You’ve heard that castles built on sand are a bad idea, but what about castles in the stars?
You’ve chosen what you thought to be a fairly untraveled area of space to build your castle, along with lots of big vaults to store your treasures. The problem is, in space, there are So. Many. Unknowns. And often, these unknowns are out to get you.
One step forward, two steps back. Can you build your castle on the fly while it is dismantled piece by piece by the disasters besetting you?
How It Works
Disastles is a tile-laying game (with cards) for two to five players. Players are architects building space castles, trying to have the most points in vaults while also preparing to face inevitable disasters. The player with the most points begins.
To begin, each player receives a throne room of their chosen color. The deck is shuffled, fifteen cards are set aside, and a number of disasters and/or catastrophes are shuffled into the deck depending on desired difficulty. The fifteen set-aside cards are placed on top of the deck, and five cards are laid out as a shop. A start player is chosen.
Beginning with the first player, each player will perform one action on their turn. They may either claim a room card from the shop and add it to their castle, or they may perform one action (either a card’s action, swapping rooms in their castle, or moving an outer room).
All rooms have one to four connections on the four sides of the card, and these connections are of three types (diamond, X, and moon). Connections need to match up (in that a connection on one card can’t connect to a wall on another card). While the symbols can be different, it’s better for players if they are.
Most cards have text abilities on them that become active once the marked connections are made (and those symbols match). “Link” abilities activate whenever the room first becomes active. “Action” abilities may be used on a player’s turn, either in place of choosing a room from the shop or when another card allows them to.
Once each player has either added a room or taken an action, the shop is cleared, five new cards are laid out, and the first player card is passed to the next player.
The game pauses whenever a disaster or catastrophe card is revealed from the deck. First, the catastrophe’s card text is resolved. Then, each player calculates the damage their castle will sustain. Players count up the number of matching connections for each symbol. If the number of connections in a player’s castle is less than the number on the disaster card, the player sustains one damage for each connection they are short. For each damage, the player must discard one room from their castle.
The game ends after the final disaster is resolved. Players count up the points from their active vaults. The player with the most points wins.
There’s a Hole in the Castle, Dear Liza
I often question whether we really are living in a board gaming golden age, but I do believe that we’re living in a golden age for spatial tile-laying games. Polyominoes, dominoes, square tiles–one might argue we’re at a surfeit of spatial games, but I am not that one.
So I am not opposed to what Disastles is doing. In fact, I think as a solitaire challenge, it is strangely compelling. But as a multiplayer game, Disastles seems unnecessary to me. It’s decent, but in a sea of great spatial tile-laying games, decent isn’t good enough.
I think my main problem with Disastles is that Galaxy Trucker has already been designed. Disastles is a similar game of building something that will slowly be dismantled but it’s not nearly as good as the prior game. In fact, Disastles feels a little like someone designed a game from a short description of Galaxy Trucker but without playing it and without learning from what makes that game work.
But first, for those who like spatial tile-laying games, the central puzzle of Disastles will be inherently interesting. Essentially, you’re trying to connect rooms to your castle, ideally matching symbols and scoring points through vaults in the process. I love spatial games, so I had fun trying to make connections and make a tightly buttoned castle with no chinks in my armor. So far so good.
Those who aren’t fans of Galaxy Trucker’s simultaneous real-time play might also prefer Disastles’s draft for new rooms for your castle: players take turns picking from a central display (“shop”) for rooms to place (although the shop doesn’t scale with the player count, so especially in a five-player game, you might wish for the quick tile grabbing of Galaxy Trucker).
Many of the cards in the Disastles deck feature special powers, which allow players to rotate rooms, protect rooms, place extra rooms, and so on. There are even cards that let you affect the castles of your opponents. I’m not generally a fan of take-that mechanisms in games, and I wasn’t a fan of this here (it’s hard enough to build a castle in the midst of disasters without your opponents’ meanness), but some players won’t mind this.
None of this sounds inherently bad, and it isn’t. As I said, Disastles is a decent game. But to show how it misses greatness, a few lessons from Galaxy Trucker will be instructive.
First, while Galaxy Trucker’s play is real-time and simultaneous and some players don’t like this, what allows it to be played this way is its simple connection structure. I’ve explained Galaxy Trucker before–I know it’s a complex teach. But once you’re through the rules and players see their first ship explode, things make sense. There are just three kinds of connections (1, 2, or universal), it’s easy to digest what each tile does (and the icons are large and legible from across the table), and so the decisions are limited to how to connect something to your ship. Once you place a piece, you can’t rotate it or move it; you’re stuck and have to live with what you’ve done.
By being more open, Disastles is also slower, and not just because new rooms are drafted rather than grabbed in real-time. Not only do players have to see where a room can fit in their castle, they have to read each room’s special power (many of which are unique), see which connections have to be legitimate for the text to become active (and manage three unique connection types), and also see how they might manipulate their board to make something fit because rooms can move and rotate. Players are given two options on their turn–draft a room or take an action (move/swap a room or use a room’s action)–which, again, can slow the game down as players read their special powers and decide which room to use. The box lists a playtime of 20 to 50 minutes, and that thirty-minute disparity is apt: there’s no knowing how long it will take, especially when analysis paralysis is part of the equation.
And part of this variable time is the titular disasters. (A quick note–I do love the portmanteau “disastles.”) Disasters are shuffled randomly into the deck, and you never know when they will show up. A game could end very early if they are loaded toward the top of the deck or, as in one five-player game, very late, with all players wishing for the end many rounds before it arrives. So I probably wouldn’t choose Disastles for a filler because of its unreliable clock.
