03 September 2018
It’s a duke-building game. Get it? Get it?
The idea behind Castle Dukes is brilliantly simple: a castle-building game where you actually build a castle. It’s kind of Rhino Hero of Mad King Ludwig: you construct defences and add features that will attract passing nobles, and then a dragon attacks and knocks parts of it down. It sounds like it’s going to be amazing.
You open the box, and it looks amazing. There’s a lot of stuff in here. 50 floors, 50 rooms, a huge bag of wooden pillars, printed meeples, a fabric draw bag, barbicans with score dials, stacks of slot-together cardboard furniture and more. It’s not a cheap game but in terms of components there’s great value for money.
And then you play it, and it’s fine. Better than okay. Somewhere on a line between reasonable and decent. But I wanted to fall in love with Castle Dukes, and it didn’t love me back. Nor did the other players, with whom you will barely interact. You can’t nobble their castles or nick their bits. It’s just a race for victory points along two or three different strategic paths, one of them vertical.
In Castle Dukes you’re building a structure to impress passing notables, who are attracted to the keep with the highest offence (knights), defence (kings) or comfort (princesses). Really it’s a resource management game, and mostly that’s managing your very small budget to buy either rooms, floors, pillars or construction cards that will add to your offence and defence.
Only five rooms are available each turn, and some come with free furniture, but they and the fortifications can only be added to specific parts of the castle. So you’ll need to build your tower upwards to fit everything onto it, using three possible foundations on your player board. You can also build bridges between towers, or cap off a tower with a roof that lets you add battlements, braziers, ballistae and boiling oil.
This exercise in structured and constrained building is fun. Choosing how many pillars to support a new floor – a safe four, a risky three or even a daredevil two – is great, as is placing furniture and meeples on your increasingly rickety structure. However, it’s not wildly engaging, because everything is ultimately about racing for the points that will bring in visitors or see off the dragon.
The arrival of the dragon, which ought to crown the experience, is an anticlimax. It’s fiddly, and the rules are frustratingly unclear about what happens when a castle collapses and how to rebuild it. Cap it with a little gratuitous sexism (knights are brave defenders, kings add VP, but a princess’ job is to be fed to the dragon to reduce damage by two) and the whole game comes off feeling undercooked.
There’s a great game in the Castle Dukes box, but it’s not the one described in the rulebook. Keep an eye on the usual forums as someone’s sure to upload their homebrewed revision soon. It might even be me.
A great idea, but without the physical castle-building this would be a pedestrian and unexciting experience.
Designer: Dominic Michael H.
Artist: Quentin Quek, Grace Lu
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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