Guest Review: Castle Panic!

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Guest Writer: John Enfield

Unboxing Day:

Castle Panic! box

Castle Panic! box © Fireside Games

I’m impressed with this box. Quite sturdy with practically every surface used except the insides of the lids. Even the sides of the bottom piece have graphics – in this case, talking about expansions for the game. This is interesting as it shows that fun with the base Castle Panic! game can keep going even after you’ve played it many times. I’m surprised that the expansions are only mentioned vaguely on the top of the box though.

The art style does somewhat shout ‘Indie developed!’ or ‘Homemade game!’ with the slightly fuzzy resolution on the textures of some of the graphics such as the stone, parchment etc. and the fuzzy, diffuse shadows. It almost looks like they were going for a papercraft look, but used desktop publishing quality computer graphics program instead. The graphics textures are not quite as fuzzy as they are in Galaxy Truckers though. The overall appearance is better than Caverna or Concordia board games, but not quite as polished and professional as Descent or Scythe. That is easily forgiven because the materials used make up for it. Good, stiff, smooth playing cards of a comfortable size and shape; heavy duty cardboard castle pieces that I didn’t have to punch out of a sheet myself; plastic stands for those castle pieces that seem quite sturdy; large, easy to handle token also all the same shape with the same backs which would make them easier to randomize in a pile, but maybe hard to sort out assuming you may have to; full color everything – with bright illustrations for most things in the rules book (no black and white here); even ziplock bags with little air holes in them to keep stuff organized in; even compartments in the box to keep the components from getting all jumbled together all scream ‘Quality workmanship and care!’ right back. I’ll take quality careful construction and durability over flashy graphics any day. Though the amateur artwork may discourage some from even buying the game and opening the box to discover just how well made things are inside. The die is six sided (a d6) with numerals rather than dots. It is of standard size with rounded edges and is white with black markings. It is well milled and painted but nothing too exciting about its design.

The rules book is well thought out with no wasted space, yet manages to avoid being intimidating to read with enough white space and graphics, yet not too much. They didn’t even waste a page on a fancy cover for the rules book; rather let the first page you encounter be filled with information. From looking through it, seems like Justin has thought of pretty much every eventuality and question, even to the point of having examples of possible scenarios that could arise with different aspects of the game. Even an example of how a turn might play out. There is plenty of detail, yet it is not such a wall of text that one doesn’t feel like sitting down and reading the whole thing in one sitting. In case players don’t read all the rules, though, he thought of putting a summary of the main rules on the back with page numbers to turn to for further detail.

The board has a slightly radar scope look to it with the concentric rings in bright colors but that effect is mitigated enough to keep the medieval them consistent by the clever use of forest, plains, mountains and lakes with in the rings. However, the sudden change of terrain in these wedge shapes on the board is a bit odd thematically, but it does help make the three areas of the board distinct beyond the changes in color. The fonts help out a lot too and are consistent with the other materials in the game. I love that they placed reminders of how to play everywhere without marring the look of things. Each corner of the board has a parchment looking box reminding of order of play, how the different tokens work and how the different boss monsters work. There are also order of play cards for each of up to six players. They realize that players aren’t going to want to dig out the rule book often.

In the monster font on the tokens, I did see one lone example of illegibility. The ‘4’s are hard to read on tokens like ‘Draw 4 Monster Tokens’, looking a bit like a weird ‘9’. The picture of the four token shapes below the words helps clear it up though.

I love that the castle walls and towers stand up! Great to have a vertical element in a board game. Makes me wish for stand up fighters and monsters too, though. But the tokens are quite nice. They are a nice big size and easy to handle. Shaped a bit like a guitar pick, only a little bigger.

The ‘tar’ token is a bit small compared to the rest but not so tiny as to be hard to pick up.

I like the color coded ‘gems’ on the cards. Evokes classic RPG designs like on some D&D stuff. The overall look is one that harkens back to RPGs of the 70’s and early 80’s but in a more playful than serious tone. Reminds me a little of the playful tone of the Savage Worlds game materials.

Putting the game away is easy too. The board folds up without getting the flaps tangled up. It’s a square that is 20 inches on a side when unfolded. Its cut so that it has four flaps hinged together three places. The size makes it big enough to give the pieces room to be moved around, but small enough to fit on a small table or big coffee table. If the tokens are all mixed up like the set up photo suggests, it takes a bit of drawing from the pile to find 3 goblins, 2 orcs and 1 troll to start the game. I found that I prefer to start the game without the starting monsters on the board and to just draw the first two monsters at the end of the first person’s turn. The description of set up is pretty clear through the illustrations of how to orientate the tokens. But it is too zoomed out to read the details on the token pieces in the picture.

