You are a member of a Japanese clan vying for power in feudal Japan. Strategically place your clan members within and around the iconic Himeji Castle to secure a victory!
The White Castle is a Euro-style dice placement game by Isra C. and Shei S., published by Devir Games. As of this writing in December 2023, it’s currently trending as #3 in the BGG Hotness charts, but how is it for solo players? Let’s find out!
The setting is feudal Japan in 1761. Himeji Castle, also known as “White Heron Castle” for its striking white exterior that looks like a bird in flight, is a famous Japanese castle perched on a hilltop in Himeji city. Clans compete for favor with the Daimyo within the castle and surrounding grounds.
The artwork and color scheme drew me to play this game as soon as I received it. Its cover and central panel illustrations were crafted by Joan Guardiet, drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese ukiyo-e style prints. I feel a sense of calm while playing the game, especially when listening to a thematic song playlist (a recommendation is listed below).
The White Castle box is small – the latest game of the Small Box Euros Series from Devir. Packing everything back in the box can be challenging, especially with the extra rulebooks in other languages. I suggest recycling the extra rulebooks so you can easily fit everything into the box.
Unfold the gameboard several times to view the colorful layout and the areas that will hold your dice and workers. The White Castle and its ascending levels are central on the board. To its left are three bridges that hold the dice with Rock and Plant Gardens below. Off to the right are the Training Grounds. The top board displays the Clan Points track, the player Heron positions, the Time Passage track and the beautiful Round tracker. On the bottom is the Well and the Outside Wall.
The components are high quality, as I’ve come to expect from Devir. The 3D bridges in the garden are one of this game’s more eye-catching features and are optional to use if you feel they are distracting. The cards are Mini Euro sized with multi-use features. Dice in 3 lovely colors – black, ivory, and red will be drafted at the start of every turn. Player pieces come in 4 basic colors – Red, Blue, Yellow and Green – giving the board a bright splash of color. Time passage tokens have a unique screen-printed design for each player. Meeples have different shapes based on the worker, with the gardeners holding a rake and the warriors wielding a katana. Fun herons strike a pose to remind you of your turn order.
Another beautiful component is the Round Tracker. It’s a shachihoko – a mythical creature with a tiger’s head and a carp’s body, traditionally adorning the roofs of Japanese castles as a protective symbol against fire.
Player boards (Player Domains) are quite nice, with cutouts to track your 3 Food, Iron and Mother-of-Pearl resources. The top holds up to 5 Daimyo Seals. There’s a spot for an Action card and your accumulated Lantern cards. The unique way of building up your Lantern rewards is very cool. Your 15 workers stand in three lines: one for your Courtiers, Gardeners, and Warriors. As you use them, they’ll uncover spots that grant additional rewards should you choose to use one of your board actions.
Unfortunately, getting those workers to line up is like asking preschoolers to form 3 straight lines. I opted to print this 3d player board overlay to help keep them in place. I chose a translucent color, and I love it! Seeing the rewards uncovered as you place the workers on the gameboard is much easier.
The objective of the White Castle is to gain the most Clan Points in the game. Clan Points (CP) are earned in the following ways:
- Remaining Resources
- For every 5 coins and Daimyo Seals, you’ll get 1 CP.
- For each Resource you have of a certain amount, you’ll get 1-2 CP.
- Tip: Since Daimyo Seals can be traded 2 for one Resource, you may want to convert these to reach a higher resource tier for more points.
- Passage of Time
- Your Influence Marker position may gain you up to 15 CP, depending on how far along the Passage of Time track it is.
- Clan Members
- Castle Courtiers: 1-10 points depending on how far up the castle they reached.
- Training Yard Warriors: Multiply the total value of your Warriors in the Training Yard by the number of Courtiers inside the Castle (not at the gate).
- Gardens Gardeners: Gain the amount of CP as shown on the cards they are on.
Whoever is higher in the turn order wins if there’s a tie.
The game plays in three rounds, each giving you three turns- only nine turns in total! But the path to victory in this game is to use as many of your 15 workers as possible. You should aim to combine at least two worker placements for most of your turns. For example, place a Gardener in the Plant Garden on a card that allows you to place a Warrior in the Training Yard, with a tile benefit that allows you to place a Courtier in the Castle. Always be looking for such combos!
As you place your workers, the spot on your domain board just cleared uncovers a new benefit. The more workers you place, the more valuable your Player Domain spots become. Placing Courtiers in the castle allows you to add more Lantern card actions, making choosing the left-most die an irresistible option.
Select one of the 9 dice on the bridge for the color you need. Dice are placed from low to high, with the lowest value die on the left side of the bridge, the middle in the center, and the highest on the Right side. Choosing the highest-value die on the right earns you coins if you place it in a spot with a lower value than your die face. But choosing from the left side of the bridge allows you to take your Lantern Rewards from your player board. You’ll have to pay the difference if that die value is lower than the placement requirement, which your Lantern Rewards should make up for by mid-game.
