Castles of Mad King Ludwig Review
There are two types of people in this world: those who wish they lived in a wondrous fantasy castles, and dirty stinking liars. Admit it–you would totally rather live in a giant stone fortress with spiral staircases and cone tipped towers than wherever you live right now. That’s certainly what King Ludwig II of Bavaria thought, the “Mad King Ludwig” after whom the game is named.
Ready for a fun history lesson? Mad King Ludwig, after assuming the throne of Bavaria in 1864, decided it was time for his dream to become a reality. King Ludwig II spent copious amounts of royal revenues in building extravagant palaces and castles, the most famous of which being Neuschwanstein Castle, a fantastical fairy tale-esque castle that served as the main inspiration for the Disneyland Castle we all know and love. Ludwig II was so enamored with his contruction projects that he took on massive amounts of debt, upsetting no small number of powerful people. King Ludwig was eventually declared insane, and was found dead shortly after from mysterious causes. Ouch.
But that’s not why you’re here, is it? You want to know the juicy details about this game. Well, after learning that little history lesson above, it’s not hard to summarize Castles of Mad King Ludwig–it’s all in the name. This is a game about building wondrous fantasy castles, each player representing a different “master builder” competing against each other to build the best stone fortress for ol’ Ludwig.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig, designed by Ted Alspach and published by Bézier Games in 2014, is a relatively light (yet wonderfully strategic) tile placing games where players take turns purchasing “rooms” for their castles, and placing them in such a way that will yield the most points. While the concept is simple, Mad King Ludwig is a wonderfully satisfying game that hits all the right notes, and has quickly become one of my group’s favorites. Keep on reading to see why this game just works.
In Castles of Mad King Ludwig, two to four players compete to build the most extravagant castle for the king himself. The concept sounds simple, and the execution, thankfully, is as well. Mad King Ludwig is not a complex game; players simply take turns buying pieces (representing rooms inside the castle), and adding them to their castle. Every room has a cost that fluctuates between turns (depending on who the Master Builder is, which we’ll get to later), and there are various bonuses that come into play depending on how you arrange your rooms. Placing rooms grants you points, and again, you can get more points if you take advantage of the various bonuses that come from different room combinations. The object of the game is to get the most points by the time the stack of purchasable rooms runs out.
Mad King Ludwig is broken up into rounds, each player getting one turn every round. When the game starts, each player begins with a simple circular foyer that serves as the first room of their castle. In the middle of the table there is a hub where the rooms for that given round are displayed, available to purchase. Each piece sits under a different price, ranging from 2000 – 15,000.
Each player starts out with 15,000, and the game begins with the first player choosing one of the available pieces to add to their castle. They pay the amount specified, take the piece, and attach it to their Castle in whatever way they please. The next player then goes, doing the same thing, until all players have chosen a piece or otherwise passed. Once each player has taken a piece, all of the blank rooms slots are replenished, and a new round begins.
Sounds simple enough, right? In fact, it might sound a little too simple. That’s because I haven’t explained the game’s best, and most important mechanic—The Master Builder.
The Master Builder
No, The Lego Movie isn’t the only place where you’ll find Master Builders. Mad King Ludwig apparently had his fair share of them, and in Castles, every player has the chance to routinely be one.
In every round of Mad King Ludwig, one player operates as the Master Builder for that round. There is no randomness or variability to this—players switch off being the Master Builder every round, going in a clockwise order. At the beginning of the round, the Master Builder is the one that decides the prices for the rooms. They can arrange them as they please, deciding which ones should fetch more for the given round. Furthermore, when players buy their room, they have to pay the Master Builder. The Master Builder gets a turn too, but they choose last, and pay their money to the bank. Essentially, being the Master Builder gives you the benefit of deciding the value of each piece, and an opportunity to cash in if the price is right, but you also get last choice; if you’re not clever enough, players might snatch up the rooms you strategically priced for yourself.
When the round ends, vacant rooms slots are replaced, and the Master Builder role switches to the next person in clockwise order, and the game continues on.
Building the Castle: Combinations and Bonuses
The Master Builder mechanic is a simple yet intriguing mechanic that adds lots of depth to Mad King Ludwig, but the other great part about this game is the system of combining rooms to take advantage of various bonuses. There is a multitude of decisions to make regarding which rooms to purchase, and how to place them.
