[Actual Play Review] The Castles of Mad King Ludwig (Bézier Games)

Erin and Katy (former housemates and would-be roleplayers of yore) have spent New Year’s Eve at the Castle von Von. As is their custom, they brought with them games, of a variety not often seen in these hallowed halls.

I’m not a big board game person. I like the idea of board gaming a lot more than I like most board games. They tend toward the ‘too abstract for me’ (most worker-placement/commodity-management Eurogames) or the ‘too clunky for me’ (the Fantasy Flight style franchise games).

But we persevere, because I do like getting people around a table and playing something that doesn’t have the prep requirement of an RPG, and because every so often, I stumble dick-first into actually liking one of these.

So, this week I’m shamelessly ripping off Erin’s review format and posting about five board games I’ve encountered over the New Year. Deal.

The Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Players compete to build a castle which best satisfies the arbitrary whimsies of the local monarch, expressed through a set of public, shared objectives and private, secret objectives.

Maybe His Majesty likes square rooms, or a really large living room, or the most square feet of corridor. Maybe he’s secretly confided in you that what he really likes is kitchens and round gardens. Maybe you’ve just decided to say ‘fuck it’ and build nothing but dungeons and theatres because who is King Ludwig II of Bavaria to you anyway?

One of you gets to be the Master Builder every round and set the price of the rooms that everyone else will be buying. The Master Builder gets paid for rooms, and pays their own building costs back into the bank to keep the money moving. The competitive side of the game hovers around this ‘setting the price of available rooms’ activity, and also around using ‘completion’ bonuses (for building something on every doorway out of a room) to take extra turns, grab extra resources and otherwise get yourself ahead of the curve.

I enjoyed this one. Not too many moving parts, a theme that I can wrap my head around, a genteel and indirect ‘screw your neighbour’ mechanic that involves adjusting the cost of various rooms, and a clear reason for abstract ‘victory points’ being present.

Normally, I have a bit of a problem with ‘victory points’ in Eurogames, because they generally have something else like currency or territory or material which is the point of the endeavour as far as theme is concerned, but then subsume that into something that exists purely for the game’s sake.

Here it feels more viable, because the King’s whimsies are so varied and numerous that you’re trying to please him in multiple ways (stop that sniggering at the back) and abstracting all those factor together to find the clear winner feels like… an adequate simulation of the monarch’s decision-making process. Victory feels like a continuation of the theme rather than an abrupt step outside it for purposes of Winning The Game, and I endorse that.

Tactically, it rewards the ‘playing with yourself’ system mastery shenanigans of the blue-deck Magic: the Gathering player. (Erin, who is good at finding ways to take multiple turns in succession, barnstormed this one both times we played). However, “choosing to lose” by tunneling into other priorities (like making the dungeon you like the most, or fulfilling both your secret objectives to maximum effect) feels more rewarding than it usually does.

Erin and I had a chat after this about the concept of competitive play and how worthwhile it is to pursue that kind of absolute, gulf-of-separation victory. Neither of us are particularly interested in that kind of win for its own sake, and in my native environment (two-player wargaming) I find that sort of thing really dispiriting, because it generally means you haven’t been able to do anything.

What’s the difference here? First off: multiplayer. There’s a reason to keep on competing even if one person’s definitely going to win, because ‘best of the rest’ is still a possibility. Secondly: agency. Even in the second run, where I totally bottomed out on the score, I was doing something every turn, pursuing something which felt like a victory to me. I think this game works so well because it offers an alternative reward – an aesthetic or narrative or fictive-ethical outcome which offers its own kind of fulfilment.

Another of the games we played over the weekend delivered this in spades, but first I want to talk about the ones that didn’t, mostly because I don’t want to end this series by cussing out Brass. Stay tuned for that.

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Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

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