After you place your die on the action spot you selected, you may also have the opportunity to place one of your worker meeples if that action spot allows you. Look for the Dark Gray actions on the Action cards to scan for these opportunities quickly.
For Castle Placement, pay 2 coins to place a Courtier at the Castle gate and/or move a Courtier up a level or two in the castle. Moving a Courtier up costs 2 Mother-of-Pearl to move one level and 5 Mother-of-Pearl to move up two levels. The iconography below is a nice reminder of the castle’s costs.
Each time you place a Courtier on the Steward or Diplomat floors, you take the action card in your player domain, flip it over, and place it face down on top of the last card in your Lantern area, showing all the icons. Then place the card from the room your Courtier just landed in in the now-empty space of your player board and carry out one of the light-background actions on that card. Below, you can see how the Lantern area grows and how many rewards you’ll get out of it. You’ll also see how many rewards are uncovered as you place your workers from your player domain to the gameboard.
Choose a Garden action space that allows you to place one of your Gardeners in the Rock or Plant Garden. You can place one of your five Gardeners on one of the six cards here, but you cannot place 2 of your Gardeners on the same card. The AI can place their Gardener on your card and vice versa. The Rock Garden on the left side of the bridge costs less Food and gives you resources, coins, or Daimyo seals. The Plant side of the Garden costs more Food and allows you to pay coins to make a more valuable move. Plus, it gives more end-game points.
At the end of Rounds 1 and 2, if a die remains on the bridge where you have a Gardener, you can do that action again! So it’s best to get as many Gardeners here as soon as possible. You could get up to three rewards per game per gardener if you place them in the first round and a die remains on the bridge at the end of that round.
Each garden card scores you points at the end of the game, with the Rock card scoring at least 1 point and the Plant cards scoring up to 9 points. In the third round, you won’t get rewards after the round, but it’s still worth it to place a worker on one of those high-scoring 9 CP cards.
There are three Training Yard spots for your Warriors, and you can place up to 5 Warriors here, even in the same spot. Pay the required Iron resource and gain the benefits! Each of these spots will score you points at endgame – the amount of Warriors placed multiplied by your Courtiers inside the castle, with the 5-cost spot granting a double-warrior.
Note: This wasn’t clear in the rulebook, but the tile colors you place in the Training Yard must match the placement color areas. Light Blue is a more powerful action in one of the 5-cost spots and the 3-cost spot. It typically allows you to chain your actions to release another worker elsewhere. A less powerful action will go in the second 5-cost spot and the 1-cost spot and usually nets you some resources.
The White Castle – Solo Gameplay Experience
The White Castle’s Solo Mode is named The Tokugawa Clan’s Visit, and you play against a Rival clan as the AI. Choose a color for your Rival, and place their 15 workers in an area, along with the Solitaire Deck with a spot for their coins gained. No player domain board is needed for the AI – they will not use resources. They only receive coins. Place their color’s Heron, Influence and Fan tokens according to your difficulty level. There are 3 Levels of Difficulty – Easy, Medium, and Hard.
Shuffle the Solitaire deck and place it with the bridge side up. When it’s their turn, turn over the first card and place it to the right of the deck. Look at the dice placement on the bridge of the card just uncovered.
- If there is a die in that position (Left, Center, or Right), move that die to the position it shows on that card. On the right card, perform the two actions.
- If there is no die in that position, keep drawing cards until a die is available. Then, do the actions of the last two cards drawn.
Sometimes, the Rival will gain Clan Points equal to the number of the Round (1-3):
- Each action they are unable to take on their Solitaire card (for example, if they have no Courtiers to move up or no more Gardeners to place)
- After the first and second rounds, depending on their position in the turn order, they will gain CP for every 3-5 coins turned in.
- After the first and second rounds, they’ll receive CP for every Gardener they can activate (with at least one die remaining on the bridge).
The Rival does not score any remaining resources or coins for Final Scoring but scores like a normal player in all other categories.
Personal Solo Experience
As I was learning to play this game, most solo play reviewers claimed the solo game was impossible to win. When the Rival draws a card, and the die on that card is unavailable, they keep drawing a new card until that card’s dice is available on the bridge. This can rack up a bunch of cards, and you’ll use the last two cards to perform the Rival’s actions. But those multiple actions of placing multiple workers can spiral the Automa’s Clan Points sky high, which can be daunting to a new player.
So, I opted to limit the Rival to using only one action card each turn. After a few games and getting the hang of the game, I was blowing the Automa out of the water. I also realized that the times the Rival had to draw more than one card were much less than expected, especially if the Rival’s turn was the first in each round.
So I played the official Solo mode as it was meant to be played, and it was a good solo game! There are 3 difficulty levels for the Automa mode, varying whether the Rival starts first or has specific Clan Points and/or Time Track points. I can now easily beat the Automa on Easy, so my preferred difficulty is Medium. I tried a few games on Hard, tied twice, and lost once. I think the Solo mode isn’t as unbalanced as people may say. It’s working pretty well for me.
