28 August 2018
Climbing to the top of the pile
Castell is a Catalonian tradition of building human towers. It is a part of a celebration of Catalonian culture during the festivals around the area and huge numbers of people – castellers – compete to build the highest and the most complicated towers.
Castell, the board game, is a faithful translation of this tradition into the tabletop format. In it players recruit castellers and train them to make higher towers, before performing at as many festivals as they can to win medals for their performance.
Castell is not a complicated game. In fact, every turn players do the same four actions: move, recruit, train or perform a special action. However, it has a lot of depth that comes in part from the puzzle-like nature of the game.
The first puzzle is the board itself. The locations of the festivals and local performances are randomised every game, while the castellers in the regions get refreshed and the skill wheel, showing what can be trained in which region, rotates every round. Therefore, a player has to figure out which castellers they need to pick up to qualify for the festival, in which region they need to train to build the best tower possible and then how to get back to where the festival is in order to score points. While that may sound like a logistical nightmare, there is enough flexibility in Castell that – with a bit of planning ahead – players can visit and compete in, if not all, then definitely most of the festivals during the ten rounds of the game.
The second puzzle is, of course, building the tower out of castellers. The game outlines how the towers should be made and then immediately gives you tools to break those rules, in order to build higher and bigger. For example, the rows above have to have one tile fewer than those below – except if you trained your balance skill, which allows two rows to be of the same width. Or the width of the row can be a maximum three tiles long – unless you trained your base skill, which allows one row to be unlimited in length. While you will not be physically climbing up the human tower, you will need to perform some mental acrobatics: figuring out a combination of skills and tiles that generate the most points is not as easy as it might seem, however it is immensely satisfying.
Castell is one of those games in which you blink and score for something. Local performances, festival medals, special tokens, size tokens, best tower and, finally, regions all score points. Every scoring step is integrated into the game organically, and players will have stakes in different categories simply by going through the motions of a turn.
Interestingly, players score only for their best tower, meaning there is less pressure on attending each festival and more focus on building the best castell possible. Since running around the map is far less interesting than building, this prioritisation is incredibly welcome.
The randomised board is great for the overall longevity of the game and makes every round fresher – but first you have to pay in cardboard-punching time, for Castell has truly an impressive number of pieces. While the custom box insert was specifically designed for the game, it is strangely useless because, for a faster setup, it is easier to sort pieces in plastic bags that, helpfully, are also included with the game. Castell also has an enormous cloth bag that, maybe, secretly, is actually a hat.
Beautifully designed and visually colourful and stunning, Castell does a great job recreating a Catalonian tradition on top of the table. Somehow, it figured out the perfect way to translate the spirit of the celebration, while challenging players throughout – albeit in a different, less physical, way.
With a unique theme and deep, yet flexible puzzle-like gameplay, Castell is a standout game. Even if the number of components might initially feel overwhelming, the randomised setup ensures its longevity and freshness every game.
Designer: Aaron Vanderbeek
Artist: Ossi Hiekkala
Time: 75 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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