Room types and completion bonuses
The most immediate things about the rooms are that they come in a variety of different colors. This isn’t just an aesthetic touch; each color corresponds to a different room type. If you finish off a room, you’re entitled to the completion bonus that the room type yields. Finishing a room means connecting a room to every entrance. That’s one of the rules of Mad King Ludwig—to place a room, one of its entrances has to line up with the entrance of another room. You can block other entrances, as demonstrated in the following picture, but if you do, you lose the opportunity to secure the completion bonus.
So, like I said, completing any room yields some kind of cool bonus. Some of these just help give you more points, like red rooms, which give a solid +5 for completion, or purple rooms, which re-score their point values when they’re finished (more on that later). Others give you more action economy, like yellow rooms, which give you an extra turn upon completion. Gardens give you more money, and blue rooms allow you to manipulate the selection of available rooms for the next round. While I haven’t touched on all of them, each room has something valuable to offer, which incentivizes you to complete them properly.
Room Scoring and Connection Bonuses
In addition to the completion bonus that corresponds with the room type, every room yields a flat rate in victory points, indicated by the number in the corner. Placing a garden worth four points will instantly give you 4 points, no strings attached. However, there are also bonus points that can be gained by placing certain rooms adjacent to each other.
Most rooms have a list of one or more room types in the middle, and a point value next to them. A piece that shows purple and “3” indicates that, for every purple room that is attached to said piece grants you 3 more points. As a result, you are incentivized to find specific pieces that can combine together to increase point gainage. This is particularly powerful when you connect two rooms which complement each other
The exception to this is the “entertainment” category of rooms, where you’re penalized for placing certain room types next to them; for entertainment rooms, it’s enough for another room to simply be touching its walls to incur the point loss. The idea is that entertainment rooms are loud and raucous, and that you don’t want peaceful areas like bedrooms to be right next to them.
Between the completion bonuses, point values, and combination bonuses, there is a lot to consider when it comes to buying and placing your tiles. Oh, and that’s not even taking into account the actual layout of your castle! Sometimes you have the perfect piece that you’re unable to place because it just doesn’t fit into the way you’ve built your castle. Building your castle, then, is like a fun little puzzle.
Endgame bonus scoring
Rooms aren’t the only way to get points in Mad King Ludwig. Every player, at the beginning of the game, receives two secret orange cards that provide “objectives” the players can follow to boost their points in the end. For example, one orange card might declare that every purple room you build grants you an additional three points. This means that, in addition to the usual strategies in buying and placing rooms, you’ll want to particularly focus on purple rooms. Each orange card is unique and you don’t know what bonuses the other players are sporting until the end of the game. You also have the chance to gain more orange cards (thus increasing your maximum point potential) by placing orange rooms in your castle. The cards add a sense of long-term strategy to your game and help to make every game feel slightly different.
Finally, there are also universal end-game bonuses that differ from game to game. In the central hub, there are three endgame bonuses that are similar to the orange cards in nature. Whoever has the most instances of each bonus gets additional point at the end of the game, with second/third/fourth place getting successively less points. So, if the bonus is “most circular rooms,” you’re incentivized to collect as many circular rooms as you can. There are three of these bonuses (or two depending on player count), and like the orange cards, they give you an objective to pursue in your long-term strategy, the difference being that these bonuses are known by all players for the duration of the game.
At the end, the players score all of their end-game bonuses, and whoever has the highest point count wins the game! Mad King Ludwig will be mighty pleased until his inevitable and tragic death.
Setting up/breaking down
Mad King Ludwig is a rather merciful game in terms of play time, both in terms of setting up, and actually playing.
Its setup is pretty simple, and will only take you a couple of minutes. There’s not a whole lot to do, except for prepare the central hub and the room/card stacks. The number of rooms per game depends on the number of players; a lesser player count will have less rooms in the stack so that play time scales.
Aside from that, the setup for each player is very simple and clean, each player starting off with nothing more than their central rotunda, two orange cards, and 15,000 in money (crowns?).
Setting up/taking down Mad King Ludwig is remarkably fast and easy as long as you have a halfway decent way to organize the components. If not, it can be kind of a pain.
I feel like that bolded statement above is important to mention. Mad King Ludwig doesn’t come with any kind of organization in the box, so unless you do it yourself, it’ll just be a big mess of loose pieces and tiles whenever you open it up, which significantly lengthens the setup process.
