When I first started out in my modern Board Game journey, I would often look at so-called entry level games in my quest to satiate my hunger for gaming. It was with one game that I found a real connection with younger members of my extended family, that was easy to teach, and helped us to bond around the gaming table. That game was Castle Panic.
Now your first comment may well be related to the theme and art design. How is a game depicting a castle under siege something that is fun for kids and adults alike? Well, I hope to discuss this, and try to navigate why it is a game that should sit well at the table this holiday season.
Castle Panic - The Game
Released in 2009 by Fireside Games, Castle Panic was designed Justin De-Witt (father of the ‘Panic’ series). Castle Panic sees groups of players work co-operatively to avert the continued advances of an enemy horde from all angles. The board is laid out in the centre of the table, depicting a circular play area of ever decreasing sized rings, which in turn is split into six distinct sectors. In the centre sits the players’ six castle Tower standees and surrounding walls. As rounds progress, monster tokens will advance inward one ring at a time, until they eventually reach the castle walls, and cause ever increasing damage to the castle.
All things considered, you would be forgiven for thinking this was a rather laid-back affair, when in reality, each round can be tense and unforgiving. Each player will start their turn by drawing up to their hand limit (determined by player count), they then have the option to discard and draw one card from the stack. It’s at this point that the active player can then choose to trade cards with their compatriots (one trade total with 2-5 players, two trades with six players).
But why would you wish to trade cards in the first place? Well, the next phase of play is playing cards from hand. Cards denote which section of the board you can attack, and by discarding the appropriate card, a single attacking monster will take a hit until it is fully depleted. This is indicated by rotating the enemy token, with its current health pointing towards the castle, when it would be defeated (read: slayed), it is simply removed from the game board and placed in the player area of the active player.
There are a number of special action cards available, that can slow enemies, rebuild walls, and the like. I won’t go into too much detail about these, but rest assured, choosing the best time to make use of these can mean the difference between ultimately winning and losing.
Once the active player has finished playing the cards they wish, ALL enemy tokens on the board are advanced one ring closer toward the castle. Should an enemy come into contact with a section of the castle wall, then that wall is destroyed, and the enemy takes a single hit (which may well cause them to perish). If not, then they now have a free avenue into the central area and can only be slain/removed using the abilities on the limited number of special action cards.
Players then finish their turn by randomly drawing two monster tokens from the supply, and rolling a die to determine in which section the token will begin. Tokens depict your basic fantasy tropes, Goblins, Orcs, Trolls, and a few special Boss Monsters that affect the game board when they are drawn. Should they be unfortunate enough to pull a Boss Monster or Event token, their effects will be enacted immediately – this can be anything from moving enemies into adjacent sections, to healing all active enemies – never a good thing!
Play will continue until either the players have vanquished all of their foes, or the final castle standee has fallen. At this point, players can either choose to share a victory (if they were successful in their fight), or count up their slain enemy tokens to determine an overall winner. Personally, I would often choose to share the victory, as it was a team effort after all.
If you have an urge to be totally ruthless, you could opt to play the Overlord version of the game, which sees one player take on the role of the Monsters, pitting themselves against the castle defenders. Rather than moving and drawing monster tokens at the end of a player's turn, the Overlord will act after the active player has finished playing their cards on their turn. The overlord will start by moving all monsters on the board one space closer, drawing up to their hand of three tokens, then choosing to either place one monster in the starting region of their choice, or choosing two tokens and following the cooperative rules as stated earlier.
There are a number of available expansions that slightly alter gameplay, introducing flying enemies and other obstacles to overcome. I haven’t personally tried these out, but I have heard that for fans of the base game, these are a very good way to increase replay-ability. Should you not fall for the fantasy aesthetics, there is also the option of both Dead Panic (Zombies), and Star Trek Panic (Sci-Fi).
Final Thoughts on Castle Panic
I highly recommend this for families, in particular those that enjoy group discussions to achieve a common goal. Castle Panic is easy to teach, quick to set-up, and the perfect way to include newcomers into the world of modern board gaming. Whilst it has perhaps fallen a little out of love in recent years (currently ranked 844 on BoardGameGeek), you can’t go far wrong in adding this to your collection, even if to only play with younger relatives at Christmas.