The last couple of games on my journey were primarily single player games. While I very much enjoy solitaire games, a large part of my desire to further explore the board game hobby is spend more time with my family.
I think games are an excellent means to do this in a way that engages and stimulates the children without threatening the patience and sanity of us adults.
The best family games I was coming to realise were a combination of quick and simple individual turns that, nevertheless, held a depth of strategy beyond what was immediately apparent. Ideally this would be combined with an involving, child friendly but, preferably, not too child orientated, theme.
I began to search for games that fit this mould and immediately games that could be played cooperatively seemed to be a good choice. They would encourage teamwork in the children. They would minimise competitiveness between my wife and I. Game complexity would be slightly less of an issue as we could help the children without compromising our own game.
After much thought (relatively speaking – I watched two whole episodes of Tabletop) I succeeded in narrowing it down to two games: Castle Panic and Elder Sign. Those more experienced in the hobby may immediately spot a possible issue with my family game research methods. I was still slightly behind the curve at the point of purchase.
Cooperative game fighting orcs and goblins intent on destroying a castle. Cooperative game fighting ancient monsters intent on destroying life on Earth. What’s the difference? I eventually chose Castle Panic because Elder Sign was out of stock at my local game shop.
Thoroughly pleased with myself I was too, for Castle Panic looked like a great game. Essentially, it’s a fantasy themed team version of Space Invaders using cards and tokens instead of a joystick. What could be better? I was certain this would be a big success in our house.
Play is centred around a board with a large circular section almost like a pizza or a particularly colourful pie chart. This circular area is subdivided into concentric rings. Central to the board is a cardboard castle made up of individual walls and towers. Surrounding the outer ring is an area of deep dark forest in which lurk goblins, orcs and trolls who have taking a liking to your cosy castle and want it for themselves.
The aim of the game is to use your army of archers, knights and swordsmen to hold back the tide of monsters that pour out of the forest. If your castle is still standing when the last monster is defeated you win. If the last castle wall falls before the last monster you lose.
Players are dealt a certain number of cards dependent on the number of players. These cards represent your army plus some special events and a few, rare, special characters. These are coordinated with the board in terms of colour and location effect. Green archers can only hit enemies in the outer ring of the green pie slice. Red knights can only hit in the middle ring of the red slice, and so on. A handful of cards can affect multiple colours or multiple rings within a colour. A precious few, just three in the entire game, affect the castle area.
On their turn the player will simply draw cards up to the hand limit, discard a card, trade a card with another player, use the cards to hit monsters. Once no more cards can be used the player first moves, and then adds to, the horde of monsters. This is done by moving the monster tokens one ring inwards then taking two monster tokens from the pile and placing these on the board based on a dice roll.
The monsters themselves are the stock baddies from just about every fantasy novel since The Hobbit. Each is represented by a triangular-ish token with numbers representing life points on the points.
Trolls have three life points, Orcs two and weedy Goblins have just one. Each life point takes one hit to remove. For example, a Goblin token could be removed from the game with a single green archer. A Troll meanwhile could take hits from an archer, a knight and a swordsman over the course of consecutive turns before being removed. There is also a nice selection of boss monsters with higher life points and special effects.
The monster tokens are supplemented by effect tokens that can help or hinder quite at random depending on how the game is going at any one point. All the monster tokens may move to the left or (jump to) the right. Monsters in one section of the board may gain extra movement. A plague may devastate the rank and file of your army, or giant boulders may hurtle towards your defenceless castle.
Castle Panic ticks all the family game boxes. The turns are quick and simple, it’s cooperative, the theme engaging, the art work clearly aimed at the family market. There is a decent amount of player interaction as you look around for the single card that can plug the gaps in your defences this turn.
It’s tense, as those monsters creep ever closer to the walls, without it ever being so tense it becomes draining for the kids. The components are good quality with the castle adding a welcome 3-D element.
Included with the game is a range of variations to make the game easier or more difficult. You can play fully cooperative or semi cooperative. There is even a version for removing the cooperative element completely with one player controlling the monsters and the other the castle defenders. Variety is not an issue here.
The randomness of the game can be absolutely hilarious. On one occasion, we drew the ‘draw four monsters’ token. One of the new tokens was the ‘draw three monsters’ token. These additional tokens included the Goblin King who comes on with a retinue of three further monster tokens.
Ten monster tokens in one turn! Things were suddenly looking incredibly bleak. Then the eleventh token (that was actually second of the two drawn each turn) turned out to be a giant boulder that killed eight of the just drawn monsters as it sailed from one end of the board to the other. Things suddenly began to look up again.
However, there is one serious flaw in this otherwise wonderful family game. Namely, the family don’t play it.
At least my family don’t and I am at a complete loss as to explain why. My wife only reluctantly joins in the increasingly rare family games despite being by far the biggest fantasy fiction fan in the family. The kids invariably get bored and distracted halfway through even on the easier variations. At first I put that down to their ages, however, the same thing happened when we played with their older cousin.
After an initial run through my wife and I have never played this with just the two of us. It wasn’t long before this game looked destined to gather dust on the shelf until we got around to passing it on. Something about this game just doesn’t gel with us.
This is such a shame because I really, really, like Castle Panic. In fact, I play it all the time.
Included within the numerous variations is one for the solo player and, I think, this is by far the best way to play the game. All the enjoyment of the cooperative game remains with no significant changes to the game structure. You can even carry out the trading element if you play with multiple hands of cards.
It’s not perfect by any means, the randomness can be as frustrating as it is amusing. A victory is often telegraphed a good few turns before the game ends while a defeat can be very sudden with no means to prevent it. For the adult player, it is also a little simplistic. The variety, while good in terms of the overall game, is somewhat lacking when it comes to the monsters. There are only four different types in the whole game.
What it is, however, is fun. Simple, unadulterated fun. I am willing to overlook some of those flaws because of this. I had purchased Castle Panic as a purely solo game, I would give it a very high rating indeed.
It wasn’t though. It was bought as a family game. Despite many, many attempts this game just isn’t a fit for my family. It could well be a case of personal preference. I expect that there are plenty of families out there that would love this game. I love this game, however my family doesn’t. As such Castle Panic occupies a space all of it’s own as a family game that I only ever play alone.