An Unmitigated Disastle
Some folks arrange castle chambers for fun, others arrange castle chambers because they’re about to be smashed to bits by random catastrophes. The people of Disastles — disaster castles, don’t you know — fall into the latter category.
What a peculiar game. Let’s talk about why.
Disastles has a lot going on for such a small box. How small, you ask? Very small. Roughly the size of four Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, ten classic packs of stick gum, or enough pocket warmers to survive the first quarter of a football game. As you’d expect, the cards within this small box are also small. How small, you ask? About the size of Fantasy Flight condition cards. You know, the ones that say your character has a broken leg or is haunted by tax collectors. As you’d once again expect, the text on these small cards is also small. How small, you ask again, risking a withering glare? Small enough that I had to squint in good light. That’s how small.
And while squinting would normally have me declaring that your cards are too small, in this case their smallness is a boon. This is because you only begin with one card, a tiny little throne room, but it isn’t long before you have an entire sprawling network of the things. If anything, my complaint is that they’re rectangles rather than squares. After all, this is a game that features ninety-degree rotation. And there’s nothing quite as ugly as the occasional room jutting haphazardly from the underbelly of your palace.
Here’s how it works. Every round, you draft a card. It’s as simple as dealing out five cards and then taking turns nabbing something. Which is perhaps too simple because it largely rewards whomever’s going first that round. The first player gets the most exciting room, or the best fit, or even the card that will later give them extra actions or better rooms, while everybody else is stuck with impossible fits and boring corridors. Don’t expect anything fancy, like a multi-card draft or auction or anything highfalutin’ like that. Disastles isn’t that kind of game.
Then again, you won’t always want to grab a room. Nearly always. But just shy of always. Sometimes it’s better to move a room, or swap rooms, or — well, those are your alternatives, at least at first. If you’ve been placing rooms with some degree of forethought, you probably won’t have to resort to such measures. But the option is there for that theoretical moment when you finally need it.
If I’m sounding a little wry about Disastles, there are two reasons. One, there’s a coherent and appealingly silly game here, but nearly every detail is somehow wonky. And two, I haven’t talked about the game’s pair of twists yet, and how they imbue the game with some of its best decisions, but why those twists and their decisions are also, sadly, a bit wonky.
The first twist is that most rooms bestow an ability, but must be “powered” before that ability enters into effect. A room is powered by connecting certain of its pathways to neighboring rooms, and making sure those pathways match — moon to moon, diamond to diamond, you get the gist. This is often trickier than it sounds, and although any connection can match, and will even prove valuable later on, only the highlighted ones matter when it comes to powering up an ability.
As for those abilities, they’re all over the place. Some are flashbombs that only trigger the instant they’re powered, while others add new actions for you to take. Even victory points, if you hope to win the game by anything other than attrition, are earned by powering vaults to adjacent rooms.
And what do all these rooms do? Well, a whole bunch of stuff. There are common options, like a Bunker that defends against damage (foreshadowing!), a Swimming Pool that safeguards surrounding rooms from tampering, or Generators that power any room connected to them. Some are disruptive, like a Spinning Chamber or Gravity Generator rotating rooms into those awkward nonconforming angles. But the most interesting — and the most enjoyable to tinker with — are those that manipulate the game state more broadly, like the Doomsayer who peels ten cards from the top of the deck and triggers anything bad that might lurk there, the Black Market giving you random rooms that might be wonderful or terrible, an Unhappy Neighbor who forces every other player to swap two rooms in their castle, or big scoring opportunities like the Entropic Vault that shuts off the power to all surrounding rooms.
Like I said, appealing silliness. Disastles is at its best when it’s letting you do goofy things, both to your own castle and those of your rivals. But at times it doesn’t quite run with it. There are loads of boring rooms that, when combined with the simplistic nature of the card draft, tend to create significant unevenness between castles. One sovereign will benefit from protection, a bonus action, and the ability to pick their new rooms from an entirely separate draft — and these bonuses will cascade into better bonuses and better defenses, while others flounder with whatever piddly nonsense they haven’t managed to power up. There are teeth aplenty, which is good, but they’re distributed so flippantly that it’s often the deck selecting your fate rather than the make of your castle or the actions of your rivals.
Especially once the disasters show up.
Disasters are the game’s way of pushing back against your castles. There are only a small handful shuffled into the deck, but they’re often enough to cause serious trouble. Basic disasters deal damage that’s negated by certain types of connections: three diamond damage, for instance, decreased to only one damage if you have two completed diamond passageways. Catastrophes are optional mega-disasters with extra effects, but they’re similarly easy to evaluate. In both cases, damage is blocked by special rooms or matching connections, and applied by tossing rooms out of your castle.
And it works for the most part. Nicely, disasters increase in potency, forcing you to keep your connections balanced even while you attempt to power up particular rooms. It’s something to worry about that doesn’t entirely distract from your turn-by-turn growth.
Unless you take some early hits, that is. The issue is that, much like the problem of cascading room powers, those who have adequately protected themselves tend to stay protected, while those who suffer hits — and therefore lose connections — tend to be even more vulnerable when the next disaster comes around. These two issues compound to give Disastles a distinct “rich get richer” feel, plummeting some toward defeat while they elevate others to lofty scores.
Of course, a lot can be forgiven when a game is small and short. Capriciousness is one thing in a twenty-minute game, and quite another spread across a full hour. This is perhaps Disastles’ most significant misstep. Despite its compact form factor, Disastles is oddly long, like a tall man shuffling on shoe-covered knees into the London Cigar Club for Vertically Challenged Gentlemen. Between its length, gradual attrition of those who suffered early errors, and imbalance of wacky and boring cards, it feels like a game that wants to be whimsical but doesn’t quite pull it off. Either more silliness or more control would have solidified its identity, but there’s no telling whether that would have been enough to make it great.
A complimentary copy was provided.