Buzzworthiness: Professor Treasure’s Secret Sky Castle

Thanks to Level 99 Games for providing a review copy of today’s game.

There is a castle on a cloud
I like to go there in my sleep
Aren’t any floors for me to sweep
Not in my castle on a cloud
-Castle on a Cloud, Les Misérables

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Professor Treasure’s Secret Sky Castle is a relatively new game from designer Jason D. Kingsley and published by Level 99 Games.  It’s a two-player game where players are controlling a team of treasure hunters trying to steal riches from the Professor’s floating stronghold.  It’s OK, though – he stole it first.

The game comes with 16 role cards, 18 Skeleton Key cards, 36 Castle tiles, and 2 reference cards.  At the start of the game, you’ll shuffle up the castle tiles and deal them into a 3×4 grid.  Each player will get a set of eight role cards (each set is the same) and a reference card.  The Skeleton Keys are kept in a deck nearby.

image by BGG user kalchio

This game is played over the course of three rounds.  At the start of each round, players will simultaneously prepare their roles.  To do this, randomly discard two of the eight, then divide the remaining six into facedown groups.  The first player will divide theirs into three groups of two, and the second player will divide theirs into two groups of three.  You can do this strategically if you like, but the rules recommend doing it randomly until you’re familiar with the game.

Once the roles are split, players take turns distributing a group to the board.  On your turn, pick up a group, and put all 2-3 onto tiles on the board as indicated by the role you’re placing.  Once all roles are placed, you’ll resolve them in sequential order, beginning with #1 and moving up to #7.  So, what are the roles?

image by BGG user kalchio

#1: The Scout.  You may swap the tile he’s on with an adjacent tile.  End his turn by taking the tile he’s on.
#2: The Lookout.  He will take the tile he’s on, which may not be swapped.
#3: The Sentry.  He protects himself and an ally (if you place him under said ally) from Theft, and can take the tile he’s on or a diagonal tile.
#4: The Captain.  He is placed outside a row or column, and on his turn, may take a tile from that row or column.
#5:  The Jeweler.  She simply takes a tile in her row or column.
#6: The Smuggler.  If the tile she is on gets taken (not thieved), she immediately gets to take an adjacent tile.  Otherwise, on her turn, she’ll take the tile she’s on.
#7: The Explorer.  He is placed on a tile or on top of another role.  That role cannot resolve until The Explorer has resolved.  He cannot take the tile he is on, but can take one that is orthogonally adjacent.
!: The Thief.  She is placed outside of a column.  If a rival takes a tile in that column, she can thieve it.

There are three types of tiles in the game – Artifacts, Chests, and Keys.  Artifacts are all the same, and each one scores one more point than the last.  So the first scores 1 point, the second scores 2, the third scores 3, and so on.  Said another way, you get 1-3-6-10… points for 1-2-3-4… Artifacts.

Chests have specific amounts of points on them, but in order to claim them, you need Keys.  Once you claim Keys, you can use them to open a Chest.  Once used, Keys are flipped over and cannot be used again until the next round.  If you don’t have enough Keys, but really want to take a Chest, you can take Skeleton Keys to make up the difference.  The first Skeleton Key you take is free, but all subsequent Skeleton Keys you take get you negative points.  The second Key is -1, the third is -2, and so on.  So scoring is just like for the Artifacts, only negative and the first Skeleton Key is 0 instead of 1.  Unlike regular Keys, Skeleton Keys can only be used once.

A round ends when all role cards have been resolved.  At the end of rounds one and two, redeal the castle into a 3×4 grid, leaving any unclaimed tiles where they were.  Play order then switches, and you play a new round.  At the end of the third round, add up the scores to see who won.

image by BGG user Schwarzsturm

COMPONENTS: Level 99 Games are known for high production quality, and this game is no exception.  The tiles are large and thick, and well illustrated by frequent Level 99 artist Fábio Fontes.  The graphic design on the tiles is great too, with enough room to cover them with a role card and still be able to see what the tile is.  The role cards are also nicely illustrated, and it’s very clear what each one does.

There are two things I normally ding Level 99 game on, especially with their smaller box games.  One is the rule book, and one is the box size.  In this case, the box size is perfectly appropriate – the box is deeper than their small boxes usually are, and is packed full.  There’s a small insert at the bottom that can hold the cards in place while all the tiles are stacked on top.  The rulebook, however, is the traditional road map rules that they like to put in.  It’s one piece of paper that you can unfold to read all the rules, but that makes it difficult to find stuff, and you have to unfold this big bulky paper every time you want to look something up.  To it’s credit, though, there’s a nice example walking you through a complete round of resolutions, and that’s helpful for understanding card interactions.