The way hit points on monsters is figured and recorded is genius! You don’t need to write it down, just turn the token so that new correct HP number is pointed at the castle. Then rotate it so that the next lowest number is pointed at the castle when the monster is hit again. If the monster is killed, remove it from the board and give it to the player who killed it with a ‘hit’ card as a trophy. The book explains this very well. The only downside to not writing things down is that if the board gets jostled, the tokens might get knocked out of place and you’ll lose track of how things are supposed to be.

cards and pieces included

Some of the cards and pieces included.

The Play Details section explains specific cards, tokens etc. in case their use isn’t clear in the main body of the book or from the design of the item itself. Some of these details also have illustrations of how the token or card works. The one for the boulder tokens, for example, shows four different scenarios of what the boulder could do. Makes it pretty clear.

The game variants look interesting too. I can see that some players who prefer competition over cooperation may really enjoy the ‘overlord’ variant in which one player runs the monsters rather than going by what the book, tokens and cards say they do. Then the rest of the players play together against this overlord of the monsters. Solitaire looks quite challenging. I’ll be trying that out to help me learn the game before inviting others to play it with me.

I like that you can adjust the difficulty of the game by adding or removing tokens; using the cards differently; assigning specific towers to players so that they have to focus on protecting their own tower to stay in the game; starting without the wall and having to build it after the monsters start coming; etc.

The idea of rolling to see where monsters start is a clever way to keep the game surprising. You’ll never know for sure where new monsters will come from as you try to strategize which fighters to keep in your hand, which walls to rebuild etc. There are also tokens that make the monsters move over clockwise or counter clockwise to a new segment of the board which will also make people adjust their strategy.

It seems like this game is emulating the tower defense video games that people can play online. I think I’ll like it better though as the pace isn’t as fast so you have time to think. It looks like being able to think ahead and plan is more important than how fast you can tap on a screen or click a button.

Going Solo:

Some things I noticed once I tried playing the solitaire version of the game:
In the solitaire version, you work on your own without being able to trade cards with other players, so you get six cards in your hand rather than the usual five and you may discard and draw two new cards rather than only one. I think that they could have put the former in the main rules page in that hand size graph and the latter in step two of the order of play discussion rather than only at the end of the book in the variants page.

I’m a big dice rolling junkie. I love to roll dice as often as possible. It took a while to get used to not having to roll dice to see if I hit monsters or to see how much damage I did. I do get it, though, that the deck of cards takes the place of having to do that since there is more than one card for most of the fighters (except for the most powerful ones like the barbarian), so that you are in essence, using the cards to make the same group of fighters attack more than once as you draw more cards. Some of the other castle cards also can be played along with a fighter card to make its attack more potent (such as the Nice Shot card). Having the HP and attack damage numbers low (most are less than four) keeps the math simple so that the fun doesn’t stop while players are bogged down in doing the calculations. All but the youngest or least schooled players should be able to do the math of this game in their heads.
Having to match the color of the fighter card with the color of the arc the monster is in as well as the type of fighter with the space the monster is in ups the challenge of what would otherwise be a far too simple game. If you have more than one monster on the board that you have matching cards for, you then have to decide which cards you want to use and which ones you might want to save for later. You also have to decide which monsters are bigger threats at the time, especially if you don’t have enough fighter cards to wipe out all the monsters on the board in one turn. So for a board game that may look simple at first glance, there is actually a decent amount of strategy required to do well at this game, especially when playing solo.

This is a game of difficult decisions sometimes. I need a red swordsman to keep the troll from knocking down a wall on its next turn, but I don’t have one. Do I discard a red archer hoping to get one? I don’t have any monsters in the red archer’s spaces…yet, but who knows what the next drawing of two monster tokens and rolling for placement will bring? Do I use my ‘drive him back’ card now, or save it for after monsters have gotten into the castle spaces? Decisions like this are at the heart of the game and are at times no easier for having all the time in the world to make them than they would be in a real-time video game.

Bowling for trolls! Drew the giant boulder token. Rolled for placement and had it show up in arc 6, one that is full of trolls. It shows what a two-edged sword this game element is. Sure, it instantly wipes out a whole mess of trolls, but it also destroyed my nice little wall in the process.

Let’s hear it for bricklayers! Upon shuffling the deck for the first time, finding brick and mortar cards is less than thrilling amongst heroes, barbarians and such. But, when you are in the thick of the game, with three walls down and monsters in the Swordsman’s spaces, but you’re all out of swordsmen, drawing a brick and a mortar card is suddenly wonderful! You can rebuild a wall in one turn.

