Pumpkin Party

Look at that happy Pumpkin King. How does one become a Pumpkin King anyway. Like, he's clearly not the biggest or roundest pumpkin. Is it a hereditary role? An heirloom thing? I just don't know the answer.

Designing a roll-and-write or flip-and-write game is like transcribing an epic D&D campaign into a fantasy novel or sampling Rocky Mountain oysters — something everyone apparently has to try once. Josep Allué and Eugeni Castaño’s flirtation with our hobby’s latest craze is Castle Party, a game about monsters crowding into a Halloween bash to watch some fireworks, do the conga, and toast the pumpkin king. And it delivers two small tricks that are a real treat.

Oh look, they rented an empty ballroom surrounded by murky water for the Halloween party.

The easy side of the board isn’t all that interesting.

Normally I’d open by talking about the ways Castle Party is unsurprising. Bland, even. Here’s the dry-erase board. Here are the little symbols you write on it. Here’s the concept, wherein something is rolled or flipped and then everybody at the table uses that shared template to write those symbols on that dry-erase board, gradually creating individual patterns and scores from identical inputs.

Honestly, though, there are only so many times I can write something before my keyboard (and my sanity) starts to fight back. Can you tell that this genre has begun to wear thin over here?

So instead, let’s jump right into the two details that set Castle Party apart. I have no idea whether Allué and Castaño are the first to implement these, but they’re significant enough that they elevate Castle Party from the smoothest of all boilerplates to a more textured experience.

One. Every turn, a shape is revealed from a deck. Yawn, right? Except in this case, the shape is only the first step. Going around the table, everybody adds symbols to the shape, beginning with the player who drew it. These symbols are pulled from a second deck, filled with both regular monsters and their up-scaled royal versions. Upon completion, you’re left with both the shape and the symbols you’ll need to draw on your board.

Two. Everybody draws that shape and those symbols on their board. Yawn again. Except, again again, Castle Party takes an extra step. During setup, everybody oriented themselves at opposing angles around the table. Now everybody is facing the shape from a different perspective. And you’re required to draw that shape according to that perspective.

That’s it. Those are the two changes.

These skeletons are living their best afterlife.

Crafting your shape is the standout idea of Castle Party.

For such minor adjustments, however, these changes pull major weight.

Right away, configuring the symbols within your table’s shape is far more interesting than simply being handed some symbols and asked to fill in your board. This is a genre that thrives when it permits some degree of self-expression, whether it’s the fantasy map-making of Cartographers or the more arithmetic priorities of Welcome To. Castle Party pushes that trend off the board. You aren’t only choosing what to do with a shared input; you’re crafting the input itself.

This has long-reaching implications. Messing with your opponents is the obvious example. Roll-and-writes are often accused of being heads-down experiences, mostly because they do, in fact, operate largely in isolation, to such an extent that both of the examples I just gave advertise themselves as being playable with up to one hundred individual human beings. Why? Because there’s no need to look at anybody else’s sheet. Once your input has been delivered, you’re free to use it however you see fit. It’s the board game equivalent of Freaky Friday-ing into a data entry drone.

And look, I’m not dinging that. Sometimes I want to play something solitary. My issue with roll-and-writes is more that they’re so geared toward isolated play that the entire genre leaves me hungry for any reason to so much as glance at my fellow players. Castle Party provides that. Because shapes are configured — and more than configured, individualized based on how you view them — it’s a simple thing to, say, tuck a ghost into somebody’s cluster of vampires to prevent them from making a perfect bloodsucking conga line, or helping to craft a shape that benefits you but nobody else.

Castle Party is fully aware of this unique advantage. It even lets you manipulate the configurations that appear on the table. Everybody has access to a trio of once-per-game powers that let you mix around a shape’s symbols, swap in something else, or rotate a shape entirely. Crucially, two of these powers alter the shape for everybody at the table, acting as last-minute gotchas. Oh, that shape was perfect for you? Too bad, now it’s perfect for me and worth nothing at all to you.

Sadly, these efforts are imperfect, in part because they’re represented by barely-legible iconography. Castle Party is staid in more ways than one. Always the same powers, always the same scoring opportunities, always the same pratfalls. For a game that otherwise defenestrates the status quo into the moat, it’s regrettably willing to tread water.

That's an accolade shared with most exemplars of the genre, though.

Castle Party is a solid travel game.

Still, the point remains that this is the most I’ve looked at another player board in a roll-and-write game. That alone is an accomplishment. It isn’t enough to transform Castle Party into a landmark title, but it nudges the trend in a direction that I hope the rest of the genre takes up.

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on August 9, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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