Overall, the component quality is great, and I really don’t have a lot to complain about.

THEME: The theme here is almost non-existent.  Professor Treasure has stolen all of the world’s treasures, and put them in his sky castle.  You’re trying to collect what he has taken.  It’s almost completely disconnected to the actual gameplay.  My guess is that the floating city theme is pretty popular lately, so it got attached to this game, which probably also could have been a dragon’s hoard, or pirate themed, or anything.  The title is also, frankly, terrible. It gives no sense of what the game is, and makes it seem like a kid’s game.  While the game is a lighter family strategy game, it’s certainly not just for children.

All that said, I do like the way the characters all look and the general aesthetic of the game.  I wish the artifacts did not look exactly the same, but overall it looks good.

MECHANICS: I’d say that, at its core, this game is a programming game.  At the start of each round, you’re dividing your cards into groups, essentially programming the way the roles phase will play out.  Then, during the roles phase, you’re assigning those roles to various places (which brings in some worker placement).  In the castle phase, you’ll resolve all the roles, and they may not play out the way you had planned.  That healthy dose of chaos (with some strategy behind it) is something that really appeals to me.

The initial division of cards is a very interesting part of the game to me.  With eight roles, two are removed randomly and the rest are split into groups based on turn order – 3 groups of 2 for the first player, 2 groups of 3 for the second player.  This means the first player gets to place first and last, while the second player gets to place more at a time.  And because you have to decide the split before you start playing, it adds an extra element of intrigue to the proceedings.

The roles all seem to work pretty well, with some of the more powerful ones coming out later in the order.  Because you can take tiles out from other people, you’re not safe by putting roles on tiles, but that’s why the early ones can take just the ones they’re on while later ones can spread out a little.  It seems they’re in a pretty logical order for resolution.

The game itself is not very dense in rules and mechanisms, but what is there leads to some pretty good strategic decisions.

STRATEGY LEVEL: This being a programming game, there’s quite a bit of chaos, meaning that it’s a little tough to work out a good long term strategy.  And because you don’t know exactly what your opponent has amongst their cards, you just have to make your best guess a lot of time.  But the randomness in the game is limited to the board set up and which roles are removed (and the distribution of the roles into sets if that’s the way you’re playing).  Beyond that, it’s purely about the tactical decisions you’re making.

ACCESSIBILITY: Level 99 does a great thing with their games – along with the player count and play time, there’s a complexity rating (called Intensity).  This one is categorized as light, and I think that’s completely apt.  While the decisions are sometimes tough to make, it’s not rules heavy, there are only three types of tiles to be working for, and the roles are all clearly spelled out on the cards.  While it might be a little heavier than what your basic non-hobby gamer might be used to, I think this is a game anyone could pick up.

REPLAYABILITY: Different castle setups, different role configurations – these are the things that contribute to the replayability of this game.  While it’s certainly not a game that will be played continuously, I do think it’s a solid title that won’t get stale because of sameness terribly quickly.

SCALABILITY: This is a two-player only game, and while I suppose it’s possible someone will come up with a solo variant at some point, I think the sweet spot will always be two.  I did play it once against two people working as a team, and that was fine.  Actually, they creamed me, so it was terrible.  But seriously, it was fine.

INTERACTION: You’re not playing your own game here -you and your opponent are competing for the same tiles, so there’s a lot of interaction in the game.

TIME: The box says a game takes about 20-30 minutes, and I think that’s reasonably accurate.  Turns in the role phase go fairly quickly, and the resolution in the castle phase is simultaneous and programmed, so that goes quickly too.

FOOTPRINT: All the space you need here is for a 3×4 grid of tiles, plus a little extra on the edge for the Captain and Thief roles.  You also need a spot to keep the tiles you have collected, but all in all, this is a fairly small footprint game.  You probably want more than an airline tray, but a small table should be fine.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I really like this game.  It can probably be classified as a filler game, but that isn’t a detriment to me.  I think it has some very clever mechanisms, offers a lot of decision making opportunities, and provides a good time for what it offer.  I definitely recommend it.

Thanks again to Level 99 Games for providing the review copy of Professor Treasure’s Secret Sky Castle, and thanks to you for reading!

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