Horrible Games belie their name by consistently producing games that have a great look and feel. Dragon Castle is no exception. Co-designed by Photosynthesis designer Hjalmar Hach, Luca Ricci and Lorenzo Silva, it is played with Mahjong tiles, and some of the gameplay mirrors that in the mainly solitaire tile-matching computer game that is known as Mahjong (as opposed to the traditional physical set-collecting game of Mahjong).
As in the computer game, tiles that have at least one free long edge can be taken in precisely matching pairs. These are placed on the player’s individual board (castle). The player scores for them only when they form a group of four or more orthogonally connected tiles of a similar type. Players can alternatively remove a single tile from the uppermost row of the main board (scoring one point) or can take a single tile and a shrine. The shrines can be placed out on top of the scoring tile groupings on the player’s individual board, where they will contribute to end-game scoring.
The game’s chunky Mahjong tiles add enormously to this game’s great tactile appeal. Scoring tokens are generally preferable to a joggable scoring track, although the design of the cardboard tokens in Dragon Castle are just a bit of a letdown in comparison with the quality of all the other components.
Dragon Castle plays from 2–4 players and, even with four, this is not a game where you’ll be waiting more than a moment for your turn to come around. That said, this is an abstract strategy game that works especially well with two players. Unlike many other abstract strategy games, there is relatively little ‘take that’ player interaction: players are likely, in the main, to be focused on developing their own score rather than hindering their opponents. The exception is in the mechanic the game uses for enabling players to hasten the game end. If you’re confident you are ahead, you can, as your action, take game end tokens that score you just 2 points at the end of the game but which can deny opponents the time to catch up. In the main though, this mechanic is welcome because it helps to stop games from going on too long.
Dragon Castle is as addictive as the computer game on which it is based. It’s quick to learn and it’s a game you’ll be returning to time and again. And as a bonus, it comes with considerable variety built in. The rulebook offers several alternative layouts for the initial tile set up and the game includes rules and cards that introduce the option to play using special powers and additional ways of scoring. There's no official solitaire option offered in the rulebook but you can of course use Castle Dragon to set up and play a physical (analogue) version of the computer game.
All in all, there's a lot of game in the Castle Dragon box. Though Photosynthesis created more of a stir at October's Essen Spiel, of these two abstract games, our guess is that this one will probably prove to have the greater longevity.