Castles of Mad King Ludwig

The Castles of Mad King Ludwig (2014) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameCastles of Mad King Ludwig (2014)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [2.66]
BGG Rank110 [7.59]
Player Count (recommended)1-4 (2-4)
Designer(s)Ted Alspach
Artist(s)Keith Curtis, Agnieszka Dabrowiecka and Ollin Timm

Version Reviewed

English second edition

Introduction

While I don’t think Castles of Mad King Ludwig is quite as fascinating a design as Suburbia, it might well be a more fun game. It depends really on what you want out of a box like this – an emergent story of compromise and consequence, or something that sacrifices big picture for an endless battle against local spatiality. We gave Castles of Mad King Ludwig four stars in our review, which is a fair sign that we’d prepared to bet you’ll have fun with it were you to give it a go.

I mentioned in the review for this that Suburbia, in many ways this game’s older sibling, was the game that inspired this site. It was the first time that I thought accessibility might be something worth investigating in a cardboard context. Bezier were also one of the first companies to ever acknowledge our work, although we started sufficiently late (2016) that it won’t have had an impact on the design of the Castles of Mad King Ludwig.

I’m still excited to see how this game stands in a teardown, so let’s get stuck into it.

Colour Blindness

The player tokens on the scoring track are the only location where colour as used as the sole differentiating factor. Everything else is supplemented by icons. You could replace these tokens with something more idiosyncratic.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig score track

The individual player foyers are accompanied by a kind of heraldic symbol, and I would have liked to have seen that, perhaps in sticker form, carried through to the player markers. It makes an otherwise problematic palette much more accessible.

Colour blindness and Foyers

There are also some palette overlaps in the different kind of room types, but each is accompanied by an icon that shows the category of room to which they belong. This is though occasionally very small and often poorly contrasted. Since the rooms can be rotated to be placed, it can occasionally result In a bit of scanning to see what the actual consequence of a placement choice will be.

Colour blindness and tiles

It would have been much better if these icons were properly letterboxed against the background, exactly in the way is already done for adjacency effects. Look at the panic room as an example for how difficult it might be on occasion to make out a clarifying icon. Patterns of the background though are also distinctive between room types, as are the furnishings shown within.

Colour Blindness and Bonus cards in Castles of Mad King Ludwig

You can see the difference that letterboxing has though when you look at the bonus cards, all of which actually ensure proper contrast of icons.

We recommend Castles of Mad King Ludwig in this category – while it has some problems, there’s nothing here that genuinely prevents people playing and most of the impact of colour and contrast will be short term.

Visual Accessibility

The game gets a rougher ride here. Let’s begin with the good news.

The first is that there’s a lot of tactility in Castles of Mad King Ludwig. Money comes in two different denominations and they can be told apart by touch. All the various kinds of room tiles feel meaningfully different, and you can usually tell which (in terms of room size) is which. The layout of your castle is also something that can be investigated by touch.

A Tile in Castles of Mad King Ludwig

It would have been great if some notches had been provided to indicate where entrances and exits lay, but I guess that would have made it possible for people to identify which specific rooms were going to be revealed in the draw. However, the lack of these is a massive accessibility problem because linking up rooms based on exits is the core gameplay mechanism.

A growing castle

So much of the important information in the game is available only visually, and the game state is dense. Each piece contains at least the following information:

  • Adjacency effects
  • Score for laying the tile
  • Room size
  • Room category
  • Name

Room size is only peripherally important (relevant in some bonus cards) and name is flavour only. Everything else is important, and not just in terms of the tile itself. How they intersect with all other tiles is what each player is constantly assessing.

Each room generates points based on its own value (size and difficulty to place) and everything adjacent to it. The difference between placing a piece one location and another may be huge. There are a lot of tradeoffs here too – you might want to place a piece sub-optimally at times. Maybe so that you get a completion bonus, or to take into account the bonus points available to you on your individual scoring cards.

But more than this, even picking the tile to place is one of complex decision making that requires a very strong awareness of what everyone else is doing. This is especially true when you’re the master builder and get to set the price of everything on offer. You don’t want to put something valuable to someone else at a low cost, because that reduces the amount of money you get coming your way. On the other hand, what is valuable? It depends on all the possible connections someone has, the money they have available, the things you’ll be left with, and the disposition of their castle. It’s not just a case of picking your own tile based on what’s good for you, but ordering the tiles in a way so that everyone pays the price you want for the tiles you think they will need.

Auction

And then when it comes to selecting from the offer for your own tile, you will have six or seven of these to consider, and there’s a danger here you can do actual harm to your score by picking the wrong one. There’s subtlety in each piece too – there’s a huge difference between a long straight piece with one entrance at the end, and one with two entrances at the same end. If you ever want to complete the latter, you’ll need to be thinking ahead to how to make it happen.

Even if all that weren’t a problem, the game suffers from occasionally poor contrast and an inconsistency of visual parsing that’s a result of the rotated orientation in which a lot of pieces will be placed.