The way disasters are handled is another instructive difference between Galaxy Trucker and Disastles. I understand that Galaxy Trucker isn’t for everyone–the ship that you worked so hard to build can get shot to bits!–but beyond being a spatial tile-laying game, Galaxy Trucker is really all about risk management. You want guns to prevent raids and shoot big asteroids, crew and cargo holds to help get more points along the way, shields to block attacks and asteroids, and engines to propel you through open space. Now, obviously, depending on what cards show up, you want the most of each thing to help you. But Galaxy Trucker allows you to peek at some of the cards that will show up, even if others are shrouded in uncertainty. And you can play with probabilities: while the cards often affect unknown parts of your ship, you can try to protect the most important parts of your ship by placing guns and shields where they are likely to matter (near the 6s, 7s, and 8s).
Imagine flying blind through Galaxy Trucker’s cards, and you’ll understand part of why Disastles doesn’t quite do it for me. The chaos of Galaxy Trucker is controlled chaos–you know most of what is coming and can prepare for it if you choose to. In Disastles, each disaster will target a certain type of connection, but you don’t know which type. You might have made several diamond connections, and diamonds aren’t hit at all. Or you have no X connections, but that’s fine this time–X connections aren’t affected by the disaster. Disastles uses the “prepare for the inevitable disaster” formula, but without any foreknowledge of what could happen, the disasters feel a little meaningless. And without any way to guarantee that all symbols are equally available to players, disasters feel worse than meaningless–they feel punitive. Even if I know I have a weakness in moon connections, there’s nothing I can do if moons don’t appear in the shop or if someone else takes them before I do.
Beyond this, the disasters in Disastles feel a little meaningless in terms of theme, too. Each disaster is some variation on “you need X connections of each type,” but there’s no reason why one disaster targets moon connections and another diamonds. The catastrophe cards help somewhat in this regard (as each has its own unique power in addition to the usual hit on connections), but even here, most of the catastrophes don’t have much grounding in real life. Each is individually illustrated and named, but there’s a disconnect between what is pictured on the card and the way it affects players. By contrast, in Galaxy Trucker, there’s a story to tell. “Yeah, my rig got shot to pieces when I went through that asteroid field. I should have had more guns!” Contrast that to Disastles: “Yeah, I lost a lot of rooms in my castle when that one disaster–what was it called?–needed diamonds and I didn’t have any.” Psychologically, it’s easier to forgive or at least explain the chaos that happens to you when you can name it. The abstraction in Disastles adds to the feeling of futility.
The rulebook is its own source of frustration. There are several variants offered without guidance, so it’s unclear what the definitive version is. I suppose tinkerers will like the sandbox, provided they like the basic premise of the game (there are lots of options for customization). For me, I would rather have the best version picked for me instead of sifting through and trying to find one that works for me. The rules are also unclear in several parts, but especially when it comes to rotated rooms. The game comes with rectangular cards, but rooms can be turned on their sides. Since the cards are rectangles instead of squares, and because it wasn’t addressed in the rules, in our first game, we played that rotated rooms only have connections where they physically touch other rooms. It turns out this is incorrect, and they behave as if they are squares. But that raises the inevitable question: why, then, are the cards rectangular instead of square?
The components, outside of the egregious misstep of rectangular cards, are decent enough for what they are. Most of the rooms have unique illustrations. Even the stairways, which could easily have been just reproductions of the same piece of art, are different from one another. And they are surprisingly easy to shuffle given their small format. I also love how small and portable the game is. But the cards have black and gray borders, and even after a few games, they start to show wear. And for a game with lots of unique powers, it is virtually impossible to know what your opponents can do because the text on room cards is so small. Because of this, rather than special powers opening decision space, they are a source of additional frustration.
So I don’t care for the multiplayer game very much–it’s a little too long and too chaotic without the payoff of clever play, and the small text on the cards makes it too difficult to meaningfully interact with other players. The solitaire game, on the other hand, is quite nice. There’s no downtime problem, or small text problem, or length problem. A solitaire game, from setup to teardown, takes me about 15 minutes, and this is perfect. The disasters that feel generic in the multiplayer game don’t matter here; it’s easier to forgive abstraction when the game is this short. The problem of having rooms snapped up before you or other players mess with you is removed. The disasters are still random, but this is mitigated somewhat by limiting luck in other areas. The solitaire game is by no means perfect, but given the portability of the game and the spatial puzzle it presents, I’m quite happy with it in this context. So I recommend Disastles as a solitaire game.
But, again, not as a multiplayer game. I don’t mean to be too hard on Disastles. It’s a decent effort from an independent publisher. It’s just hard to recommend this game for multiplayer play when there are many other, better games available. Galaxy Trucker is the clear recommendation if the “build something and see it slowly and hilariously dismantled” premise sounds like fun to you. Yes, it comes in a bigger box and is harder to teach, but the extra size and work is worth it. But even in the realm of filler-length tile-laying games, I’d recommend Kingdomino first. It is more reliably short and offers better interaction between players. Or if you’re leaving an hour open (which is what Disastles could take), why not play Isle of Skye, which offers similar puzzly tile-laying choices but with more control, interest, and fun?
In short, Disastles is a decent multiplayer game surrounded by better games, and it doesn’t survive comparison. I wouldn’t turn it down if someone really wanted to play it, but I would also probably suggest something else. However, for solitaire play, Disastles is a solid choice–it’s a small package, great for travel (although you’ll still need a large playing area), and the individual puzzle is quick enough and fun enough that some of my criticisms from the multiplayer game disappear. Disastles is the kind of game that might have received a heartier recommendation in another time, but in a golden age, it just isn’t golden enough.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank the publisher for providing us with a copy of Disastles for review.