The White Castle is a one to four-player, dice drafting/dice placement game from Isra C. and Shei S. (the same designers as The Red Cathedral) and published by Devir Games (who also published The Red Cathedral).
The White Castle is set in modern Japan and Himeji Castle, where the banner of the Sakai clan is flying under the orders of the Daimo Saka Tadakiyo. Himeji Castle is a splendid structure with several inner zones. The largest zone is the Room of the Thousand Carpets, a place where the courtiers gather to mingle and ascend the social ladder to reach the circle closest to the Daimio and enjoy his favour. The grounds of the castle also has various ponds and gardens attended by gardeners as well as guard patrols on the castle walls.
In The White Castle, players will be drafting dice from one of three coloured bridges and using these dice to perform various actions.The colour of the dice and the location you place it will determine the action you perform and as the game progresses some of these actions spaces may change. Each dice placement spot will contain a randomised coloured token and depending on the die you place, the coloured tokens seeded as part of setup and the card present, will determine the number of actions and the type of action you can perform. Each of the dice placement spots has a pip value and depending on the value of the die you place will determine if you have to pay coins or gain coins. Actions include gaining resources and performing various actions to send gardeners to the gardens, warriors to train and defend the castle and courtiers to progress up the social ladder of the nobility. You may also gain daimio seals, money, resources or Heron symbols (used for determining turn order)
There is also the ability to “stack” dice on top of other player’s dice with possibly paying a cost (the stacking is only a 3 and 4 player game). Each player also has their own personal player board which has spots to place dice, in addition to the main board. These spaces typically give you resources (quantity depending on how many of a certain warrior/garender/courtier you have placed) as well as activating your own personal action card.
The game lasts three rounds and each round ends when there are only three dice left on the bridges. You will get to place nine dice over the course of the game. Points are awarded from a variety of places such as remaining resources, your advancement on the passage of time track, clan members in the castle, the training yards and the gardens. The player with the most points is the winner.
The Red Cathedral was a huge success back in 2020 and was rated very highly by me. When I heard about The White Castle, I was, of course, very excited to try it out. With the same design duo and publisher I was confident they were going to produce something special. But did my confidence pay out or was it misplaced? Lets find out.
Well let us not beat around the bush here. The White Castle is truly excellent. There are so many interesting and tough choices to be made. The dice drafting mechanism only can make for some tough choices and I really like how they have implemented it here. The dice are ordered from lowest to highest, left to right along cardboard bridges. If you take the lowest (and often inferior) of the die you usually end up having to pay coins to place the die. However, you do get to a Lantern action. This will give you an additional bonus/reward depending on how many cards you have laid down in that area. The reverse of this is that the higher number (on the right of the bridge) does not give you the lantern bonus but could give you a nice money income. It makes balancing these things a core part of the game which I really enjoy.
The actions themselves are simple enough to understand but can have great repercussions for your game plan. The Gardeners, for example, are played at the foot of either side of the bridges and, at the end of the round, if there is a die on the side of the bridge where you have a Gardener, you can perform the action on the tile. This means you can draft die to restrict what the actions your opponents can trigger. It adds a layer of interaction which is much more than simply “I take your stuff”.
Adding Warriors to the training grounds and advancing your courtiers is an essential part of the end game scoring and I feel that if you do not do this, in some part, you are going to have a hard time winning. Maybe a slight knock on the game for some. At the end game you score points based on the number of warriors and which training ground they are in multiplied by the number of courtiers in the castle. This scoring can give some big points so getting in on this action is essential.
Variability is pretty high throughout the game. Each action spot will have an action card which are replaced throughout the game as you advance your Courtiers. Each action spot will have two or three coloured die tokens. Each game these spots will be randomised providing a very different game each time. You will, in essence, be doing very similar things but the way you do these things will be different. I love the variability, observing the game boards at the start of the game, working out a strategy is something that I really enjoy.
Overall, I think The White Castle is a fantastic gaming experience and hopefully the above will pique your interest. There is so much more to The White Castle that I have not covered, like Daimio seals, how the action spots change, how your own personal domain board changes. There is a lot to the game but yet it feels simple enough to get to grips with. There is a lot to think about and do, yet it doesn’t really suffer from AP. It feels like a meaty, complex Euro game, yet it plays in a very quick time. I am very pleased with the overall game design and decision space and I am hungry for more. I want to show this game to anyone and everyone and it comes highly recommended from me.