Board Game Review — Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig

In the final installment of our review from the Top Games of 2018, we check out Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig by Stonemaier Games!

Overview

The Mad King has spoken. He has demanded a new Castle, but as you arrive to begin building, you see several other architects are here to build as well! There are tracts of land between you and you’ll have to do your best to please the king. Will you be able to work with your neighbors to please Ludwig II?

Game Play

Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig is based on the games Between Two Cities and Castles of Mad King Ludwig, so if you’ve played either of those games, parts of this one may seem familiar to you.  However, if you haven’t played either, this game isn’t too hard to learn, so let’s grab our building tools and start working on the best castles we can create!

In Between Two Castles, you will be working with each of your neighboring players to build a castle — since the castles are built between each pair of players, the players are “between two castles”… get it?  At the end of the game, all of the castles will be scored, and your final score will be for your lower-scoring castle, so you don’t want to invest too heavily in one of your castles and neglect the other; you should strive to make them equally awesome.  The game is played over two rounds, and uses tile drafting to allow players to select new rooms for their castles. At the start of the game, place a throne room between each pair of players and deal out nine tiles to each player. Each turn, players will select two of the tiles from those they have available, and pass the remainder to their neighbor (pass clockwise in the first round and counterclockwise in the second).  Once everyone has selected two tiles, they are revealed, and players work with their neighbors to decide which tile to place in each castle and where. Because the tiles represent a side view of the rooms of the castle, placing tiles next to each other represents placing rooms on the same floor, while placing tiles above or below others represents putting them on a floor above or below the current room. Because the Throne Room starts on the ground floor, only Downstairs rooms and Corridors can be placed below it, and any room placed on the second or higher floor must be supported by a room directly under it, but aside from those placement rules, rooms can be played anywhere in the castle.  After playing and passing tiles a few times, each player will be left with three tiles, of which they’ll choose two to play and one to discard. Then everyone is dealt out the nine tiles for the second round, which is played out just like the first, except for passing tiles the opposite direction. At the end of the second round, the game is over and players calculate the score for all the castles to determine their final score (which, remember, is the lower scoring castle between them and one of their neighbors).

So how do castles in this game score points?  Well, there are several (seven, actually) different room types that all have different ways of scoring, in addition to some special rooms.  Food rooms score points for a certain type of room either above and below them, or on their left and right. Living Rooms score points for a certain room type in the 8 positions surrounding them.  Utility Rooms score points for groups of connected rooms of a given type adjacent to them. Outdoor Rooms score points for a given type of room anywhere in the castle, but they also can’t have anything above them (because they’re outside, after all).  Sleeping Rooms score 4 points if you manage to get all 7 room types in your castle, and 1 point otherwise. Corridors score similarly to Living Rooms, except instead of room type, they trigger on the decoration that each room around them has (swords, mirror, painting, or torches).  Finally, downstairs rooms score based on a certain room type anywhere in their column. In addition to all the individual scoring provided by each room, your castle will get a bonus after placing the third room of a given type. Each room type has its own bonus, such as drawing and placing a new room, drawing a bonus card that provides additional scoring opportunities, or placing a special room..  The special rooms are the Fountain, an outdoor room that scores 5 points, the Tower, a room that scores a point for each room below it in its column, and the Grand Foyer, which scores 1 point for each room in one of the 8 positions around it. At the end of the game, players can use the included score sheets to calculate the points for all the rooms in their castle — the score sheets allow for each room to be scored individually and then the total added up.  The game recommends that each player score one of the castles next to them to make the process faster, but for your first few games it doesn’t hurt to score each castle as a group, one at a time, to ensure you don’t miss any points. When all the scores are added up, each player scores the number of points from their lower-scoring castle, and after that the player with the highest score wins!

Artwork and Components

Amber’s Review

One of the best feelings in the world is opening a brand new game and seeing a fantastic insert. Stonemaier has begun including Game Trayz in their newer games and it’s truly a magical sight, being able to pack and unpack a game quickly is crucial to a game night and these trays, or should I say Trayz, truly help. Once you get past these beauties, the components consist mostly of the many tiles needed to play the game, the quality of the cardboard is decent but it’ll be interesting to see how they stand up to lots of plays. I hope that being in the Trayz will prevent some of the dings that other tile laying games with lesser inserts get.

Stonemaier games are typically an instant buy for us and with a fondness for both the original Between Two Cities and Castles of Mad King Ludwig, it really just made sense to pick this game up as well. One of the true successes of this game is the care everyone has taken to make sure this is a solid mashup. The core city building elements of Between Two Cities is still there, with players strategically building their cities trying to balance the cities to their left and right while fulfilling goals and making strong combos. But in comes the Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria with his dislike of the norm and wanting things to be his way! He comes in and takes away the uniformity of your old city building life and allows you to build every which way. You have to be careful, however, as he still has his needs that he wants fulfilled. Not only that, but what will your neighbor hold on to? The introduction of the Mad King’s rules to this simple game add an interesting level of complexity not necessarily seen in Between Two Cities. Castle arrangements vary not only between players but games as well, making multiple plays of the games architecturally interesting.

