If there’s one thing we should learn from games like Azul or Santorini, it’s to never underestimate the power of chunky, colorful pieces to bring an abstract to life. Dragon Castle is no exception to this. With a pile of Mahjong-inspired tiles, Dragon Castle challenges players to build their own castle by tearing down a central castle. Why? I don’t know. Who cares! Let’s start building.
How To Play
Like most abstracts, Dragon Castle’s ruleset is sparse. There are only three options to do on your turn and all, unsurprisingly, involve the central castle.
The first thing you can do is take a tile from the topmost floor and select its identical twin from elsewhere in the castle. Tiles must have at least one long edge free in order to be considered eligible for the yoinking. After selecting your pair, you place them anywhere on your personal realm board face-up.
The second option is similar to the first: grab a tile from the topmost floor, place it on your realm board, and also take a shrine.
Thirdly, you can select a tile from the topmost floor, discard it, and earn one point.
The ultimate goal in all this tile placement is to create matching sections of tiles on your realm board. When tiles match according to color, they consolidate, flipping over and scoring you points based on the size of the set. After consolidating a set, you may place a shrine on any of the face-down pieces. Shrines earn points at the end of the game based on the height of the tiles underneath.
You can also discard shrines (or face-up tiles on your realm board) to activate Spirit abilities. Each game, a Spirit is in play providing some kind of rule-breaker, like the Spirit of the Cunning that lets you consolidate a set of three tiles instead of four. There is also a Dragon card in play that will earn you endgame points for different conditions. For example, the Dragon of Fortitude gives you additional points for each shrine built on the edge of the board.
The game ends when all the countdown tokens are taken, which means that I lied earlier. There are actually four options to do on your turn, but the last one does not become available until the central castle has been sufficiently demolished to its lowest floor. Once this happens, players may take a countdown token (worth 2 VP), pushing the game toward its conclusion. Once the exclamation mark is revealed on the countdown track, the game ends on the following round.
The Desolation of Not-Smaug
First and foremost, despite this site being called iSlaytheDragon, I feel the need to apologize to the dragon. I’m sorry we’re tearing down your castle. Again, I don’t know why we’re doing it, but it’s too much fun to stop. Part of what contributes to Dragon Castle’s gameplay is the physicality of the production. The tiles are weighty and bright, with a wider color palette than a traditional Mahjong set. Though the boards are a little thin, the illustrations are pleasing and a fitting backdrop for the players’ castle creations, which are perfectly topped with shrines.
As for its gameplay, Dragon Castle looks like a far more intimidating spatial challenge at first glance than it really is. Though there is a spatial aspect in planning where to lay tiles on your board, you quickly realize how easy it is to set yourself up for big scores. The trick lies in positioning tiles so they’ll be near each other, but not getting consolidated too soon. You also need to decide how to leverage the height of the previously consolidated tiles to your advantage so as to get shrines on higher stacks for more points. As you look at the crumbling central castle, you need to consider which colors will work with your board and which of your opponents is looking to snatch that color from you ahead of time.
As players ease into the rhythm of Dragon Castle, the claws start to come out. Pulling tiles that help you while not leaving others accessible to your opponents is as important to doing well as the placement of the pieces themselves. There’s also that third action that can function as a hate draft, dumping a tile your opponent may need while also opening up options for yourself. This may be a bit mean, but hey, they didn’t call the game Dragon Cuddles. Like most abstracts, things can be more vicious in a 2-player game. With other player counts you accept that your coveted pieces might not be available once it swings back around to your turn and that someone may or may not have stolen your piece intentionally.
While the game does have moments of heads-down, quiet contemplation that comes with most abstracts, Dragon Castle is not encumbered by a million different mental decision trees. The limitations on what you can take each round constrain you in a good way and keeps the length down to a 30-minute game that clips along at a good speed. You have choices when the board isn’t exactly how you’d like it and none of the actions feel like a consolation prize. Whereas some abstracts make you feel out of your league, Dragon Castle’s flexibility sets you up to succeed. This doesn’t mean the game is easy. You can set yourself up with clever tile placement just as easily as you can screw yourself over by not looking ahead at what’s available on the top floor. As you get lost thinking about your next big score, you’ll look up to see that the castle is coming down a lot quicker than you thought. While players can rush the end game if they try hard enough, there is still some time to get in a few good consolidations and decent enough combos to earn a self-pat on the back.
The addition of the Spirits and Dragons also gives the game just enough of a cherry on top to make the sundae special. By providing direction to what you’re building on the realm board, the endgame points from the Dragons give your realm board purpose. The Spirits make you feel like a rock star when you pull of a cool placement trick. The Spirits and Dragons are certainly a more modern design approach and serve as a reminder that this isn’t your grandma’s Mahjong.
At the same time, Dragon Castle is unlikely to spark moments of whoops and hollers. There is a sense of accomplishment in building up your realm board, but it never reaches a grand crescendo. The pacing is good and the components won’t disappoint you. For Mahjong fans, the Dragon Castle may stir up fond memories of the classic game that you used to play (or offend you if you’re a purist). For me with my only cursory knowledge of Mahjong, none of this was relevant. Rather, I wanted a little more charm and whimsy in the game, akin to something like Potion Explosion. Still, Dragon Castle has its own kind of allure, doing many things right with very few wrongs in between.