Category: Euro Game
Designer: Ted Alspach
Publisher: Bézier Games
Year Published: 2015
Playing Time: 90 mins.
To Play or Not to Play: Play
When a ruthless, tyrannical, and likely unhinged monarch demands that you build him a castle, you don’t ask questions. You just build the dang castle. Castles of Mad King Ludwig pits up to four players as competing architects all trying to build the most magnificent castle for the Mad King Ludwig. The way you do that is by purchasing room tiles from a central market and placing them in your castle. Each tile is worth some number of victory points, and has some sort of special ability that may grant additional bonuses. The game ends once a certain number of rooms have been purchased (depending on the number of players).
I’ve reviewed a few tile-placement games on this blog recently, like Carcassonne and Isle of Skye. Those games use simple square tiles, so all you have to worry about is how to match up the edges. This game, though, is about building a grand castle! Purely square rooms would be too pedestrian for a ruler like King Ludwig! No, Ludwig demands variety! The room tiles come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from small squares to large rectangles, and even circles and l-shaped tiles for good measure.
In other tile-placement games, the game is about figuring out how to maximize the value of your tiles by carefully placing them adjacent to other valuable sources. But Castles turns that on its head. A carelessly placed room might make it impossible to place a high-value room in the correct spot. But some rooms will also give you bonuses or penalties if they are placed in such a way to share a wall with another room. Sure, that square tile might fit perfectly between the hallway and that long, narrow piece. But do you really want to add a guest bedroom next to the noisy bowling alley? Extravagance is the name of the game. Why shouldn’t your castle have four kitchens, or three dungeons, or an endless collection of hallways? Really, the only limit is your imagination. Well, almost. Only a few tiles will be available in the market, and those are randomly selected each round to refill the market after the previous round’s purchases. Also, it is a market, and you may not have enough money to buy the tile you want. But that’s okay. If you wait around long enough, the tile you want should get cheaper, right? Well . . .
The market is the most interesting and challenging mechanic in this game. At the beginning of each round, the “Master Builder” marker gets passed to the next player clockwise. The Master Builder’s job is to set the price for each room in the market. Yes, you heard that correctly. Older rooms don’t automatically move to the cheapest space. The Master Builder decides where to set the prices each round. The market board has six or seven different price spaces (depending on the number of players) and the Master Builder assigns one tile to each. Then each of the other players decides if they want to buy a room, and they pay the Master Builder! Once everyone else has purchased, the Master Builder may decide to buy something too, with their money going to the bank. Honestly, my brain is starting to twist just thinking about this. The Master Builder has to figure out which tiles other players will want, and then figure out how that affects their own plans. Do they make the tile so expensive the player can’t buy it? Or do they make it pricey but technically affordable to wring as much money as possible from that player. But the Master Builder also has to plan for their own purchase, and if they make the tile they want too cheap, another player may just take it out of spite or because it’s their only option. And, if none of the tiles are appealing, a player may purchase a hallway or staircase. The money still goes to the Master Builder, but those have a fixed and fairly cheap price. Or that player may pass, to get 5000 marks from the supply, which gives the Master Builder less money to work with for their purchase.
To make matters worse, this game does have a feature to make unpopular tiles that have sat in the market for too long more attractive. Each round that a tile goes un-purchased, it gains a coin token, which reduces the price by a thousand marks. Eventually, some tiles may be so discounted that they are effectively free, or you might even make money by purchasing the tile. This is just one more thing the Master Builder has to account for while assigning prices.
Of course, if the only source of victory points was the printed value on each tile, this challenge would be pretty manageable. But there are a couple of wrinkles. First, there are some “Longest Road” style achievements that all players can compete for during the game. These might be bonuses for having the most of a certain type of room, the most money at the end of the game, or even for having the most rooms of a certain shape or size! Maybe you really want that bedroom, but it will enable another player to get the kitchen they need to take over the lead on the “most kitchens” challenge. Expect to do some math to figure out how bad that will be for you.
Except, well, even if you do the math for all possible points based on the tiles and objectives in play, every player also has several secret objective cards in their hands. These will reward the player with points for every room of a certain type or size, or for building one room of each type, or one of each shape . . . you won’t know what specific goals players are working towards, but as the game goes on you can make some good guesses.
And then there are the subterranean “dungeon” rooms. These can only be placed underground, so hopefully you remembered to buy a staircase at some point before you buy one. These are special rooms that grant victory points for every instance of a specific type of room in the rest of the castle.
That’s nearly everything, but there’s one more critical element of the game to discuss. Earlier in this review, I mentioned that each room is worth several victory points, and also has a special ability you might unlock. Lets talk about those abilities. Each room has some number of doorways. Generally between one and five. And Hallways are nothing but long strings of doorways. Each time you place a tile, you have to ensure that at least one doorway lines up with another doorway on an existing tile. If you cannot place the tile such that it lies flat on the table while connecting at least one doorway, then you cannot place that tile.
If every doorway on a room is connected to another room’s doorway, then that room is considered “complete,” and its bonus ability triggers. For example, if you complete an Outdoor room, like a garden or a private zoo, you immediately get 10,000 marks. If you complete an Activity room, like a ball room or a bowling alley, you get five bonus victory points. And if you complete a kitchen, you get to take an extra turn after this one. There are eight types of rooms, each with its own completion effect, and figuring out how to maximize those is critical to winning this game.
So that’s the entire game. Everyone takes turns assigning prices, buying tiles, and placing them in their castles to try and score victory points. Here’s the thing about this game that I had a hard time grasping the first couple of times I played: you’re building a castle, but you’re not really building an entire castle. When the game ends, you’ll have maybe ten rooms sticking out from your starting foyer tile. You’ll be staring at this partially constructed mess and just wishing for one or two more turns to get a couple more tiles and complete one last room. But it won’t happen. The game will end, with only final scoring remaining.
That’s one of this game’s greatest strengths, actually. The ending feels so abrupt that you will feel like you NEED to keep playing. And the game’s already set up, you just have to mix up the tiles and reshuffle a couple of decks, why not play again? Every game will leave you eager for more. Which is good, because this offsets this game’s biggest problem: over-analysis. Each round, the master builder must struggle to assign prices to rooms. How much can they charge for that bedroom? Will the extra 1000 marks make up for the five victory points that player will earn? What if they also have a secret bedroom objective, and they will actually get eight points? Does that change the math? But you don’t have perfect information, so you have to make your best guess. But some players will still find themselves spending a long time figuring out what to do.
See, in terms of actual gameplay mechanics, Castles is a short game. You could knock it out in about 30 minutes if you removed the Master Builder pricing phase. Instead, it’s generally a 90-minute game because every player will need to spend significant time thinking at the beginning of each round. The Master Builder has to assign prices, but then each player has to weigh the costs and benefits of purchasing a given tile now and giving the Master Builder that money. In other words, Castles of Mad King Ludwig is all about brinkmanship. Who will blink first?
So should you play this game? Yes. Every time I’ve finished the game, I’ve eagerly wanted to play again. Most games that force players to think this hard leave me feeling exhausted by the end. But Castles ends so abruptly, and long before I’m ready for it to end, that I crave another opportunity to flex those brain muscles. The best sign of a successful is game is for players to finish the game eager to play again. Castles accomplishes that in spades. You should absolutely play this game.
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