The guys and I got in a game of Lords of Waterdeep using both modules (aka, expansions) last night. Long story short, despite getting to play as my favorite lord, the Xanathar, I came in next to last.
Before playing LoW, we got in our first play of another game, Castle Panic, a semi-cooperative tower defense simulator with a generic fantasy theme. “Tower defense” is a genre of video games in which you use static defenses to repel wave after wave of enemies as they encroach upon your territory. There’s a bit more to it than this, and different games naturally put their own wrinkles and twists on the mechanics, but that’s the general idea.
In Castle Panic, your static defenses consist of three concentric rings surrounding your castle at the center of the board. A horde of monsters assembled from conventional fantasy tropes (goblins, orcs, and trolls) advances through ring with the goal of tearing down your castle one wall at a time. Within a given ring, the invaders are vulnerable to attacks by only type of unit (archer, knight, or swordsman). On their turn, players draw cards which determine which types of units they can use to attack, or which grant a variety of other special abilities.
The game is mechanically sound, which I think sums it up pretty well. It works, and it’s playable, but there’s not really much more to it. The theme is not only generic, but pretty much pasted on. You could easily switch it to any other genre; it would feel exactly the same if instead of a horde of green-skinned humanoids, it was a mob of space aliens, zombies, or rampaging kittens rushing towards you. There are a few boss monsters with unique abilities, but there’s really nothing else that differentiates goblins, orcs, and trolls from one another besides the number of hit points they have.
Along the same lines, there’s no thematic rationale as to why units of a given type can only attack monsters within a specific ring. During the game, I quipped that the knights are unable to turn their horses around to attack enemies that make it past them and that the archers couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of firing their bows at point-black range. There are also boulders that randomly appear when their card is drawn which come careening down from the forest, crushing any greenskins in their path before crashing into your castle and wrecking one of your precious walls. It’s a fun little mechanical twist, but I think a rampaging dragon that comes screaming from the sky raining indiscriminate death and destruction would have been more fun thematically than a boulder.
More importantly, while it replicates some of the core mechanics of digital tower defense games, Castle Panic misses the mark in some crucial ways. There’s normally an ebb and flow with tower defense, a tension that intensifies as time goes on and which builds to a panic as you wonder whether the defenses you’ve placed will manage to hold the line. One way that tower defense games create this experience is by starting players off with basic defenses, allowing them to unlock more powerful ones as time goes on. Likewise, the difficulty of the monsters scales at more or less the same rate.
Castle Panic is a cooperative game, so the players all win or lose together (although at the end, the player who scores the most points based on number and type of kills is awarded the title of “Master Slayer”). Once you draw your cards, combat is deterministic and players can trade freely during their turns. The upshot of this is that rather than being a frenetic scramble to make good decisions while under time constraints, turns instead morph into a puzzle to be solved as players figure out the optimal way to use the cards that are currently available to them. And rather than tension that steadily ramps up, the game goes through fits and starts, as the types and number of monsters that appear is randomly determined, and it’s possible that you can either clear out swathes of enemies during your turn or remain completely idle depending on what cards you draw and what your allies have to trade.
The pressure to act quickly could easily be created by using a timer. The lack of flow could have been avoided if, rather than all of the monsters and cards being mixed together, they were divided into several groups which are introduced over the course of the game, with each subsequent group being more powerful.
I’m normally reticent about reviewing a game after having played it only once, but I feel that Castle Panic is simple enough for me to have gotten a good grasp of what it offers after a single play. Additionally, I don’t foresee this one hitting the table again so that I can gather more data anytime in the near future.
All this being said, does this mean that I think Castle Panic is a bad game? No. Everything works and it plays well; it just doesn’t have a lot of depth. Furthermore, a lot depends on how you approach it. For most gamers who would even be interested in reading a review like this, there isn’t really enough here to hold their attention for very long or to create a compelling gameplay experience — but this does not make it a bad game. Also, to be fair, despite the fact that we won, victory was uncertain until nearly the end of the game, and there were a few genuinely tense moments.
Castle Panic is a good choice to play with younger gamers. The theme is fun, and they won’t notice that it’s pasted on. The mechanics are easy to learn, and there are enough tactical decisions to make without it becoming overwhelming. It could also serve as a good intro to boardgames for gamers who are deep into the digital side of the spectrum: something they’re probably familiar with and that isn’t so complex that it turns them off to boardgames.
I have two takeaways from last night: 1) As long as your expectations are calibrated correctly, you won’t be disappointed with Castle Panic; 2) I probably need to play as someone other than the Xanathar.