You can check out our board game storage tips for advice on this. With Ludwig, the easiest solution would probably be rubber bands or baggies, unless you feel like investing in plano boxes like we have in the picture below. I picked mine up at Wal-Mart, but you can get them on Amazon too (disclaimer: I can’t say for sure whether the Amazon ones will fit in the game’s box)
The average game of Mad King Ludwig will run you one to two hours, usually sitting right at the middle.
There are certain games that fluctuate greatly in their play time, some games taking one hour, others taking four. I have not found Ludwig to be one of these games. The games reliably clock in at between one to two hours, maybe going above if you’ve got a nasty case of analysis paralysis at your table. If it takes you any longer than that, you’re probably doing it wrong.
The nice thing about Mad King Ludwig is that you can lengthen or shorten the play time as you please. This is because the game ends when your room stack runs out. Even with four players, you don’t put EVERY room into the stack, so if you feel like the game ends too prematurely, you can just fatten up the room stack. Alternatively, if it’s dragging on, there’s nothing that stops you from trimming it down to get things over with.
Overall, Castles is versatile in its play time, and fits nicely into that “ideal range” where it feels neither too short nor too long.
Two Thumbs Up for the Two Player Game
If you’re looking for a good two player game (something that always seems to be in demand), rest assured that Castles of Mad King Ludwig is an excellent choice. Though the game feels a little different with two players than three or four, the game doesn’t make any obnoxious concessions to provide a two-player game, such as a “dummy player.” The only thing that changes is that you use a slightly different pricing table for the rooms, the two-player game nixing the cheap “1000” and “2000” options for purchasing. This forces both players to spend more, keeping things more competitive.
The flow and strategy of the two-player game is slightly different than other counts, because it’s more directly competitive. In higher counts, the Master Builder has to account for everyone’s castle when they price the rooms. With two players, you’re only competing against one opponent, so all the blocking and pricing is aimed directly at them, only to be turned around against you the next round when they’re master builder, and then back again, and so on.
This makes the two-player game a little more cutthroat than the three/four-player game, though “cutthroat” is admittedly a strong word to use to describe Mad Kind Ludwig. In any case, the two player game works very well, and I would absolutely recommend it for anyone who’s in that market.
Two and three-player games
To be honest, Castles does a great job at scaling. Playing with three players hardly feels different from playing with four. The game gets a little longer with each added player, but that’s about it. There IS certainly a little more pressure when it comes to spending money, because you have to wait three turns instead of four to be Master Builder (and thus get paid), but you also have more people paying you each time, so it kind of balances out. There’s not a whole lot more to say except that Castles of Mad King Ludwig scales exactly as it should; the game doesn’t feel any better or worse depending on the number of players, and I think that’s a mark of good design.
Mad King Ludwig isn’t terribly complicated or deep, but it’s deep enough to where you might be surprised when you see its nice, light, six-page manual. Ludwig’s rules are nice and brief, and well-explained. There wasn’t anything in the rulebook that made me think, “wow, what an exceptional rulebook,” but there also aren’t really any great flaws either. It’s nice and concise, and fulfills its purpose well, with plenty of pictures for supplementary context. This is, thankfully, a game that is very easy to learn by yourself.
Teaching to others
I have not yet run into any great trouble explaining Mad King Ludwig. Its concepts are relatively simple; I would say the most complex aspect of the game is understanding all the room completion bonuses and scoring mechanisms, but once you’ve got that down (which isn’t terribly hard, especially due to the handy reference tiles given to each player), it’s a pretty easy game to stomach, even to a board game newbie.
I’ve found that Mad King Ludwig doesn’t take much more than ten to fifteen minutes to each to a new group. The easiest way is to just explain the general flow of the game, make sure they understand the master builder thing, and then give a super brief explanation to how the room bonuses work, allowing them to learn the rest as they jump in and play. They might not learn the finer points of strategy right away, but they will at least know HOW to play, and I appreciate any game where you can get to that point quickly. Remember to check out our ten tips of teaching board games if you have trouble teaching new games!
The two biggest strategic areas are your decisions as the Master Builder, and deciding which rooms to buy/place. So…the whole game, I guess. Let’s start with the Master Builder.
