14 March 2018
Dismantle a castle to build your own in this stylish tile-based riff on mahjong
In games, mahjong means two things. It can be the classic Qing-dynasty tile-based set-making game, the ancestor of rummy, or it can be the solitaire game, usually digital, where the player clears a pattern of tiles by finding matching pairs. Dragon Castle is inspired by both of them. What does that mean? Mostly that this is a heavy box, because it’s got 116 chunky plastic tiles in it.
In Dragon Castle the players take tiles from the eponymous structure, formed of all the tiles stacked together, and use them to make smaller and altogether less impressive castles. You score points for arranging tiles in particular ways, but these can change depending on which dragons and spirits are watching over the game, because each brings its own special abilities and scoring conditions.
You start your turn by removing tiles from the dragon castle – usually a matching pair, though you can take one tile and a shrine marker, or discard one tile for a victory point. Shrines are important because most of the scoring is based around them.
The tiles have six suits in two groups of different value, and taking them works like the solitaire version of mahjong. This gives the game a puzzle dynamic, as well as being the only time where players can affect each others’ play – by taking tiles that someone else wants. Mostly Dragon Castle feels like you’re each playing a solo game, drawing from a shared resource while racing to be the one who has built the most points at the end.
Once you have your tiles you place them on your realm board, aiming to make groups of four or more of the same suit, which you can ‘consolidate’ by flipping them. Consolidated tiles can be built on either with more tiles, or with shrines. The higher a shrine is, the more points it’s worth.
The game’s strategy lies in arranging the tiles on your realm board, consolidating sets and having enough shrines, and this is where the game shines. The pair-matching mechanic of taking the castle apart is a natural fit for the components, but isn’t as interesting or tactical as it should be.
The dragons and spirits with their unique powers are what bring the game alive and give it replay value, along with the different ways the Dragon Castle can be built. Without them the experience is quite dry. The tiles are wonderfully tactile and playing with them ought to be a pleasure, but the heart of the game lies elsewhere.
Dragon Castle is a good game with clever touches and it’s beautifully presented, but it lacks the elegance and compulsiveness of either of its forebears – and even though the box is full of mahjong tiles, it’s not a full set and you won’t be able to play mahjong with them.
A clever and beautiful game about building through set-building, but strangely uninvolving.
Designer: Lorenzo Silva, Hjalmar Hach, Luca Ricci
Artist: Cinyee Chiu
Time: 45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the January 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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