Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig
Time: ~55 minutes
Times Played: 6
Between Two Cities and Castles of Mad King Ludwig are two games that I’m incredibly familiar with. Stonemaier Games and Bezier Games collaborated to combine the two games and bring the public Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig (henceforth Between Two Castles).
For full disclosure, I was provided this copy of Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig from Stonemaier Games for this review. The provided copy has not impacted my views below.
Between Two Castles is an absolutely gorgeous game riddled with impressive artwork and easter eggs. Half the enjoyment of your first few plays will be looking at the different rooms and what they offer. This game produces the art that I felt was so sorely missing from Castles of Mad King Ludwig. Everything is vibrant and baroque which holds true to the Mad King’s real vision when constructing his castles. That history and wealth resonates with each tile placed.
After the discovery phase has ended though, the question will linger of whether or not this game is worthy of continued plays or if it was just a dressed up version of Between Two Cities.
Between Two Castles might very well be Between Two Cities in its Sunday Best. The games offer differences (which will be covered soon enough) but Between Two Castles offers enough to merit standing on its own.
If you’ve played Between Two Cities, Between Two Castles will feel very comparable.
Between Two Castles lasts two rounds.
Players will take a stack of nine room tiles and draft two of them, passing the remaining tiles to the player on their left (There is a slightly different variant when playing with two-players but I’ll cover that later.)
After selecting their tiles, players will discuss with the players adjacent to them which of the two tiles they should place in which castle and where.
After all players have placed their tiles, they will pick up the stack of tiles passed to them and repeat the process three more times. The eventual unused tile will be discarded to back to the box.
In the second and final round, players will perform actions the exact same way but the tiles are passed the opposite direction this time. Once the last placement occurs, players will score their two castles and the castle with the lower score will count as a players final score. The player with the highest score after that is the winner.
Seems pretty identical to Between Two Cities, right? Well, there are some variations that help the game stand apart from its cousin and help it dive into its Ludwig roots. The game features seven types of room tiles. Of those seven, five are ground floor or above rooms, one is a below ground room, and the other can be built anywhere. Unlike Between Two Cities, there is no mid-round game where a 1×2 tile is placed. Your castle starts with a 1×2 Throne Room (which offers a unique scoring opportunity).
Between Two Castles also allows players to build however they want (as long as they abide by the rules). Players won’t need to conform to a set grid placement. They will need to respect the rules for placing on different elevation of floors and when placing tiles on the above ground level, there must be tiles beneath to support the tile. Outdoor tiles cannot have tiles placed above them and tiles cannot be moved once placed. This might sound a little clunky but if you imagine the castle from a two-dimensional perspective, a third floor room without a second floor room under it would just be floating in the air.
How to play the game is relatively simple as you’re just drafting and placing tiles. The nuances come from the rules for each room tile. The player aid is a marvel with helping players keep everything in mind. Looking at the aid without reading the rules won’t be terribly enlightening but after working through the rulebook once, the aid is an invaluable tool for keeping the game progressing without questions of “what does x do?”. This is important as while each room has a similar requirement for scoring, it will differ on what that room wants adjacent to it to score. This is the main area where players may get bogged down. This adds the entirety of the depth and complexity to the game and what brings the Castles of Mad King Ludwig to Between Two Castles.
Speaking of the rulebook, it’s easily the highest quality production of any rulebook (sans hardcover) that I’ve ever encountered. For the informational and teaching aspect, the rulebook includes a page per room tile with clear instructions and examples on how each room is to be utilized. It might look and feel like a lot of reading and it is, but that’s because the rulebook tries to leave absolutely no stone uncovered.
Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a unique game because of it being the mash-up of two well-received games. Due to this, this iteration will inevitably be compared to the original games that came before it.
Regarding complexity level, I believe this game sides more towards Between Two Cities than Castles of Mad King Ludwig. I think Between Two Cities is a wonderful introductory game that can be played with a large amount of players, which is something many games cannot do as larger play numbers skew to the social deduction genre.
I feel like Between Two Cities is a quicker and simpler game but for me, it became played out after experiencing the same game with the same players over the course of months. Between Two Cities will always have a place in our collection and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it but as a player who tends to like heavier games, I was always left wanting something more.
As of this moment, I think Between Two Castles offers that added challenge that I was looking for in this type of game. This is perfect for me as I wanted a slightly longer, challenging game and Between Two Cities: Capitals did not offer that to me. For players that don’t want anything more complex or find Capitals to scratch that itch, I can’t say that Between Two Castles is a game that you need to clamor to get on your shelf as it’s not going to fill a needed void in your collection.
However, if Castles of Mad King Ludwig is something you wished played a little easier and quicker with a larger group of friends, then Between Two Castles is definitely an improvement and right in the wheelhouse of that line of thinking.
