King Ludwig II of Bavaria was notable for being more interested in building fairy-tale castles instead of actually governing his realm. He spent the entirety of his royal revenues on the lavish Neuschwanstein Castle, the extravagance of which caused people of the age to declare him insane and earned him the title of the Mad King.
In Castles of Mad King Ludwig, 1-4 players take on the role of builders, each trying to construct the best castle they can for King Ludwig, trying to find the best arrangement of rooms to suit his whims. This tile-laying game is a spiritual successor to Ted Alspach and Bezier Games’ earlier hit game Suburbia, but what makes CoMKL unique is the differently shaped room tiles which you fit together to make your castle, as well as the Master Builder mechanic where each round one player gets to decide how expensive all of the rooms on offer will be for that round.
There is a bit of setup involved before beginning to play Castles of Mad King Ludwig. First, assemble the Contract Board (using the correct side based on if playing with 2-3 or 4 players), the building boards, and the Scoretower. Then, shuffle and place out a number of Room cards based on the number of players – 22 for 2 players, 33 for 3, and 44 for 4. These cards determine which sized rooms will be available for purchase each round. Also shuffle all of the Bonus cards and place them on their designated space on the board. These cards give players additional opportunities to earn points if they meet certain criteria.
The next step is to divide all of the room tiles based on their size. Each has a number on the back ranging from 100-600 which corresponds to the size of the room. Each set of rooms should be shuffled and placed face down on the spot on the board corresponding to that room size. In addition, when playing with fewer than 4 players, some rooms will be removed from each stack — 2 from each of the small rooms (100-300) per player and 1 from each of the large rooms (350-600) per player. Then, the Stairs and Hallway tiles are placed on their designated spaces. Note that the Hallways are double sided with one side representing regular Hallways while the other is for Downstairs Hallways which can be placed on the lower level of your castle.
Next, randomly draw one round King’s Favor tile for each player (i.e. 4 in a 4-player game, 3 in a 3-player game, etc.) and place these face up on the Contract board. These tiles represent public goals that all players can work towards and for which they’ll be ranked at the end of the game. For example, if the goal is to have the most Utility rooms, the player with the most will receive 8 points at the end of the game, the player with the second most will receive 4 points, third most will receive 2 points, and the last place player will get 1 point. Lastly, each player receives a Foyer to use to start building their castle, 15000 Marks (the currency of the game), and three Bonus cards, of which they may keep two. Then, randomly or via some other method decide on a player to be the Master Builder for the first round, and you are ready to begin!
At the beginning of each round, the current Master Builder draws as many building cards as there are blank spaces on the Contract Board. In a four-player game for the first round this will be 7 cards, then after that the number should correspond to the number of rooms which were purchased in the previous round. The Master Builder then takes all of the rooms available for purchase (any that were still on the board plus any new ones from the Building cards) and decides where on the Contract board they should go. In a four-player game the Contract board has spaces ranging from 1000 Marks to 15000 Marks, and in three- and two-player games, the 1000 and 2000 spaces are eliminated, respectively. After the Master Builder has decided on the price of each room for the round, the other players, starting on the MB’s left, have a chance to purchase one room, with the cost going to the Master Builder. The Master Builder has the last pick of rooms, with the money he or she pays going to the bank. Thus a major part of the strategy as the Master Builder is to figure out which rooms your opponents will want and pricing them so that they’re not too expensive that they won’t buy them while still making you some money and leaving behind a room that you want to purchase for yourself. Note that a player always has the option to buy a Hallway or Stairs for 3000 Marks instead of one of the available rooms, or they may take 5000 Marks if they don’t have enough money or do not wish to purchase one of the available rooms.
Once a room is purchased, it must immediately be played in that player’s castle, and once rooms are placed, they may not be moved or destroyed. There are several rules for room placement. When placing a room, at least one of its doorways must match up to an existing doorway in the castle. As long as that rule is satisfied, it is ok if another of the room’s entrances is adjacent to a wall — there just has to be at least one way to get in or out of the room. Also, it is perfectly legal to rotate rooms to better fit — they don’t need to all follow the same orientation. In addition, rooms may not overlap one another (they must be able to fit side-by-side), and no room can touch the fenced edge of Outdoor rooms (since this represents the exterior of the castle. Finally, Downstairs rooms and Downstairs Hallways may not share entrances with any normal rooms or hallways. The only way to build Downstairs rooms is by first placing Stairs with one side connecting to an upstairs room and the other side connecting to a Downstairs room.
After placing a room (provided all the rules for room placement are satisfied), players will immediately score points for that room. Every room has a number in the upper left hand corner which represents the number of points a player receives upon building that room. In addition, many rooms also have bonuses or penalties in the middle corresponding to other room types they may connect to. For most of these rooms, they will grant additional points if one of their doorways is connected to a certain room type. However, Activity Rooms, which are generally noisy places, give negative points if any of their walls (not just the doorway) are adjacent to certain room types, so be careful when placing them! Finally, Downstairs rooms work a bit differently, and provide bonuses based on the number of rooms of a given type anywhere in your castle. Note that all of the bonuses are cumulative and can take effect when placing a new room next to a room granting a bonus. For example, if you have a room that gives 3 points for connecting to a Food room and on a later turn place a Food room next to that room, you will still get the 3-point bonus.