Laundry room, rotated

We don’t at all recommend Castles of Mad King Ludwig in this category.

Cognitive Accessibility

There’s a huge amount of numeracy here, and it’s a game where the area of effect of a decision needs to be constantly revisited. You don’t just place a piece and score it – you need to continually rescore it as you add new rooms that are adjacent. The placement of a room is like planting a seed in a garden – it will occasionally yield several harvests. As such, it’s not as simple as saying ‘Placing this gives me four points’, because it will give you that plus or minus the adjacency scores. This is where the heart of the game lies – in making available opportunities for this kind of passive income of points.

That means that when it comes to place a tile its value needs to be calculated based on all its options. ‘It’s six points here, but that blocks off one of its exits’, ‘It’s four points here but I’ll be able to place other rooms at each of its entrances’, ‘If I put it here, then I can only place a circular room between that and the other tile, and that room will have to be a sleeping chamber or I’ll lose points’. This gets further complicated by bonus cards that add other incentives. For example if you get points for every workshop and for every sleeping area, that changes the whole puzzle once more.

When it comes time to select from the marketplace, it becomes essentially a depth first search – pick a tile, work out its consequences (including financial implications for this and the next rounds), move on to the next. Pick the best tile with the best reward. When you’re the master builder the ordering of the pieces becomes a complex puzzle of its own. Getting it right is important because it’s when you set the cost of entry to opportunities for other people, and also set your own income for the turn. Get it right and you will impoverish your opponents to the point you diminish their effectiveness. Get it wrong and you’ll essentially subsidise their victory. It’s such a complex activity with so much to consider that by itself it might be enough to deny Castles of Mad King Ludwig a recommendation in this category.

The game state becomes very complex before much time has passed, not so much with regards to an individual castle but rather in the wider context of the whole game. If everyone wants a hallway, the value of hallways increases. If everyone needs a garden, then that’s going to change the way you want to order them as a master builder and how much you’ll want to spend if you’re not. Scoring opportunities can be subtle and if you want to play well you need to be aware of the motivations of everyone around the table. That’s a lot to ask of anyone.

Unlike in Suburbia though there aren’t any complex relationships between tiles. You just need to focus on where they intersect in placement. You’re never in a position of having to remember that tile you put down earlier that massively changes the value of everything in everyone’s buildings. It’s much simpler in that sense because it limits the synergy of play. That’s not to say it’s accessible, it’s just less inaccessible.

We don’t recommend Castles of Mad King Ludwig in our fluid intelligence category. Technically speaking everything you need to know to play well is on the table in front of you, but the need to hold this branching model of value in mind puts a huge hidden strain on memory capacity. As a result we don’t recommend it there either.

Emotional Accessibility

There are plenty of times in playing the game where you’ll think you’re arranging something cunning only for it to blow up in your face. I can’t remember a single game of this where at some point I haven’t rearranged the offering as master builder only to find everyone else is delighted that I made their lives so easy. That can be frustrating, but also it’s one of the purer sources of comedy in the game. It depends on your mindset. And yet, I’ve rarely found a game where someone has returned the favour. Maybe that’s just confirmation bias with a twist of selection bias. Maybe though I’m just singularly bad at that part of the game. Maybe it’s both.

Mostly the competition in Castles of Mad King Ludwig is implicit and in the battle to get tiles at good prices. That would normally be low impact, but the master builder role does offer an opportunity for a player to single out another for mistreatment. If I see you desperately want a tile, I’ll put it as the mostly costly tier I think you’ll pay. And then you pay that money directly to me. It’s like being forced to socialise with your own mugger. It’s possible in the game for players to gang up on each another, but it usually comes at an extreme personal cost so it’s not exactly common.

For those with a compulsive need for closure, Castles of Mad King Ludwig is also going to be reliably grating on your nerves. Poor placement constantly leaves exits blocked by walls, and the game end conditions mean that you’ll never have anything finished. That may be an issue.

Point differentials can be high because there’s an amplifying effect that comes from good placement of early rooms. The drawing room gives you two points, and then three more for each adjacent activity and work room. It has four exits, and if you can surround it with compatible rooms that one single choice might be worth as many as fifteen points by itself before you take into account any reciprocal adjacency effects. And when you complete that room, you get to rescore it. So that’s thirty points from one room, and that’s a lot. If you don’t get the trick of that, or miss the opportunities for it, you’ll fall dramatically behind those that do.

We’ll tentatively recommend the Castles of Mad King Ludwig in this category. It’s not intense in direct competition but there are enough bits around the edges here that I’d be wary of playing it under certain circumstances.

Physical Accessibility

The Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game that sprawls a lot and often in unpredictable directions. You put rooms where they provide good scoring opportunities and that means you might have loads of space to your right but the crowded left is where everything needs to go. It all just nestles together too, so one bang of the table or tug of a tablecloth can upset everything. It’s awkward enough that while play with verbalisation is possible, it’s going to be uncomfortable for everyone involved and might involve someone having to get up to place pieces rather than reach over and do it.