Strategy as the Master Builder
As the Master Builder, you have tough choices to make because you get to define the prices of every room for the round, but you also get last choice in picking. This means that you have several factors to consider when you arrange those rooms:
How can I prevent my opponents from getting the rooms they need the most?
One key part to being Master Builder is being able to effectively block your opponents from getting the rooms they need. Is someone in desperate need of a yellow room that will finish off their giant living room and score them a bajillion points? Whoops, guess it costs 15,000 and they can’t afford it! If you want to win, analyzing the needs of your opponents and pricing accordingly is essential.
Where can I place the room I want to where it’s the right price for me, but to where the other players won’t buy it first?
Even though you’re the Master Builder, YOU still need to buy a room, and you get the chance to put it right where you want it…as long as your opponents don’t grab it first. If there’s a reasonably good room that you want, sure, you could price it at 2000 and it’d be dirt cheap for you, but what are the odds of somebody swiping it for that price before you can? Probably pretty high. You need to make sure your coveted rooms are expensive enough to repel your opponents, but cheap enough to where it doesn’t break your bank.
How can I get the most money?
Another thing to consider is placing the rooms in such a way to where your opponents won’t be total cheapskates. The money you get as Master Builder has to carry you all the way through the next few rounds, so you need to ensure you’re paid well. That means you have to look at how much money people have, what they want, and what they’re likely to buy. A player has the option of passing and receiving 5000 if they don’t want to buy anything. If someone is low on money and you put all the good tiles out of their range, you’re more likely to get nothing at all than something cheap. On the other hand, a rich player might be willing to pay through the nose to get a room they want. Sometimes it’s worth putting one of their coveted rooms just high enough to be expensive, but right at the range where they’re willing to shell out for it. You don’t ALWAYS want to block people’s coveted rooms, because sometimes you can make a small fortune by pricing them right.
These factors, combined together, create a compelling challenge as the Master Builder, and a fun exercise in reading your opponents. Players who routinely lose this game generally don’t know how to play the master builder well; it’s incredibly important to having a good game.
Strategy of buying/placing rooms
Of course, there’s also the rest of the game, buying and placing your rooms. You have to make careful choices here, because you constantly have to look at what you can afford, what you need, and how you can combine rooms together to not only create good bonuses, but also to make a castle that’s laid out well which keeps your options open.
Your orange cards play a big role in this. If you play according to those, you can make bank. If you get rewarded for every yellow room, buy yellow rooms and prevent other people from getting them. You always have to consider your end-game bonuses.
Spending money is also a pretty strategic affair. Your money has to carry you through multiple rounds until you can become Master Builder again, so you need to know when to splurge, and when to scrimp. If there’s a room that’s absolutely essential to your castle but it costs 15000 and you’re not Master Builder for three rounds, it might not be worth bankrupting yourself for the next several turns, especially since there’s no guarantee that you’ll even get a good payoff when you’re Master Builder.
Furthermore, spending “medium” amounts of money on rooms you don’t need isn’t the best idea either. You need to look at each room and decide its worth; if there are no rooms that are that good, it might just be worth buying the dirt-cheap ones to be able to afford the rooms you actually need when they come out. If the rooms in the middle are only marginally better than the ones at the bottom, maybe you’ll want to spend less money.
And of course, you also have to consider the turn order. Maybe the room you really want is high priced this round, and you suspect that the next Master Builder will make it cheaper. Maybe there’s a room that both you and your opponent REALLY want, but you know that your opponent is Master Builder next time so you’ll be able to buy it first. There are a lot of choices to be made, so choose wisely!
Finally, placing rooms and taking advantage of completion bonuses is huge. Sure, maybe you really need that purple room, but wait, what if you have enough to buy a cheap room, finish off a yellow room, and then use the yellow’s free turn to buy the one you needed? Perhaps you really want 250 square foot rooms because your orange card rewards you for them. Finish off a blue room, and then use its bonus put two 250 rooms on the stack so they come out next turn! Got a purple room that’s worth a lot of points? Better to connect complimentary rooms to every entrance to take max advantage of its bonus, which re-scores the whole tile!
So there you have it. I could go on, but it suffices to say that, if you’re looking for a nice light game that still has a multitude of compelling choices to make, Mad King Ludwig handily fills that niche.
What about the luck?
