Castles of Mad King Ludwig. A recent board game app without online play, how did this end up so good?
Android & iOS
20 - 30 minutes
# of Players
1 - 4
Castles of Mad King Ludwig is the popular tile placement, castle building game from Bézier Games. The game plays with one to four players and takes about 25 minutes, a few minutes more or less depending on player count. Players compete with each other to build the most extravagant castle to impress the Mad King himself. Whoever manages to accumulate the most castle points by the end of the game wins. The app was released a little over a year after the game became a hit, a nice, quick turnaround that we always like to see.
Each turn in Castles one player is designated as the Master Builder on a rotating basis. The Master Builder sets the pricing on the tiles available that turn. Each player takes a turn purchasing a tile and placing it in their castle with the coins paid going to the Master Builder. Each tile will provide a certain amount of points when placed and there are many additional ways to generate points. Bonus cards provide points for hitting certain criteria, you will gain or lose points for connecting certain room types to other room type, each room type has a bonus you receive for completing a room of that type, and at the end of the game King’s Favors are awarded for meeting certain goals. The game ends on the completion of the turn after a certain number of tiles have been drawn to replenish the supply, this happens at the beginning of each turn and the number required to end the game varies based on player count.
There are two real strategic angles to The Castles of Mad King Ludwig; scoring opportunities & Master Builder strategies. For scoring, there's number of different ways to earn points throughout the game, the decisions on how you choose to go after points will likely be the difference between winning and losing. There are bonus cards which give points for certain criteria (such as receiving one point for each round tile in your castle), these stay hidden from other players until the end of the game. You also gain points or other bonuses for completing a room, which means attaching each door of a room to another door. The bonuses range from getting to immediately take another turn to gaining ten coins or five points, among many others. Finishing the right color room (bonuses are determined by room color) at the right time can be crucial. The other big opportunity for points comes from most rooms receiving bonuses (or in the case of the red music rooms, penalties) for attaching a room to another room of a specific type. Finally, at the end of the game, King’s Favors are handed out to the builders who best met a randomly selected group of goals for that match.
An example of putting this all together comes from the purple rooms. When completed, the bonus for purple rooms is to rescore the entire room. Say you place a purple room worth 3 points that gets a 2 point bonus for each music or outdoor room it is attached to, then connect three of those rooms to complete it. For the original placements the room is worth 3 (room points) and then 2+2+2 (connection points) for a total of 9. Then, when complete the purple bonus allows it to be rescored, so another 9 points for a huge 18 point total. If you didn't connect the rooms for bonuses that 18 could quickly drop down to 6 or even a 3 if you never completed the room, a huge swing.
The other main strategy involves how to play as the Master Builder. The important twist on the role is that the Master Builder receives the coins other players pay for a tile, so placing tiles opponents need on the high end of the pricing could result in a large payday for the Master Builder. Price them too high, however, and opponents could opt for a cheaper tile, a cheap hallway/staircase, or even to pass outright and simply take five coins that turn. It's an intriguing risk/reward situation each turn. After the other players have gone, Master Builder buys a tile from their own pricing setup, which adds another layer of thought for setting the pricing.
All of this is to say, there is a lot of depth for a seemingly simple tile placement game. The Master Builder setting prices and receiving the coins paid is a fantastic wrinkle in this game and it works both ways. If you aren’t Master Builder you may want to deliberately avoid paying high prices to a certain player even if you can afford them. Castles of Mad King Ludwig fits in a nice spot of being a light to medium weight game with a wide variety of interesting decisions and scoring opportunities, it is easy to see why the board game is held in such high regard
The game setup screen
Building my Castle
Barrier to Entry
Castles includes a rule book and a tutorial. The rule book is oddly only accessible via in-game menu, there are also some additional tips, scoring rules, and a tile reference section. These are all very nice additions that are helpful to new players.
The tutorial plays out over a series of nine campaign-like training levels. These levels start with the most basic function of the game, placing a couple of tiles, and works up to more complicated game play scenarios and scoring. After the first few, the training levels are not simply a matter of completing a trivial task. There are cases where you can, and will if you’re new, fail the training because you didn’t understand the scoring situation properly to earn enough points. This is a fantastic way to drill some of the scoring situations into new players’ heads. This is a great break from the normal “follow these series of super simple instructions” tutorials out there.
