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Blackstone Castle Kickstarter Preview


Quick Look:

Designer: Harvey Cornell
Artist: Carlie Cornell
Publisher: Dragon Phoenix Games
Year Published: 2019
No. of Players: 2-4
Ages: 8+
Playing Time: 30-60 minutes

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com

WARNING: This is a preview of Blackstone Castle. All components and rules are prototype and subject to change.

Review: 

In Blackstone Castle, you play a courtier in the King's court during a time of political upheaval. You will pull strings all across the land in order to build up your workforce, maneuver your agents into place, and gain favor with the King. 

You start with one Knight and one Wizard in your employ. Each turn, you will use them to manipulate Vassals (the cards on the board) to complete Task cards, which increase your worker pool, give you VP, and increase your capacity.

The gameplay is a bit like Dreamwell, but with more depth, asymmetrical powers, elements of worker placement and engine building, and six variants (two of which are co-op). In the base game, you're using workers to move specific cards into positions on the grid that correspond to Task card requirements. There are two worker types, each with a unique set of actions they can do. Once the conditions of a Task card are met, you slide it into your tableau and gain the benefit in subsequent rounds.

Game end is triggered when a player has at least 21 points. Players keep going until everyone has had the same number of turns. When they are done, the player with the most points is the winner.



Rules and Setup:


Place the Border cards so that they make a frame that spells Black on the top and bottom and Stone on the left and right columns, then shuffle all Vassal cards and place thirteen of them into the grid as shown above. Divide the rest into four stacks, and place one stack at each corner. Each player chooses one of those stacks to replenish used Vassals for the whole game (this is to speed up the reset process and prevent Analysis Paralysis).

Shuffle the Guild, Machination, and Power decks separately and place them near the board. Place all tokens within reach. Players draw two Family cards and choose one to keep. Give each player the two intrigue tokens bearing their family's crest, as well as two Guild cards, one Wizard token and one Knight token, and a set of Household cards (2 King, 1 Wizard, 1 Knight, 1 Order of Events). Determine the first player, and you're ready to go!

The rules are good once you decipher them, but the book needs a lot of clarification. It's arranged in a strange order, and some things were still unclear after I watched the how-to video. The full playthrough video covers everything, but learning this was more work than it needed to be. However, this is a common issue with prototypes, and it may very well be resolved before it goes to print.

Theme and Mechanics:

The mechanics and concepts of Blackstone Castle are a little convoluted. This fits with the theme, but the finer points can make it prickly to explain, especially with all the variants. I felt pretty lost while reading the book, but then it all clicked at once. It's simple once you understand the anatomy of the cards and the order of play, but there are a lot of instances of, "This is the deal unless..."

Thematic implementation feels a little abstract. It's not bad, but I think it could be better.

Family Cards:


Each Family has two hugely powerful unique abilities. Some sound more overpowered than others, but they are actually pretty well balanced.

Task Cards:


This is a Task card. It represents a political situation you are trying to create. You will attempt to complete the requirements by maneuvering the Vassal cards on the board into the positions corresponding to the coordinates (letters). You start the game with two Task cards and gain more by spending Wizard tokens.Speaking of...

Tokens:


Tokens are spent for actions. You can take as many actions on your turn as you'd like and can complete Tasks as any point on your turn. You can also bank them, but it may affect your income if you don't have many King Tasks completed (more on Kings later). The actions each token type can do is listed on the corresponding card in your tableau.

When you complete a Task, you will mark the Vassals you are activating with Castle tokens. This gives other players a chance to verify the conditions are met and helps you remember which cards to replace at the end of your turn. Marking them is important because refreshing the board doesn't happen until you're done playing actions, and there's a good chance you will get distracted by some strategic point before that happens.

The last token in this lineup is the Intrigue token. Each player will have two of these that correspond to their family's crest. When you complete a Task, you can put one of your Intrigue tokens on one of your completed Tasks and the other on a Vassal on the board bearing at least one of the same symbols. If an opponent affects that card on their turn, you get a bonus token and/or card depending on what type of Task you placed it on. Rewards are listed on the Household cards. If nobody messes with that Vassal, you take your token back at the start of your next turn. 

Worker income: 

You gain tokens each round based on the number of the corresponding card types in your tableau. You start with an income of one Wizard and one Knight. When you complete a Knight Task, that Task card is slid underneath your starting Knight, increasing your Knight income to two tokens on your next turn.

