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A CASTLE FOR ALL SEASONS

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

A CASTLE FOR ALL SEASONS (Eggertspiele/Rio Grande Games, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, 45-60 minutes; $54.95 )

 

Are you ready to assume the role of a builder charged with constructing a mighty castle? OK, so the theme of A Castle for All Seasons is nothing new. Indeed, it has probably reached the point where it can be considered overused. However, in a land filled with magnificent castles and ruins, it should come as no surprise that the theme of castle building would still be popular in Europe and beyond.castlefront

Fortunately, many of the mechanisms in this latest creation from Inka and Markus Brand are quite creative, giving the game a novel feel. While some of the mechanisms are familiar, they are blended together in a fashion that feels fresh and new. Further, the designers have succeeded in creating a game that is filled with tough choices, considerable tension, and a variety of possible strategies, all wound together in a tight sixty minute time frame. That is quite an achievement.

The double-sided board (one side is used for the “winter” version) depicts the architectural plans of a massive castle, indicating the specific areas where various features of the castles will be constructed – the keep, stable, servants house, market, palace, forge, towers and more. Players will construct these buildings, and place helpers in many of these locations, which will earn additional victory points at game’s end. Resources and money are required to build, so there is a constant need to acquire both. Players must balance their quest for victory points with the need for a steady cash flow, while at the same time beating their opponents to the most lucrative positions in the castle.

Each player receives an identical deck of cards, each card depicting a specific character. Each turn, players will simultaneously play one card and execute the power of the character depicted in the order listed below. The characters determine the actions a player can take during his turn, so are worth examining a bit closer:

Messenger: The player receives 8 talers from the bank. Money can be in short supply during the game and the messenger is one of the few ways a player can earn funds.

Trader: The player places a helper onto one of the five resource areas – sand, wood, clay, stone or silver. A player can only displace another helper if all areas are filled. All players who have helpers in the resource areas receive resources, but each must donate one of the items received to the defensive tower. Resources have values ranging from 1 – 5, and are used to construct the various buildings in the castle.

Bricklayer: The player first takes all of one type of resource from the defensive tower, and may construct one to two buildings in the castle. More on the building requirements and restrictions in a bit. After constructing a building, the player may place one or two helpers in locations that have already been constructed, paying the specified cost in talers. The player earns one taler for each resource used in the construction. Other than the Messenger, this is generally the only manner in which money is earned.

Stonemason: The player is able to purchase one resource for one taler each from each worker that was played that turn. Then, just like the Bricklayer, he may construct one or two buildings, but instead of earning money, the player earns victory points depending upon the building constructed. Points vary from 6 – 18, with the more valuable buildings costing more resources to construct. Just as with the Bricklayer, the player may then place one or two helpers.castlesback

Worker: There are three workers in the deck, and each allows the player to take three specified resources. These resources are at risk if one or more opponents play the Stonemason. The player may then construct one or two buildings, but only receives one-half the specified victory points. Unlike the Bricklayer or Stonemason, the player may not place any helpers. Workers are very valuable in securing resources, but players must always be wary of the Stonemason.

Master Builder: When characters are played, they are NOT returned to a player’s hand at the end of the turn. Rather, the player must play the Master Builder in order to retrieve his previously played cards. But the Master Builder has another major advantage: the player earns five victory points for each building that is constructed that turn. So, a wise player will assess the likelihood of his opponents constructing buildings on a particular turn when making the choice to play the Master Builder. This could also cause opponents to not construct buildings lest they award too many points to the player who has played the Master Builder.

In order to construct a building, a player must assemble the exact value in resources. Each building costs a specific amount to construct, and the resources available have a specific value based on the type of resource. A player must use at least three different types of resources, and the combined value of the resources used must exactly equal the amount required by the building. This can be tricky, and requires the player to collect a variety of resources as opposed to concentrating on just the more valuable ones. Fortunately, silver can be used as any value, which makes the task somewhat easier.

When a building is constructed, the appropriate building tile is removed from the board, opening that space for the placement of helpers. In order to place a helper, a player must have constructed a building on that turn, and must pay the amount specified at the location where he desires to place the helper. Thus, it is important to have a ready supply of money in order to pay this cost.

Why place helpers? Helpers earn victory points at the end of the game based on the conditions specified at the various building locations. The conditions can include points for constructed towers or houses, the number of helpers in the castle, the number of empty helper spaces, the amount of money a player has remaining, etc. The cost to place helpers varies by location, and some locations can accommodate more than one helper. Choosing where to place helpers will also drive a player’s strategy, as he tries to maximize the points that will be earned via his helpers at game’s end. In most games, the majority of victory points are ultimately derived from helpers.

The game continues for a pre-determined number of turns, either twelve or fifteen, dependent upon the number of players. These turns fly by, and the game is surprisingly quick. It takes some time to gather resources and funds, and these are quickly depleted once a building or two is erected. Usually a player will only construct buildings on three or four turns – and sometimes less. Thus, a player must plan properly and act quickly, as a cautious approach that involves delaying actions until a future turn can easily result in the game ending before the player is able to perform the actions he intended.

After the final turn, players tally victory points earned by their helpers, adding them to the points earned during the game. The player with the greatest cumulative total is victorious, with remaining cash being the tie-breaker.

As mentioned earlier, the board is double-sided, with the reverse “winter” side being used for the “Castle in Winter” option. This option plays virtually identical to the regular game, with the exception of the addition of event cards. Four-to-six of these cards will be revealed during the course of the game, each offering players certain options or presenting obstacles to overcome. None are devastating or overly powerful, but they do add a bit of variation to the game. This is a good thing, as I have this nagging feeling that the game would eventually grow stale without some additional nuances. Fortunately, new winter cards were recently released, helping provide even more potential variations.

A Castle for All Seasons packs a lot of decisions and tension in a short sixty-minute timeframe. It is a game where you are trying to stay one-step ahead of your opponents, as the turn order and order in which characters are played are vitally important. Being scooped of a desired position, building or resource area is a common occurrence, so back-up plans must exist. There is an element of guesswork, as you must try to guess which characters your opponents will likely play each round as this could have a significant effect on the card you play and its ultimate benefits. Fortunately, you do have some evidence on which to base this decision, as you know which cards they have remaining in their hands, and can survey their supply of resources and current board position. And, unlike in some other games, the cards played by your opponents won’t completely cancel your actions.

I have been pleasantly surprised by A Castle for All Seasons as the well-worn theme had me fearful that the game would play much the same as many other games utilizing a similar storyline. Fortunately, the blend of mechanisms – both old and revised – gives the game a fresh feel, and the choices it requires and tension it evokes in such a short timeframe are substantial. I’m happy to see the company supporting the game with additional event cards, as this will insure it will continue to make regular visits to my gaming table, whatever the season may be. – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser


 

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