Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a tile laying game combined with a price setting economy where players sell each other rooms and balance their budgets and acquisitions that way. It’s a very simple and elegant game that creates some pretty crunchy and pleasing gameplay. I’m a fan! Nothing wrong with the theme either, me and Ludwig II go way, way back.

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I have a bit of a history with Ludwig that dates back to Gabriel Knight II: The Beast Within. GKII was a point and click adventure game with a kick ass story that centered around Ludwig of Bavaria and the secrets hidden in his amazing castle Neuschwanstein. It had always stuck with me. Last year we finally drove to Bavaria for the first time and visited Neuschwanstein. It was a rainy day, and when I saw it rise up out of the mists… Well, I cried! You can see why Jan was excited about getting me Castles of Mad King Ludwig. He researched it (and by research I mean: watch Rahdo videos) to see if it was any good and bought it at Spiel for a fair bit of of money. Thanks, baby!

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Damn, we could all do with a little more madness.

Castles of Ludwig is a very simple game with a lot of depth to it. One player is the master builder and sets prices on the rooms that can be bought that turn, but the other players get to pick what they buy first! It’s the old “one kid gets to divide the candy in two stacks, but the other kid gets to pick a stack first” trick that all parents know and love. It creates a very interesting dynamic. Your opponents pay you for the rooms they buy and you really need that money. So you want to stop others from getting rooms that would be fantastic for them, while still convincing them to spend money on one of the rooms that are slightly enticing for them. While also trying to ensure you can grab the room you want for yourself as cheaply as possible.

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Games in the bar!

The rooms you buy? They go into your castle and can score you points in a gazillion types of ways. You have secret bonuses, achievement bonuses, combo bonuses, bonuses for connecting to all entrances of a room… It’s insane! Not to mention that you have to make sure your new rooms fit into your existing structure. It’s one big satisfying jigsaw puzzle made up for Tetris pieces and bonus scores!

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My castle – quite tight! You can only enter it through the throne room. Makes sense, get the formalities out of the way first before everyone chills out in the nap room

And that’s it, I’ve explained the entire game to you. It’s that simplicity that made me hesitant about the game – it just didn’t seem very exciting or fun. I’m glad jan took a chance on it, because it turns out to be a great game. Building your castle is a very pleasing exercise, as is figuring out how to get the most points out of your bricks. We’ve only played it with two, and there the game feels very pleasant. There are tons of ways of scoring points, so it’s just up to you to find the absolute best one.

I also like the price setting phase. I’ve played a few economy games, where the money in the game doesn’t come from ‘the bank’ but from other people’s pools and where the players set up a kind of working money flow (economy) between them. I always find them very interesting: they create fun dynamics between players and usually do a good job of keeping the game balanced. The invisible hand at work, and all that. Unfortunately, they usually rely on auctions: the bluff-poker machismo way of running an economy that makes everyone feel stupid at the end of it. And to add insult to injury, the theme of economic games is often extremely dry (Hello, Container!). Castles is one of the first games I’ve played where the economy part of the game reaches it’s potential as far as I’m concerned.

Price setting is a very gentle mechanic. You don’t want to screw people over per se, but you do want to squeeze as much money out of them as you can. You need them to give you money, after all! The gentleness is aided by the fact that you can’t really be screwed over all that badly. All the rooms usually offer you some benefit, but one of two rooms might be slightly more optimal than others. It has the added advantage of keeping you invested in the game on other people’s turns. You want to keep a good eye on the prices they set and the type of castles they build.

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Jan, locked into a severe bout of AP

The only downside seems to be that the price setting combined with the point complexity can lead to some hardcore Analysis Paralysis. Half of our table (*cough*Jan*cough*) was suffering from it. But I’m sure that will get better over time as we get to know all the game’s possibilities a little better. I’m looking forward to playing it again!

Update: Played it with four players three times now, and the game play experience was equally thinky and relaxed as the two-player game. It’s also not much longer. Sweet! I have won all the games so far, except the last one where Wim (who played for the first time) when on a combo-hunting spree that landed him a good 20 points before anyone else. Woah, we need to step up our game!

