Where did it begin for Castle Panic creator Justin De Witt?

01 June 2022
The lord of Castle Panic looks back at the 2009 cooperative tower-defence game that started it all for him

Interview by Dan Jolin

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“As a kid I loved designing and making games; growing up I knew I wanted to do something creative. I ended up working for an animation studio called Humungous Entertainment for a while, then moved on, doing creative stuff in computers and multimedia. But in 1999 a friend of mine introduced me to Settlers of Catan and that just blew my mind. I started making games again, only with much more interesting mechanics and components. That was my evening and weekend hobby, playtesting games with friends, until after a while they kept asking to play ‘the castle one’…”

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“I was inspired by Lunch Money, which simulates a playground fight and has some really vicious, interesting card combinations. And I loved Chez Geek from Steve Jackson Games – who I ended up working for, for a few years. It has all these interesting ways of using cards: rotating them, flipping them, putting little pips on the side and crossing them off. Then, while I was working on Castle Panic, the Lord of the Rings movies came out, and they were a huge influence. Especially the second and third ones, where they have those giant siege moments. I just sat there and thought, ‘I want to make my players go through that.’”


“This was before Pandemic came out, so cooperative games weren’t very big at the time. But I loved it when players would cooperate in competitive games – usually to gang up on somebody – and I thought it would be really interesting to make that a whole game. I eventually came up with a situation that people would naturally cooperate in, and abstracted it out into something that’s playable without being a detailed simulation. Things like being on a pirate ship, defending a castle, rowing a boat… And the castle idea really took off.”


“In the original version, each player was their own tower, but that didn’t work the way I had envisioned, with people back-to-back, all-for-one, one-for-all. You didn’t care about the other towers, other than we’d all lose. It was so demoralising I put the game away and thought it wasn’t playable. But weeks later, I went back and changed it so the castle is just all of us; we are the castle, and the towers became like life points. Once I got over that hurdle, it became fun.”


“It is a cooperative tower-defence game, to use our tagline. The board is set up with concentric rings and a cardboard castle in the middle. As a team, you must defend its six towers and walls. Monsters come out of a pile and are put on the board randomly by a die roll, each turn moving one space closer to the castle. Players must work together to stop those monsters by hitting them with cards to slay them. If the players can defeat all the monsters and still have one tower standing, they’ll win the game.”


“My wife and I launched our own company, Fireside Games, to publish Castle Panic. Our fulfilment partner thought we could probably sell about 700 copies in the first year. We had a print run of 3,500, and we sold out in 10 weeks. Nothing was like it when it came out; there was a spot that it hit. Ever since, it’s been our best-selling game. We’ve got three expansions, I’m working on a fourth, and we did a pre-school version, a Munchkin version, Star Trek Panic and a zombie one called Dead Panic. It’s the backbone of our company. I almost thought about getting a Castle Panic tattoo at one point, but I changed my mind [laughs].”


“I think the best thing you can do, which I don’t see enough people do, is blind playtesting your rules, where you take a roughly finished copy of your prototype and you give somebody the rules and then walk away. I sit in the corner of the room, make notes and look at when they’re confused and they start going through the rules. A good rulebook can make or break your game. If you get that nailed down, you’ll have a much better product for it.”  


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