Between Two Castles offers more complexity with the placement and text on each tile impacting each and every move. It makes reading the current castles incredibly important with each placement as players cannot base their placement strictly on color due to the text on each and every tile. This could lead to some min/maxing as players try to math out what placement will net them the most points. This typically did not happen until later in the game as there was just too much fluctuation with placement for players to truly know how much something would be worth. Many rooms also have caps on how much they can make so the difference is really never more than a point or two. I personally find the added depth more interesting but I could easily see this being tedious for other players.
The scoring in Between Two Cities was always a struggle for me and my group and never made particular sense as to how and why the scoring progressed the way they did. I found the scoring in Between Two Castles slightly easier to follow. The tiles held more information and it was easier to see in the here and now how scoring was going as opposed to what might inevitably change during the last turns of Between Two Cities. I don’t believe either are complex or hindrances to players wanting to learn the game(s) however. This is more me struggling with pattern recognition and math.
Between Two Castles includes a score pad that helps players easily follow what they’re scoring. I think this is a great inclusion and a much better way of tracking scoring as opposed to a score track (which takes up space) and cardboard chits (which are fiddly). This isn’t a perfect implementation no matter how welcome it was however. Each player will complete one scoring sheet. They are double-sided but in a seven-player game, you will go through at least four sheets to score everyone. Doing that also means that players are not scoring simultaneously, which will slightly prolong the experience. Giving everyone their own sheet speeds that up but then you’re also out seven sheets of a finite resource.
With Between Two Castles scoring there is the additional time needed for the game, particularly the second round. With each and every tile being unique players will need to familiarize themselves with the tiles in their hand, their two castles, and their opponents castles when playing optimally. This is a lot of information and with the small text on each tile, it won’t be easy to gather all the information needed to make a properly educated play. I think this information overload makes round one vastly superior to round two as players are more free to plan and construct their wonky castles and feed off the spirit of Ludwig himself as opposed to round two where players will struggle to decide which placement will maximize their points.
My main concern when initially playing Between Two Castles was that the game was adding additional mechanics to an already clever and simple game and that in turn would make me yearn to play the easier and more established of the pair. While this game shares traits from two games, it clearly draws its inspiration from one over the other. After several plays, I really enjoy the game but still wonder if it added too much to a simple idea and overburdened itself.
Between Two Castles, like Cities before it, creates an atmosphere that is both competitive and cooperative and can be played by new players and experienced gamers (although I would lean more towards experienced players). I feel like it takes the best of the two games it combines and removes aspects that were troublesome and/or clunky (namely the Castle pieces and auction from Mad King Ludwig). I think the theme is more accessible than general city developing but never truly felt like I was making a weird, elaborate castle due to some of the constrictions placed on the player due to the scoring conditions.
As most of the gaming in my life revolves around me and my spouse playing together, a big relief was the solid two-player variant. This variant revolves around the two players building a third castles with Ludwig, a dummy player. Personally, I hate dummy players and would rather play a game meant for two-players than play one that is shoe-horned to fit two. I much preferred this way of playing over the Between Two Cities two-player experience as the incentive to build up both castles existed as Ludwig was a viable winner when the game ended. I wouldn’t buy this just to play it at two-players but for learning the rules or a change of pace, it’s an enjoyable experience.
The game feels incredibly short, even when playing with more players. The only added time when playing with more players is from the scoring in my opinion as the rest of the game deals with simultaneous actions. There isn’t a perfect player count as I feel from three players and up is great for this type of game. The maintaining of two castles keeps players from kingmaking and the biggest issue regarding games with lots of players, length, is addressed by the concurrent actions.
Out of all the pros and cons the game may or may not have, there’s one aspect I haven’t touched on and that’s the absolutely amazing game insert/tray that is used for storage and gameplay. It fits and holds every tile neatly and securely. Organization is a breeze and it makes set-up and clean up easier as you’re not just throwing items in a baggie or back in the box. I could easily write an entire post about how perfect these inserts are since they’re not just something you leave in the box but I don’t know that I have the vocabulary to do them justice. The only negative I have about the inserts (and this is incredibly picky) is that I wish they were slightly larger so they touched against the top of the box. The reason I say this is that when storing some of my games, they are stored horizontally with others stacked on top of the game. Without a traditional insert or any supporting item, I worry about the box caving with any sort of pressure placed on the top.
Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game I would own over Castles of Mad King Ludwig. I have both in my collection but I feel like the combination works better than the original implementation. I would also own it over Between Two Cities but only if I had a large group that enjoyed more advanced games. Since I have the space (and Between Two Cities takes up next to nothing space-wise), I’ll be keeping that as it’s a great light game for a large group of gamers and non-gamers alike. Between Two Castles will be forever linked with its predecessors for better or worse. If you’ve played the other iterations, nothing new or ground breaking is occurring here. If you’re familiar with Stonemaier Games, you know you’re getting a solid, excellently produced game with few holes. Whether or not that game is for you though, that’s a call each individual will have to make. For me, this solidly sits in the keep pile as the game adds the depth I wanted Between Two Cities: Capitals to have. Also, this game has a room devoted to Corgi’s. What more could I ask for in a game???