How solo mode differs from multiplayer
Your gameplay will not change while playing solo as opposed to multiplayer. In solo and 2-player games, you can’t stack the dice (as shown in the below image of a 4-player game) and will also omit some of the castle cards. You do not get to draft pick your starting cards. And, of course, your opponent is an Automa, which gets to bend the rules.
I wanted to see the board filled with colorful workers, to be able to stack dice and to use all the castle cards. So I played solo with all colors! My last game was an epic 4-handed Solo with 3 Rivals! I came in 2nd place with a score of 69. Surprisingly, the Rivals’ turns went very quickly and smoothly. If they had to select a middle die, I had them select the furthest to the left in the middle of the bridge. (If I wanted to make it harder, they could choose the furthest right middle die.) This 3-AI Solo mode is not in the official rulebook, but it wasn’t the disaster I expected, and I’d do it again.
I could fit the gameboard, my player, the Rival area, and all resources in a 30″ x 30″ space. This gives it a Medium footprint.
Time to Play
My first solo games took about an hour, but that time whittled to 30-40 minutes. A game may take longer if you have heavy analysis paralysis. Setup may take 7 minutes, with a repeat setup taking 5 minutes. If I play a repeat game, I usually use the small square dice tiles in the same positions but swap new Well dice icons to save time.
At first, I wished I could go for one more round, but now I feel three rounds are perfect.
Tear-down time is approximately 6 minutes.
The White Castle – Bling!
I found a fantastic 3d insert to print to organize the game. I love how it has separate player trays with insets to fit everything a player needs! I can easily pick up each worker row and place them on the player boards much faster.
It fits everything with no lid lift! (I did recycle the extra language rulebooks.) I sleeved the cards with Arcane Tinmen non-glare Small sleeves (80 microns), which all fit in the card tray.
And, of course, I 3d printed a player board overlay, which I love.
I always keep a set of thematic metal coins nearby. For The White Castle, I used these hefty Japanese-themed coins by Drawlabs. Because you’re mainly dealing in small coin quantities, these coins that depict 1-2-3 currencies worked great! (I used the holes in the coins to signify its value.) I still keep the default cardboard coin tokens in the box; they are much smaller and fit better in the box.
Here’s a Spotify playlist of traditional Japanese instrumental music to immerse yourself further in the theme.
I certainly can’t get enough of The White Castle this month, and I was surprised when my BGG Stats app told me I reached my next H-Index level! (It’s currently 18 as of December 14, 2023.) I’ve also played it two-player once.
- Solo mode has 3 difficulties, which you can increase as you improve.
- You’ll get a unique starting card(s) for each play, which boosts your production in one of the three resources and can vary your play style.
- The Gardens, Training Yards, Well, and the Top Castle room offer new benefits mixes each game.
- The Rival will play differently each time, depending on the cards.
- Plays up to 4 players, so if you feel like playing with friends, that is an option.
Pros and Cons
- The beautiful aesthetics, quality components and calming colors make this game a joy to play.
- Many paths to victory – Climb the Castle levels, Place a lot of Warriors, or choose the most Rewarding Garden spots.
- Action combos give such a rewarding feeling!
- Fun mechanics – I particularly like the Lantern action.
- Many people find the solo mode impossible to beat. A 4th solo mode called “Newbie,” in which the Rival only ever does one action card, would make solo gamers new to the game less frustrated.
- The player board is fiddly arranging your 15 workers in 3 straight lines. I had to 3d print a player board overlay to keep them in order.
- The rulebook is missing the components list, which I believe all rulebooks should include. On page 3, at least a QR code links to a page listing the components.
- Due to the combo chains, sometimes you’ll have to backtrack a turn when you discover you don’t have enough resources to cover a worker placement.
This beautiful game is now one of my most-played games of 2023. I’ve played true solo, multi-handed solo, and 2-players. The solo game plays an average of 35 minutes now, providing a quick game yet packed with decisions.
Several years ago, an FLGS employee recommended Red Cathedral (also by the same designers/publisher). Unfortunately, I haven’t played it yet, as the art didn’t draw me in. Now that I know I love The White Castle, I’m eager to play Red Cathedral!
Conclusion – Can You Win The White Castle Solo mode?
So, is The White Castle impossible to beat solo? If you’ve read my hints in the Solo section, it is doable, and you can even increase the difficulty!
Just remember to squeeze as much as you can out of each of your nine precious turns. Be sure to place several Gardeners, especially for the first two rounds, as you could score the reward again. Yes, the Rival will probably have a few turns where they will play two cards, but you can also place multiple workers per turn. And as long as you manage to do that, you should be able to beat the Rival.
How about You?
Comment below if you’d like one of the player board overlays! These print out pretty fast, and I’m willing to send out three board overlays to the first three people who own this game and request an overlay in the comments! US shipping will be free.
What have you heard about The White Castle? Let me know if this review helps you in your solo game or if The White Castle sounds fun to play solo!