|Castles of Mad King Ludwig (2014)
|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
The very first game I ever reviewed for this site was Suburbia. That was the title that sent me down a path of inquiry that would consume, at this point, almost four years of my life. Never before had I seen a collection of physical components that was so interesting from the perspective of accessibility. It created in my mind what is effectively a new area of scientific inquiry – Human Cardboard Interaction. HCI for short. I don’t think anyone is using that.
So it seems appropriate that we swing the iron sights of Meeple Like Us to the Castles of Mad King Ludwig. Released two years after Suburbia, it represents a considerable refinement of the core design of its older sibling. It draws from the same common core of techniques, but it’s notably streamlined. It’s more straightforward, because it lacks the fiddly granularity of Suburbia. Sometimes though important things get lost in act of abstraction. We’ll have cause to return to that thought as we progress through the review.
In Castles of Mad King Ludwig, you represent an architect commissioned by Ludwig II of Bavaria. Or, as he is (sort of) popularly known, ‘Mad King Ludwig’. Those were less politically correct days.
If you know anything about history, you probably know that Ludwig II was responsible for commissioning some of the most fantastical fairy-tale castle architecture in Europe. Neuschwanstein is his. Linderhof Castle is his. Herrenchiemsee – also his. And many of these castles were… eccentric. Linderhof, as an example, was designed for one person only – the king himself.
It’s that eccentricity that courses through the soul of this game, because this is a study in the details while leaving the bigger picture to look after itself. Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game based on adjacencies and connections. It’s the very epitome of ‘forgetting the weight of the books’ – a drive towards satisfying small-scale goals with no regards to the wider context in which those goals function. It’s not a displeasing design by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just one that lacks the contextual comedy of a game more robustly self-aware of network effects. We’ll get to that.
Here’s how it works. Every round, there’s an offering of room tiles that will go up for purchase. One player is the ‘master builder’, and they get to decide the price of everything and also claim the money spent on the tiles by everyone else. Players take it in turns to buy rooms, and then fit them together into their growing palace. There are several different sizes, shapes and categories of pieces and many of them are best placed alongside other compatible types of location. Bedrooms work well alongside gardens. They don’t work so well alongside concert rooms. That sort of thing. There are hallways and stairs that you can buy, and some rooms only work on one level or the other. A bright sunlight dungeon surrounded by wide open spaces and gentle pantries isn’t going to satisfy any insane despot. Likewise, if you want someone to rot away in an oubliette you probably don’t want it next door to your foyer.
The better you arrange the rooms, the more points you’ll get. You’ll also get points for satisfying your secret bonus goals, two of which you’ll select from an offering of three at the start of the game.
When you ‘complete’ a room – which means to have every exit connected to another tile – you get a completion bonus. Garden areas give you ten coins. Completing a food preparation area will give you an extra turn. Living areas let you rescore a completed room, and so on. This adds a nice complexity to the tempo of play, and a private intensity to scoring. It also means that play can be interestingly nuanced, because the right time to complete a room is not necessarily the time when you can complete it most easily.
The latter part is important, because it means you’re never truly sure why people are building the bizarre constructions emerging before them. Someone might be wildly alternating bedrooms and workrooms in flagrant disregard for the basic science of sleep. Someone else might be building something that looks less like a fortification and more like a national park. It might be because they have bonus cards that make it worthwhile, but also it might be because Castles of Mad King Ludwig is very hard to play coherently. That characteristic functions like a blender taken to the part of your synapses designed for extrapolating from patterns. Playing strategically in Castles can be difficult because the link between action and consequence, at least when viewed through the filter of what other players are doing, is fragile at best.
Before I ‘go off on one’ as is traditional in these reviews, I want to call attention to the mechanism by which tiles come into a player’s possession. Mainly because I love it.
The master builder arranges the offering, and they reap the money that everyone else spends on buying tiles. That creates the most interesting set of competing incentives I’ve seen in a while. It’s just delicious. On one hand, you want to get some money for the tiles people are likely to want, so you want to price them to sell. On the other hand, you don’t want people to get critical tiles cheaply, so you want to price them to maximise your profit. On your third hand – that’s weird, why do you have a third hand? Never mind – on your third hand you don’t want to be left with trash in the offering when your chance comes around. You’re going to be picking last, and your money goes to the bank. And everything someone doesn’t buy? That gets a coin put on it and you need to factor that in to the calculations.
It’s not so much a system that lets people be very clever so much as it is a system to make people feel very foolish. No matter how you puzzle it out you’ll almost certainly end up being surprised at the choices people make. It’s simultaneous a transparent audit and an economic kaleidoscope. It’s like reading Adam Smith through the reflection in a cracked disco ball.
It’s pretty great.
And the tile laying part of the game is also pretty great. It’s satisfying to spend your time constantly maximising local optima. There are network effects that spread out from every decision you make, leading to distinct regions of the castle emerging. There’s the torture town. It’s right by hammock district, which is right in the middle of Dinner City. Castles of Mad King Ludwig is driven, perhaps even driven mad, by these mini-network effects.