That said, it’s not unplayable. Players can explain every action and the nature of the tiles means that even the occasionally awkward task of explaining rotation and alignment of shapes is quite easy. ‘Place the laundry room so its only exit intersects with the right side of my drawing room’. Or, ‘Rotate the formal gardens so that the symbol is in the top right’. It’s just that the state of the game is so fragile that I’d be holding my breath every time someone reached over their castle to place something at the far end of someone else’s.

A sprawling castle

Many pieces are small and fiddly, and because there a distinction between one and two exits in near proximity they need to be placed carefully. Adjacency is important too and that means that alignment of entrances, pieces and their component rooms must be carefully managed. There’s enough precise placement of pieces that I think it would be inconvenient if even a small degree of fine motor control impairment is likely to be experienced.

Players will have a small hand of bonus cards they are holding secretly, but not so many that a standard card holder won’t suffice.

We very tentatively recommend Castles of Mad King Ludwig in this category. It’s playable, but the nature of the sprawl means that it might be inconveniently so.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The manual doesn’t default to masculinity, and the game has no human art in it. The title is, obviously, gendered – but it’s also referencing a famous historical person. Predictably, being a big ol’ killjoy, I don’t much like the use of ‘mad’ in the title. I’m not even sure it’s that common a nickname for him. As best I can tell he was more often called the Swan King or the Fairy Tale King. ‘Castles of the Fairy Tale King’, sounds like the title of a pretty interesting game I’d say. Anyway, it’s a relatively minor issue but one that occasionally grinds in my mind when I see the name in front of me.

Insofar as a game with this pitch can be inclusive I’ll say that there’s a lot of range in the rooms you’ll be placing. It’s not all guardrooms and dungeons. There’s sewing rooms and tapestry rooms too. And a nap room.

I wish I had a nap room.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig box

The game has a pretty steep RRP of about £50, but I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen it for sale at that price. It seems to be perpetually on a discount of between £35 to £45. Your mileage will obviously vary. It plays between one and four players and… wait, what? I didn’t even notice there was a solo mode. 75% not recommended on BGG. I guess probably for the best I didn’t.

Ahem.

Anyway, it plays two to four players well and has a lot of the good stuff of Suburbia without a lot of the complexity.

We’ll recommend, just, the Castles of Mad King Ludwig in this category.

Communication

There’s some literacy in reading and interpreting the bonus cards, but that’s about it. The names on the rooms are flavour only – they’re mechanically defined by iconography rather than anything else. There’s otherwise no formal need for communication in the game

We’ll recommend it in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

We gave the game a narrow recommendation for players with colour blindness. While we already don’t recommend it in our visual accessibility category I would point out that the lack of contrast on the icons mean that even in cases of minor visual impairment it might be enough of a problem to rescind a recommendation. As in, even if you just need glasses and they’re not 20/20, I’d be wary.

A communication impairment intersecting with a physical impairment is going to make verbalisation considerably more difficult, and while the instructions can be precise they’re also complex. It would be possible to exhaustively go through all the options someone has until they give an appropriate assent sound or gesture, but that would be extremely time consuming even with a filtering approach. I’d be inclined to advise people stay away in that circumstance.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig can take a reasonably long time to play – about half an hour per player at a guess. As such, it’s easily long enough that it can exacerbate issues of discomfort or distress. Different component counts are used at different player counts, so it doesn’t cleanly support players dropping in and out but it could be house-ruled without too much difficulty.

Conclusion

I’m actually a bit surprised that Castles of Mad King Ludwig can simultaneously be a simpler game than Suburbia and also meaningfully less accessible. That said, Suburbia was the first teardown I ever wrote and there’s nothing to say that I’d still sign off on those grades four years down the line. Maybe I should revisit some older work to see at some point. Special feature maybe? I don’t know.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessB-
Visual AccessibilityE
Fluid IntelligenceD
MemoryD
Physical AccessibilityC-
Emotional AccessibilityC
Socioeconomic AccessibilityB-
CommunicationB+

Still though, Castles of the Mad King Ludwig is also suffering from some of its own presentation. There’s room for improvement here, and part of its additional difficulties are due to the lack of a frame into which pieces can be anchored. I loved that Suburbia did that, but Castles of Mad King Ludwig has such a vicious sprawl in its design that it wouldn’t work.

It’s definitely a great game, and that’s why we gave it four stars in our review. Weirdly though it seems like I’m still going to be recommending Suburbia as the accessible option of the two games. I don’t go into these teardowns with any conclusions about the result, so sometimes I’m as surprised as anyone by a teardown shows. That’s how it is here.

Suburbia is really great though, so it’s not exactly a hardship to direct your attention its way.


A Disclaimer About Teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

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