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Castles by the Sea - Review

Designers: Jon Benjamin and Michael Xuereb
Artist: Marby Kwong
Publisher: Brotherwise Games
Player Count: 1 to 4 Players
Play Time: 30 to 60 Minutes

Grab your towel and some sunscreen! In this review of Castles by the Sea I overview how to play the game and remark on the strong production value of the game’s solitary build.

A stack of blue cards with the name of the game Castles by the Sea, wooden cube block and tokens with varying values and shapes on them.
Castle cards, Sand Blocks, Seaweed Tokens, and Sand Dollars

Castles by the Sea is a strategy game from Brotherwise Games by design team Jon Benjamin and Michael Xuereb with artwork by Marby Kwong. It is a vertical building game in which players take turns placing pieces onto the Beach Board to construct a sturdy sandcastle for their microkingdom of tiny Shorelings. But builders beware—these beaches are plagued by perilous hazards that can tear down the sandcastles in a moment.

The game harkens other enjoyable vertical building games like Santorini and Cloud City with three dimensional gameplay strategy (height matters) and light elements of dexterity. But Castles by the Sea packs a little more of a punch, equipped with a durable solitaire option without lengthy play time (30-45 minutes).


The game is played on a shared Beach Board composed of eight tiles of squares around a central Tide pool. The players’ objective in Castles by the Sea is to use Sand and Stone Blocks to build sandcastles on the Beach Board and furnish those sandcastles with members of their kingdom (figures) and special architectural features (structures) to score Sand Dollars. Players also score Sand Dollars by being the first to build on top of Seaweed Tokens and by completing the objectives on their castle cards. Castle cards are like auxiliary goals that can be achieved by accomplishing the building condition(s) shown on the card.

To start their turn, players will collect three Sand Blocks (or more if they had pieces removed from the board due to hazards the previous turn) to build onto the Beach Board in open squares or on top of other built blocks. These blocks are the foundations of their sandcastle, and their particular arrangement is important to placing other pieces onto the board. Players can place up to the amount of Sand Blocks in their supply, and can roll over any unused blocks to the next turn.

A beige board with grey and beige blocks, tokens, and wooden meeples on it. Cards labeled with different architectural features with blocks on top of them matching the description on the card. Castles by the Sea
Beach Board and player cards

Next players can place figures and structures from among their six player cards onto the board according to the placement conditions of each unique piece. These pieces represent the inhabitants and unique architectural features of each players’ kingdom. The arrangement of Sand Blocks must accurately match the unique positional requirements shown in the image on each player card. The more figures and structures that can be placed in this way, the more Sand Dollars the player will score each turn.

Placing any components onto the Beach Board must follow the golden rule of Castles by the Sea: other than the the first Sand Block placed that turn, every Sand Block, figure, and structure a player adds to the board needs to be connected to a Sand Block that was built by that player already that turn. In other words, any components placed by a player on their turn need to be placed so that they are touching an adjacent face of a Sand Block that was played during the same turn. This rule, along with the placement restrictions for each unique figure and structure, makes strategically planning each turn critical—especially since there are only four to six rounds each game.

But with so many hazards at the beach, these sandcastles won’t stay up for long. Hazards are perilous dangers—for instance, an excited dog known as The Terror or a rogue toddler considered to be The Giant to the tiny Shorelings—that threaten to undo the delicate sand structures. At the end of each of their turns, players will strategically move each hazard puck around the edge of the board and flip cards from each hazard deck trying to avoid triggering these threats nearby their own sandcastles while tactically sabotaging their opponents.

At the end of the game, there is a Special Round in which players do not collect more blocks nor place any components, but hazards are activated and then Sand Dollars from player cards are awarded one final time. Scores are tallied and the player with the most Sand Dollars is the winner.

castles by the sea turn tracker and sun puck. The Dragon, The Terror, and The Giant hazard decks with front and back face shown
Turn tracker and hazard decks


A few slight alterations to standard gameplay create an autonomous solo mode. First the player removes a few moot castle cards from the deck. Instead of getting three castle cards to complete over the course of the game, the solitaire player begins with just two, but may complete or discard one of these objectives each turn and draw another. In total this means the player could complete six castle cards over the course of a game.

Hazards are also activated slightly differently; instead of moving the hazard token around the board after triggering a hazard, each hazard card flipped moves the token around the edge of the board a number of spaces equal to the value of the card. The hazard then triggers if the value of flipped cards from that pile is equal to or greater than three. This minor change prevents the player from keeping the hazards out of range of their sandcastles the entire game, resulting in a more unpredictable potential for wreckage.