Ah, but yes, the luck. Luck isn’t always a bad thing, depending on the game, but sometimes an unhealthy dosage of it can ruin an otherwise excellent experience. I’m happy to say that Mad King Ludwig has a very small, trace amount of luck, but it’s not so insignificant that it’s not worth mentioning.
It’s those orange cards, man.
So, the orange cards give each player some kind of bonus they can work towards throughout the game. An orange card that gives extra points for yellow rooms incentivizes a player to purchase yellow rooms, and so on. Overall, I enjoy the mechanic because it gives players an overarching long-term strategy to work on, but it’s not without its issues.
The issue with the orange cards is that they’re not all created equal.
Let me explain. Some orange cards are just better than others. One orange card, for examples, gives 2 points for every purple room you play. Purple rooms are generally reasonably abundant. A clever player can extract ten to twenty points if they play to that card hard enough. Compare that with the orange card that gives you ONE point for every TWO completed rooms, and the difference is staggering. Rooms aren’t easy to complete; you have to cover every entrance with adjacent rooms. The fact that you can’t rapidly complete rooms all the time is the reason why you get special bonuses for doing so. I’ve never seen the latter card get more than four or five points in a game, a paltry amount compared to the 16 you might get from that purple bonus. Now, consider the prospect of getting two “dud” cards, while your opponent draws two which are easy to exploit. Your opponent immediately has an advantage over you in this case.
Usually, the cards are balanced well enough to where this isn’t an issue. But I have seen it happen, and more than once. It’s a shame that some orange cards are just flat-out better than others.
And then there’s the issue of the room stacks. The list of available rooms for every game is determined by shuffling the “room stack.” To replenish rooms, the Master Builder draws from this stack, and it indicates what rooms are to be drawn to fill in the empty gaps for that round.
The thing is, this deck never includes all the rooms, so there’s a portion of rooms that will never come out. Okay, so, imagine you’ve got an orange card that rewards you for playing small circle rooms. You might not get a fortune from it, but you figure you’ll at least get something. If you’re unlucky, you might find that the majority of the small circle cards were returned to the box in the initial shuffle, meaning they will never show up in the game. Sometimes you get screwed over when certain rooms just don’t show up because they were shuffled out of the game before it even started. That’s always a bummer.
Finally, the orange cards are kept secret for the duration of the game, which is something I like and don’t like at the same time. I like that it gives you this secret prerogative, a goal that you can pursue the whole game, unbeknownst to other players. I don’t like that it makes you unable to know if your opponent is going to turn their cards over in the end and reveal that they got 30 extra points from their orange cards because nobody could anticipate what kind of bonuses they might be holding. I feel like the Master Builder mechanic might be more meaningful if you could know what orange bonuses your opponents are sporting. This isn’t as big of a deal as the other points, but it does kind of suck if you can’t catch on to it and you find out at the very end that you could have stopped them if you were more informed. But then again, it also adds some fun suspense to the game, so it goes both ways.
At the end of the day, I’m okay with the orange cards, and the amount of strategy generally eclipses the amount of luck in this game, but it’s worth acknowledging that some players can get luckier than others.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a lovely game! It’s just lovely. Honestly, there’s not a whole lot to say here except that the game looks nice, it feels nice, and it checks all the boxes in the presentation department.
I don’t really have any complaints. The artwork is nice; Ludwig’s real life castle Neuschwanstein adorns the cover on the box, and it’s a beautiful picture, due not only to the quality of the artwork, but the beauty of the castle itself which remains a marvel to this day, almost 200 years later.
I’m satisfied with the artwork on all the pieces. Each room has its own little illustration which makes them fun to look at, particularly if your fellow players are taking an eternity to take their turns. The vivid colors also effectively separate the rooms from a visual standpoint, while not being overly flashy or distraction.
The components are satisfactory too. The money tokens are what you’d expect any token to look like that represents a coin. There is a wooden castle piece that’s passed around to signify who the Master Builder is, vaguely looking like Neuschwanstein.
I won’t say much more because you’re the one that will decide if the game is pretty, not me, but overall I can say I’m pretty happy with it.
Mad King Ludwig fits into the category of most decent modern games; its components are nice, durable, and feel well-made, but not super nice to where it feels like a luxury product. Anyone familiar with modern games is used to the cardboard material they use for chits, and Ludwig uses this stuff to make the pieces and the central board. The pieces have a matte finish, not the textured stuff you’ll find in a lot of Fantasy Flight Games, but they feel nice and I can’t complain.
