Alright, let’s get this out of the way. These first impressions will likely be different for two reasons: one, this is the very first Kickstarter that I backed myself and has actually fulfilled. Up to now, I’ve typically just waited for games to actually ship, checked how they turned out and then grabbed a copy from the secondary market. In some cases I’ve cursed myself for not going in and having to pay a premium (e.g. Grand Austria Hotel), in more cases I’ve saved myself a lot of money. All in all, that worked out quite well for me. But Suburbia is one of my favourite games and I got temporarily addicted to the Castles of Mad King Ludwig app, so backing the Collector’s Edition was a no-brainer for me.
The second reason is that this is a Collector’s Edition, more of a big box with added new expansions rather than a completely new game. If you read this, you’ll most likely already know what the game is about and I don’t have to pitch you why you should play this game. Even more likely, you are also a backer and either waiting for fulfilment or already got it and are looking for what other people think.
So let’s flip the typical formula a bit and focus on the production instead of game play. But for completeness sake, let me give the briefest of summaries and why I like Castles of Mad King Ludwig the base game.
The Core Game
In Castles of Mad King Ludwig, each player buys rooms from a shared market to construction their very own castle. The goal is to satisfy the needs and vims of the eccentric king Ludwig (a.k.a. the guy that build that castle you come to Germany for). The selection of rooms is quite eclectic: cheese room, bowling alley, rose terrace, nap room… Each room is one of 10 different sizes/shapes and 8 different types (food, living, outdoor, …). In each round, one player is the master builder that arranges a number of rooms in the market before selling them off. As the master builder, you are interested in setting prices such that those rooms your opponents are interested in are as expensive as possible without overreaching. The more they cost, the more it hurts your opponents. But if they are priced too expensive, you opponents may buy some cheap crap instead or pass completely, leaving you with little to no money as there is no income phase in this game and selling rooms is the one major source of income.
Once you’ve purchased a room, you have to add it to your castle. Rooms typically interact with connected rooms (e.g. you get a penalty if you put a sleeping room next to the bowling alley) and give you a type-specific bonus if you manage to connect something to all doors of the room. Purchasing rooms in a way that you can get additional VP from adjacency bonuses is key but there is also a majority race in form of the King’s Favours (e.g. get VP if you have built the most outdoor rooms) and personal bonus cards (e.g. 2 extra VP for each room of a specific size).
Play until the room draw pile is depleted and whoever got the most VP is the winner. I’ve glossed over a number of things as usual, but the general concept of Castles of Mad King Ludwig is that simple. Fun ensues by the oddly shaped castles each player is building, the constant need for money and that daunting task of pricing rooms correctly. It’s a lovely game with a fun theme and lots of character. Where Suburbia often follows the same narrative (everyone first fights for the pieces that raise income, then you switch over to population) and can feel same-y, Castles of Mad King Ludwig always feels fresh in a wacky way. You’re never sure what rooms will even come up as each game only uses a subset of rooms, you get random bonus cards that are not thaaaaat well balanced, the King’s favour is different, etc. It all works because the core lies in reading what your opponents try to do and set prices correctly. Whatever the situation, that’s always fun and a challenge.
What a lot of people won’t expect is how much of a race this game is. You never build as large a castle as you might think, the King’s Favours are always hotly contested and you even get bonus points for rooms of a size for which the whole draw pile has been depleted. Anyway, to sum it up, Castles of Mad King Ludwig has a lot going for it. What it doesn’t have in complexity it more than makes up in charm, player interaction and it’s fast pace.
So let’s start with the key aspect of this Collector’s Edition: it’s gorgeous looks. The room tiles are vibrant, have lots of detail and are just lovely! In the end, it’s just cardboard, but my, what gorgeous cardboard it is. The score board also looks amazing, although it is quite a table hog. Luckily, it can be arranged both in a horizontally stretched or more square layout to accommodate different tables. But getting four players on a mid-to-small sized table will be a challenge. The player tokens are little swans with a metal base for added weight and come in a ridiculously number of variations. I actually quite like the slightly glittery ones, the flat coloured ones are a bit too plasticish for my taste.
What is also an improvement over Suburbia: Collector’s Edition are the metal coins that came as part of the Royal pledge level. They have a nice, heavy weight. To achieve this weight, they have been made rather thick though which gives them the appearance of buttons rather than actual currency. But in the context of this game they work. They stack nicely which is important because you’ll constantly be adding them to room tiles that haven’t been bought in previous rounds.
Another pleasant surprise are the acrylic King’s favour tokens, also part of the Royal pledge. They are unusually heavy, I would say even heavier than Iron Clays. It is a bit of a struggle to shuffle those though because they are so weighty and there are now additional ones due to the included expansions. Same story for the round swan tokens: they look great and feel great.
The moats also look great and the double-layer nature of the starting piece is a very nice touch.
The one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb are unfortunately the towers. Maybe I’m spoiled from Dune Imperium’s Deluxe Upgrade Box, Stars of Akarios and Foundations of Rome, but the Castles of Mad King Ludwig towers feel rather light and the color job looks cheap to me. I mean, it’s coloured plastic instead of paint so I shouldn’t have expected much. But since everything else is so vibrant, the contrast is quite stark. I think I might have preferred high-detail, grey minis like in the other games mentioned and then painted them. It’s only 8 towers, I might have actually done that…
Speaking of coloured plastic, I’m not a fan of the purple trays. But then, I’m not much of a purple fan in general and it was a vote, so I guess the majority will be happy with their choice.
