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Board Game Review: Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Years ago, on a snowy winter excursion to Bavaria, I took a tour of King Ludwig (Mad King Ludwig) II's  castles. I really feel for the poor chap Ludwig II. He was very excited to be king and wanted to be a *real* king of the old order with power and dominion. Alas, he was born much to late in Germany’s evolution for such things and was reduced constitutionally to being a mere figurehead (such as Queen Elizabeth II is in England today). So he consoled himself by building castles throughout the countryside where he would escape and  fully immerse himself in his pretend kingdom where all subjects worshipped him and did as they were told.  Linderhof was one of the first castles he built and it was pretty modest so the taxpayers didn’t really bat an eye. This was the first stop on our tour.

The same could not be said for his next building project: Castle Neuschwanstein. This grand and glorious castle (just up the hill from his parents’ country castle) was the castle to end all castles. He fancied he’d build himself a castle in medieval style (probably because that was a time when subjects dutifully respected their king or perhaps because it appealed to his alpha-male decorating sense) and he spent his way through a good portion of the national treasury before the impoverished taxpayers had enough and called shenanigans. The castle was never finished, King Ludwig II came to a premature end and within a year the political leadership had turned the castle into a tourist attraction. It was *this* castle, by the way, that Walt Disney held in his mind’s eye when designing the Disney Princess Castles. With the snow falling softly around it, it was truly an amazing site to behold. So beautiful!

With the happy memories of the castle tour, I was drawn to Castles of Mad King Ludwig  when it was released by Bezier Games a few years later.

Another Bezier release – Suburbia – is in my top 10 list, so the positive track record with the publisher was another indicator that I’d probably enjoy Castles. After a bit of research, I found the general consensus in the board game community is that Castles  plays so similar to Suburbia that it feels like a reskin of the game with a castle theme. Players purchase tiles from a market to build a great infrastructure, with various points awarded based on which tiles are used and how they are arranged. After this discovery, I actually didn’t follow through with the purchase, as I’ve never been one who is keen to get every iteration of a game. For example, I rarely keep both the card game and board game version of a given game in my collection – I force myself to pick one and let go of the other. Since Surburbia was so close to my heart, I let go of any ideas to purchase Castles.

A year after Bezier released Castles, Stonemaier Games released Between Two Cities. In BTC, players draft tiles and then use them to build cities collaboratively with other players.  We build one city with the player to our left and a separate city with the player to our right; each of our partners also contributes tiles to our respective cities in common. At the end of the game, all cities are scored and the lower scoring city of the two we helped build is assigned to us as our final score. The player with the highest score at the table wins. It’s a pretty unique approach to scoring and forces you to give both of your cities equal attention throughout the game. I don’t own a copy of this game either, mostly because I only began collecting Stonemaier games after I fell in love with Scythe in 2016, and have focused heavily on acquiring new releases (vs picking up their earlier games). 

In 2018, Stonemaier (in collaboration with Bezier) released Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig. This game is designed by Ben Rosset and Matthew O’Malley and it takes the best of Between Two Cities and Castles of Mad King Ludwig and marries it all together. Now we find ourselves at the game table, working to build two castles at once, simultaneously but separately collaborating with our left and right neighbors. At the beginning of each round, each player draws nine tiles, comprised of various indoor and outdoor room types. Each turn, we select 2 tiles to keep (one destined for the castle we are building with the player to our left and the other for the castle we are building with the player to our right).  We pass the rest of the tiles to our neighbor (to the left in round 1 and to the right in round 2). Once everyone has selected their tiles and passed the leftovers, we begin collaborative discussions with each of our neighbors regarding the tiles we selected and where they should be placed within our castles. There are a few straightforward rules governing placement (for example, downstairs rooms can only be placed below the ground level) but generally the selection and placement decisions should be guided by maximizing victory point scoring. Also of note, when the third or fifth regular room tile of the same type is placed, a placement bonus is earned and redeemed immediately. These bonuses provide either additional tiles (including specialty room types) or bonus cards that award conditional victory points at the end of the game. After tile placement, the turns repeat in the same fashion three more times, except that on the last run, there is only 1 tile left after selecting two for placement and that tile is discarded out of the game. Round two begins, and follows the same process as the first round, with the only change being the direction the unselected tiles are passed around the table.

In anticipation of the upcoming Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig  expansion release (Secrets and Soirees), I received a review copy of the base game from Stonemaier.

Opening the eye-catching box (with artwork by Agnieszka Dqbrowiecka, Laura Bevon, and Bartlomiej Kordowski), we inventoried the components (cardboard tiles, wooden tokens, plastic coated cards, and score sheets) and set up our first game. The rulebook was easy to follow (as it always is with Stonemaier) and the handy player aids included proved valuable as we worked our way through the game. There were five of us playing that first time, including two teenagers, and I was surprised to see just how varied each team’s castle was from the others.

I worked really hard to give my all to both castles I was constructing, knowing that I would only score for the one that brought in the lower victory point total. I had to to correct my efforts a few times as it started to feel like one castle was building to a much higher score than the other. With both my neighbor on my left and right, I focused on bonus cards and tiles to increase point totals, whereas the competing castle builds leaned more heavily on amassing points directly through the regular room tiles. My strategy worked, and both of the castles I helped build were higher scoring than everyone else’s, giving me the victory even when taking the lower score of the two. In later games, my husband Chris and I played against each other, using the special 2 player rules in which a dummy player (“Ludwig” of course) is controlled by one of the players during the first round and by the other player during the second round. I focused on the same things in these two player games that I had previously at higher player counts. Meanwhile Chris focused almost exclusively on standard room tiles to accumulate points. Every time we played, the castle that Chris and I built together was by far the highest scoring one in the game (scoring highly on regular room tiles thanks to Chris and on bonus tiles and cards thanks to me), and my castle with Ludwig was runner up, giving me the victory again. 

I really really love this game. Much more than I thought I might, given its straightforward and simplistic mechanisms (I usually prefer complex strategy games).  Pick two tiles and arrange, rinse repeat. Sounds like it should get boring fast, but it never does.  I think the real draw of Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig,  that keeps engagement and enthusiasm high even among experienced gamers, is the puzzle of having to work both castles at once. Dividing your time between two equally important projects simultaneously that will be scored against each other is a personal challenge, regardless of your skill level, because you’re competing against yourself. That’s genius, and I can’t think of another game I own that implements this kind of scoring. The only drawback to this scoring mechanism is that players who are significantly weaker in strategy or skill than the rest of the group will drag down the scores of their partners, giving a clear advantage to the remaining players who weren’t yoked to the underperformer. Tactfully, since the game scores average in the direction of the weaker player on each team, this is a game to play with a group of your intellectual peers, unless you want to stew in resentment over how irrelevant all of your hard work turned out to be when it came to scoring.

In addition to the puzzle aspect of the game, the quick gameplay (less than an hour), family friendliness, and low level of analysis paralysis all help to make it an excellent go-to game, even on weeknights. 

I’m glad I gave Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig  a chance on our game table, and our friends who played with us have already asked when they can come over to play again. I’m quite excited to see what the upcoming Secrets and Soirees expansion adds to the game.

-------------------------------------------------

Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Players: 2-7
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 45 minutes per game
Game type: card drafting, tile placement, set collection

Rating:

review-OUIOUIOUI

Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
OUI OUI OUI: I LOVE THIS GAME. I MUST HAVE THIS GAME.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.

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