 
Vassals:

Vassal cards represent a type of person (the small symbol) in a specific place (big symbol). The smaller symbols in the right corner tell you what's on the other side of the card.

Maneuvering Vassals on the board is an abstract representation of manipulating people and situations to serve your purposes. You play a middleman; you work for the King, but you have to hire workers to make the Vassals do what's necessary to gain the favor of the King and increase your worker pool. It's a game of pulling strings, spying, and tripping up your opponents.


Tasks, Part 2:

These are a few examples of Tasks.


The bottom two Tasks increase your worker income (Wizards and Knights respectively). The card on the top left is an example of a King Task. The Ploy (chess piece) goes under your Order of Events card, and its only benefit is VP.


Each Task card is divided into four quadrants. The top left tells you how many victory points it's worth, and what benefits it provides once completed. The top right of the card tells you what retained Vassal you must discard if it's not the first Task in the chain. The two bottom quadrants tell you what has to be where on the board. For this one, you would need a castle with a shady guy at the intersection of B and S on the grid, as well as a dragon with a flower on the A column. The E is only used in the advanced game.

Blackstone Castle has four types of Tasks (missions) to complete, which are divided into three draw decks named Guild, Power, and Machination. Each deck has a different ratio of Task types, so you can never be sure what you'll draw, but you can make an informed decision.

Guild - Mostly Wizards and Knights.
Power- Mostly Kings.
Machination - Mostly Ploys

All of them require specific Vassals in specific places, but some cards have wild (rainbow) requirements. The task below is very easy because it has two wild requirements. All you need is a flower symbol in the B column and a Castle symbol in the A column.


The letters in white boxes (T in this case) is only a requirement in certain variants.

The symbols in the top right are an additional cost you must pay if you have already completed at least one task of that type. You meet that requirement by discarding a specific Vassal you've retained (taken from the board into your retained Vassal supply) with a Knight action. The retained Vassal must have both of the symbols to qualify.

Thematically, Knight and Wizard Tasks are acquisitions of fealty. You're creating the circumstances necessary for you to convince more Knights and Wizards to support your King by working for you. You meet the requirements on the board to hire a guy. Completed Task cards become workers represented by an increase in the number of worker tokens you get each round.


King Tasks represent specific tasks the King requires. The King only allows you to have a certain amount of power; the more you do for him, the more he allows you to have. Mechanically, that means that for each Crown in your tableau, you can have one of each of the following:
  • Knight tokens
  • Wizard tokens
  • Tasks in your hand
  • Vassals retained
  • Completed task cards that you can count VP on. (note. Kings don't limit the number of Tasks you can complete, but they do limit the resources and points you get from them.)
You start with two King cards, so you can have up to two of each of the things in the list.

All four Task types work the same in the standard game. The deluxe version also has Assassins and Saboteurs.


It's actually two sides of the same card. These are shuffled into the Vassal decks after the board is set up. Assassins (dagger) can be moved or flipped, but not retained. They're basically just in the way. If they are flipped, they become Saboteurs (bomb). Saboteurs can be flipped or retained, but not moved. Again, they are mostly an obstacle, but if they are retained, it resets the whole board. You shuffle everything back together and place new Vassals like you did at the beginning.

The cards are balanced so that you should be able to complete a task almost every round. Partial machinations get trickier with a higher player count because of the increased likelihood somebody's going to do something to the Vassal you need. It's also harder to do things without giving other players a bonus.

I hope they add a family that increases your ability to spy. You could manipulate much more effectively if you knew exactly what your opponents were going for. Uncompleted tasks are secret, so you can never be sure.

Blackstone Castle is six games in one. You have the basic game, the advanced game, and four variants, including two co-op modes. I've focused on the basic game, but the advanced game works very differently. You complete tasks by lining up Vassals on the board to meet specific requirements. Then we have four other modes:

King's Quest is a two-player co-op mode where you work together to score 16 points before the timer runs out. 

In the Queen's Quest, you are collecting sets of Vassal cards to score points at the end.

The Wizard's Quest is all about getting cards out of your hand.