Unfortunately, the actual usability is where my impressions take a slight turn. It started off great in that the box of Castles of Mad King Ludwig CE is actually reasonably sized! It’s the same form factor as my Suburbia: Collector’s Edition and when I picked it up at the post office I had to check with the guy handing me the package because I was expecting a much larger package. Again, my recent experiences with other Kickstarter games might have screwed up my sense of size when it comes to game boxes, but you wouldn’t believe the sigh of relief I made when I had the box in my hands. By the way, for those that read my Foundations of Rome First Impressions, I still haven’t found a place to store that giant box!
When opening the box, the initial contact is with the trays of course. I found multiple issues with them. While it’s great that most slots have markings which pieces belong where, the plastic of the purple trays is still rather thin compared to some other games. Especially the tray that holds the King’s Favour tokens and metal coins (both rather heavy) is problematic. I accidentally bent the plastic rim while trying to lift it out of the box and I now permanently have a ding in one corner. Not sure what the folks of Dune Imperium did differently, but I wish the Castles of Mad King Ludwig trays had the same rigidity.
Inside the upper, transparent layers, you’ll find the green card and cardboard holders that are placed on the score board and actually connect the two side-pieces to the main part of the score board. This in principle is a clever idea as it allows for the two different layouts, but in practice the depth of the slots is not enough to hold everything together. Especially the right part which one accesses constantly because all the small buildings are in that holder always slips out of the groove and the right side of the score board detaches.
A bigger problem are the holders themselves. While they are sized to accommodate sleeved cards, they are not high enough to fit all cards when they are freshly sleeved. In my case, this caused one of the cards to slide over the rim and between two layers when packing the box. Although it had been flat on a table, this bent one of my cards quite severely. Luckily, I was able to bent it back without a problem. My guess is that people that store the box vertically and/or without sleeves will also run into this problem. I now have put some bands around each pile of cards.
The more severe issue is that the card holders are not see-through. Check the image above and tell me how many VP the purple player has. Don’t see it? Well, there is a swan on 47. I haven’t seen something like this since my Review of Red Rising where the card pile obscured the crucial part of the fleet track. Even more problematic is that you cannot see the room-type symbols on the back of the cardboard pieces as soon as the piles get closer to depletion. This is quite crucial information and I’m surprised that this issue exists. The last time I’ve seen something like this was when Wallenstein realised that players cannot see the result of the dice tower and changed to transparent plastic in Shogun. What is quite clever though is the fact that the number of tiles required per room size (which is dependent on player count) is printed inside the holders and therefore one doesn’t need to check the rules themselves during setup.
Expansion and Solo Play
One of the major features of this edition besides its stunning looks is the number of expansions included. I haven’t had enough plays yet to give even first impressions, but what is an unfortunate oversight in my book is the fact that none of them are reflected in the solo mode. Towers cannot be used (except as additional room size without function) because the official solo mode doesn’t handle King’s favours and there are no adjustments for playing with the moat, swan tokens, royal decrees or secret passages. I also found the solo mode rather bland because it focuses on the room adjacency puzzle while for me the market pricing is the strongest point of Castles of Mad King Ludwig. This reminded me of Maglev Metro where the solo mode also is rather a puzzle than mimics the multiplayer game. I’ve started playing against [2021 Solomode] AutoMAD King Ludwig and found it a much nicer experience. I wished Bezier Games would have taken the CE as an opportunity to add a more complex/robust automa similar to what Grand Austria Hotel: Let’s Waltz! did.
Well, no real conclusion here as I haven’t played the expansions enough yet and they are one of the major points of getting this. Since I didn’t own a copy of Castles of Mad King Ludwig before, I’m very happy to have a copy in my collection now and that it is such a nice copy. The artwork is really great, metal coins nice, swan tokens and King’s favours of a nice quality, a lot has been done right here. It’s unfortunate that the towers and trays spoil the great experience a bit, but for me personally, the rather basic solo mode is the biggest letdown. I like to dig deep into games I really love and with my current playgroups, I’m not sure how often I will get Castles of Mad King Ludwig to the table. Of course, this is an essentially multiple player game and it’s hard to capture the magic of cut throat pricing to price out an opponent from getting that one room they need. But [2021 Solomode] AutoMAD King Ludwig showed it’s possible to mimic it at least somewhat. Man, if Bezier would have added an automa deck and modifications so one could play solo with all expansions, that would have been amazing!
All in all, thumbs up. Well done Bezier Games! A lovely game got the lovely dressing it deserved.
Update Aug 30, 2022: I’ve played with the Swan expansion and it’s a good little addition to the game. Rules are so simple you can even throw it in with new players but it spices up the market a bit. When a room with a swan symbol is drawn, put a swan token on it. Collect sets of different colours for VP at the end of the game. There are two clever bits: one, the swans are put on the rooms face up so suddenly a room that was completely uninteresting by itself becomes very valuable for some players because it has a swan of a colour that is very lucrative to them. Two, swans can also be used mid game to exchange them for money. This way it’s more difficult to price out other players with absolute certainty because they might just be willing to sacrifice a swan or two in a pinch. But it’s a subtle change and the game play stays very similar to playing without the expansion. I wouldn’t say it’s a must have expansion but I will gladly play with it every time.
Update Sep 3, 2022: Played a combined tower and moat game. Moats are fun and way stronger than I thought. I initially was under the impression that they score 1 VP per room adjacent to their wall but instead it is one 1 VP for (with exceptions) each room in your castle. This changes everything: they are very attractive pointwise but limit your building options. They also look great, I like them a lot. My favorite expansion so far.
The tower expansion was a bit underwhelming. The function is interesting and they were valued highly, but I don’t think they bring anything essential to the game. My least favorite of the three expansions so far and I don’t see myself using them much in the future.