Assault on Doomrock

Assault on Doomrock is a co-op fantasy adventure game greatly inspired by computer roleplaying games like World of Warcraft or League of Legends. We were hoping it would be the spiritual successor to Talisman or Runebound and hopefuly fix the flaws of those older games. It kind of does! There’s some neat improvements and a very cool combat system.

Stinky witch!

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First off, you get your character which is a mix and match of a trait card and a class card. I was a Stinky Witch with a garlic breath ability! Jan was a frustrated ranger. Yes, the game is a bit silly. It has a light-hearted fantasy feel to it that puts you in a mood of sitting around with your friends, eating chips and thinking of funny reasons why your ranger is so frustrated.

Adventure phase

As a party we have to face two waves of monsters and zip through the world deck so we can have the boss fight at Doom Rock. The game is divided into adventure phases and combat phases. The adventure phase gives you time to level up, go shopping, find new gear and try to get an advantage. Here you pay for actions with time tokens and when your chips are gone it’s fighting time!

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The adventure phase is a bit weird. Every card gives you few options: There might be an abandoned temple you dig into and search for treasure, a shop you can go haggle at or rob, etc. You want to take advantages of the opportunities here, but you also have to rush through the cards to make sure you get to Doom Rock in time. In our game we ended up skipping many options here because getting to Doom Rock was more important. And we didn’t really feel like we had to make hard decisions. The cards all seemed kind of, well, skippable. That wasn’t very exciting.

It’s supposed to have a bit of a puzzle feel to it where you weigh off the benefits of getting more gear and levels to the risks of exposing yourself and getting a few debuffs that will hurt you in the combat phase with the added pressure of having to move through the deck. But this phase doesn’t feel weighty enough to have much impact. We’ve only played it once so far, so perhaps it far more vital and tense than I realise now… but it didn’t feel like it.

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Combat phase

Now, combat! Combat is really kind of cool! All of the heroes and the baddies are represented by discs and you put all of those discs on the table. It doesn’t really matter where you put who, because there’s only two states these guys can be in: Adjacent or not. Is your disc touching another disc? Then the two of you are adjacent and you can use all the abilities that gives you. If you aren’t touching, you are free and one movement will get you adjacent to any disc you’d like. It’s very neat and elegant. No movement tables, speed modifiers or graph paper!

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Then there’s your moves. Each of them has a number on it. At the start of each round you roll dice and get to reroll them twice. If you don’t have the number you need for your move, you can’t use it! I quite like this too, it keeps you from spamming your best move all the time. Or at least makes you pay a cost for it if that’s how you want to play. The moves themselves are also quite cool and often offer lots of combo options with other people’s moves. Man, I love figuring out combo’s!

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After everyone’s done their thing, it’s the enemies time to act. They are programmed with cards especially for their type. Every monster gets his own card move. This really makes them feel like CPRG (computer roleplaying) enemies. We fought guys that would armor up every round, charge you, disarmor you and hit you – they had a focused tactic that we had to deal with. It makes battles very exciting. You get the idea that if the bad guys are strategising so you had better be too. Well done!

Wot I think

All of this gives combat a very heavy CRPG feel. We were playing with some CRPG junkies so we easily slipped into the lingo. “I will go tank these guys”, “Oh, you procced that debuff”, “Okay, so basically these guys have Divine Shield”. It was very interesting to see the games we all know and love so well in a cardboard version.

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But… one of the nice things about computer games is that they’re fast. This game turns out to be pretty slow! Everyone had to do their moves, and then there’s quite a long phase where you pull monster move after monster move and have to implement them all. It’s not neccessarily boring, because you are continuously moving around markers, adding chits and managing the board. But it does take a lot of time. It took us maybe three hours to play two rounds? I’m sure that’ll go faster when we are more accustomed to the game, but I don’t think it’ll get up to a speed that I will find enjoyable for frequent play.

So it’s a bit of a mixed bag. This is the best fantasy combat RPG I’ve played and it’s filled with exciting innovative ideas, especially in the combat phase. But the adventure phase doesn’t measure up at all, and the end result is still a slow game. I like it, but I’m afraid it might just not be my genre.