While the tutorial is quite good, I still left with some scoring confusion that really didn’t clear up under after a handful of games. There is simply a lot of ways to score in The Castles of Mad King Ludwig and it will take a little bit of time to get used to them all.
Look and Feel
Castles of Mad King Ludwig has a very functional design with very easy to use controls. Tile placing is simple & the visual indicator of where the tile could legally fit is a great touch. The visuals in the game aren’t exactly eye-popping, but do a great job of getting across the relevant information. On a bigger tablet most of the iconography is easy to read, but on a smaller phone it is a bit of an issue that will likely require frequent zooming. As you can see on our screenshots, the game doesn’t go full screen mode, keeping the soft buttons displayed while playing, not a big deal, but an uncommon sight for mobile games
Some of the menu and navigation choices are a bit odd. You can’t actually quit a game, you have to hit “Save” if you want to exit a game back to the menus and even when a game is complete there isn’t a way to exit to the main screen. The aforementioned lack of a way to access the rules from anywhere except the in-game pause menu is another strange choice. It seems like a little scrubbing of the menus and navigation would go a long way for this app.
The only multiplayer mode in Castles is pass and play. This is a bold choice for a relatively new board game app. Bezier, the board game publisher, had Suburbia ported to an app with fully functional online play. They said that it really wasn’t being used, so for their next port, Castles, they decided to abandon online play outright and shift the focus to the single player experience.
Going back to pass and play, the app is well done and on a large tablet it is a completely functional replacement for the actual game if you want to play locally with friends without the full game setup.
Master Builder setting the prices
A finished Castle
Lady Limon runs away with it
Single player is played versus one to three AI players or in campaign mode. The AI players do not have a listed difficult setting. I’ve played a bunch of games and I still lose to the AI. I also rarely finish last if I’m playing against two or three AI opponents. You end up getting competitive games, which is all you want, but there are clearly some dud opponents thrown in there as well. It’s a bit random as to what difficulty you will get, but the fact that AI games remain challenging says all you need to know.
The bulk of The Castles of Mad King Ludwig shows up in campaign mode. You are a builder traveling from castle to castle up the Rhine to reach King Ludwig. You take on work for various Prussian nobility along the way, earning crowns as a reward for your work. Crowns unlock more castles as you move along the campaign. Each castle along the way provides a unique challenge in which you can earn up to one, two, or three crowns depending on the castle, each crown being unlocked by hitting a specific objective. You can earn less than the full amount of crowns from a castle, but if you want to earn all of them, that must be done in a single game.
The variety of the castles keeps this mode fun. Without giving too much away, a pretty simple early castle gives you an unlimited budget and no opponent, you just need to hit a square footage and total point goal within the given number of turns. On the more difficult side of the early castles is one which puts you against an AI opponent on a castle layout that already has scattered tiles, and requires you score 80+ points, win the game versus the AI, and finish with at least 25 coins. Each of those three goals earns you a crown if accomplished.
All in all, there are 15 castles to stop by on the campaign. The game is about a year old now, it would be great to see entirely new campaigns be released to keep things fresh for longtime players, but the existing 15 will keep most players busy for a while. The focus on single player for this app really shows. It is impressive that there is a great campaign mode and challenging normal AI games.
This is one of the best single player apps we’ve seen.
There is an expansion for the board game, Secrets, that adds additional tiles and a handful of new scoring avenues. The expansion is not available for the app. It is worth noting that The Palace of Mad King Ludwig is slated to be released in board game form this year. It is considered a sequel to Castles but changes much of the basic gameplay. We’ll keep our eye out for an app version of that.
The Wrap Up
This is truly a unique approach to a modern board game app. Going into a game knowing there is no online play and no AI difficulty level would have me extremely suspicious. However, Castles of Mad King Ludwig absolutely pulls it off. The focus on a robust, challenging single player mode really pays off in a great solo experience. The campaign will keep you busy for a while as the challenges get tougher and the goal of collecting all possible crowns will keep you coming back. I forget that there aren’t defined AI levels in this game because I still get challenged in the AI games. There is always at least one AI who will score big if you play in three or four player games.
This app stands up based solely on a strong single player experience. That isn’t an easy thing to pull off, Bezier and the app developer (Jeremiah Maher) deserve a lot of credit for this. I, of course, wish they did have a multiplayer option as this would make a great asynchronous online game, but the app that they released is a ton of fun that has kept me busy for a while. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.