle Panic is a co-op strategy game about defending a castle in the middle of a monster-ridden forest that's become a staple of our board game nights here at the Siskoid homestead, and I thought it might be a good one with which to start my series on tabletop games.

Simply put, the forest has six quadrants (I know, I know, "quadrant" isn't the right word) in three colors from which monsters - chits you draw at random every player's turn, which may include devastating plagues, bosses, and rolling boulders in addition to the usual Goblins, Orcs and Trolls - advance to demolish your ramparts. You use cards, face up on the table so you can trade them (in a limited way) with your fellow players, to fight them from different distances and in different colors, as well as pull neat tricks, rebuild walls, etc. You can rebuild your outer ramparts, but if you lose all six pieces of the interior tower, that's it, you lose.

I really love cooperative games. You win together, and very often lose together, and I think the game engines that allow you to play against an analog "computer" are pretty clever. The best ones overrun you with challenges and create, yes, a sense of "panic" as things get our of control. Can you rally? Do you accept defeat and resolutely see just how close you've gotten to a victory? Win or lose, co-op games offer a communal experience that takes the sting out of losses, and turns victories into real celebrations, and because players work together, veterans can help rookie players and there isn't that sense of inadequacy that sometimes crops up in those situations. So is Castle Panic a good entry in the genre?

I say yes. It's definitely well titled, and there will be moments when you think all is lost. Some of it is luck of the draw - getting the right cards is seldom a problem, but the timing on certain monster chits could make a big difference. Castle Panic's best feature is that it's simple enough to teach and quickly grasp, while still being adequately deep in terms of strategy. The game asks you (and allows you) to anticipate where monsters will be on any given player's turn (nasty surprises are still possible), but also forces you to make choices. You will have to make sacrifices in order to keep your castle intact. As for difficulty, I'd say you can beat the game maybe 1 out 4 times, which is about the normal for co-op games, usually coming close enough to victory that it doesn't feel brutal and discouraging.


Though other themes are available (there is a Dead Panic and a Star Trek Panic now), the original game has a Medieval/Fantasy theme, with an Arthurian castle under siege from Tolkien types. Does the game play to that theme? Well, yes and no. On the monster side, you do get the feeling of a giant horde coming out of the dark woods, and the range element (coming into range of Archers, Knights/Cavalry and Swordsmen, with Heroes running the entire field) makes sense. There's hit point attrition, special powers, those crazy boulders, that all works well. But who are YOU in this scenario? "Generals" swapping soldiers that apparently can only fight in one colored quadrant because you can't command everyone at once? Do the monsters HAVE to break down your walls? Why can't they just fight you in the halls? So that's where the mechanics take over and you lose the theme, and it's why you CAN overlay different themes on top of the core game and still have it work. But I don't think that's something you really notice while playing. Your focus is on the monsters.

Good without being spectacular, I'd say the pieces are sturdy enough (but mostly glossy cardboard) and the art does the job. The ramparts stand up with little mounts, and it's all very easy to put together and take apart, with fortifications ingeniously simple additions. The monster chits are wedges that are easy to spin to show where their hit points are at, though they all kind of look the same (green guys). 3D miniatures just wouldn't have worked on random draws, but those would have made the game look much cooler. As is, it's a fairly generic-looking game, but not an unpleasant one. The expansions' components are more colorful, but of the same quality, and The Wizard's Tower adds a bag to draw chits from.
House Rules and Expansions
If the game ever becomes too easy, there are always variations you can try, but if it becomes too hard, I recommend turning one player into the Overlord who controls the monsters. First, it allows you to play up to SEVEN players, and second, when someone makes decisions for the monsters instead of dice rolls, that person can make mistakes and isn't usually as relentless and chaotic as the game engine (but mileage may vary). The game also has a few expansions that add complexity. The Wizard's Tower has another building, spells and the possibility of walls catching on fire, for example, as well as new monsters and new ways to fight them. Same for The Dark Titan and Engines of War (which does have 3D tokens for camps, barracks, siege towers, etc. I have the first two and have only really dabbled with the first. As with most game expansions, I only like to break them out when there are no newcomers at the table, which explains their lack of use, and then I find we're always looking at rule sheets to see what such and such a component does, extending play time in the process.

One silly house rule we use is putting a little plastic pony in the middle of the central tower. Poor little Beatrice raises the stakes. Now we know what we're defending, and it's always sad when she ends up as lunch for the dark horde. Feel free to put anything you want in there.
In conclusion: Castle Panic has that perfect co-op mix of rational strategic decision-making and visceral panic, and is easy enough to serve as a gateway into the game genre, and I would definitely recommend it for an all-ages/all-experiences group. Expansions will add more depth for the more hardcore gamer. I give it 4 safe ponies out of 5.


Anonymous said...

Four quadrants = six ... sextants? I've never heard of this one, but it sounds pretty cool. Do the numbers on the chits represent hit points? Kinda weird that a basilisk has more hit points than a golem.

Mike W.

Siskoid said...

Yes, those are hit points. I think it's because the Basilisk is a unique monster (other with that shape are like, dragons), and the Golem is a mere servitor monster, here equivalent to a Troll (though with a special ability).


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