Classic games have remained eternally popular because of their intricate strategies and mechanics. Backgammon, Go, Chess, Cribbage, Poker, etc. have been around for centuries (or millennia) and continue to draw gamers.
Modern games sometimes attempt to bring back this classic “feel,” trying to create an experience as timeless as these originators. Sometimes they do so through an academic approach; other times, it’s via art and presentation.
Occasionally, however, you’ll have someone attempt to improve upon a classic, adding more than the original game. This technique is precisely what Horrible Games did with Dragon Castle, their take on the 19th-century classic, Mahjong.
Dragon Castle starts with the rules for Mahjong Solitaire, creating a “castle” of stacked tiles from which players attempt to draw tiles through matching. Beyond that similarity, however, the game changes notably in goal and technique.
Players compete to build smaller castles with their acquired tiles, gaining points through a variety of methods. Consolidating groups of tiles, building shrines, discarding tiles, matching the Dragon Card, and obtaining countdown tokens all bring you victory points.
Once the game reaches an end, which is triggered by both current board situation as well as player actions, players tally their scores. The highest number wins, with ties broken by everything from the height of personal stacks to the number of shrines.
Each game begins like Mahjong Solitaire with the creation of a castle – a randomized stack of tiles. The game provides not only four boards (each designed for a specific number of players), but also further variations in the rulebook.
Play then continues with each player taking a turn, during which they are required to do two things: take an action and, if necessary, place acquired tiles. The latter step may trigger further steps but each turn only requires taking actions and placing tiles.
During a player’s turn, they can take three actions: taking a pair of tiles, taking a tile and adding a shrine, or discarding a tile. An optional fourth action occurs once most tiles have been removed; you can acquire countdown tokens but each one removed pushes the game closer to the end.
The first tile took (or discarded) must be from the top of the Dragon Castle and “free,” meaning a long side is open. Afterward, the player can choose to pair it with a matching tile, add a shrine to their shrine pool, or discard the tile for a free Victory Point.
If any tiles have been acquired while taking action, the player is now required to place the tile on their personal castle. Tiles are placed face-up and can only be placed on the ground floor (an empty square) or a face-down tile.
To create face-down tiles, you must consolidate groups of the same type, by creating four or more tiles in an adjacent group. Depending on how many tiles you consolidate, you’ll earn more points; opponents may try to block significant consolidations, however, by stealing tiles of that type.
Once you’ve consolidated a group, all the tiles are placed face-down, and the player may put a shrine from their Shrine Pool on any tile of that group. While shrines provide points, however, they also prevent further building on that stack; players must wisely choose where they build shrines and may decide to wait for better opportunities.
Like Mahjong, tiles come in a few types, starting with basic or “Faction” tiles; these provide points and the opportunity to place a single shrine. Special tiles, which include Seasons, Winds, and Dragons, allow two shrines; Dragon tiles also provide a bonus Victory point in addition to normal scoring.
The basic game is played per the rules I’ve listed, but players can also include a random Spirit Card and Dragon Card. These optional rules grant an additional ability as well as a new way to acquire Victory Points.
Spirit Cards offer a unique opportunity that can be used at any time on your turn, outside your regular action and tile placement. To use the power, however, requires you to discard a tile from your own castle or a shrine from your Shrine Pool.
Powers vary greatly and can be used to trigger impressive chains; their precise rules (and some FAQs) are in the rulebook. You might be able to consolidate a group of tiles of the same number (rather than type) or move a shrine from one tile to another.
Dragon Cards provide additional ways to score Victory Points at the end of the game. Perhaps you gain points for a face-up tile from each faction or for having low-level shrines next to high stacks.
The great thing about Dragon Cards is the amount of strategy, and opportunity to victory added to an already complex game. Games otherwise close might end up decided thanks to the card, or a player might score from behind everyone else.
Dragon Castle ends when players take the countdown token from a specific spot on the board. You can’t gain these tokens until the castle only has tiles remaining on its bottom floor, but once that happens, the countdown is fair game.
Take too many countdown tokens, however, and you trigger the finale. Each player (after the first) is allowed one more turn, and then points are tallied.
Players will already have Victory Points earned through consolidation, discarding tiles, or countdown tokens. You also score points for shrines, worth more if on taller stacks, and meeting Dragon Card conditions.
Dragon Castle indeed does provide a significant enhancement to a classic game. Although this isn’t traditional Mahjong (which is closer to Rummy), it’s basis on Mahjong Solitaire brings a lot of familiarity.
Unlike that solitaire game, however, this version is highly competitive, with multiple routes to victory and regularly close scores. With the numerous castle styles, Spirit and Dragon cards, and even some variations in the rules, Dragon Castle appears to have infinite replayability.
Another bonus is the tiles in the game look and feel like traditional Mahjong tiles, even using similar suits. Although they only include 116 tiles (compared to the conventional 136-144 tiles), there is enough to play Mahjong Solitaire.
If there were a downside, it’s that keeping the slick tiles stacked (and the shrines on top) is a pain. Maintaining the various castles is difficult, especially as you’re removing or flipping tiles over, and you often must regularly rebuild or restack.
I can see how some players might grow bored with Dragon Castle after a while, as there’s nothing flashy, no unique scenarios, no fascinating backstory. This game is a classic strategy game, more about the competition than the theme or content.
I loved the game, however, and we often found players staring at the tiles as if this were a game of Chess or Go, planning moves well in advance. Any game that brings that level of strategy is worth it and will always find a place on my shelf.
Also, like most classic games, Dragon Castle is excellent for younger gamers and families. My son has already started to excel at Santorini, and now he has something new to challenge his growing brain.
If you enjoy deep strategy, multiple routes to victory, and the flavor of Mahjong, then Dragon Castle should feed all those desires and more.
Dragon Castle is on shelves now. 2-4 players, 30-45 minutes, Ages 8+.
I give Dragon Castle an almighty 4 summoned dragons out of 5.
(Special thanks to Third Eye Games & Hobbies for introducing us to this game!)