Two important concepts here are connection, when a tile is linked by an exit to another tile, and adjacency, when a tile is physically next to another. Connection is what gives you access to completion bonuses, but adjacency is what slaps the backside of your score and sends it widely galloping through the dense forest you planted instead of an indoor toilet. Sometimes the horse will make it through alive. Othertimes it’ll break its neck on an unexpected willow.
Check out this castle here. Look at the French gazebo off to the left of the foyer. That weird iconography in the centre says ‘This gives you an extra point whenever something with a mandolin symbol is adjacent’. The singer’s chamber above it is one such building, but if it’s adjacent to… pretty much any other building you’ll lose two points for each one. The Solar gets two points for each adjacent grassland area, and the porch gets a point for being next to a sleeping area. It’s all pleasingly meaningful. You wouldn’t want to be trying to relax while U2 were tuning up in the next room. Arranging all these rooms in a sensible way is the key thing you’re doing in the game. If you get it working like this, you’re doing well. More often, you’ll get something like this:
I mean, what?
This is a castle for aristocrats that hate their servants since they’ve put their dorm room next to a piano room and an oratory. And if you want to have an audience with the rulers of the castle, all visitors will need to traipse through the help’s bedroom to get there. Notice here that the scoring penalises the placement of the activity rooms next to the sleeping rooms, but also notice that the castle makes no sense as a working building and there’s no larger or more comprehensive penalty for that.
One of the things I loved about Suburbia was the complexity of its economic model. Sure, a lot of it was built on a similar adjacency model to what you see here. Peppered throughout though there were some effects that acted across the whole city, or even across the whole game. The fancy restaurant for example lost you income every time a new restaurant got built anywhere. The slaughterhouse got you extra income for every restaurant in your own city. That created a complex intersection of incentives where if someone else built a fancy restaurant it meant doubling down on your slaughterhouse enriched you while impoverishing them. You could double the effect of these hexes with further investment. It was a much more granular view of the the complex network effects of urban planning. That made for a much more complicated, challenging game to play. But it also ensured that, to a greater or lesser extent, the system made sense as a whole. If it didn’t, you’d see that reflected in your reputation and income.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig has greatly simplified this. Adjacency effects are just that – adjacent. You don’t find the value of all your gardens decreased because someone else built an apiary. That makes for a game that is less violently opaque in its strategic landscape. It means that you actually do have a path out of the jungle of network effects, and it’s almost certainly more fun in a simple sense. But also, it’s less interesting.
This here represents an abstraction – a more towards a lower level of fidelity than you see in Suburbia. That means all the parts line up more naturally, but it also means you lose the really cool stuff that happens in the interface between higher fidelity systems. The design of every game is, at a certain level, a process of picking the right level of abstraction to get the right amount of detail. One Night Ultimate Werewolf doesn’t waste your time making you roll up character sheets for your villagers. It just says ‘Hey, you’re a seer and this is what you can do’. It just wouldn’t improve the game experience were it to be higher fidelity in that respect. There is no universally ‘good’ level of fidelity in a game. Just ones that are a good fit for the game you want to make.
A game like this though is inherently a game about consequence. You’re diverted into certain design patterns by the nature of the adjacency mechanism, and part of the fun of that is that what emerges at the final stages should be a kind of end-exam for the result of our continual compromises.
Look at a castle in Mad King Ludwig. I bet you can invent a realty cool and funny story about who lives there. I bet you can spin a funny joke about the social awkwardness that must come from having a drawing room where people are continually walking in with dirty underwear. But that’s the thing. You need to make that up yourself.
In Suburbia, by comparison, I think the game systems ensure that a funny story emerges from the low level interaction of the systems. Why did you build a slaughterhouse right next to the office blocks? Why does your city have fifteen residences and no schools? Why is the university right in the middle of farmland? And in every case it’s a result of complex network effects that create the story context for compromise. ‘We can’t afford a school, because we built a fancy restaurant and then Shelbyville spent the rest of the game placing McDonalds franchises everywhere’. ‘We have fifteen residences, each with its own gas station, because that was the short term thing we needed to do to pull the city out of deficit’. You can imagine, rather than invent, the hustings where the mayor has to explain all this before a critical recall vote.
But in Castles of Mad King Ludwig, when you make the critical path from the foyer to the dining room pass through a basement crypt… there’s nothing that it really tells you about consequence because consequence here is only a tile away. It lacks context, and because it lacks context it’s bereft of deeper meaning.
But this is the kind of thing that someone like me fixates on to address the minutiae of distinction in game reviews. I’m not rating this as high as Suburbia, and my job is to explain to you, the reader, why that is. Meeple Like Us reviews are often part commercial guidance and part lecture on game design. None of these criticisms should at all resolve into the conclusion that Castles of Mad King Ludwig isn’t fun, because it is. It’s maybe even actually a touch more casually enjoyable than Surburbia because of the things I’ve outlined in this review. Still though, Castles of Mad King Ludwig needs me to work for the comedy table-talk and Suburbia gives me it for free. For a lazy man like myself, that’s easily enough to justify the score disparity.