Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a semi co-operative, tile drafting, castle building game. It marries the core mechanics of Between Two Cities with the theme of The Castles of Mad King Ludwig.
The aim is to build two magnificent castles to please the Mad King. However, only one of those two castles will be submitted for the king’s approval - the one that is worth the lowest amount of victory points.
A game consists of two rounds. Each round, players will each choose two room tiles from a stack of nine before passing the remainder to the person next to them. Working together with the player either side they will discuss which of the two tiles they have chosen to add to the castles they are building. One tile per castle for each of a player’s castles.
This continues until the stacks are depleted. A second set of nine tile stacks are then drafted. At the end of this second round points are scored. Scoring is based upon room type, combinations of placement bonuses, multiples of the same room type and individual bonus cards.
The castle with lowest score of the two is then considered for end game scoring. The winner is the player with the highest scoring of the lower value castles.
All of which sounds slightly less exciting than waiting for wallpaper to peel.
However, bear with me just a little longer.
Sociable Point Scoring
There are two ways to approach a game of Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig. Competitively or imaginatively.
It’s certainly possible to meticulously plan a killer sequence of utility rooms. Placing rooms one atop the other in a teetering tower of victory point harvesting goodness. Stacking bonus upon bonus. Combining overlapping sequences of tiles. Negotiating with your neighbours to balance the scoring for your castles.
Playing for the satisfaction derived from the moment when it dawns on your neighbours that they failed to pay enough attention to their other castle. From knowing that your winning points margin is as unassailable as Krak des Chevaliers despite your ‘co-operation’. It’s all as close to Machiavellian as I can cope with during 45 minutes on a Friday evening.
Understanding the intricacies is fascinating. However, there is absolutely no need to play this game for points. You could just build whatever takes your fancy.
Want an Underground Lair with a Secret Lab? No problem…pop it next to the Bottomless Pit. Why not place the Observatory at the bottom of the Tower? The Gunpowder Room underneath the In-Law Suite? Sounds entirely sensible.
How about a sprawling series of Gardens and Fountains? Freed from the spatial constraints of the two original games the castles can grow in any direction you wish.
There is as much fun to be had here simply by letting your imagination flow as there is through a competitive drive to victory. The emphasis on working with other players certainly adds to this. Sharing the story of your castles with friends is a compelling social element to an otherwise complex think-y game.
Friday Night Maths
The components in this game are stunning. The inserts are superb. Custom designed and setting a benchmark for how packaging can support ease of set-up. The rulebook is clear and well laid out. The artwork is a true highlight, supporting the imaginative aspect beautifully. Each tile is uniquely illustrated, bringing out the theme and adding a fun unofficial ‘spot the animals’ mini-game for the kids.
As wonderfully illustrated as the game is, it is the illustrations that provide the biggest source of complaint for this game. Each tile is a visually striking combination of art and iconography. However, it appears as though the icons have been made as small as possible to fit on the tiles without obscuring the art.
In fact, they are truly tiny. To have such small icons (and there are so many icons), in a game where icons are key to scoring could be problematic for anyone that needs reading glasses. Ironically, given the production values, this is one game that needs a deluxe version - purely so the font size can be increased.
And the scoring…oh the scoring. It will feel familiar to anyone who has previously played the original Castles of Mad King Ludwig. However, here the additional scoring possibilities plus scoring multiple castles combined with all scoring performed end game makes a calculator almost mandatory. I can only speculate that King Ludwig’s second hobby must have been Friday night maths.
Where Does This Fit?
The mechanics of working with other players, from Between Two Cities, adds a far greater element of player interaction than was ever present in the original Castles. Negotiating beneficial tile placement (if you are playing seriously) and giggling while making the most bizarre castle you and you friends can imagine add more to the game than any number of new scoring options.
This scoring complexity puts Two Castles outside of the filler range occupied by the original. Families might enjoy the art, however, in my experience, the younger members soon become lost. Despite the obvious thematic appeal, it is hard to recommend the game to those after casual fillers and introductory games.
Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig, designed by Matthew O'Malley and Ben Rosset, also has no solo player option. This is surprising given both the original games have official solitaire versions and Stonemaier Games have produced wonderful solo variants for other releases.
So, where does Between Two Castles fit? A good question for a game focused on tile placement. A seasoned gamer’s filler game, perhaps.
How many Castles do I need?
Ah, now this is a good question. Castle collecting is something of a timeless hobby for Royalty and Hollywood stars alike but what about the rest of us? If you have either of the original games do you really need Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig?
In many ways, it could be argued that this is a re-theme of Between Two Cities. How essential it is to own both that game and this depends on your enjoyment of the new elements introduced. The castle theme is imaginative with broad appeal. Between Two Castles is more complex than the original, however, and suited to those that like a think-y puzzle.
For those who own the original Castles of King Ludwig, this is much more of a ‘new’ game. There are substantial differences mechanically. The spatial elements and master builder mechanics are no longer present. However, the scoring possibilities are increased and add appeal for fans looking for a new challenge. The social aspect is an element that was sorely lacking in the original. No accusations of ‘multiplayer solitaire’ here. There is certainly a place for both games on the same shelf.
If you have both the original games? This is difficult. For me, there probably isn’t different enough to warrant its own space on the shelf unless you really enjoy the theme. Would it replace either of the originals? Possibly, if you were looking for more complexity or more social interaction.
Final Thoughts on Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig
Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig is an interesting attempt at creating something greater than the sum of its parts. That those parts are two popular and highly regarded games makes this a brave project. Despite some issues, it’s a largely successful one too. I wonder what other games could be treated to a crossover production.
The original Castles of Mad King Ludwig game is one of my all-time favourites. Has this version replaced the original King Ludwig game for me? No. However, I do find myself reaching for it regularly due to its stronger social element. That alone makes it worthy of its place on my shelf.