[dropcap]I[/dropcap] enjoy playing board games; I guess that kinda goes without saying. I love the social interaction, the mechanics behind the design, and the fact that you’ve got a little cardboard world to sink yourself into. Some games can certainly pique a gamer’s interest more than others, but once in a while a game will come along that brings so much fun to the table that you don’t care whether you win or lose. And who would have thought that we would find it in Bavaria.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game for 1-4 players by designer Ted Alspach and is published by Bezier Games. Inside the spacious box you will find a small deck of cards, some coins, the room and score boards, and a slew of various sized rooms and corridors. The object of the game is to score the most points by fulfilling objectives and setting up interactions between the various rooms. A typical game will take anywhere from 60-90 minutes to play.
The flow of the game is quite simple and very intuitive. Each round there will be anywhere from five to seven rooms available for purchase (depending on player count) along with hallways and stairs. A contract board has prices on it for the rooms that are available, with one room being available at each price. One player will play the part of the Master Builder who starts the round by revealing the new buildings to refill the market, and pricing the buildings as they see fit.
Right away we see one of the best features of Castles of Mad King Ludwig. There’s no flowchart or predictability to how these rooms are priced. The Master Builder chooses the price. You can’t say “well, Bob and Sally don’t want it, and I buy first next turn, so I’ll just leave it there so it will be cheaper”. Why not? Well, because Bob and Sally both know that you want it. And they both play ahead of you. So you can have that precious Venus Grotto you’ve been waiting for, but it might cost you 15,000 Marks….cause they’re not about to give you a bargain.
Starting with the player to the left of the Master Builder, each player…hmm. You know what? Let’s take a step back for a minute. I think we need a little history lesson before we sally forth on our quest to become the best builder in the land. This is what my friend Don calls “needless flavor text”, but I think it ties things together nicely and makes the gameplay much more thematic.
Once upon a time, almost smack dab in the middle of the European continent, there was a kingdom called Bavaria. In 1864 a new king was crowned – Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm. And as he was the second “Ludwig” to rule the land they gave him the catchy title “Ludwig II”. Now our pal Ludwig wasn’t much for being involved in the affairs of state. Bavaria had been swallowed up by Prussia and was soon to become part of the German Empire. So he sank all of his time (and money) into two things: the arts, and architecture.
Ludwig commissioned palaces to be built – magnificent undertakings that were hideously complex and overly grandiose. They were designed to be intentionally asymmetrical and lacked many of the design elements of castles built around the same time. Neuschwanstein Castle, perhaps the most famous of Ludwig’s castles, was built as an homage to the composer Richard Wagner and has inspired the famous Disney princess castle which can be found in their theme parks to this day.
As Ludwig built these castles, he began to go bankrupt. He borrowed and borrowed until he was broke, and eventually died of mysterious causes leaving his castles as the most lasting part of his legacy. Many referred to him as “The Mad King” and his story comes in at number two on my Top Ten Favorite European Leader Stories list. Number one? Well, that’s easily the first False Dmitriy. In brief, when the Russians found Dmitriy to be a Polish imposter he was shot, killed, and put on display for all to see. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then cremated him, stuffed his ashes into a cannon pointed at Poland, and fired him right back at the Poles.
Where was I? Ah, right…starting with the player to the left of the Master Builder, each player takes one of three actions: they buy one of the buildings from the contract board, they buy either a hallway or some stairs, or they pass and take 5,000 Marks. Now unlike most games, any money spent isn’t given to the bank. The Master Builder collects all the money and places it in their coffers. Once the Master Builder’s turn comes around, they will take one of the three options, with the exception that any money they pay in will go back to the general supply.
And here’s where we see why the Master Builder’s act of pricing the rooms is so important. While it might be tempting to price people out of the market on a room, you’re really only hurting yourself. You need to generate enough cash to hold you until you’re back in the driver’s seat, and apart from an occasional bonus for closing a room, this is the only way to do so. So there’s a balance to be struck here…you don’t want to give these rooms away, but you need to make sure they sell.
Because of this, Castles of Mad King Ludwig actually develops a capitalist mentality which finds players wanting to help each other out to a certain extent. It’s like the kind old shopkeeper that comes up to you and says “well sonny, I know you’ve only got a couple bucks. So I’ll give it to you for that, even though it’s worth more.” You care about the other players being able to buy rooms. If you want to keep your bank flush and keep the rooms coming out, you’ve got to price stuff to move. And that’s brilliant.
Once you’ve purchased a room? Well, you have to place it in your castle, naturally. But it’s not as easy as it might seem. See, these rooms aren’t just boring squares which form a nice mosaic once laid together. You’ve got big circles and little circles, long rectangles and tiny squares…all in all there are 12 different shaped rooms that you can wind up with. But just throwing them somewhere isn’t an option, either. You need to line up doors, make sure that you can still get IN your castle, and keep the upstairs and downstairs rooms on their own levels.
And it’s FUN to do this. I mean, really fun. The rooms have names to add even more to the thematic brilliance that this game provides. While you might imagine a Nap Room in a castle, you probably don’t picture it being right next to the Meat Locker and just upstairs from the Bottomless Pit.
“Right, well I needed that nap. I think a nice slab of cheese would hit the spot right now. Strange, I don’t remember these stairs going to the meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…….”
Who wants a mold room in their castle? No one, right? That’s probably why it’s in the cellar…but did you have to tuck it next to your lovely Venus Grotto? What are your guests going to think when they row out into the grotto and notice a fine layer of fungus on both shores?
Fun aside, the gameplay itself is very satisfying. On your turn as Master Builder you’re trying to determine exactly how much you can squeeze out of your opponents, while still getting yourself the building you want. The bonus cards and favor tiles give you a goal to build towards, especially when they work well together. Even if you can’t immediately work towards a goal, each type of room provides a different bonus to you once it is completed: everything from scoring a room a second time to getting another turn. These bonuses will sometimes turn the tide and give you a much needed boost in either income or points. The puzzle
My only criticisms are minor. The box is a bit roomy for what you’re given, and the room and scoring boards are a bit on the thin side. But nothing which I would say will prevent you from enjoying the hell out of this game.
All in all, I would highly recommend Castles of Mad King Ludwig. It’s rare that we’ll find a game which is able to successfully inject a little silliness into our game sessions while still providing a solid base of gameplay. Rare is the time where you don’t find yourself laughing at the monstrosity of a castle that you’ve built, wondering who in their right mind would put the Queen’s Bedroom right off the Singers’ Chamber and just downwind of the Meat Locker?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a castle to build.