Review – The White Castle
|Designer||Isra C., Shei S.|
|Category||Strategy Game, Eurogame|
|Release Date||October 2023|
Sometimes, a game falls completely under the radar and slowly wins players over months after its release, rather than coming in hot and burning out quickly. A great example would be The Red Cathedral from Devir; despite the bland art and relatively unknown designers, the game seemed to continually grow in popularity. So much so that Isra C. and Shei S. have reunited with Devir for a sequel, The White Castle. Other than using a unique dice placement mechanism for a classical Eurogame, they have little in common. But is it still good? And no, I won’t make a joke about the name… I won’t…
Let me first just tell you about how I feel about Eurogames. My favorite board games generally fall into three categories: card combo or card-driven games like Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, and Heat: Pedal to the Metal, tile-laying games like Barenpark or Isle of Skye, or party games with a deduction element. But I have a close friend who absolutely loves “traditional Eurogames” – by that I mean games with little to no hidden information, and usually a denser ruleset than I’m used to, and quite often, dice-as-workers or some other interesting way to use dice. Examples would be Voyages of Marco Polo, Teotihuacan: City of Gods, most anything by Stefan Feld, and of course, The Red Cathedral. I enjoy these games, just not to the same extent as card-driven games, and I tend to have a more critical eye towards them. While The Red Cathedral wasn’t all that original, it was a beautifully tight ruleset with interesting gameplay, a small box, and affordable price.
And what I just wrote about The Red Cathedral is mostly how I feel about The White Castle. There are no truly new mechanisms here, but there’s still quite a lot on offer, and just about all of it is well done. So, let’s get down to the details.
First, components. The White Castle looks great and has an incredible price point at $40. Like The Red Cathedral, the art has more of a classic “90s board game” look, but the colors are more vibrant and the setting of feudal Japan is just more interesting to me than a Russian cathedral. The game has a ton of iconography, but I found it relatively easy to grok, despite the lack of player aids (Come on! They could have just been cards). The box is incredibly small, and frustratingly so. It took several attempts to get everything back into the box. But the bigger issue is the central board: because the box is so dang small, the board folds into eight pieces and therefore feels flimsy when you fold it back together. After only three games, one of the eight pieces was breaking; the bottom of the board was splitting from the top. Just making the box more of a Carcassonne / Splendor size (i.e. longer, with the same width and depth) would have accomplished a lot.
The gameplay of The White Castle is somewhat of a hodgepodge, but it centers around the three colors of communal dice. Taking a turn in The White Castle is simply picking a die from one of the bridges and placing it on an action space. Smaller numbers are strictly worse, but taking them grants a “Lantern” action, bonuses that players can add to throughout the game, offering some light engine-building. A similar engine-building feel comes from actions on your player board that improve as you move meeples (Warriors, Gardeners, Courtiers) from your board to the central board, as well as the bonus actions provided by each placement. I really like the meeples; while the game has a ton of different things going on, they provide a central focus for new players: “your main goal is to move these guys from your board to the main board.” There are other ways to score points, but they primarily come from putting the meeples in the right positions on the board, so the game is more cohesive than one might first think.
There are plenty of subtleties to the various actions players take, and I could go through them in detail, but if you’re reading this, you’ve likely already read the rulebook or watched a how-to-play video. The important point to make is that this game is punishing. It’s not punishing in the sense of “wow, I just can’t do anything this turn and have to pass,” but punishing in the sense that your score is going to suck your first few games, even if you felt like you accomplished a lot. You only get nine turns for the whole game, and if you’re not making big moves each time, you’re probably going to lose. I started with some solo games – I’ve yet to actually beat the solo mode – and when I taught new players, they scored below 40 while I scored 67. But the game comes with markers for players who go over 80 points, which still seems completely impossible to me. I have no idea how someone could place all of their meeples, or get to 15 points on the influence track. It’s a game that very much rewards experience; my first few games were also in the 30s and 40s. If you play this once and feel like you’ve seen all that it has to offer, you’re quite wrong. And isn’t that really what someone considering a Eurogame like this should want? Replayability? If I’m going to commit this whole ruleset to my tiny brain, I want it to take up all that space for good reason.
Just because a game is thinky and deep doesn’t mean it’s fun, but fortunately I found The White Castle a lot of fun to play. I mentioned earlier that I enjoy card combo games; I like Eurogames that give the same feeling (The Castles of Burgundy is a favorite for that reason). The White Castle is designed so that just about every “big move” results in that combo feeling. Placing a Warrior immediately grants another action, which is often placing another meeple on the board: it could be a Warrior again, granting another action, and so on. The Gardeners activate their abilities again twice later in the game if dice are still on the appropriate bridge when a round ends, and the Lantern bonus actions are amplified by movement of the Courtiers. You can have some truly big turns, which feels great, especially since you only get nine of them.
That said, there are some small negatives I should mention. For the first game or two, you’re going to have some analysis paralysis, because you just don’t know what makes for a good move yet, or what constitutes a “good deal,” and the decision space is completely open for those first few moves. (One thing that helped, since I had played some solo games: I went first, and loudly announced my thought process as I took my first few turns.) Next, I don’t like the scoring of the Warriors, because at least when you still suck at the game like we do, the multiplication scoring (based on how many Courtiers you get into the castle) is embarrassingly small; getting 2×3 = 6 points feels strictly worse than just getting 6 points. They probably could have done a 1 / 4 / 9 type scoring (compared to 1 / 3 / 6 / 10 used elsewhere) and gotten roughly the same effect. Lastly, I don’t personally mind this, but players should beware that some politicking is possible, which is often not present in these kinds of games. I was the third player in turn order, and couldn’t help but point out to the fourth player that if we both took red dice, none of the gardeners near the red bridge would activate at the end of the round, and all of those gardeners belonged to the other two players. Is that cheating? Well, hopefully you have a well-understood dynamic in your playgroup that can answer that question already.
Let me end by expanding a bit more on how I feel about Eurogames. While they’re not my first choice, they’re at their best when the rules are actually “tight” with good iconography, and give me a feeling of engine building and card combos. I don’t need an original theme, but I would like an attractive one with bright colors. The White Castle delivers on every front, and in some ways, is even better than The Red Cathedral; I think it’s particularly better at 1 or 2 players. This game is going to make a ton of Eurogamers very happy, and I’m always happy to play it with them.
The Bottom Line
The White Castle isn't original, but it's streamlined, clever, and fun.