SOLITAIRE WARGAMES OFTEN HAVE A PROBLEM. That problem arises from the nature of solitaire play wherein the player not only ‘plays’ the game but often has to ‘run the game engine’ at the same time. Many times this leads to procedural play which can grow repetitive and uninteresting. To me, the key to breaking out of this game design cul-de-sac is to build great narrative moments into game play. Solo wargames like Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (GMT Games, 2017) play out in ‘acts’ with each one telling a part of the story. In NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2019) one is always drawing cards but planning and executing your raids is full of nail-biting moments. At first look, Castle Itter: The Strangest Battle of WWII (Dan Verssen Games, 2019) comes across as very procedural and even a bit uninteresting. However, after a few plays, and as familiarity with the rules grows, a rich and exciting story emerges from play.
I backed Castle Itter on Kickstarter and recently took delivery of the game (I also picked up Pavlov’s House, 2nd Edition, but more on that later). The combination of critical praise for Pavlov’s House and the theme of the Battle of Castle Itter drew me in.
My first play thru of Castle Itter was…flat. The game is not very complex; each turn the Defender gets five Actions followed by three SS Cards being drawn and resolved. Lather, rinse, repeat. Simple yet very procedural and repetitive. I was so disappointed that I was sure I had messed up the rules somehow I reset the game and played again. I could do this in part because the game plays quickly in around 60 minutes.
That’s when the magic started to happen.
Mechanically, Castle Itter is both literally and figuratively a classic ‘castle defense’ game. Although some wargamers claim it has roots all the way back to Up Front (Avalon Hill Game Co, 1983) I never had that game so I can’t make a comparison. What I do see is shades of Castle Panic (Fireside Games, 2012) where the monsters are descending on the castle or even Pandemic: Fall of Rome (Z-Man Games, 2018) where you not only have to defend Rome but accomplish your goals before the card deck runs out (in Castle Itter you have to survive until relieved which happens when the deck is exhausted). All of which is to say that mechanically Castle Itter feels not much like a wargame. Once I got that thought into my head the narrative portion of the game exploded.
In play, Castle Itter builds an exciting narrative. Every action the rag-tag, motley crew of defenders takes becomes an agonizing decision. How do you organize a defense with an SS Officer (maybe the best leader?), an American tank crew, low-morale Wehrmacht soldiers, French prisoners, and an Austrian resistance fighter? How do you withstand hordes of SS riflemen, machine guns, mortars, and (worse) artillery?
By my third play the mechanically procedural play of Castle Itter had faded to the background and the story of the battle started emerging. I won one game (barely) and lost another (on the last two cards). In every game the tension was palpable.
I am not usually a solitaire wargamer. Although I do play solo (often against my nemesis Mr. Solo) the very nature of solitaire games often puts me off. Castle Itter is definitely an exception and will get out to the gaming table more often because not only can it be an evening ‘filler game’ taking 60 minutes or less to play but it is – at heart – an exciting story.
Images by self