Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Each of the players is building a palace room by room, earning points as they go. The "madness" of the title is flavorful cover to explain the odd shapes these castles inevitably take. Rooms are of different shapes, sizes, and types. While the shapes and sizes constrain where you can physically place them on the table in front of you, the types govern how they score -- each room prefers to be near rooms of a certain type (or, more often, not near rooms of other types) in order to score best.
The main mechanism of the game is how room tiles are taken by the players in each round. A handful of purchase slots are filled each round with one room each (some leftover from the previous round). The first player then rearranges those rooms as he chooses among the slots, setting different purchase prices for each by his choices. All the other players then select their room for the turn one by one, paying the price-setter the purchase price. The price-setter then chooses last from what remains, paying the money to the bank.
The game is essentially all in the price setting, and the goals you're trying to juggle when you do it. You want to get the most money from your opponents that you can... but you hope they don't actually pass the turn to take money instead, buying nothing. You don't want anyone to get a room too cheaply that fits into their castle too well. You don't want to lose all the money you just took in on a round by then paying it out to the bank to take a room of your own... but if you make the thing you really want too cheap, someone else will probably buy it before you.
It is fun, and the strategic levels run deep. But I think Castles of Mad King Ludwig asks you to keep tabs on a bit too much information. It's hard enough to watch your own castle, to know what rooms you want to pick up and where to place them, and to think about how you'll use the game's various bonuses. (Each room of each type provides a different benefit if you "finish" it by placing something else adjacent to all its doors.) That's all plenty.
But to be good at the game, you basically have to watch all this same stuff for each of the other players too. As I said, the game is really all in the price setting, and you can't do that effectively when the time comes unless you've been watching all your opponents build their castles. Setting the price at the start of the round is by far the most time consuming part of the game, and it's always a process of one player forcing all the others to wait on him as he tries to figure out the best thing to do. If that player tries to be conscientious and speed things up, he inevitably gives a great deal to a rival and winds up wishing he hadn't been so hasty.
I do like the game, and I would play it again. But at the same time, I'm sure I'll never play it enough to get good (fast) at it. I think it's always going to feel to me like more mental effort than the payoff you get. I'd grade it a B. I think there are other advanced Euro games that hit that balance more squarely.