Publisher: Stonemaier Games and Bezier Games
Designer: Ben Rosset and Matthew O’Malley
Artist: Agnieszka Dąbrowiecka, Laura Bevon, Bartłomiej Kordowski
Release date: 2019
Player Count: 3-7 Players (2 players possible with a bot player)
Time: 45-60 minutes
Bury Board Game Score: 8/10
One of my favourite bands are The Dead Weather. They’re something of a rock ‘supergroup’ – all members have performed in other bands, prior. (Here’s your pub quiz nugget: The Kills, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and Queens of the Stone Age.) Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig is like the tabletop games equivalent…
This game evolved out of two separate products, a cross-publisher lovechild. Looking at the origins, on one hand, we have Between Two Cities by Stonemaier Games. This is a set collection tile-drafting game, where you build a 4×4 city grid. The ace in the hole sees you engage in semi-cooperative partnerships with your neighbours. Then there’s Castles of Mad King Ludwig, by Bezier Games. This is a tile placement game where you aim to build a madcap layout with rooms sprouting all over the show. Chuck both games into a blender, and what do you get?
Board Game Lovechild
Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a portmanteau in both name and function. It takes the best of both games and creates a familiar vibe – and at the same time produces something fresh. Between Two Castles (please don’t make me type the full title every time!) is a Stonemaier product, with Bezier’s blessing. Ben Rosset and Matthew O’Malley – the Between Two Cities’ duo – once again take the designers’ credit. But here, instead of building a rigid, structured city, you’re building a topsy-turvy castle.
The rules wash in warm and fuzzy if you’ve played either game before. If you haven’t had the pleasure, let’s run through them to give you some foundations. Between Two Castles is a competitive game, but you need to work together with each neighbour to co-build a castle. You do this by drafting tiles in a pick-and-pass nature over eight rounds.
You start with a rectangular Throne Room tile, which sits between you and your neighbour. Then you’re dealt a hand of nine square (Carcassonne-sized) room tiles of differing types. Everyone picks two of these in a simultaneous manner. You’ll place one tile into the castle between your and the player on your left, and the other tile into the other castle. Everyone around the table does this, so each castle gains two tiles each turn. At the end of your turn, you pass your hand of tiles clockwise to the next player.
After four turns you’re left with one remaining tile, which you discard. Everyone gains another nine random tiles and away you go again. At the end, you’ll work out how much each castle scored – but you score your lowest-scoring castle. This clever system means you cannot neglect one castle in favour of the other. You have to try and show a bit of love to both of them!
The mechanism of contributing to two growing castles, via drafting, is identical to Between Two Cities. But that’s only half of the DNA. Where does the ‘Mad King Ludwig’ part come into play?
The Crazy Castle King
This particular Ludwig is, one assumes, King Ludwig II of Bavaria (circa 1864). Erring on the enthusiastic, eccentric side of life, Ludwig had a passion for constructing castles. You might know of some – Schloß Neuschwanstein being the most famous. It aches with beauty, boasting the kind of architecture you’d expect to see on the horizon in a Disney movie. Money was no obstacle to Ludwig. You could imagine the kinds of elaborate commissions he must have insisted upon.
In this game, the players take on the roles of the king’s architects, trying to meet Ludwig’s ludicrous demands. Boiling the theme away, you’re looking at pattern-building, spacial tile placement, and set collection. But the theme is a enjoyable one, because of the 147 unique room tiles. The fun comes with spinning a dozen or so plates, trying to decide what you should collect. Even more grins emerge as the game progresses, because in true ‘Ludwig’ style, you’re not restricted to a grid. In Between Two Cities, you cannot leave a 4×4 grid. Here, the design can – and will – sprawl all over the place!
147 Different Rooms!
There’s seven different room types (21 of each tile). Each room is like a cross-section of the room, rather than a drop-down perspective. Tiles have to sit adjacent to each other. It doesn’t take long before it looks akin to opening up a doll’s house, and viewing it side-view. Your starter Throne Room sits on the ground floor, in this regard. You’re free to build rooms above it, and to the left and right as far as you please. Some rooms (Corridors and Downstairs Rooms) can even sit below, underground. The only rule here is that rooms cannot ‘float’ – they must have a structure beneath them to hold it up. That’s how real buildings work too, after all!
Each category of room are colour coordinated, and score at the end of the game in a different manner. Food Rooms need specific room types above/below, or left/right of them. Living Rooms need certain room types to surround them (like monasteries in Carcassonne). Utility Rooms need specific room types to connect to it in a contiguous chain. Outdoor Rooms aren’t reliant on immediate adjacency. They score 1VP for each stated room type present in your castle.
Corridors are like Living Rooms. But instead of requiring specific room types, they want tiles with certain wall hangings to surround them. Downstairs Rooms score points for having stated room types in the column above them. Sleeping Rooms, meanwhile, score 4VP each if you’ve got all other six room types in your castle. (They only score 1VP if you fail this.)
There’s a fair few things to consider when looking at your hand of tiles, then. First, you’ve got the room type, itself. They’re colour co-ordinated, but icons in the top-left aid issues for colourblind players. In the top-right there’s the wall hanging found in this room. (Mirror, crossed-swords, portrait, or sconce.) Then there’s the specifics of what that particular tile wants, to score.
