Castles of Mad King Ludwig
Time: ~70 minutes
Times Played: ~10
Ludwig II of Bavaria has an interesting history as he became king over his country at the age of eighteen yet is most widely known for his extravagances regarding architecture and spending, such as Neuschwanstein Castle. Castles of Mad King Ludwig takes this sordid tale and crafts a puzzle/set collection/castle building game from it. It’s an incredible story and theme that made me immediately interested in the game.
The goal of Castles of Mad King Ludwig is to build the most successful castle. Success is determined by public and secret objectives that are unique to each game. Each turn, a player will be designated as the Master Builder and their role is to set the prices of the rooms coming up for bid for the round. Players will then spend their turn purchasing a room and paying the Master Builder the amount listed. Once all players have chosen a room and paid for it, the Master Builder chooses from what is left and pays the cost to the general bank.
After rooms are purchased, players will construct them. The general rule is that a room must be placed so that at least one of its doorways connects to a doorway that is already present in the castle. Once placed, a path must be able to be drawn from the newly minted room to the starting castle foyer. The decision-making comes from rooms scoring points for being placed adjacent to other rooms and/or having all doorways connected.
The rooms themselves are all different shapes and sizes which will make completing a “standard” castle all but impossible. This plays in well with the backstory of Ludwig and creates the drama of each decision being made. Players will either love or hate this aspect as it’ll either let their imagination run wild or stifle their desire for uniformity.
Once all rooms are placed, the game will end and points will be awarded based off of the public and secret objectives with the player having the most points winning.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig takes a relatively simple building game and creates something solid as you’re not necessarily looking to build a “working” castle. You’re trying to embody the former Mad King and in doing so, players will enjoy creating sprawling castles and passageways that connect rooms that in reality have no reason to be next to one another. Building each room takes me back to playing with Lincoln Logs and Lego, where I could create based off my own imagination as opposed to societal constructs. That works fine for me but that won’t be ideal for every type of gamer. Some players want to abide by the rational side of planning a castle and will crave the structure and uniformity of a more normal building.
Tile-laying isn’t what sets Castles of Mad King Ludwig apart from its contemporaries however. The Master Builder mechanic is the focal point of the game, more so than the tile-laying. The decision making associated with being the Master Builder will impact an entire round for the entire table. A Master Builder has to examine the castles of each opponent and consider what might be the goal (public and secret) of each player owning that castle when they decide to set their prices. The public and secret goals are a gem in their own right as Castles of Mad King Ludwig will allow players to score a lot of points and the goals ensure that even if someone else’s castle looks better, they’re never truly out of the game if they complete their objectives.
A player is not only selecting what price their opponents will pay for rooms (and what price they will pay for what remains) but it also is the generation of their income. This almost creates a meta-game within the game as players will be able to test the boundaries of their opponents and their spending. Pricing too high means they won’t buy an item and you may be stuck paying for it. Pricing too low means you miss out on the potential income. More often than not, players will be playing their opponents with the requirements of the game coming secondary.
The Master Builder mechanic will make or break the game for players and while I appreciate it, I don’t love it. For such a lighthearted game, there can be too much information for players to process to make educated decisions based on the process of the room. The game isn’t as complex as the mechanic will make players feel it is. I really enjoyed playing the game the first five to six times but after that I started dreading this phase in the game as players will freeze up as they try to consider everything. Games can be dragged down as players math out which room net which player ‘x’ amount of points.
Whereas most games we play feel fresh and then build off that freshness with new strategy, I cannot say that Castles of Mad King Ludwig does that. We’ve played ten or more times and the game feels stagnant and ‘solved’. Yes, the game will be different each time we play and the objectives help liven the game up but it’s the same motions over and over again. Playing with the same players also hurts the game as you eventually realize what players will and will not pay for items.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig scales well regardless of player count but when playing with new or inexperienced players, it can be far too easy to take advantage of them due to the information overload during the Master Builder phase. Not everyone will personally attack another player but sometimes it will even happen self-consciously. It’s not a detriment to the game (and in fact, this can occur in any game) but it’s worth pointing out since all the power will rest in one players hand per turn.
Something else that’s important in context of this game is that Neuschwanstein Castle and the other structures that bore the Mad King’s trademarks are set upon beautiful landscapes and backdrops vivid with the nature that one finds in the European countryside. The contents of Castles of Mad King Ludwig offer none of that polish or shine.
Many games that have less than stellar artwork or components leave you thinking about ‘what if’s”. Castles of Mad King Ludwig is frustrating because you don’t have to think about it; a version with beautiful ornate artwork exists and that’s the Polish version of the game. This art fits with the gaudy and garish style that the story of King Ludwig instills.
The physical components are paper thin and look more in-line with what you would expect from a print-and-play as opposed to a full retail release. The colors are drab and uninspiring for a game with such a rich historical theme. They rivaled Terraforming Mars for poorest and most disappointing components in any board game I’ve played. For the cost of the game, I was (and still am) incredibly let down by the physical components.
What makes it hurt more is that there is a solid game here that is slightly ruined by these dull components.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig has an app available via iOS, Android, and Amazon which is a great way to try before you buy. I think the mobile adaptation is well-done and creates the same feel as the physical board game. The app features a campaign mode to keep the game fresh and the AI, for the most part, makes smart plays. The only negative I have is that the app does not support online play so if you want to play with friends, you’ll have to resort to passing the mobile device back and forth. Not a game breaker but annoying when compared to other board game apps, like Patchwork, that have that implemented.
This game has a lot of hype and while I enjoyed it the first several times I played it, I cannot say that it has staying power due to the Master Builder mechanic and the disappointment of looking at the components each time it exits the box.