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Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Bezier Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 90 minutes; $59.99)

castlesmad1Back in 1864, King Ludwig ascended to the throne of Bavaria. Rather than concerning himself with affairs of state as might reasonably be expected, Ludwig became fascinated with medieval castles and commissioned the construction of no less than three, spending his considerable fortune of over 30 million marks on them. (The one at Neuschwanstein was so spectacular that it served as the inspiration for the fantasy castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom!) By 1886, this obsession became too much for the King’s ministers and they removed him from power by having him declared insane. One day after being deposed, Ludwig was found dead, floating in a lake under mysterious circumstances. With this back story, art imitates life as the obsession of King Ludwig becomes the obsession of the players in this new game from Bezier Games and designer Ted Alspach: Castles of Mad King Ludwig.

In Castles of Mad King Ludwig, players are contractors attempting to win the King’s favor by designing the “best” castle while selling their services to the other players. But the King has unusual requirements that must be obeyed if one is to become the King’s favorite.

At its core, this is a tile laying game with interwoven elements. The “board” is a triangular-shaped affair with room tiles placed on each side (stacks of smaller rooms – 100 to 300 on one side, stacks of larger rooms – 350-600 on the other), stairs and hallways in the vortex and the “Contract Board” at its center. Room cards (11 for each player in the game) depicting the different sized rooms are shuffled and stacked on the board as are “Goal” cards. The 24 King’s Favor tiles are mixed and up to 4 of them (depending on the number of players) placed in the center of the board. These tiles indicate what conditions (most of a particular type of room, most incomplete rooms, largest rooms etc.) will earn Victory Points for players when scoring is done at the end of the game. A number of room cards (5 to 7 based on the number of players) are turned up with the corresponding room tiles placed below the Contract Board. One player is randomly chosen as the Master Builder. The Master Builder starts on the scoring track at 0 with each subsequent player starting his marker on the next available space. All players begin with 15,000 marks, a Foyer tile (in their chosen color), a player reference card (as a play aid) and three Goal cards. Two of these Goals are kept and the third returned to the bottom of the deck. (These cards will be worth Victory Points at the end of the game as well.) Each round’s action begins with the Master Builder.

2071(1)Below the Contract Board are slots (ranging from 1000 to 15000) indicating the cost of the room tile located there. Before anyone does anything, the Master Builder can rearrange those room tiles, thereby changing (if desired) their costs. Once done, the player to the Master Builder’s left gets first pick, paying for the tile of his choice. This continues clockwise with the Master Builder getting the final pick of the round. (Any player may pick a hallway or stairs tile at the fixed price of 3000. A player may also pass and receive 5000 from the bank.) Money paid for tiles goes to the Master Builder; the Master Builder pays the bank. Now, with tiles in hand, players build their castles.

Building begins from a player’s Foyer with each Foyer having three “entrances”. Placed tiles must align to an open entrance. They can align with walls provided that a legal connection has been made but a castle must always have an unblocked entrance to the “outside”. Some tiles are stipulated as being “Downstairs Rooms” so you will need “stairs” to get to a lower level. Some tiles have a “fenced” edge which prevents any tile placement on that side.

All tiles have a Victory Point value located on their upper left. When that tile is placed in your castle, you immediately score those points. In addition, many tiles have center icons which impact on scoring. Some tiles are marked with a brick wall which indicates the King’s dislike for certain rooms near others. Should that certain tile type be placed abutting that tile (entrance to entrance or entrance to wall), those rooms are “too close for comfort” and you LOSE the indicated amount of Victory Points. On the other hand, center icons marked with a black entrance rewards the player who connects specified types of rooms with that one. Finally, Downstairs Rooms can give points based on how many rooms of the noted type are present anywhere in the castle. These bonus points score for those types of rooms already in the castle and will score for new ones of that kind should they be built later on. Players also derive benefits for completing rooms.

castlesmad3A room is defined as “completed” when all entrances of a room are connected to entrances of other rooms. Each type of room will reward a player. For example, if you complete a “Living Room” (purple tile), you score that tile again (essentially, doubling the value of that tile). Complete an Activity Room (brown) and get 5 VPs immediately. Other bonuses include getting an infusion of money, extra Bonus cards and more. Complete two Downstairs Rooms (black) and you can choose ANY of the seven possible rewards.

Once all have placed tiles (or passed), tiles not chosen this round have 1000 placed on them. The Master Builder token goes to the next player clockwise, room cards are drawn to replace the number of tiles chosen in the past round and we do it all over again. Play continues until the deck of room cards runs out. That round is completed and final scoring occurs.

While points are continually scored for tile placement, end game scoring flows from several directions. King’s Favor tiles, the ones drawn at the beginning of the game expressing the King’s preferences, will give 8 points for the player who has the most of what has been requested, 4 for second place and so on. If a particular room tile stack is depleted (even if there are still tiles of that type below the Contract Board), points will be awarded for any room tiles of that type in a player’s castle at the rate of 2 VPs each. (So, for example, if the 300 room tile stack is empty, a player with three 300 rooms in his castle would score an additional 6 points.) Bonus cards grant different amounts of points, such as 8 VPs if your castle contains all 10 types of tiles, 2 (or 3) points for specific types of sizes or tiles in your castle etc. Finally, each 10000 on hand converts into 1 VP. The player with the most VPs wins. (Tie? Then the player with the largest castle – determined by adding the 100 to 600 numbers on placed tiles – gets the King’s favor.)

Ever since Carcassonne (Summer 2001 GA Report) made a huge splash in the gaming market, tile laying games have attracted many devotees. Castles of Mad King Ludwig adds a sense of the bizarre to standard tile placement as your construction goes off at weird tangents that kind of gets you caught up in the madness. (Many of the room tiles in the game represent actual rooms commissioned by the King!) This brings a different atmosphere to the game play and helps sets this one apart.

While you can’t help but focus on building your own castle, the way the Master Builder is handled dodges the bullet of having the game collapse into strictly solitaire play. The Master Builder is very interactive. When it is your turn to take on that role, what you do directly impacts others as you have to carefully consider which tiles are valuable to which players. You also need to calculate as precisely as you can the “threshold of pain”: just how much IS your opponent willing to spend to get a certain tile? Make it too expensive and you hurt yourself since money spent by others goes into your own coffers. For players who are not the Master Builder, they have to understand that paying for tiles powers the Builder, making it easier for him to get tiles – even expensive tiles – at THEIR expense. This variation on having one person cut the cake and the other taking the first piece works brilliantly here. And, by adding money to tiles not chosen, those expensive tiles become less and less expensive and more and more attractive as rounds progress adding yet another layer of decision making.

Ted Alspach must like triangular shaped boards as he used that shape in his previous design of Suburbia (Fall 2013 GA Report). It actually works well as it gives a different look as opposed to the standard square board, a little “off”, in keeping with King Ludwig’s mental state. Tile quality is fine as is the use of color and icons to differentiate the rooms. The player reference card given to each player is very helpful too. There are a lot of components here. What is a little surprising though is that, despite the large box, game components only take up about half the space! No insert to take up the slack nor ziplock bags to hold the components once punched out either.

Tile laying games have become almost commonplace in today’s world. But Castles of Mad King Ludwig puts a twist (and a twisted) view of the genre. With the exceptional game play of Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Ted Alspach shows there is method to his madness. And you’ll be mad at yourself if you let this quality game slip by.


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