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Subject: Ogre Castle: A Hidden Gem rss

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Kaiwen Zhang
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This is my first ever review. It is based on 4 plays, 3x with 4 players and 1x with 3 players. The expansion deck was shuffled in the base game.

The title of my review "A Hidden Gem" fits this game in so many ways:

1- The common meaning: it is not a well known game, but surprisingly enjoyable.

2- The components of this game are subpar and the packaging is poor. It took some effort to convince others to play it. None of us, myself included, expected this game to play well.

3- The rules are deceptively simple. The hidden layer of strategy, tactical maneuvering and metagaming reveals itself only upon subsequent plays.

4- It is about collecting gems

The purpose of this review is not to go over the components or the rules. I advise you to be familiar with those first by reading other reviews. I want to show you strategical aspects I've found in this game by playing it a few times. Hopefully by the end of the review, you will be convinced that there is some actual meat to this apparent chaotic filler.

The BIG idea

The foundation of my strategical exploration of this game rests on one idea:

If the ogre captures one of a knight's gems, that knight MUST fight the Ogre to get that gem back in order to win.

This principle is a key aspect to the game. Since a knight must collects all of its gems, s/he cannot win if the Ogre holds even one of them. The exception is the Drop card (drop a gem from a player), but experienced gamers should be aware of it and work to contain it.

A simple, effective, strategy for the ogre became apparent at our second play: Collect one of each knight's gems as soon as possible. By doing so, the ogre gains control of the pace of the game: instead of the ogre chasing knights, they must come to the ogre.

Timing is everything

Because of the chaos induced by all the "take that" cards in the game, there is ample opportunity for "bashing the leader". A player on the verge of winning can be fended off if the other players plot against him/her. Knights in particular should try and grab gems in a quick sequence so that other players have no chance to react. It is also important to try to win when the conditions are favorable (i.e. other players have no cards in hand).

From the ogre's point of view, timing means that it is more efficient for you to focus on a single knight at a time. The reasoning is simple: if you try to engage all 3 knights at once, you're playing against 3 hands of cards. If you focus on one target, subsequent battles should be easier because the knight will have depleted its hand on the first battle. The ogre's superiority in battle (with the 3rd die) is maximized when no card play is involved.

This strategic thinking however does seem to conflict with the principle outlined in the previous section, where it seems more beneficial switch target once a gem is acquired. In a situation where one knight holds multiple gems and the others 1, the ogre has the tough decision to make whether it must seek to obtain all the gems from that one player, or acquire at least 1 from every player.

It can also be observed that the Ogre has a strong dominance early game when it comes to battles due to the extra fight die. However, this dominance tapers off late game when the knights have more cards to fight it off (e.g. obtained more armor). Knights will naturally draw more cards than the ogre simply because it has to fight more often, hence the late game power shift.

Because of this, a variant strategy is for the ogre to completely avoid combat with one knight, instead relying on card play and assistance from other knights to neutralize that player. By doing so, the ogre has a higher chance of winning combats against the other two players, but now has to acquire 6 gems out of 8.

Evaluating the outcomes of a battle

One of the most interesting aspect of this game is that, while battles are controlled by dice, there is strategy is selecting when to initiate a battle. The possible outcomes of a battle do not have equal effects for the winning side and change during the game.

Early game, knights have a very big decision to make: when to grab the first gem. At 0 gem, the ogre has almost no incentive to fight a knight. But once a knight grabs a gem, it immediately becomes a target for the ogre. Therefore, a passive strategy is to be very patient and devise a plan to grab all four gems very quickly and avoiding all confrontations with the ogre.

Metagaming-wise, holding one gem of every knight is particularly good late game. A common situation is for a knight to sit on 3 gems and seek the ogre out to get that final one. This is a good situation for the ogre because it does not have to waste any effort chasing a knight (it simply comes to you) and a winning outcome for the ogre results in another gem. Furthermore, the ogre will most likely receive help from the other players since a victory for the knight would result in a win.

