Time for a review of an abstract game from an unlikely publisher:
Castellan is a game that was designed by Beau Beckett and published by Steve Jackson Games, who apparently decided to take a break from all the Munchkin. It was published in 2013 and is for two players only, though if you get a second set (the green and yellow box), you can play with up to 4. This is a game that is all about building castle enclosures, and is a bit reminiscent of the childhood game Dots and Boxes (aka Dots, aka Boxes, aka Squares, aka Pigs in a Pen, etc). You remember that game, right? Make a quire grid of dots, then take turns adding a line and trying to create a box. The player who makes the most boxes wins. Well, this is similar, but not really the same thing.
Each set of the game comes with 108 plastic pieces – 28 long walls, 30 short walls, 32 towers, and 20 keeps (10 per player in their color). You also get 28 cards, 14 for each player. There are two types of cards – wall cards and tower cards, and these are shuffled into separate piles for the player to draw from. They both show walls and towers, but the wall deck tends to have more walls and the tower deck tends to have more towers. You’ll begin the game with four cards – two wall and two tower.
On your turn, you play as many of your cards as you like (at least one). These cards will show the pieces you can use on your turn. You collect them and start building. You must use all of the pieces – anything you can’t use is passed to an opponent for their next turn. Whenever you complete a courtyard, you mark it with one of your keeps. A completed courtyard is an area completely surrounded by walls. If the area is big enough and you have left yourself some towers in the middle of walls, you can even build within that area. No one else can build in an area you have claimed.
Once during a game, you can play two keeps in a single area, one on top of the other. You have now doubled the points for that area.
At the end of your turn, you draw one card, choosing which deck to take it from. Each card you play that also has a card icon allows you to draw one extra card. When one player runs out of cards, everyone else draws all remaining cards and take one final super turn. Once everyone is done, count up your points. Each enclosure scores one point per tower on the walls. The player with the most points wins.
COMPONENTS: This is a box filled with plastic. They’re really nice pieces too – the walls, towers, and keeps are all really well made. Sometimes, you get a little bit of an issue with trying to cram a tower connecter into the top of a wall slot, but if you go from the bottom, they usually slide right in. There’s exactly as many pieces in the box as you need (i.e. exactly as many as are shown on the cards), and each one is exactly the right size. The cards are kind of bland, but they’re functional for what they are. It’s very clear what you need when you play one. Great bits in this game.
THEME: There’s a sort of castle building theme here, but it’s pretty weak. Just look at this one as an abstract game and you’ll be fine.
MECHANICS: This is a fairly basic game. There is some card play with your hands, and determining when to play what is a crucial part of the game. There’s some hand management there as you can play as much as you want, but then you won’t have many cards left. The majority of the game is in the placement of walls and towers and trying to enclose areas for maximum points. It is nice that there is a different distribution of pieces on each card, making for a crucial decision when determining what you need and what you can play. The addition of a card icon on some of the cards is nice to help players regain some cards after playing big hands. Also, the ability to stack a keep for double points is a good thing to have.
The game is very simple mechanically, which is a good thing. The real complexity of the game comes in the strategy.
STRATEGY LEVEL: As an abstract, this game really is all about the player moves. You have to be mindful of making enclosures, and want to aim to make at least one per turn. Creating opportunities for combos is an interesting emerging strategy in the game – this is what I call it when you create a large enclosure, then spin off a smaller enclosure inside it. The big thing to watch out for is not making things too simple for your opponents – whatever you do, do NOT make a third wall for someone else to finish later. Knowing when to place your double keep is an important decision, and you should do it with an enclosure that is already scoring you a lot of points.
ACCESSIBILITY: This is an extremely simple game, and one that I think all experience levels of people can get into. The tactile nature of the walls helps with accessibility because everyone likes building stuff. And, much as I hate to admit it, the Steve Jackson label also draws people in. In fact, the first time I played, it was because someone pulled it off the shelf at a gaming event and wanted to learn it because it was a Steve Jackson game. It’s nothing like Munchkin (thankfully), but people like the company, so there it is. Overall, I’d put this one as a solid gateway game.
SCALABILITY: With one box, this is a two-player game. If you want to play 3-4, you need a second set. With the amount of plastic in the game, you can see why. No point in getting a full $60 game if you only need components for two players. And I will say I haven’t played with 2 players yet. I have played with 3 and 4, and while I really do like the game with those numbers, a) it leads to a significant amount of downtime, particularly when playing with people who suffer from Analysis Paralysis; and b) it makes it nearly impossible to plan ahead because the board will change so much between turns. Still, with more players, you get a bigger area, and if that’s your thing, go for it.
REPLAYABILITY: There are always going to be new layouts to explore, so I think this game has a lot of replayability. With just 14 cards per player, you’d think the game would have the potential to go stale after a while, but the way you use your pieces is always going to change.
INTERACTION: There’s not a lot of interaction, other than building off of what your opponents have done. There’s no way to affect play when it’s not your turn, and you can chat and carry on during other player turns without missing anything.
FOOTPRINT: The layout can get pretty big, especially with four players. Still, it’s not too bad – I’d say a medium size table should fit your needs.
LEGACY: I’ve referenced Munchkin several times because it’s another Steve Jackson game that I intensely dislike. It’s far too random, and it takes far too long for me to have fun. But it’s a huge cash cow for the company, and it allows them to make other games like Castellan. So for that, I’m grateful.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes. Castellan is a great game for people who enjoy abstracts, 3-D components, and building stuff. On my Yeah-Meh-Bleah scale, I give it an earnest
Thanks for reading!