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Game Preview: Castles of Mad King Ludwig, or Stepping Up from Suburbia

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Ted Alspach of Bézier Games has been demoing his Castles of Mad King Ludwig for months, including a stint at Gen Con 2014 in mid-August. With that con now in the past and Spiel 2014 less than two months away, I thought I'd start kicking out previews of titles that will debut at that show — as is the case with Castles — or be widely available to the gaming public at that time. Let's start with an overview of Castles' setting:

In the tile-laying game Castles of Mad King Ludwig, players are tasked with building an amazing, extravagant castle for King Ludwig II of Bavaria...one room at a time. You see, the King loves castles, having built Neuschwanstein (the castle that inspired the Disney theme park castles) and others, but now he's commissioned you to build the biggest, best castle ever — subject, of course, to his ever-changing whims. Each player acts as a building contractor who is adding rooms to the castle he's building while also selling his services to other players.

Just don't call him mad to his face, y'know?

To start the game, you stack the rooms that can be built in the castles face down by number, removing some from each stack if playing with only two or three instead of four. The numbers on the back of each tile show not the price, but the square footage, which can help you determine which rooms might fit with which, in addition to simplifying the resolution of some of the endgame bonuses. The back of each tile also shows the types of rooms (as identified by room icons) that you'll find in each stack, and such icons matter (once again) for bonuses, although you don't often have a choice of which tiles to draw during the game.

No, what happens at the start of each round (including the first turn of the game) is that the Master Builder — no, not him — draws one card from the room stack (at far left) for each empty space in the market. For each room card, you draw the top tile from the stack with the matching number. You then rearrange all of these room tiles, along with any left over from previous rounds, by placing one room in each market stall. (Rooms not purchased get $1,000 added to them, and this money can be used when purchasing the room to pay the cost.)

Each stall shows the price of the tile located there, and in clockwise order starting with the player to the left of the Master Builder, each player can buy one tile — paying the money to the MB — then add it to her starting octagonal foyer. The MB ends the round by buying something herself, paying her money to the bank. Instead of buying a room tile, you can pay $3,000 to purchase a hallway or stairs — with stairs being the only way that you can add basement rooms to your castle — or you can take $5,000 from the bank.

When you add a room to your castle, you need to connect an opening — presumably a doorway — in your existing castle to an opening in the new room.

What's more, while you're free to cover an opening with a brick wall — as I did in the image above with the west wall of the terrace garden lying against the east wall of the great hall — you'd prefer to connect all of the openings in every room in your castle to other room openings because doing so gives you in-game bonuses. When I connected the final opening in the terrace garden, for example, I'd get $10k from the bank; when I dropped the powder room at the end of the great hall, thereby completing it immediately due to its single opening, I could draw two bonus cards and keep one of them.

Should I be able to drop something on the other side of the dressing room, I'd be able to take up to two room tiles from a single stack and ensure that they're added to the market next. This gives me an opportunity to get tiles in the shape and icon that I want, but it also gives me a shot at an endgame bonus that I'll explain later.

Each player starts the game with a couple of bonus cards, and these cards grant points to you and you alone at the end of the game based on how well you meet the conditions on them. As you can see, the payoff on some cards is far higher than the payoff on others, but once you become familiar with the game, you'll likely be keeping an eye out on who might be trying to complete all the room types or sizes and price those rooms accordingly.

In addition to mattering for endgame scoring, the room icons come into play when you add rooms to your castle. If you look closely at the tiles above, you'll note that they have a number inside a silhouetted castle in their upper left as well as a number inside a castle next to an icon (and possibly another symbol) in their center.

When you place a room in your castle, you score points equal to the number in the upper left; the number in the middle, however, is conditional based on the composition of your castle. The green house, for example, gives me 1 point for each purple (living) room directly connected to it, while the train room actually costs me 1 point each time that it touches — not just connects — to a sleep, living, downstairs or corridor room (which includes the starting foyer). The king does like his privacy in the activity rooms!

The dungeon, which has the number directly adjacent to the icon, scores me 2 points for each downstairs room in my entire castle, both those already in the castle when I build it (including itself) and any added on future turns.

When the deck of room cards runs out — and the deck size is modified based on the number of players — you shuffle the discards, complete one final round, then end the game. Players then tally endgame points, starting with the King's Favors, which grant 1-8 points depending on how you rank against your fellow players in the categories depicted.

Sometimes you care only about the number of rooms of a type, as with the yellow Favor above, while at other times you care about the square footage of those rooms, as with the green and orange Favor tiles. You might care who has the most large or small rooms, who has the most round or square rooms, who has the most money or most unconnected external openings, and so on. You then score for your bonus cards in hand, 1 point for each $10k in your possession, and 2 points for each tile in your castle — but only if none of those tiles remain in the stack on the market. (Yes, that's where the sleep rooms come back into play.)

I was able to play Castles once at Gen Con 2014, and in many ways the game feels like Alspach's Suburbia — thanks to the shifting market each turn, the endgame points from completing public and private bonuses, and the possible interaction between tiles as you add each one to your display — but now you have more to consider since you're also responsible for determining what to charge for those tiles (at least some of the time). You need to keep track of who might want what and how much they can afford. Sometimes you'll price something out of reach and leave the question up to them as to whether they'll settle for something lesser or take cash in the hope that it will still be available next round; sometimes you'll dangle it just within reach, but at the cost of nearly everything they have. And what do you do with a tile you might want? Price it high and hope that others will give you the money you need to buy it? Price something else high and hope they think you want that?!

I must warn you, though: If you're one of those who enjoys the pleasing regularity of Suburbia's hexagonal fields, prepare yourself for a shock because you're unlikely to build anything that uniform from the castle rooms included in the box. It's enough to drive a king mad!

Extravagant, mind you! Plain old vagant just won't do!
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