Thursday 9 April 2020

Review - Castle of Mind

Designed by Torok-Szabo Balazs
Published by the Fontanus Scientific Methodology Research and Education Center
For 2 players, aged 8 to adult

Castle of Mind

Have you ever played "Pan in the Sink" before?

I bet you have. You may not have realised it. But you have.

You know after you've eaten dinner, and you're washing up, and there's that one pan left? You know the one. The one with the really crusty, baked on black stuff. The one that's going to take about half an hour to clean.

Sure, you could scrub it. But you don't. Instead, you fill the sink with water and drop the pan in there. If anybody asks, it needed to soak.

And soak it will.

For how long depends entirely on how good you (and the people you live with) are at playing "Pan in the Sink."

You see, the aim of the game is simple: Don't be the one that actually cleans the pan.

It's really just a waiting game. Seeing whose will breaks first.

How stubborn can you be? How determined are you to keep the pan sitting there?

If you win, you get the joy of not having to clean the pan. But if you lose...

Losing is the worst, because not only do you have to clean the pan, you also have to clean all the other stuff that has built up beside the sink while the pan was stewing. It's a chain reaction. A domino effect of cleaning.

And you may be wondering why I bring up "Pan in the Sink" at all. Well, besides the fact I'm currently the reigning champion, and in the middle of a game as I type, it also reminds me very much of Castle of Mind.

Let me explain...

Castle of Mind is an abstract two-player game, in the vein of Draughts (Checkers), but with an unusual twist. Rather than taking your opponent's pieces by landing on them or jumping over them, you instead take your opponent's pieces by landing on spaces of the board that match the colour of the piece you are moving and the colour of the space the opponent piece is on.

Sound complicated and convoluted?

It's really not. It's just one of those rules that's difficult to explain concisely without an example. So, here's an example:

If I move a green piece onto a green space, I'm allowed to take an opponent piece that's also on a (different) green space.

That's the hook the game hangs off, and I have to admit, it's a pretty clever hook.

The rules sheet from Castle of Mind

At the start of the game, each player has 17 pieces: Two white, two grey, four yellow, three green, three blue, and three red. They all start around the edge of a board comprising coloured sections divided into smaller spaces. The red pieces are the most important, and start in little red gates. On a turn, a player selects one piece of any colour to move, following a simple set of movement rules:

1. Pieces move one space in any direction.
2. Only one piece can be on a space.
3. If a piece is on a space that matches its colour, it cannot move to another space of that colour.
4. Red pieces are not allowed to return to gates once they enter the main board.

Rule three above is the clever bit, because it prevents you from making consecutive captures with the same piece. For example, if you capture a piece by moving a green piece onto a green space, on the next turn you can't move that same green piece onto another green space to make another capture. You would first need to move the green piece to a space of any other colour, thereby giving your opponent an opportunity to react and move pieces that are at risk into safer locations.

The aim of the game is to position one of your three red pieces on the red target space in the centre of the board, or else eliminate your opponent's red pieces, or simply force your opponent into a position where he or she has no legal moves available.

It's all pretty self-explanatory, and after a few turns you'll be into the swing of it. And overall, it's not a bad little game. The twist is unique, and gives you something completely new to think about. You can't focus on any one area of the board; you have to constantly consider every possible action your or your opponent may take. It takes a little bit of mental gymnastics to get good at identifying danger when it comes from somewhere on the other side of the board. You need to be prepared for countless "gotcha" moments as you adapt to a whole new way of thinking and develop the skills necessary to win.

It really is pretty darned clever.

Unfortunately, the game is not without its flaws. Three flaws, in fact.

The first flaw should be pretty self-evident, particularly to any colourblind readers. This game relies on players being able to identify colours. Both the colour of the board spaces and the pieces are vital, and if you can't clearly identify red, green, blue, yellow, grey, and white spaces, you really don't have any chance of winning.

This is, sadly, going to be a deal breaker for some people. It's also made infinitely worse by the quality of the playing pieces (which just so happens to be the second major flaw). This isn't a game from a mainstream publisher, and the quality takes a hit as a result. The board itself isn't too bad, but the actual playing pieces are small wooden discs with poor printing and a terrible design They really put the "DIY" in indy games.