The tar card and token seems like a neat idea in theory, but as I played, I rarely found a case where keeping a monster still for an entire turn paid off. In the instances where it did, I managed to hold the monster stuck to his space long enough to draw the fighter card I needed to finish him off. Would be even more useful if it would hold a monster still for two turns or, even better, for good at least until another monster landed on the same space. Then, that monster could ‘pull’ his comrade out of the muck and both monsters could move on the next turn. The ‘less panic’ and ‘more panic’ rules variants in the back of the book inspire me to come up with a few rules variants of my own, like this one for making the tar stickier.

Sometimes, the non-monster tokens that you draw are harmless, such as when you draw ‘red monsters move 1’ and there aren’t any monsters in a red space. Other times, they are devastating, such as when you draw ‘monsters move clockwise’ and four monsters are suddenly in blue spaces, but you don’t have any blue, nor ‘any color’ fighter cards in your hand, and you don’t draw any in your next turn either. Ack!
Tokens that make players discard cards are tough too. The ‘plague’ tokens can wipe out every fighter of a single type off the table. Not good to draw a ‘plague archers’ token when you’ve finally drawn enough archers to protect every arc from invasion. This token says ‘not anymore you don’t’. Even the ‘discard one card’ token can be tough if you’ve got a good use for every card in your hand on your next turn.

Boss monsters! In addition to your garden variety trolls, goblins and orcs, there are several boss monsters. They represent a slight weakness in what are otherwise amazingly well written rules. The rules in the book and on the board tell you what each boss monster does, but it says in only one place in the book that their abilities trigger as the monster is drawn. It didn’t say if these powers are triggered only that one time, or if they do it on each turn. This surprised me since every other aspect of the game is very thoroughly explained. I chose to play it as only once. Though even at only once, some boss monsters can turn the tide in the monsters’ favor when they show up. The Healer makes every monster on the board regain one HP which can be bad when you thought you were going to wipe out a bunch of almost dead monsters on your next turn. The Goblin King shows up with his retinue as any good king would, so you have to draw three more monsters along with him. The Orc Warlord orders all the monsters in the same color spaces on the board forward. The Troll Mage’s magic inspires the other monsters to bravery making them all move one space closer to the castle. This can bring walls down if you already have monsters in the swordsman spaces at the end of your turn.
When I played the game solo, I had to pick one side of the board to sit on. I wound up picking a side opposite from the one that has the reminders of how the boss monsters work on it. In one game I played, I noticed a turn or two later that I’d forgotten to trigger the Troll Mage’s spell when I drew him. This made me think that maybe the Order of Play reminders don’t need to be on the board since they are on the cards handed out to each player. They could put copies of the reminders of how Boss Monsters work and how the special tokens work on opposite sides of the board instead.

I developed a love/hate relationship with the game element of having to move the monsters in on space each turn. I know it keeps the tension and challenge up, but at times it makes the game feel futile, especially when the board is full of monsters. It makes me wish there were more ‘fortify wall’ cards in the deck. Maybe that’s less of a problem with more than one player playing. On the other hand, the monsters moving can be a good thing when you’ve managed to set a trap up, but now must wait for the monsters to move into it.

I love the ‘less panic’ rules! Some of them should just be in the basic rules to begin with. One of those is the ‘All for One’ ‘less panic’ rule that lets you use an archer, knight and swordsman all of the same color to wipe out a monster in almost any space of that color. That’s satisfying when you manage to pull it off. Especially when the monster is a powerful one with lots of HP and you’ve already played your Barbarian.

Playing the game

Playing the game

I lost far more often than I won. It helped once I employed all of the ‘less panic’ rules, plus a couple of my own.

Two Heads Are Better Than One:

After trying playing the game solitaire a few times, I taught it to my wife, Joani. She shares my enthusiasm for many things including board games. I’m a lucky guy. Teaching her the game proved fairly easy as the rule book, tokens and board kept us both on track fairly well. She also wasn’t sure what to make of the rule about how often boss monsters use their ability, but agreed that once when drawn and not again was a good interpretation. Most of the problems I had with not being able to do anything about the advancing monsters on a turn while playing solitaire were alleviated by having someone to trade cards with and to take a turn after me. We left the ‘less panic’ rules in place, but even with those and the two of us playing, we just barely won the game with only one tower still standing the first time we played. When we played again, we either got better draws at more opportune times, made fewer tactical errors, or a bit of both because we were able to win with several towers still standing, but we finished with the feeling that the game was far from being too easy. Once we get good at it, we may try some of the ‘more panic’ rules.

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    Timothy Connolly

    I love that there’s a Troll Mage boss monster in this game. It’s really off-the-beaten-path. Great review!

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