Castle Dukes Review


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Posted by Charlie on Mar 7, 2018

Critical Hits: Enjoyable blend of dexterity and strategy, fantastic components
Critical Misses: Appeals to a niche group, conservative play can be degenerative at max player count

The marriage of strategy with dexterity is a tricky thing. Coaster Park attempted this and careened off the rails into the abyss. Castle Dukes comes at the wacky concoction from a different angle - one of restraint and sensibility. It's a game about building 3D castles precariously balanced upon a thin web of pillars, while attempting to keep a focus on the disparate strategic elements at play. One must be careful not to get too caught up in the child-like game of building blocks and keep your eyes on the big kid strategy game interwoven within the kinetic fun.

One of this design's refreshing qualities is its sense of freedom. You will spend coin to draft little room cards that you'll place on not-quite-as-little floor tiles, stacked vertically upon each other with wooden pillars. Resources are the primary limitation in the game and you're allowed to invest heavily in bracing your structure with support, or play it a little risky as the construction crew downs some mead living la vida loca.

At some point you'll want to cap off one of the three sections of your stone monstrosity with a roof tile. This allows you to place a battlement and luxe up the joint with some practical decor like boiling oil and ballistae. Everything the movers bring into your burgeoning citadel affect its qualities as measured by comfort, defense, and attack.

The kingdom is not kind. You will need to fend off dragon attacks by bolstering those aggressive characteristics. If you're not able to deal with the damage properly, then you'll need to remove pieces of your castle like a field surgeon hacking off limbs. It can get ugly.

In between the bouts of carnage, visitors will arrive in the kingdom and will each head to the castle that most meets their needs. They'll check out some pictures on Orbitz and pour over customer reviews before locking it in. Princesses head to the keep with the most comfort, knights to the structure with the most attack, and kings love a nice sturdy defense.

Those landlords lucky enough to attract such fine screen-printed meeple dignitaries will be rewarded with end game victory points. Oh, and you can always throw Princess Peach out the gates to feed the wyrm and mitigate its damage. The world of cardboard castle construction is most cruel.

Castle Dukes is an interesting one. It's not a terribly exciting game - at least until someone's stone structure takes a dive and they lose a bunch of points - but it is sort of a mellow dexterity game that has a strong sense of chill. You'll need to properly plan and spend your limited coin efficiently, as well as gauge the risk level you're comfortable with when going to work on the vertical complex.

While there are a limited number of furnishings to add to your stronghold, it's pretty remarkable just how different each player's creation appears at end of game. With just a few divergent decisions the stone towers will take on a distinct personality and present altogether different branching scoring options. That quality of providing multiple paths to explore gives the game a solid set of legs and props the experience up in the long run.

In the process of navigating those vectors of sweet, sweet pointage, you will discover that the game can present situations where the cracks in the foundation begin to avail themselves. There will be plays where the lack of a catchup mechanism will sock you in the gut. If you fall behind due to some shoddy construction and poor choices, there are few tools to help you get back into the fray. This feeling is most prominent at the full player count and less offensive with fewer participants.

The creativity of construction also comes at a cost. If a large group develops a hive-mind strategy of playing conservatively and utilizing many pillars in their construction, the component limitations can start to cause a ruckus. Running out of pillars before the end of the game can cause the engine to stall as you have little you can accomplish in the build phase. This can be partially mitigated by constructing more aggressively or leaving openings for furniture and rooms you can utilize, but the fact that the game can allow for a sputtering of momentum is disappointing.

Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.

Still, the game is snappy enough at a 60 minute playtime that this issue is seldom worth soiling your cloak over. Much of the game is played simultaneous and it just moves like a dragon in heat. It doesn’t waste your time or clog the experience with extraneous sub-systems or bloat, which is quite refreshing.

Castle Dukes is a relaxed and humorous strategy game that feeds off its table presence. It has a bevy of wonderful components and will tickle your imagination while presenting a slightly meaty puzzle. It's not the most exciting or tense design to grace the table, but it pulls off its design goals admirably and feels well-honed and properly developed.