Monday, May 18, 2015

Castles of Mad King Ludwig, by Ted Alspach

"This castle has six rooms to sleep in but nowhere to prepare food!"

At a glance:
-Players build flat castle layout to score points
-Several clever mechanics working perfectly in tandem
-1 to 4 players
-90-120 minute play time
-Moderately heavy, easy to teach to a player with some experience but maybe not the best choice to introduce a new comer.

(Which I will abbreviate to ‘Castles’)

Castles is based on the historical monarch, “Mad” King Ludwig II, who poured his fortune into the construction of 3 awe-inspiring castles, and it is now the job of the players to construct the best castle possible.  “The best castle” is decided through victory points, and can be obtained in a number of ways. Building rooms will gain you points, while some rooms will give you bonuses or penalties for building them next to certain other rooms.  The king will ask for specific elements in the form of 3-4 Favors (drawn randomly from a stack at the start of each game, ranging from specific room types, to number of exits, to having the most currency), and whoever provides those elements in the greatest quantity will score extra victory points.  Bonus cards give you secret incentives for building certain types of rooms, and these cards are hidden from the other players.  Add to this the extra benefits rooms will give you for ‘completing’ them (having each doorway connect to another doorway) and the routes to victory are diverse indeed.

How do we play?

In each round, a number of room tiles are drawn randomly and placed in front of a column with a number of price brackets, ranging from cheap to cripplingly expensive.  For each round, one player is the Master Builder, and they get to arrange the tiles into whichever order they like on the column, and the price they are placed under is the price players must pay to the Master Builder to buy the tile. 
That center board flips to reveal the 4 player setup.  Here you can see the tiles arranged under each price.
However, it is the player to the left of the Master Builder who gets to pick the first tile to purchase, then the player to their left, and so on until the Master Builder gets the final pick (and pays their fee to the bank).  If players do not like the options available or cannot afford any of the tiles, they may simply take a fixed amount from the bank instead.  In this way, the Master Builder is constantly trying to balance several factors.  If there is a tile they want, they will want to make it expensive enough to deter the other players, but not so expensive that they end up overpaying.  Since the Master Builder receives the fee, they will want to place the tiles in the way that will make them the most income, but if they get too greedy and players elect to take money from the bank instead, they will receive nothing!

After each round, the Master Builder token moves to the player to the left of the current Master Builder, and the opportunity filled burden moves clockwise between players as the game progresses.

I’ll interject to say that I adore this mechanic.  Having enough cash when you really need it is vital to this game, and the balancing act that the Master Builder has to perform is as tricky as it is satisfying.  You end up weighing the Favors against individual room benefits, constantly watching your opponent’s castles as they take form, trying to gauge which rooms they are hoping to buy and how much cash you can get them to pay.  You control the board as Master Builder, but are also at the mercy of the other players who can turn up their nose at your offering if they believe they will get a better deal next turn… provided no-one snaps up the room they hoped for in the mean time.

This mechanic combined with simple square tiles may have made ‘good game’.  What really pushes it into being an ‘excellent game’ is the room tiles and their Completion bonuses.

So tell me about these tiles...

Firstly, the tiles are not a uniform shape or size.  They vary greatly in size and structure, from tiny square rooms to massive round arenas.  Each room has doorways that must touch when placing your room tile, which adds another element to be weighed when picking a room.  “That round room gives me more points, but will take up so much space that I won’t have any room to build onto the doorways beside it, but I could fit several small rooms into the same area and might be able to connect them.”
Though rare, it is extremely satisfying to get a layout this neat.
Rooms also get Completion Bonuses if every doorway on the tile connects to another doorway.  Each room type (eg: Living, Utility, Sleeping) grants a different bonus, such as victory points, coins, additional Bonus cards or an Extra Turn.  Again, you may be forced to choose between triggering room bonuses over straight victory points.  If you block off a doorway with a wall, bad news, you will never get to Complete that room.  But sometimes it’s absolutely worth it!  Maybe you are setting up a better bonus, or getting a lot of victory points for a cheap price.

Why is this game good?

One of the pivotal aspects that helps me determine how good I think a game is happens to be about the choices:
1. How much do my choices matter in terms of seizing victory?
2. How informed am I about that choice?

Castles is one of the games that is extremely rich in both regards.  The choices you make are absolutely essential to winning, every tile is steeped with opportunity cost (what you are missing out on to gain what you chose) from numerous angles.  The only random elements are which rooms are drawn and which Bonus cards the players hold.  This is just enough of a random element to ensure that while players tend to fall into their own preferences and play styles, they still end up having to alter their schemes on the fly as the board state changes.  You cannot follow the same route game after game and hope to win, which keeps the game interesting.  There is no guarantee that the tiles that won you the last game will even show up this time!

As for being informed, the beautiful thing about the tiles being laid out in both the Buy area and Play area is that you know almost everything that is going on.  You may not know what Bonus cards the other players are holding or what tiles will show up next, but everything else is on the table for you to see!  You can interpret patterns that the other players are using and adapt.  You can see what options are in front of you based on the tiles you have already laid down.  You can set up combos and victory point rich setups that will hinge on another tile becoming available (and affordable!) or play to what will get you the best points here and now.

I have been teaching and demoing this game as part of the Double Exposure program and have yet to see a fool proof strategy emerge.  It is up to each player to plan and react better than everyone else in a scenario that is almost always different from game to game.  I find this refreshing, as it means that the game is relatively easy to learn, but keeps presenting fresh challenges game after game after game.

So in conclusion?

In conclusion, this is a game absolutely worthy of your time.  It employs clever mechanics that will keep you coming back over and over again, it will play a little differently every time, and if you play with a variety of players you will see different tactics emerge.  The pieces are well designed both it terms of the detailed artwork and functionality.  It adapts well and has the same quality of play with one opponent as it does with three.

And now you have reached the end of this review, so find a copy and play Castles of Mad King Ludwig!   

More info!

Pictures courtesy of Board Game Geek

Other Reviews:

Scott originally hails from Northern Ireland, but in 2013 made Texas his home.  Previously a tabletop wargamer, only when reaching Texas did he plunge head first into the tabletop board games.  Much of his new found meeple-fueled passion is thanks to the welcoming nature of the DFW Nerd Night community!

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