Puzzle Master's Quest is the hardest. It's another timed two-player co-op, but this time, you're trying to get all the Vassals lined up in a big square with no repeating symbols. You start with a full board (instead of having gaps between Vassals, as in the basic game). When you retain Vassals, you don't have to replace them. At the end, you must have exactly 16 vassals on the board lined up around the perimeter. The nine interior spaces must be empty. There must be only one of each faction/role combination on the board, and one of these criteria must be met:

1. All four of each faction must be on one column only or one row only, and no two adjacent Vassals can have the same roles.

OR

2. All four of each role must be on one column only or one row only, and no two adjacent Vassals can have the same roles.

Game Play:
I'd say the weight is about a 2.3 - 3, depending on the mode. The mechanics are simple, but getting things into place can be tricky, especially with higher player counts. There are quite a few single-letter tasks and wild symbols. For a harder game, you can remove the wild cards.

Each turn, you will take these actions:

1. Optionally remove unused Intrigue tokens (more on that later).

2. Gain Knight and Wizard tokens.

3-5. Spend your tokens to do actions.

Wizard tokens either:
A. Swap positions of two adjacent Vassals.
B. Flip a Vassal card.
C. Draw a Task from one of the decks.

Knight tokens either:
A. Move a Vassal orthogonally to one empty space.
B. Retain a Vassal by taking one Vassal inside of the grid and replacing it with a card from any draw pile. Retained Vassals are kept in your hand until discarded to complete a Task. The first Task you slide under each of your Household cards doesn't require you to discard a Vassal, but it is a requirement for all subsequent Tasks of that type.
C. Guard a Vassal by placing one of your Knight tokens on it. Guarded cards can't be manipulated or used for a Task.
D. Unguard a Vassal. Discard a Knight token to remove a Knight token from a guarded Vassal, thereby freeing it up.

Once you have met all the requirements on your Task card, Mark the Vassals involved with Castle tokens, and slide the Task under your Household card with the matching symbol. You can only complete one Task per turn, but you can spend as many tokens as you have getting ready for your next one.

6. Remove the vassals you used to complete a task and replace them with the top cards of your refresh deck, starting with the top left and proceeding down/right.

7.  If you completed a Task, you may place one of your Intrigue markers (the one with your crest) on any of your completed Task cards. Place the matching Intrigue token on any Vassal on the board whose symbols match one or both of the symbols on your chosen Task. If another player manipulates the Vassal with your token on it, you get a bonus token and/or cards. Rewards depend on whether your Task is a Knight, Wizard or King. Ploys provide no bonus.

8. If necessary, discard until you meet your King limit. This is rare unless you spend all your Wizards drawing cards and can't do them.

Artwork and Components:
This is a prototype, so art and components are not finalized.

The Good:
This has a fairly unique feel with little bits of a wide range of different styles of game incorporated.
It's very well balanced. Once you learn it, the interconnectedness of the mechanics is pretty cool. There's more strategy than luck, and it plays fairly quickly.

The Bad:
A lot of my complaints are likely to be cleared up before this goes to print. The rulebook needs work, especially where variants are concerned. The art didn't grab me. It's mathematically good, but it could be a lot more fun if it were polished.

The Double-Edged Sword:
Blackstone Castle is six different games, each with different goals and mechanics. It has four competitive variants and two 2-player co-op modes. Variety is great, but having mechanics that vary so much from game to game can make it irritating to learn and difficult to remember over time.

Final Thoughts:
I would've preferred it to be a little tougher to do tasks, offset with no limit on how many you can do per turn and a higher score to trigger the end. That's just my personal taste, though. The mechanics are balanced so that you can complete a task on most turns. It's a pretty good game with a lot of potential, but it didn't wow me.

For Players Who Like:
Dreamwell.
Unusual variations on engine builders and worker placement.
Moderately aggro abstract strategy.


Check out Blackstone Castle on:

            

Coming to KICKSTARTER August 21, 2018.



Stephen Gulik - Reviewer

Stephen Gulik is a trans-dimensional cockroach, doomsday prophet, author, and editor at sausage-press.com. When he’s not manipulating energy fields to alter the space-time continuum, he’s playing or designing board games. He has four cats and drinks too much coffee.

See Stephen's reviews HERE.
Blackstone Castle Kickstarter Preview Blackstone Castle Kickstarter Preview Reviewed by S T Gulik on August 06, 2018 Rating: 5

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