There’s really not much to say about the components of this game, except for that King Ludwig apparently has good standards for his castles. Moving on!
The expansion is called Castles of Mad King Ludwig: Secrets, and it’s a worthy expansion to an already fun game, and will run you $30. I don’t think it’s necessary for new players, but if you find yourself playing Ludwig a lot, it’s worth your attention if you want to spice up your game.
I won’t go into the details super heavily, but Secrets adds three things: moats, secret passages, and swans.
Moats allow you to build a barrier around your castle. Should you build a moat, every room inside of your castle scores extra points, a bonus that’s repeated with up to every moat piece you build (up to four total). The drawback? Moats make it WAY harder to build your castle the way you want, because you’re constrained within their walls. They score a ridiculous amount of extra points, but also make it more challenging to fit everything. You have to be really economical with your space, and be willing to sacrifice the completion of certain rooms to make things fit.
Secret passages are little pieces you can add to your castle to connect rooms that otherwise wouldn’t connect usually. In addition to being able to contribute towards room completion, secret passages double the amount of points you get for room adjacency bonuses. Each player gets three secret passages. Honestly, it’s easy to forget about them unless you’re building with them in mind. I’ve played many games where I don’t end up using all of them, but the times that I HAVE used them effectively have been devilishly satisfying. Anyway, it’s easier to understand secret passages by just seeing a picture, so here you go:
Finally, the swans. Secrets comes with an assortment of new rooms, many of these rooms being “swan rooms.” These rooms, when bought, come with one or two “swan tokens,” which can be exchanged on your turn for money, or kept till the end of the game for a sizable point bonus. The bonuses are exponential, so the more swans you get, the bigger the payoff. This gives more importance to certain rooms, and yet another factor to consider in your buying and Master Buildering.
Secrets is an excellent expansion, but I don’t consider it to be essential. I don’t know if this speaks more towards the quality of the base game or of the expansion itself, but it suffices to say that we don’t feel like using Secrets every time we play. Some players don’t appreciate the added challenge that the moats bring, and I can’t blame them, though I do enjoy it myself.
Secrets, more than anything, changes the nature of the game, rather than making it better or worse (I’m referring mainly to the moats here). The moats make it much harder to build your castle, despite the bigger payoff. Some players prefer not to use them. There’s a certain therapeutic feeling that comes with building your castle free range, it’s like a leisurely, peaceful puzzle. The moats add higher stakes and more pressure, which can eliminate that feeling. If you’re the type of person who appreciates a challenge, Secrets is probably right up your alley.
As for me, I’m perfectly indifferent towards it. Am I glad I bought it? Yes. Do I feel like I NEED it? No. I appreciate that it’s there because sometimes I crave its inclusion, and sometimes I’d rather just roll with the base game. Either way, if you love Castles of Mad King Ludwig, I would definitely recommend checking it out.
The Master Builder Mechanic Is Wonderfully Innovative Very Strategic
I’m going to be honest, if it weren’t for the Master Builder mechanic, I don’t think Mad King Ludwig would be half as good as it is. It’s not like some super groundbreaking mechanic that required the work of geniuses to be conceived, but it’s definitely well thought-out, and adds an interesting spin to a game where you’re constantly using money to buy things.
There is so much to think about when you’re the Master Builder, and I love that, to get the most out of it, you have to be able to read the other players. I deeply enjoy games that encourage this, and it’s a fun challenge trying to price things in a way that benefits you, while being less than satisfactory for all the other players. It’s like a bluffing game; when you “win,” there’s this deep devious satisfaction, and when you lose, you feel like you’ve been had, and that you might need to invest in a new poker face.
The Master Builder mechanic keeps things interesting, because other players have to catch on to each others’ strategies, and you also have to make tough choices about where and when to spend your money, given that you don’t want to be broke for three rounds. It also makes you reconsider the idea of spending a lot of money on a piece you really want. Sure, you could get that nice room, but then you’re also paying your opponent that outrageous amount of money they’re charging for it. What’s more important, having the room or making sure they don’t have money? It encourages a fun metagame around the table, and I love any game that can do that.