I’m sorry, you guys, I have a really short attention span!

 

MIL

We played MIL at Peter and Jen’s. It’s mostly a euro/strategy game with some player interaction in the form of land grabbing and vassalship. It suffers from an unfortunate name (MIL is supposed to stand for 1049 in pig latin) and had us chuckling and groaning at the unintentional but very present objectification of women. The gameplay was fun, but not amazing.

In MIL (1049), you can harvest your lands for resources, recruit soldiers, and have descendants. But that’s just the first generation! If you have a male heir, he can be married to another player’s daughter—the one with the biggest dowry, of course! A strategical key point, though: keep in mind that during the game your knights will die or retire and their sons will have to take their place.

Knowing the ins-and-outs of the court will help you gain influence and vassals, while in the market you will be able to trade resources and recruit the necessary workforce to build a castle. How about going to battle to get some new lands or helping the curia to build the Cathedral? The abbess of the monastery can bless you with influence, while the echoes of the Crusades resound in a faraway land with songs of glory and honor. There isn’t one single way that leads to victory—so which one will you choose?

Mechanics are the standard euro-worker placement jobbies with a few auctions thrown in. The twist is that your guys can die (much like in The Village) and that you probably want to have a male heir in place before that time. Unlike most euro’s, there’s quite a bit of interaction. The troops you amass can not only be used to grab lands from the center pile, but also from other players! Additionally, you can make other player’s guys into your vassals, which will give you points and some resources, but will also tie you together in a kind of peace contract. It starts off much like a euro, but especially the latter turns have those twists and reversals of fortune of light strategic games.

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As usual when I play a euro for the first time, I picked a strategy that looked good and went for it. You don’t know what half of the game does, so you might as well try something out. Right?  This tends to turn out either really badly or really well. While the others focused on breeding new guys for more actions, I got some soldiers and went land-grabbing. My lands weren’t great so I mostly used them to grab gold and score big in the Cathedral auctions. In the late game I was able to use my soldiers to grab some land and enforce some vassalage, and I ended up five points ahead of a tight finish.

I liked building up my familes and lands, and getting a bit of a resource engine going. The attacking and vassal part of the game is nice and doesn’t devolve in all out war. By the time you have enough soldiers, the other guys usually do too. I wonder if that often leads to beating up the guy who’s already down. All in all the game was slow and didn’t really grab me.

What did grab me (the wrong way) was the strange female objectification in the game. This is, of course, a general problem with resource management games. When those resources are a certain group (women, colonists or slaves, indigenous people) the objectification is a bit problematic and uncomfortable.

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In this game, the action are taken by the knights. They are represented by this nice bit of Sean Beany artwork up here, that you can flip to show an older version of themselves with their male heir. The female heirs, however, are red blocks that you put on the board. They are at best a resource that you can use to gain a bit of influence (by pushing them into convents as abbesses) and at worst a burden: you get penalty posts for the daughters you have left at the end of the game. A big mechanic in the game is an auction where everyone bids resources to have their daughter married off to a newly bred heir.

The weirdest part is the gender die. When you try to produce an heir, you have to roll a die to see if a male or female symbol comes up. You are aiming for a son, so the female symbols are essentially delay mechanisms. When it comes up you either have to take the female red resource block, or take a ‘time token’ that ages your knight (I’m not quite sure what happens to the daughter you were going to have in this option).

As I said, this kind of objectification kind of comes with the Euro territory, but gets kind of creepy when it comes to groups that have a history of objectification. I’m sure the designers were only interested in making a good game and having an interesting historical theme. But making women into resources is a bit of a lazy solution, and historical accuracy is a bit of a lazy argument.

In this post-#gamergate and post-Sarkeesian era we are all a little more sensitive to these themes, and they become a bigger deal than they once were (and rightly so). We were playing the game with an 8-year old girl in the room and though we swear and generally don’t censor ourselves around her, I felt uncomfortable playing this game while she was there!