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Subject: MeepleTown Reviews: Castle Panic rss

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Derek Thompson
United States
Marion
Indiana
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I’ve come around somewhat, but I generally dislike cooperative games. Initially I thought it was simply because I prefer head-to-head competition, and that’s part of it, but the more cooperative games I play, the more I find that it’s not so easy to group them all together. Castle Panic! is a cooperative game from newcomer Justin DeWitt and his own Fireside Games, and was first released in 2009. Players work together to protect a six-towered castle from a constant onslaught of orcs, goblins, and trolls. Sounds fun – but is it? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?



Components: The components of Castle Panic! are pretty straightforward. Six towers and corresponding walls go on the central board, while monster tokens are drawn at random and players draw from a common Castle deck and then play those cards to attack the monsters. There are a few tokens and reminder cards and things, but that’s really it. The artwork is decent, if a little amateurish. The rules text and board layout is very functional and clear. And the MSRP of $35 is low enough that I can’t complain too much.



Accessibility: The concept of the game makes it rather easy to learn. Each turn, you play a variety of cards to hit and kill monsters, but at the end of your turn, two more are added to the board. The goal is to kill all of the monsters before the monsters knock down all six of the central towers. There’s more to it than that, of course, but it all stems from there in a natural way.

The game system is exceedingly elegant, using arcs of different colors and rings around the castle to indicate clearly what cards can hit monsters where. All of the effects on special cards and boss monsters are also clear, and we haven’t had any rules ambiguity come up during play. It also helps that the game system emulates tower defense video games, so players familiar with the concept (or even those who have seen The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) immediately have a strong understanding of how the game works.



Depth: One unique thing about the system in Castle Panic! is that players play with their hands face up, meaning that players can puzzle out things together at once. While this can lead to a “bossy lead player” problem, it hasn’t so far in our games. Another strange thing with this game is the hand management – players always draw back up to their maximum hand size, so it’s generally better to dump your cards as fast as possible, rather than carefully saving cards for when they are necessary. At first it seems like that makes the game less skillful, but in fact it’s just a different type of hand management that requires different lines of thought.

One problem with the game is that it’s just too easy. Most of our games according to the standard rules don’t require much work to win, and therefore tension decreases. Yes, it’s possible to hit a really bad string of tokens, but more often than not you won’t find yourself in much trouble, unless you’re playing extremely competitively (technically, the player who kills the most monsters is the “Master Slayer”). The rulebook does include several variants to adjust difficulty, however, and I intend to use the “begin with no walls” variant in the future.

The other problem is that the simple, elegant game system is perhaps too simple. Turns can feel repetitive because of the narrowness of the cards – most of the deck is “hit a monster in such-and-such a spot”. More special cards and unique effects, or a few more types of standard hit cards, would have been nice. There’s just not enough variety from one turn to the next.

I should mention that both of my complaints are supposedly addressed in the Wizard’s Tower expansion, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the base game brings up such complaints.



Theme: The theme of this game – not the medieval setting, but the concept of hordes attacking a castle – is a huge part of its appeal. Not because it’s such a “cool” theme, but because of the way it naturally denotes the suspense of the game. When I’ve tried to play Pandemic, even when we were close to losing I did not feel a sense of urgency. Oh no, more black cubes go on top of a city I’ve never visited! On the other hand, Castle Panic! emulates its concept well, and when monsters get to the center and start knocking down towers, you definitely feel that sense of, well, panic. And that’s what I want out of a cooperative game – that same kind of tension from a tight-nerves game like Twilight Struggle or Ticket to Ride, except that we’re all feeling it together. Castle Panic!‘s theme gets that across, although much of that tension-building effort is squandered by the low difficulty.

Although the theme and mechanics mesh well, I feel like the art leaves a lot to be desired. The hit cards are all solid-color variations of the same artwork, and the names of the cards are very basic as well. They could have unique artwork for the different variations – I’d want all Green Archers to look the same, but why can’t they look different from Red Archers? In addition, the people on the artwork are all rather bland and uninspiring. There’s a chance here to create a bit of a game world, to put some flavor text at the bottom of the cards and really spruce it up and make it feel like you know these people and this castle, so that it feels worth defending. As it stands, I just see a lot of missed opportunity.



Fun: I was first introduced to Castle Panic! at GenCon 2011, and I thought the game was passable at best. A friend ended up buying it anyway, so I’ve played it a few more times, and eventually I bought it myself. Honestly, it wasn’t because I was amazed by the game. I bought it because it worked well for what I wanted: a cooperative game to play with my wife and her family, that was very accessible and still had (some) interesting decisions, and a theme that I enjoy. I haven’t found a better game yet at this level of simplicity and with this theme and reasonable price. I do enjoy playing the game, but I can tell that there’s opportunity for a similar, but better game, to replace it.



Castle Panic! does have some very strong points with its elegant game system, low price point and good mesh of theme and mechanics – but the low difficulty, mediocre artwork, and lack of variety make this a “try before you buy”.


Originally posted on http://meepletown.com
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Dustin Crenshaw
United States
Shepherdsville
Kentucky
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Re: Review: Castle Panic
I highly recommend the expansion. This game went from so-so to one of my favorite games with The Wizard's Tower.
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Richard Smith
Canada
Coquitlam
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Re: Review: Castle Panic
Nice review. I tried and decided NOT to buy. I agree with everything you said in this article.

Warm regards, Rick.
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Dean Petters
United States
Ohio
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Re: Review: Castle Panic
The only point you make that I'd contest is that the "mediocre artwork" is a negative. I'm not an art expert, but I don't find the artwork at all a negative in the game.

Yes, they're not macabre representations of the monsters, but this is marketed as a family game and you could expect young kids to play. The cartoonish nature of the artwork, in my opinion, fits in very nicely with that goal and with the theme.

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Derek Thompson
United States
Marion
Indiana
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Re: Review: Castle Panic
dean_1230 wrote:
The only point you make that I'd contest is that the "mediocre artwork" is a negative. I'm not an art expert, but I don't find the artwork at all a negative in the game.

Yes, they're not macabre representations of the monsters, but this is marketed as a family game and you could expect young kids to play. The cartoonish nature of the artwork, in my opinion, fits in very nicely with that goal and with the theme.



I don't mind cartooniness - I love that kind of artwork - it's the repetition. I'd like for different color archers to have different pictures, more going in the background, maybe names like "Archers of Redwood", "Archers of the Lake," whatever... It's just too generic.
 
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