(And yes, I realise I've misspelled indie games just to make a bad dad joke. What can I say? I need better material.)

The biggest problem with the pieces isn't the size or the poor colouration. It's the art design. For some reason (and I imagine the reason was, "This is the easiest option,") the designer chose to make the two sets of pieces with inverted designs. One set has coloured rings with black dots in the middle, while the other set has black rings with coloured dots in the centre. This may sound straightforward enough, but I must have some kind of colour dyslexia because I continually mistook my pieces for my opponent's pieces, and in the heat of a serious game I found it way to easy to make mistakes that could cost the match.

A selection of pieces from Castle of Mind

What hurts the most about these first two flaws is that they're relatively easy to work around. The publisher just needed to introduce unique symbols that marry up with the colours. For example, every green space and green playing piece could have a leaf symbol. Every red space and red piece could have a flame symbol. And so on. Such a change would have involved a little more work in terms of graphic design and production, but would have instantly made the game colour independent and would have made it more accessible to a larger audience. I can't help but feel this was somewhat of an oversight.

However, even with a graphic overhaul, there's still the third and final flaw to contend with: This game is (in case you were wondering what the heck my introduction was all about) "Pan in the Sink."

In the early part of the game, it feels like not a whole lot is happening. Players spend their turns moving pieces into position to make captures on later turns. One person moves a green piece to a white space next to the green section of the board, the opponent does the same, so the first player moves a white piece to a blue space of the board next to the white section to take the opponent's green piece, but then the first player moves a blue piece to a grey space next to a blue section ready to retaliate.

And nobody actually takes anything.

Instead, they construct a delicate house of cards.

Eventually, someone's going to make a move that brings the whole house down, making a capture that starts a chain reaction, wiping out multiple playing pieces. You don't want to be the person to make that play, so the focus of the game becomes how to make threatening yet ultimately stalling actions.

Now, to be fair, this isn't necessarily a flaw. This is the game working as intended. For a lot of people, that sense of being poised on the edge of disaster, one wrong move from defeat, is going to be quite thrilling. I'm sure many people will enjoy the knife-edge play, and the meticulous way in which it's possible to orchestrate a series of moves that will trigger one after another to bring down an opponent.

The theory's sound, after all.

And I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that sounds the same as every other game of this type. They're all about early positional play, setting up those traps that you intend to spring later on.

And you're not wrong.


But for me, personally, there was more frustration than tension, and after a few plays it felt like every game slotted into the same routine. Players begin to position their pans. The sink fills up. And both players are just waiting for someone else to make a move that triggers the end game.

The colourful board from Castle of Mind

Once someone makes that first definitive action - once the first domino falls - the game becomes more exciting. Players take pieces in quick succession. Carefully laid plans go out of the window. You gnash your teeth as a perfectly positioned piece takes the hit because you weren't paying attention to a developing situation across the board. The whole nature of the game transitions from strategic to tactical as you quickly reevaluate the current state of play and make immediate adjustments based on your opponent's actions. Things heat up, and it starts to feel more entertaining.

But once you hit that point in the game, it's almost always nearly over. Most of your time is spent in the buildup, dancing around the sink, stacking up dirty plates and cups on the draining board and then sneaking back out before anybody catches you in a compromising situation with the saucers.

Again, I would stress this isn't really a flaw. It's not a failure in the system. It's just a failure in the system's ability to consistently engage me in a way that I found fun from the beginning to the very end.

This isn't a bad game. It's very clever, and I do suggest that anybody with an interest in two-player strategy games (who isn't colourblind) at least checks this one out, if possible. It's a game that does exactly what it sets out to do, and while I admire it, in the end, there's just too much risk of the game dragging in those early stages, and losing a lot of its appeal. Because the truth of the matter is, nobody really likes "Pan in the Sink." Nobody really wants to play it, and the longer it goes on the worse it gets for everyone. Sooner or later somebody has to do the cleaning; otherwise the game just stinks.

This game was kindly provided for review by the publisher.

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