Building Your Castle Never Feels the Same
There’s not a whole lot to this game to be honest, and it has all the markings of a game that could quickly become stale. But, due to some clever design decisions, it just doesn’t, and I commend it for that. First of all, the abounding strategy about how to place your rooms ensure you’ll never build the same castle; you’re always thinking of how to finish off rooms, and how to pair them together to get max point bonuses. Since you’re dealing with different rooms every game session, you’ll always have different priorities when it comes to assembling your castle. I love the sheer variety of choices you can make, and all the small ways you can create little bonuses for yourself.
And then there are the endgame bonuses, which give you long-term strategies to work towards. While there are admittedly some flaws surrounding things, I think they give an overall net benefit to the game, because it means you can’t just chase the same exact strategy every time. I like games that are able to shake things up, and Mad King Ludwig does a great job at that.
This is a very relaxing, stress-free game
There’s something that’s just satisfying about building castles. Mad King Ludwig has become our go-to game for unwinding, because it’s just so simple, so serene, but still provides that strategic kick that makes you exercise your brainpower a little bit. I mentioned Castles as being a very therapeutic game because it’s just so relaxing. Honestly, I don’t really know how to explain it, you just kind of know when a game has that and when it doesn’t. Just like you know you’re not going to bust out Imperial Assault when you want a “nice, peaceful” game, you know that you’ll pull out Castles when you just feel like unwinding.
Again, it’s hard to explain, but Castles is just a nice mixture of length, simplicity, strategy, and game design that makes it a perfectly pleasing game to play when you feel like mellowing out. I mean, this isn’t the ONLY time to play Castles, but it’s nice to have stress-free games in your repertoire.
Losing is still satisfying, because hey, check out my cool castle
I’m going to once again assert that there’s nobody that actually thinks castles aren’t cool. I mean, come on, what are you, a monster? One pattern I’ve found among fellow Ludwig players is that everyone enjoys building a little castle, even if it doesn’t lead them to victory. My wife, an avid Sims player, quickly took a loving to Mad King Ludwig because there’s just something fun about your castle coming together. It’s even more satisfying when you can make a lovely looking castle that also scores optimally. I admit there has been more than one occasion where I’ve foregone extra points because it would make my castle look ugly.
Also, can we talk about the silliness that comes from some of these castles? Every room in the game has its own name, and sometimes its utterly absurd seeing the types of castles that come together, and speculating what on earth the builders would be thinking if it were real life. I’ve seen castles that must be filled with morbidly obese subjects, filled almost exclusively with food producing rooms, even at the expense of sleeping quarters. I’ve seen castles that are seemingly innocuous until you see the sketchy array of basement dungeons, including fun stops such as the “Secret Lair” and “The Bottomless Pit.”
It suffices to say that, regardless of how many points you do or don’t score, building a castle is a fun experience unto itself.
Checks all the boxes of a great gateway game
If you’re into tabletop gaming, you’re likely familiar with the term “gateway game” If not, let me explain: “gateway games” are games that are just the right mixture of depth and accessibility, which makes them easy to introduce to people who aren’t familiar with modern board games. “Modern board games” are the type of game I write about on this site, and generally have different traits than the ol’ classics you see on store shelves, like Monopoly and Life. A lot of modern board games are a bit too complicated to people who aren’t familiar with them, so easing them in with a “gateway game” is standard practice in introducing people to the big world of tabletop gaming.
Getting back to the point, Castles of Mad King Ludwig checks all the boxes: it’s in the “ideal” range for length (between 1-2 hours), it’s easy to teach, easy to learn, relatively simple in mechanics but pleasantly deep in strategy. Aside from that, it’s stress-free, it’s fun, and it’s quite unlike traditional American games. Catan has been the reigning mascot for gateway games ever since its inception, but I think Mad King Ludwig gives it a run for its money. I would just as quickly introduce this game to a newbie gamer as I would Catan. Anyone who has friends who are uninitiated, definitely try giving this one a spin with them.
Endgame bonuses are not created equal
I already addressed this in the “luck” portion above, but the long and short of it is that there are various endgame bonuses you can acquire in the form of orange cards. Every player starts out with two of them, and you can acquire more by playing orange rooms. On one hand, these provide an excellent mechanic where you can have a long-term strategy and gain extra points. On the other, I’ve seen more than one game where the value of the orange cards just aren’t proportionate across players.