Finally, without another player to compare scores with, the solo rules introduce a beat-your-own-score table so the player can evaluate how well their Shoreling kingdom fared—from Sandbox Fun to Lord of the Beach. It also presents a slate of solo challenges to attempt during single player games. These challenges are independent of scoring conditions and task the player to explore different elements of the game that they likely would not touch if sticking strictly to optimal play.

castles by the sea review tokens and board pieces arranged during play
Player board, player cards, structures, and Beach Board


In a recent review of the game Horticulture, I wrote about the importance for beat-your-own-score solo games to deliver a gameplay experience that stays fresh and avoids monotony. Without something enticing players to return to the game time and time again, there’s no reason it should take up space on the shelf. Castles by the Sea not only includes abundant replayability opportunities in the box, but the simple inclusion of optional solo challenges invites the player to probe the boundaries of gameplay and explore new strategies for constructing (and demolishing) their kingdom of Shorelings. Castles by the Sea proves that it deserves that space on the game shelf and will certainly see regular play on my table.

The strategic depth of the game emerges from the restrictive placement rules for figures and structures—the primary avenues to scoring loads of Sand Dollars. Not only must they adhere to the game’s Golden Rule—all components must be placed adjacent to a face of a Sand Block already placed that turn (figures must be placed on top of one)—but each different piece also has its own specifications for how it fits into, on, or around a player’s sandcastle. Ideally the player should be building their Sand Blocks to accommodate placing as many pieces as possible on that turn.

Longevity of pieces on the board is not guaranteed. With the possibility of components being wiped off the board by a hazard, it’s difficult for the player to plan and execute multi-turn strategies. Consider that along with the requirement that new pieces need to touch a Sand Block placed that turn, long term strategies can be challenging to develop and risky to pursue. For optimal play, the player should seek out Sand Block building arrangement each turn that is going to net them the most Sand Dollars on that turn, whether it’s putting a lot of pieces on to the Beach Board or completing the objective of a castle card.

castles by the sea review purple figures and structures on the game board with wooden sand blocks.
Sand Blocks, figures, and structures on the Beach Board

The intensity of the game scales with the number of players. At four, the board is a busy arena of constant construction and destruction, while solo play is a gentle puzzle, a sandbox, if you will, for players to get creative. However, regardless of player count, the pace of the game is enjoyable, and despite the lack of off-turn interaction, Castles by the Sea keeps players attention with swift gameplay and a light-medium strategic complexity that doesn’t cajole players into meandering leisurely through their turns. In other words, it’s fast and true to the stated play time.

Santorini—another vertical building game—is one of my favorite light strategy games, but I lament the fact that it does not have a workable solo option. So I was ecstatic when I saw that Castes by the Sea was in the same vein and includes a built-in solitaire game. However, when I opened the rulebook and saw that all the solo rules had been shunted to the last page after the glossaries, I feared that this was just another haphazardly-developed solitaire afterthought that was tacked on to the project late in development by the publisher in order to improve market reach. Luckily the unfortunate layout of the rulebook does not do this stellar solo variant justice.

Solo play does allow for a little bit more trial and error with long-game strategies, setting up the possibility for multi-turn sandcastle designs without other players threatening to encroach on the player’s kingdom. The strategy shifts somewhat from keeping pace with the other players to pushing-your-luck against the hazards and spreading across the board to avoid being totally wiped out by a single hazard trigger. Since activating and moving the hazard pucks around the board is moreso up to the incidental draw from the hazard deck rather than the malicious machinations of the other players, hazards can be far less predictable in solo play and thus more challenging to plan for.

The replayability of Castles by the Sea is fair, largely due to the abundance of hazard and player card options to choose from. In each game, a player is only going to use three of the six hazards, three of the 12 unique figure player cards, and three of the 12 different structure player cards. I’m terrible at math but that’s a lot of different play combinations. Some of the more advanced player card options even introduce new game mechanics and some additional ways of interacting with the board and other players’ pieces.

casltes by the sea solo challenge review solo rules page rulebook
Solo Challenges and Solo Rules page

But what I am most impressed by is the unanticipated inclusion of 18 solo challenges for the solitaire player to tackle at their convenience. These side-quests are not strictly related to scoring in the game (although a few of them such as Sandcastle Purist and Forgotten Kingdom do require the player to reach certain score minimums) but instead task the player with attempting feats they otherwise wouldn’t accomplish when optimizing gameplay to merely achieve a new high score. For instance, the Beachcombing challenge is completed by picking up every Seaweed Token on the map, which is unlikely to happen organically. Others are incidental achievements that may not have anything to do with the skill of the player and rely more on the unfortunate randomness of the hazards. Personally I am striving to complete Awful Luck challenge by having the Meteor hazard hit the only tile in a lane with my pieces in it.

Although some staunch gamers will find that these solo challenges merely detract from their curiously draconian adherence to optimization, I think the designers hit the nail on the head here in terms of production value. Playing into the enthusiastic vanity of gamers and their need to check all the boxes and complete every tabletop challenge presented to them is a brilliant insurance that Castles by the Sea will be fiercely replayed time and again.

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