I have a LOT of board games. If you take a look at my Board’s Eye View site (www.boardseyeview.net), you can peruse the list. I mention this because the jaws of non-gamers tend to drop when they visit and see my games shelves. I used to take a perverse pride in being able to boast that I could produce a game that covered pretty much any interest, hobby or activity they cared to mention. Games like Patchwork (Lookout Games), Knit Wit (Z-Man Games) and Cover Me (Jumping Turtle Games) all helped to extend the range of thematic interest. I thought I had it all covered. Then I saw Renegade Game Studio’s Castell, designed by Aaron Vanderbeek. Happily, none of the visitors to my house has yet expressed a fascination with touring festivals in Catalonia to build human towers. It was surely only a matter of time, however, before someone cited that as their secret passion. I had to have this game!
Castell: standing on the shoulders of others
And what a game it is. Over ten rounds of play, players move between the regions of Catalonia recruiting castellers to compete in the festivals of human tower building. All the while, players are training their castellers so that they can stand on each other’s shoulders to build taller, wider or more exotic looking towers. They have to tailor their performances to meet the predilections and demands of each audience as the highest scores go to those who best please their audiences. One or more tokens at each location specifies, for example, that value of casteller that has to be featured in any performance at that location. That means that if there’s a number 6 at Barcelona, you’ll have to include at least one casteller value 6 in any performance you put on at that location.
If you’ve ever played Trickerion (Mindclash Games), you’ll have a very broad notion of how Castell plays. In Trickerion, you score ultimately for your performances but the game is about building up your repertoire of magic tricks in order to satisfy your audience. Similarly, in Castell, you’re building up to your human tower performances by recruiting and training your castellers.
Trickerion is a heavy euro game. There’s a lot going on in Castell but it still very accessible because it is nothing like as heavy as Trickerion. There are basic rules for building each human tower (each row must be narrower than the one below it and each must be made up of lower value castellers). At this basic level, a row of three 9 castellers, for example, could support two castellers of value 8, and that row could support just one casteller of lower value on the top row. Of course, there’s more to it than that: the ‘skills’ allow a player to modify these basic rules, allowing for wider, taller and more complex human towers, and players can, during the course of the game, further develop their skills. Making the best use of the castellers you recruit does mean that Castell is something of a puzzle game.
Location, location, location
The strategy is in working out the castellers that will be the most useful additions to your troupe and the skill combos that will deliver you the best scores at the right festival locations. There’s strategy too in how and where you move your pawn between locations: the special actions available to you at a particular location will depend on the position of a wheel. Though not exactly a rondel game, there are aspects of the way the wheel works that may well put you in mind of rondel games like Mac Gerdts’ Navegador. All of this makes for a game where players will have ever increasing options (you could very well end the game having recruited 20 or more castellers into your troupe) and so there is an increasing amount to think about when your turn comes around. You won’t be able to do everything you think you might possibly be able to. If you are playing with people who find it difficult to narrow and evaluate their options then this is a game that could be slowed to a crawl through AP (analysis paralysis). On the plus side, though, the always randomised set up gives all the players entirely open information (for example, over which numbered castellers are required for a performance at each location). That should make it possible for players to think about and plan their actions while other players are taking their turns. You’ll just hope that another player’s actions don’t entirely screw up what you plan to do on your turn. If you find you are often a victim of another player’s pre-emptive play, you’ll notice that Castell is a game where there can be a noticeable turn order advantage. That is mitigated by the fact that the turn order marker shifts each round but, with 10 rounds, you’ll only all have the same number of turns as first player in a two-player game. For that reason, when playing with three or four players, you should consider ignoring the instruction in the rules that the first player marker be given to the player who has most recently visited Catalonia: it’s better instead to give it to the least experienced player.
There are some unusual aspects of Castell – and I don’t just mean the bizarre theme. The scores players get for their performances are not cumulative: for a performance you’ll only ever score for your best. If you score 11 points for a performance and then 10 points for a subsequent performance, your score remains at 11. Be warned, players who are used to continually racking up points may find this counterintuitive. However, it can still be worth contributing a performance even when it doesn’t top your previous score because if the performance is ‘better’ (scores more) than than those of your rivals, it can additionally earn medals which are cumulative and which translate to end-game additions on the victory point track. By the same token, the medals mean that it can be advantageous not to show up at all at a festival you don’t expect to win because the winners’ medals will be worth less where there are fewer participants.
OTT Castell bag
Castell is attractively produced, with a colourful board and components. Despite the theme, it doesn’t involve any actual balancing (look instead at Matagot’s Meeple Circus if you want a dexterity game where you are building an actual three-dimensional meeple tower). Castell does, however, come with an absurdly oversized draw bag for the casteller tiles. At nearly 15 inches by 11 inches, this is so much larger is expected or needed that I half suspect it is the result of an error made in drawing up the specs: did they originally intend the bag to be 15 x 11 cm with someone making a mistake over the units of measure? At the start of every game, the casteller tiles are always jumbled together (that’s why they are tossed in the oversized bag). It seems especially perverse then that you need to carefully sort the tiles in order to fit them into the box insert. I’m used to having to sort components out to play a game but I don’t want to have to sort them out solely to put them away!
Since I have a neurotic urge to have a game in my collection to cover every theme imaginable, Castell is for me a ‘must have’ title. If you are less obsessive, then you’ll want to more carefully weigh up the pros and cons. It’s a good game, especially if you play with people who don’t slow the game down too much by overly agonising about every action. With the right players, you can expect to complete a game in not much more than an hour, and it can be a very satisfying play. It scores, on balance, 7/10. Maybe it’ll even become a collectors’ item if Catalan Separatists win their controversial bid for independence from Spain.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.