The last facet of room placement is completing a room. If at any time you “complete” a room in your castle by connecting rooms to all of its doorways, you receive a bonus based on the room type of the completed room (Room types are given based on the symbol in the lower left of the room, and the floor of the rooms is also color-coded). Note that you need to connect rooms to all of the doorways, so if you ever place a doorway adjacent to the wall of another room, that room will never be considered completed. In addition, some rooms only have one doorway, so they will always be completed upon initial placement. As mentioned, each different type of room has its own completion bonus. Some are fairly straightforward — Activity rooms give you 5 points, Outdoor rooms give you 10000 Marks, Corridor rooms let you place a free Hallway or Stairs immediately, and Utility Rooms let you draw 2 Bonus cards and keep one. Other rooms’ completion bonuses are a bit more complex. The completion bonus for Living Rooms lets you rescore that room, getting additional points for the top left number of the room and for any bonuses granted by the center of the room. Food rooms let you immediately take another turn, which can be used to buy another room from the board or to take 5000 Marks. Sleeping Rooms allow you to choose one of the face-down stacks of rooms on the board, look through it, and place up to two rooms from that stack on top of the deck of building cards, meaning that those rooms will be drawn first before the next cards are drawn. Finally, Downstairs rooms only grant bonuses for every even numbered one you complete (the second, fourth, etc.), and when they do, you may choose any of the other room completion bonuses to take.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig is played over several rounds. After each round, the Master Builder token is passed to the left and a 1000 Mark coin is placed on all rooms remaining in the offer. If a player buys one of these rooms in subsequent rounds, after paying for the room they will receive any coins that have accumulated on that room. Once the last card has been drawn from the building deck, this triggers the last round of the game, which is played normally (with the exception that if there are still empty spaces on the Contract board, the building discard pile is shuffled and enough cards to fill the remaining vacancies are drawn). Then, at the end of the final round, players calculate end-game scoring. As mentioned before, players compare their ranks for all of the King’s Favor tiles available on the Contract board and receive 8, 4, 2, or 1 points based on their rank. Note that in order to receive points for one of the Favor, players generally have to minimally qualify for it – so, for example if one of the Favors is for most Utility rooms, a player has to have at least one such room in order to get the bonus. Then, players reveal all of their Bonus cards and score points accordingly. Bonus cards can be things like 3 points for each Food room or 1 point for each square room (either the 100 or 400 sized rooms), or could be the more complex bonuses that only grant points if a player can construct one of each kind or size of room. Finally, at the very end of the game, for any building piles that have been completely depleted over the course of the game, players receive 2 points for each building of that size in their castle. After points are all tallied up, the player with the most points wins!
For myself, and many other people in our gaming group, Castles of Mad King Ludwig has become a replacement to Suburbia. There’s something in the different types of tiles in Castles that allows for more variety than Suburbia allows. I think this game really has a sweet spot at 3 people; when we played 2-players the game went rather quickly and could be more cutthroat, while a 4 player game dragged on a bit longer than I liked. It’s nice to see the end game, when everyone’s castles are finished and how everyone managed to have a completely wacky layout. Architects, take head, this one might drive you a bit “mad.”
Also, this game goes a a lot better when you follow all of the rules. I’m looking at you, Ethan. [Note: In or most recent playthrough, I totally forgot the rule about placing a 1000 Mark coin on all of the rooms left over in the offer, leading to a shortage of money on both of our parts. The saving grace to this is that we were both equally disadvantaged by this.]
I really enjoy Castles of Mad King Ludwig. It’s always fun to see what kind of castle people will build based on the public Favors and their own Bonus cards, and no two castles in games I’ve played have ever looked quite the same. That’s another part of the fun — there are a good number of different strategies, from trying to get a lot of Utility rooms and Bonus cards for a lot of points at the end of the game, to chaining together room completion bonuses to be able to do a lot of different things on your turn. At least from what I’ve seen, there is no “dominant” or “best” strategy, apart from trying to fulfill as many of the publicly-available Favors as you can, which I like about this game. I also like that there’s just the right amount of player interaction — in some other tile-laying or city building games the only interaction with other players comes in the form of buying something before your opponents have a chance to. However, in CoMKL, the Master Builder mechanic adds another layer of strategy to the game as you decide where to best price rooms to get the most money out of the other players while preventing them from buying that one room that you really want. One drawback though is that this mechanic makes the game a lot better at the higher player counts (3 or 4) rather than playing with just two players, but this is a minor complaint as it’s usually not hard to find a few people interested in playing. The game is good component-wise as well. I’ve heard a few minor complaints that the tiles are thin, but I’ve never really noticed, and the reasoning given (so that the building stacks don’t collapse) seems logical enough. The only other issue I have is that the coins are pretty small, especially compared to the coin tokens used by other games, but this makes sense as the 1000 Mark coins need to get added to rooms not purchased. Altogether, this a great game that combines strategy, reading other players, and a bit of spatial reasoning in order to construct the best castle you can!