The combination of the two games works really well together, but I’m 100% sure this mash up adds anything additional to our collection. Sure, having a bit more freedom to place your rooms wherever you want is great, but you accomplish that sporadic feeling by playing Castles of Mad King Ludwig. And when it comes to city building, there’s something satisfying about looking around the table and seeing perfect little boxes of tiles around in Between Two Cities. Having both parent games already, this game doesn’t seem to add anything new to our collection, which we’ve been trying to be more conscious of when adding new games to the shelves. However, if you need more tile laying or a bit of madness in your collections, this may be the game for you.

Pros:

  • Game Trayz allows for easy setup and take down
  • Two different games that mashup well together

Cons:

  • Not a necessary part of the collection if you already own the parent games

Ethan’s Review

While I like both Between Two Cities and Castles of Mad King Ludwig, I was initially unsure of how well they’d work together.  Fortunately, the combination ended up more like chocolate and peanut butter than like water and oil. The mechanics are nearly all from Between Two Cities (the drafting and collaborative building), while the flavor of the tiles/rooms and scoring mechanisms come from the Castles of Mad King Ludwig.

As you can probably infer from the above and the fact that I included this game in my top 5 games of 2018, I have a lot of good things to say about BTCoMKL.  I feel like I often include this as a positive point in my reviews, but it really is true that this game is relatively easy to teach. That can’t be understated for this game in particular, because there really is a lot going on — 7 different room types (not counting special rooms) which all score differently, in addition to the placement restrictions for the room tiles make understanding the key mechanisms of the game a non-trivial matter.  Furthermore, because of its nature as a drafting game, it’s difficult to watch everyone at the table to ensure they know what they’re doing and aren’t making any mistakes. I think this is where the collaborative building aspect comes in handy — each castle is being built by 2 players, and each player has 2 neighbors they’re working with on different castles, so there is a built-in support network to help players learn together. Building on that point, another thing I really like about this game is that since you’re working with each of your neighbors to build a castle, and because you want both of your castles to be as good as possible (since you’ll score the lower of the two), it can feel a bit more cooperative than competitive at times.  And as someone that really likes to play co-op games, that is a big plus for me! In most drafting games, there is a concept of “hate drafting”, where you take something just so that the person you’re passing to can’t get it. However, here the person you’re passing to is also working on a castle with you, so the opposite happens: if there are two tiles in your hand that will work well, you can pass without fear since hopefully your partner will take the other tile for your shared castle once you pass the stack to them. I guess in theory you could hate draft tiles away from the castles beyond your neighbor, but in the games I’ve played thus far, I haven’t felt the need to do this. Perhaps it would come with a lot of repeated plays, but for our group that likes casual, friendly games and isn’t super competitive, it strives a very good balance!

However, as I always say, no game is without its negatives.  The biggest drawback for me is how short the game feels to play.  I don’t know that this is anything that could really be changed without massively overhauling how scoring works, since it would really change and imbalance castles by the end, but two rounds of drafting, and four turns in each round makes for a really short game.  I feel like if all the players are experienced, the whole game could play out in 15-20 minutes, which to me feels really short for a big box game like this. On top of that, most drafting games I can think of (7 Wonders, Sushi Go!, and even the original Between Two Cities) have three or more drafting rounds, compared to the two here, and usually more than 4 turns per round.  However, as I said this is my biggest complaint about the game, and it doesn’t actively detract from the fun part of building castles and looking for the best scoring opportunities. On the topic of score, though, the other negative I can think of about this game is that scoring can be a bit anticlimactic. I’m no stranger to games where you tabulate up the points at the end to find out who did the best overall, but for whatever reason here there is less excitement that in other similar games.  I think part of it is in the nature of scoring — due to how each room type scores and the relative complexity of adding it all up, the score sheet is broken down into a room-by-room basis. So, for each castle you score each individual food room, then sum them up, each individual living room and sum them up, and so on. It is a lot different from something like 7 Wonders where there are a handful of broad categories, and you can ask each player for their points in each, and perhaps more importantly, hear how well everybody else did in each category (oh, she got 22 points from science?  I’m in trouble!). In addition, due to the nature of everyone getting the points from their lower castle, there is a lot of potential for tie scores — not necessarily for the top spot, but for the lower ranks. This doesn’t really bother me, but it might be worth noting for more competitive players. Altogether, though, despite it’s (relatively minor) flaws, Between Two Castles is a great game that I’ve enjoyed each time I’ve played it so far, and imagine I’ll keep enjoying over many more plays. If you like drafting, tile laying, and figuring out the best way to score points from a myriad of options, you may want to give it a try!

Pros:

  • Easy to teach, especially considering the variety of different ways rooms score.
  • With players working together with their neighbors, it can feel a bit like a co-op game

Cons:

  • Game is surprisingly short
  • Scoring can be anticlimactic


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