Review: Castles of Mad King Ludwig24 May 2016 26
Review: Castles of Mad King Ludwig
Released 24 May 2016
Bézier Games know some things about the landscape of gaming. In the tabletop world, the majority of their releases end up quite popular and spawn expansions: One Night Ultimate Werewolf is their much-loved entry in the social deduction genre, and Suburbia and Castles of Mad King Ludwig have pleased fans of tile-laying games looking for something meatier than Carcassonne. Suburbia put them on our radar on the digital side, and was quite a good version of an excellent boardgame. Now, they've released another tile-layer which I find even more satisfying, but their approach is interestingly different from what we usually see. Board game enthusiasts clearly like to play with others, but Bézier noted that they rarely did so with the Suburbia app, and they've put their game design where their analytics are: Castles has an even larger, more varied campaign, and hot-seat multiplayer, but no online option.
I had really high hopes for Game Center. Online multiplayer is said to be a development nightmare, diverting massive resources into a system which is difficult to test, often bug-ridden, rarely done well, and rarely used, yet demanded by many of the most vocal players. The idea of an Apple-provided service to handle most of the work common to a variety of games seemed like exactly what the community of developers, especially independents looking to get started with iOS, needed. If it integrated nicely with easy-to-use libraries for native app development, it could free developers to focus on the rest of their game. With sufficient support from Apple, it could make running tournaments a breeze and bring together the community of players. Those starry-eyed hopes are much of why the reality, which mostly seems to record achievements and maintain lists of friends, so painfully recalls the Christmas of the GoBots. GoBots, for those unfamiliar, introduced a generation of children to the concept of "low-quality knockoff your parents can't distinguish from the real thing". There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth (mixed in with, perhaps, just a little acceptance of the fact that Transformers were also mostly pretty ridiculous and prone to break). Anyway, Bézier decided not to get involved in a land war in Asia.
Instead, they've released a clean, direct presentation of a quality castle-building game. Each turn you either buy and place a room from the rotating menu, a corridor or stairway, or skip and collect five coins. Much like Suburbia, the rooms have various types and point bonuses which key off the other rooms near them (or, in the case of downstairs rooms, all of the rooms in your castle). They also have abilities which activate should you manage to line up all of their doors with doors of other rooms--these do things like give you ten coins or a free turn. So your choice of what room to buy is affected by managing your space and balancing that against your needs to score points immediately, keep your purse from running dry, and set up later turns for higher point returns. In addition, each player takes turns determining the prices of the available rooms, so you interact with other players not only by purchasing the rooms they want, but also by making the rooms they want most expensive. This requires a fair amount of subtle reading of their behavior, because each player also has secret goals (and can get more by completing orange rooms), so it's not always obvious what rooms they'll benefit most from building.
The extensive campaign messes with all of that. The size and shape of the space in which you can build, the number and existence of opponents, whether rooms even cost money at all (the 1880s were apparently reminiscent of the 1980s in the spending habits of the filthy rich), your goals, the set of rooms available--all of these and more change from one level to the next, and various challenges along the way will stretch your understanding of the game. Games with emergent complexity often leave players feeling like they can perfectly well understand the relatively simple rules, but they don't understand how various options fit into different strategies or what consequences they'll cause. The campaign subtly tutors you by forcing you to adopt different strategies and see how your actions affect outcomes like your money, castle size, ability to work in constrained spaces, and other elements which might change your approach.
Thematically, the game is a little bit strange. Downstairs rooms don't have rooms above them, for example, and you can't build a powder room in your castle if someone in the next duchy built one recently. But the game is lighthearted enough about its theme that it's hard not to go along. Alongside expected rooms, like "Throne Room" and "Formal Gardens", you can also build rooms to house your model trains, or a bowling alley, a hut which appears to simultaneously reference Hagrid and Hunding Gjornersen, and even a Playboy Mansion-style grotto. The grotto, incidentally, is a massive round room which awards points based on the number of long, skinny corridors you have in your castle. So apparently Ted Alspach (the tabletop game's designer) has been studying up on his Freud. If that wasn't enough to excuse a few thematic oddities, you can always note that the titular king was titularly mad, so you have to expect some strange requirements.
The interface is mostly user-friendly, but there are a few oddities. I've found no way to concede a game, for example. The full rules (rather than the tutorial, which introduces the campaign and gets you started well, but glosses over some of the details) are available through the options menu, under "Help", which took me a while to find. The setup screen for a new game allow you to toggle between humans and AIs in various colors, but displays both the name of the human and the AI all the time, with one in white text and the other in grey. I really wanted that "concede" option when I accidentally started a game populated entirely by AIs (I think "Save and Quit" would have been my best option there, but there doesn't seem to be a browser for in-progress games, so I wasn't sure what would happen). None of this is very significant once you're used to it. As with many games in which each player builds their own tableau but skilled play requires paying attention to all of them, other players' castles require a separate tap to check out during your turn, but, given the complexity of the castles, there's no way around that without making everything too small to see.
While there's definitely a number of avenues for randomness to affect the result, in most of my losses, I felt outmaneuvered rather than unable to draw the cards or rooms I needed. That makes Castles of Mad King Ludwig feel meaningful and serious enough to really engage the mind (jokes about boob- and penis-shaped rooms notwithstanding). Paradoxically, that's probably why it's smart to have foregone online play--Castles isn't as staid as chess, but it's more demanding than games with the mass appeal of Ticket to Ride, so the audience is likely smaller. If these are the corners we need to cut in order for games like this to pay off well enough that we get more of them, it's a compromise I'm glad to see adopted. But if it had online multiplayer, I'd be eager to challenge my fellow readers and staff to a game, so we at Pocket Tactics might be just the sort of people to feel the feature's absence while also appreciating the excellent solo and single-device options.