Castell is a game based on the traditional Catalonian sport of building a human tower. That’s right; a human tower. During the game you will travel with your intrepid band of different strength castellers to different regions of Catalonia. Along the way you'll hire new team members, hone your human tower building skills (of which there are many), and compete in various festivals. Why are you doing this? For victory points of course. Why else?
A Game of Castell
Before we go any further and get a series of complaint letters from angry Valencians or Mallorcans, our Spanish correspondent wants me to point out that Castell is also popular further down the east coast of Spain, and the Balearic Islands too.
The basic principle is that a team of people build a human tower of sometimes ten rows high. The team succeed if the tower is assembled and disassembled in complete succession. I’d recommend looking it up on YouTube because it’s really something to behold.
Like most people when they first get into the board gaming hobby, the sheer scale of different themes in games is pretty astonishing. There is a game that simulates running a vineyard, are you kidding me? Actually, there are two Neil, but carry on. Fancy simulating trekking across the American Midwest with a herd of cattle and then selling them off? Who wouldn't? After a year or two in the hobby you get desensitised to it. You want me to run a sheep farm in Holland that’s constantly under threat from a dyke flooding? Okay, but you could at least try and be original. No theme surprises me anymore. Or so I thought.
The sport of castelling is officially recognised by Unesco on the “intangible cultural heritage list”. If any budding designers are stuck for an unusual theme, then I’d start with that list. Just keep an eye out at GenCon next year for a board game involving shrimp fishing on horseback in Northern Belgium. You heard it here first.
King of the Castell
“What do you mean you don’t want to play a game that involves the Catalonian sport of building towers of people!?” I said incredulously to my wife. Inside, I knew it was a tough sell. She needs a hook to reel her in. Viticulture? She’s in. Pandemic? Yes please she says. But she doesn’t always take the bait. The reaction to Raiders of the North Sea was particularly disparaging, and in many ways, she’s absolutely correct. They’re not really fortresses; they are just a set of numbers.
So, I set about on my first foray into the world of human tower building on my own. As so often is the case, Board Game Geek (BGG) came to my rescue thanks to an excellent solo mode. Credit to BGG user dduhamel1 for that. I was immediately hooked. Fortunately, I have some actual friends (upwards of six to be exact) which meant I was able to play with other humans.
Like the best strategy games, a turn in Castell is remarkably simple. You have three, potentially four actions. You can move from one of the seven regions to another adjoining one. Simple. You can recruit two new castellers from the region you are in. Easy. You can train your team up in one of five particular skills that allow you to break the core rules of building a tower. Piece of cake. Your fourth potential action is known as a “Special”. This lets you perform and extra move, hire an extra casteller or perform a local performance where you can show off your tower. And that’s it.
This restricted amount of choice keeps the game moving a brisk pace. It’s this tightness that really brings Castell to life. Even the simple act of movement is fraught with worry as you wonder which of the two possible destinations will give you the best options; not only on this turn but also on your next turn. The board layout means that it's essential for you to plan in advance which festival you want to compete in. No one wants to have planned to compete in the Mataro festival and find yourself in Valls with no means of getting across the board.
Pros and Cons
Castell is great. The component quality is top drawer. The bag you draw the castellers from is so luxurious you could live in it. Meanwhile, the cardboard chits are chunkier than a Kitkat after a week-long stag do. It all makes Castell highly enjoyable to play on a tactile level.
Then there is the player interaction. Every turn you are wracked with doubt about what your opponent may or may not do. Are they going to take those two six level castellers I badly want? Are they going to end up in the same region as me and compete in the festival? My friend Rich nearly had a breakdown trying to work out which festival I was going to end up competing in at the end of the last round and it was joyous to watch.
When you find your opponent struck down by analysis paralysis, games can often become a chore as you inwardly (or outwardly) scream “get on with it!!!”, but not in Castell. You’ve always got the individual puzzle of your own tower right in front of you to work on. If someone is taking their time, you just turn your attention to your team of lads and lasses in front of you. Trying to work out which combination of new skills and castellers makes your brain work in the way a proper strategy game should.
I suppose I should tackle some issues with the game, as that is kind of what a review should do. I’ve seen this mentioned by other people, particularly Rahdo, but there is something strange about the imbalance of being first player in a two-player game. The pool of castellers you can recruit from refreshes at the beginning of every odd numbered round. Which means every odd numbered round, the player who started the game as first player gets first pick of the new castellers.
I should say that in the games I’ve played, this doesn’t seem to have affected who won the game. My “gaming ability vs gaming enjoyment” ratio is about 1:10. Therefore, me not winning a game should not be considered evidence of any imbalance in a game. However, there is something odd about this first player quirk, that makes it feel a little uncomfortable.
I would also say that the nature of the end scoring may not be to everyone’s taste. Players are rewarded by doing as many different things in as many regions and recruiting and using as many different strength castellers as possible.
The local performances also tend to involve having a spread of different skills. Personally, I like the challenge this scoring mechanism presents but I know that there are players out there who prefer games where you pick a certain path in a game and commit to it. In Castell, I think those players would find themselves not winning the game and becoming frustrated. The fact that as far as I can see the strategy of spreading yourself across everything in the best could result in a lack of replay-ability.
One final point which isn’t necessarily a criticism, although I’m surprised if it didn’t come up during play testing, is the lack of player screens. Having your tower of castellers on display to all players means your opponent can see how many of a certain number you have. This is integral to scoring in a festival.
They can also see exactly which tower you are going to be competing with, so you can work out who has the best tower before the festival actually takes place. This can then affect a player’s decision to compete or not. It’s possible this is what the designer intended, but the next time I play, I’m going to suggest a house rule involving player screens, so towers are only revealed once the festival has begun.
Castell is the first, and according to BGG, only, release by designer Aaron Vanderbeek. Although his website does hint at a more video game background, I hope this isn’t his last foray into tabletop design because if his next design doesn’t involve shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium I’m going to be very disappointed.