One could make the argument that it’s all about how you build your castle, and I would mostly agree, but I’ve played the game enough to say that some orange cards are just objectively better than others. Some of them make it easy to gain 20-30 points when used together, while others cap out at 5 points each if you exert all of your efforts trying to satisfy them the whole game.
The argument can be made that players can obtain better bonuses by acquiring more orange cards, but this goes the other way too; players who already have amazing cards can still get new ones, and if their luck holds up, they might get another one that gives 12-15 points on the fly. This actually happened to me last game; I won the game by an outrageous margin because I got lucky with my first two orange cards, and continued to get lucky still with the additional three I drew. My opponents had excellent castles and we were nearly even by the end, but when the endgame scoring came out, I blew them out of the water.
This isn’t an issue in most of the games, but I’ve definitely seen it happen more than once.
One of the best parts of Ludwig’s design is the myriad of ways you can score points. There are so many ways to combine your rooms, and each one will yield points in its own way. Unfortunately, this also has its drawbacks, as scoring in Mad King Ludwig can be a complicated affair, and not in a good way.
There are two types of scoring—in-game scoring, and endgame scoring. The former happens while you play, the latter after the game finishes. The in-game scoring is mainly what I’m referring to here. Every turn, you have to make sure you bump your points up by however much you earned, and you better be sure you’re counting everything. Make sure you include the points for placing the room, and then make sure you include the points for attaching rooms! And oh, better not forget to score when you finish off the red rooms, oh, and have fun calculating whatever you get from finishing your purple room, which rescores the entire thing, connection bonuses included. Oh, basement rooms also give you universal bonuses for certain room types too, better not forget those!
It’s not like scoring for Ludwig is that hard, but sheesh, it’s just so easy to forget. I know some players will see this as silly and won’t be able to fathom how people would be able to forget, but I’ve seen every player forget to score stuff a handful of times. Sometimes, building your castle is so satisfying on its own that you forget to actually give yourself points when you do something cool. The point is, Mad King Ludwig requires you to be on the ball with a lot of little tiny scoring decisions that happen all over the place. Just keep this in mind if you’re a prospective buyer, because it’s never fun realizing that the final count might be off, requiring you to painfully recalculate all the points you’ve earned.
You might notice the number of things I “didn’t like” is not at all proportionate to the things I “did” like. The truth is, I don’t like giving positively glowing reviews these days, because it might paint the picture that I’m unable to critically and objectively evaluate a game. But Castles of Mad King Ludwig really is an excellent game that deserves recognition. It just does so many things right that I can’t help but give it some really solid praise. Castles is a game that just WORKS, and it’s hard to pin your finger on the exact reason why. Sometimes you just play a game, and everything just flows together in a way that’s satisfying. Castles of Mad King Ludwig was one such game for me.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a wonderful game if you’ve been looking for something that’s nice and light, but not TOO light. It’s strategically deep, but not TOO deep. It’s not too short, but it’s also not too long. It just kind achieves that wonderful middle ground that a lot of games try to aspire to. I haven’t reviewed a game in a long time, but I figured, for my grand return, I’d choose something that really deserved it. Castles of Mad King Ludwig is that game.
YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- -You like castles, building castles, or pretending to build castles
- -You enjoy creating things
- -You want a game that consistently clocks in at between one to two hours
- -You’re looking for a strong new gateway game
- -You appreciate strong strategic depth mixed with inherent simplicity
- -You enjoy reading your opponents
- -You like games that don’t have a lot of direct conflict
- -You appreciate stress-free games
- -You’re looking for a good two player game
YOU WON’T LIKE THIS GAME IF…
- -You’re not good at keeping track of your points when you play games
- -You don’t like games where you can earn huge amounts of endgame points
- -You like direct conflict games
- -You’re obsessively compulsive about building something where everything is perfect
- -You had anything to do with King Ludwig II’s mysterious death
About the Author
Zach is an avid tabletop gamer, and he created Board Game Resource out of his love for the hobby, and his desire to see more people come into it. When he's not writing for or managing BGR, Zach might be hanging out with cats, hiking a mountain, spending time with his lovely wife, or writing about video game stuff for Insert Gamer. Zach has also enjoys creating digital character art. You can check out his (long neglected) gallery here, or follow him on Instagram at @artworkbyzach!