Knowing this, knights have to decide whether they want to immediately regain a lost first gem. These battles are the worst for the ogre since a winning outcome result in no gem gained. However, these zero-gem battles for the knights usually happen early game, where the dominance of the ogre really shine when the knights do not have proper cards to counter it. On the other hand, a knight who sits too long at zero gem, collecting cards in order to fight the ogre back, may run out of time collecting the other gems. There is a definite sense of pacing involved amongst the knights when it comes to number of gems collected.

Another strategy to consider is purposely losing a gem to the ogre early game. While it may seem counter-intuitive, doing so can result in less pressure mid-game while the ogre is busy pursuing the other knights, knowing that you must come back to it to claim the win. The knight can then quietly acquire the remaining gems and plan how to win the last gem, either using a drop card or by carefully timing its confrontation with the ogre.

Setup

I highly recommend playing with the manual gems setup for added strategic depth. The ogre must formulate its plan right from the start. In early plays, the natural thing to do was to place gems at the opposite end of each knight's gate, to make it more difficult for the knights to get there. However, we soon found out that placing a gem near the entrance of a knight can set up a trap play for the ogre. Remember, that the ogre has no incentive to fight knights with no gem. By luring them with an accessible gem, the ogre can go "hunting" quickly and leverage its early game battle dominance.

Refinement on this setup became to surface in later plays. Because of timing issues, creating an asymmetrical setup became important for the ogre. It allowed the ogre to focus on one knight at a time since you could offset the time it would take each knight to obtain their first gem, allowing you to hunt them down one at a time.

Another idea to consider is creating a setup where the knights would be enticed to one area of the board, which makes it easier for the ogre to cover them all.

Hand Management

This is a crucial aspect of tactical play. Much of your plan will hinge on the cards you draw, whether they help you win battles or obtain gems easier. Collecting cards is often a strong option compared to fighting or obtaining gems. The size of one's hand is also an indication of strength. It can be used for bluffing: e.g. a knight's deterrent from a fight with the ogre. The presence of cards like Ashes (discard entire hand) and Exchange makes it risky to keep a large hand for an extended period of time however. The sensible strategy thus is to occasionally play lesser cards to keep the hand size reasonable and less threatening. However, this also makes it more susceptible to cards like Dust (discard one random card) or Twister (pass a card to neighbor).

One interesting tactical decision is evaluating a fight against drawing a card. One nifty maneuver is to block a player's exit out of a room. That way, you draw a card AND you force the opponent to walk into you, triggering the fight.

Conclusion

Ogre Castle is one of those rare games that can be played at multiple levels. On the surface, it is a simple game of take that cards which is suitable for lighthearted plays with kids. At the higher level, it can be an intense game with strategy, evaluating your apparent threat relative to others, bluffing, and hand management. Of course, at its core it is still a game based on cards and dice, so one lucky draw or roll can decide the winner. But there is enough opportunity for skillful play to mitigate all that.

I recommend Ogre Castle to anybody who is looking to play a filler that, when played with the right group of strategic gamers, can transcend to a higher level. I also urge Clever Mojo Games to consider reprinting this game with better components and packaging. There is also a strong potential in this game for expansions, through cards, the use of modular boards, special abilities for knights, etc. If marketed correctly, I believe this game can be a big hit and fill the niche currently occupied by 7 wonders and King of Tokyo as frequently played short and accessible games with some meaningful decisions to take.

I acquired this game through a math trade without expecting much and I've been having a blast!

Edit: After reviewing the rules, we played one thing wrong: we declared immediate victory as soon as a player acquired 4/6 gems modest We omitted the "run back to the gate" condition. It is unclear for now how this affect the strategies outlined above. Consider our misplay as a variant I guess
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Scott Wheelock
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We need more of this kind of review; less box/rules copy, more analysis. I hope you got a good GG award for it.
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Kaiwen...Thanks for the post. I am glad you found Ogre Castle to be much more than you expected. Every now and then a gamer tells me that Ogre Castle should get a new edition...maybe some day.

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