Dragon Castle: These Walls Breathe

Dragon Castle cuts an imposing figure both in the box and on the table. It makes its presence known when you dump over 100 tiles onto the table, working with your friends to construct the fabled Dragon Castle, home to the mighty beast of legend. But as eons pass, friends become enemies, and the walls you raised together are now prime targets to be torn apart in pursuit of riches and prosperity. Besides, black mold has started to take over the basement, and you know I’m allergic to that mess. Time to move!

Players are dismantling the once grand Dragon Castle and building their own castle, complete with waterslide. All of this is an attempt to convince the Elder Dragon to come and live with them like the end of Air Bud, but on a much larger scale. “Come here, Whiskers! I’ve got 4 bedrooms AND a reading nook!” How could they turn that down?

Wait a minute, this castle looks awfully familiar, wouldn’t you say? Yes, this game is loosely inspired by solitaire Mahjong, though that game was based on a traditional Chinese game called “Demolish the Tile Turtle”, which sounds like an amazing premise. Instead, this Dragon Castle doesn’t pose any threat to those tearing it apart, which could be viewed as a letdown if I didn’t enjoy the game as much as I do. Maybe the Tile Turtle will show up in a sequel.

Most of the game, you’ll be pulling an available tile from the top floor of the castle. Then you can take a duplicate tile from elsewhere in the castle, grab a shrine roof for your supply, or even throw that tile away for a single point. If you keep the tile or two, you can place them anywhere in your realm except on faceup tiles or shrines. With turns so simple, this game can whiz by so fast that you might wonder if all that setup was only for a pretty pleasant 30 minutes of stacking blocks.

But then you start looking beyond your own creation to wonder if the grass is greener on anyone else’s side. Lo and behold, the others are thriving just as well as you, if not more so. How could this be? This is where another layer of the game kicks in, trying to pull tiles from the castle in a way that makes your neighbor slam the table from frustration. You can leave their tiles locked behind other tiles, take those tiles for yourself, or even burn them outright to stall for time. Dragon Castle then becomes a passive-aggressive dance, trying to move ahead yourself while tying others’ shoelaces.

When you place a tile to create a group of 4 or more tiles of the same color, they get imbued with magic and turn facedown, now worthy of a shrine to be placed there. The number of shrines you can place depend on the rarity of the tiles you flipped and their value increases with their elevation in the castle. These shrines now block off tiles from future building. The larger the group you create, the more point they’re worth, so your realm can look like swiss cheese before things start coming together.

Upper level building is a unique challenge because you have to choose between points now for smaller groups with tall shrines, or points later with giant groups and low shrines, without any guarantee that either one will be enough to get you the win. It all depends on how you go with the flow of the castle. The person that listens closely to the creaks and groans of the old house will come out with a strong realm indeed.

This game is all about timing. As each floor gets eaten away, your choices over which tiles you can pick narrow to a point. When that final tile is removed from a floor, it feels like the game taking a big breath of fresh air after holding it in for the past few turns. But how do you put yourself into the best position before the options open up again? Some friendly spirits are here to help.

Spirits are helpful ethereal creatures that you can petition for help by offering them faceup tiles or roofs. In return, they offer you rule-breaking options like changing the definition of an available tile for a turn, or shift tiles around in your realm for the perfect arrangement. Even though they aren’t the main feature of the game, I would like to point out the clever illustrations on these cards. A fig-eared rat, an eagle formed from helicopter seeds, a geode peacock and a honeycomb ox are standouts from an amazing batch of art. Magnificent beasts truly are beyond this world.

But in the end, you’re trying to please a specific dragon with unique tastes. One loves when shrines border the edge of your realm, while another finds symmetry to be the most pleasing arrangement for their future home. Ignoring these extra points is sure to spell doom to your real estate project, so make sure to keep them in mind from beginning to end.

Across the land, different Dragon Castles serve different player counts, but the game also provides entirely different layouts of castles for you to explore before ripping them apart piece by piece. This game just keeps on giving, which is appreciated for the relatively high price it bears.

The power of a Spirit, the scoring opportunity of each dragon, and the blueprint of the castle itself combine to form different lenses the game passes through, warping and twisting Dragon Castle into different shapes and strategies. I may be looking through rose-colored glasses because I love this game so much, but I’m also looking through emerald and cobalt specs too because these cards and castles change the feel of the game with each combination.

Granted, there are cracks in the castle walls. While the illustration in this game is outstanding, most of your focus is going to be on the tiles themselves. But these building blocks feature a paint palette that’s bright, loud, and clashes with the muted colors of the realms and spirits. It’s like seeing Barney in an enclosure in Jurassic Park. I’m not mad, just disappointed.

The 4-player experience also cuts the bakelite cake into too many slices, so it feels like your ending castle is on a restrictive diet. Lower players counts give you room to really take in the Dragon Castle, consider your next move, and build an impressive structure by the end of the game. There’s even a solitaire variant available elsewhere that provides a nice challenge, but this game shines brightest with 2 or 3 people.

But in the end, I think Dragon Castle’s ever shifting puzzle lands it squarely among Azul and Santorini as a game with brains and beauty. From the central tile stack to your ending castle, it looks great on the table, but then sticks with you long after it has been put away. Good luck keeping this dragon fed! They don’t like the cheap dry food.  

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