Wait… There’s More…
Other neat features kick in if ever you place three-of-a-kind room types in a castle. You earn an instant bonus for doing so, which acts as an incentive. The bonus depends on the room type in which you’ve collected. Placing a third Food Room lets you draw five more tiles and pick any one of them to add into your castle. Three Living Rooms let you score extra points by wall hanging type. Utility Rooms let you pick a Bonus Card, which is an extra end-game scoring incentive.
Triggering a third Outdoors/Sleeping Room/Corridors give you Speciality Room tiles. Fountains score a straight-up 5VP. Grand Foyers are like non-fussy Living Rooms (anything can surround them). Towers sit at the top of a column of tiles, and score points for every tile in that column. Triggering any of the three-of-a-kind bonuses feels positive. There’s another bonus up for grabs if you place the fifth-of-a-kind tile. (Pick to play any of the Speciality Rooms again.)
An interesting twist emerges with Fountains, Towers, and Outdoors Rooms. They have a sky-blue border around them… because they have contact with the sky, itself. They act as a physical barrier – the point where outer castle meets fresh air. Once you place one of these tiles, you cannot place anything above it. This is a neat spanner in the works. Placing too many of these tiles caps the height of your castle in their respective columns. This forces you to build width-ways, rather than upwards.
Thank Goodness For Player Aids
Between Two Castles’ complexities are not due to any rules being difficult. Rather, it’s the sheer volume. There’s thirteen scoring categories when it comes to end-game points! In theory, you place (at least) eight tiles into each of your castles. Of course, your opponent applies the same quota of tiles (sometimes more, if they trigger third-tile placements). Between you both, there’s a lot of directions to consider. Too many? That’s the real question. I enjoyed the range of options and the limited time to achieve them. Eight rounds felt like the ideal game length. When you wish there was ‘arrgh, just one more round!’ it usually means the designers got it right.
It’s fortunate, then, that there’s player aid cards for each player. They break down the room types and where said tiles can sit (above ground, below, or both). It explains their scoring, and offers reminders of the bonus for placing the third room of that type. To experienced gamers, this iconography is digestible. For newer gamers to the hobby, or for those not used to point salad scoring, it might overwhelm.
Once the rounds get going, the game progresses at a fast rate. The pleasant flow sees you soon have only five, and then three tiles to pick between. By the latter stages, your options become limited. By then you’ll know sharp-ish which tiles you need to draft to best suit your castles. The slowest phases of the game are likely to be the first, second, fifth and sixth rounds.
With any scoring method like this, it’s impossible to gauge the winner in advance. This adds a sense of drama into the mix, because it feels like it could be anyone’s game when you tot up the points. It’s in both you and your neighbours’ interests to score big points across your partnership. Scoring the weaker of your two castles is a neat trick to force you to not leave one behind. But it does require you to spin plates for not one, but two growing ‘tableaus’ of sorts. At times it feels like you’re being unfaithful to one by getting excited about a tile that benefits the other!
Player Scaling Is A Breeze
There’s enough tiles in Between Two Castles for seven players to join in. The sound of that might set off klaxons, but the reality is that the game scales with ease. Round length doesn’t extend with extra players at the table, because all drafting is simultaneous. When it comes to placing tiles, you’re welcome to discuss matters with both of your neighbours. In fact, I’d encourage you do so! This adds a bit more spice into the mix. Especially when you encourage them to donate the better of their two tiles into your castle!
Of course, the direct interaction ceases beyond your two neighbours. In, say, a five player game, you won’t liaise with the other two players. Their castles have an something of a diluted impact on your game, because your neighbours have a shared interest in contributing to them, too. Chances are you’ll spend zero time looking at those castles, instead focusing on your own two. Also, the more players, the less time you’ll receive back your initial starting tiles. This makes it harder to [attempt to] memorise the tiles in play! If you’ve played games like Seven Wonders before, you’ll understand.
Saying that, hate-drafting can – and will – occur, like in most drafting games. The familiar quandary rears its head. Can you afford to pass tiles on that offer extreme value to your opponents’ castles? This isn’t as mean a game as Palaces of Mad King Ludwig, though. In that game, you can play Moat Tiles to spite other players and block their rooms off. That gets competitive, fast! Here it’s not as cutthroat.
The Stonemaier Benchmark
We’ve come to expect quality from Stonemaier over the years, so the benchmark is already rather high! The crux of the game is in the tiles. They’re going to see a lot of physical handling in a pick-and-pass format, so it’s good to see decent cardstock. They didn’t punch out of the board as slick as I’d like – am I too fussy in that regard? It’s also not the chunkiest card stock I’ve seen, but it’s of a practical depth for this volume of tiles.
There’s a lot of tiles – too many to shove into a large drawstring bag (like in Isle of Skye). Stonemaier teamed up with Gametrayz to create a custom insert for the components. Gametrayz products ooze class; they’re up there with market leaders for plastic molded inserts. The height of the insert is exactly nine tiles high. That’s the number you need at the start of rounds 1 and 5, so set-up is super-quick! Grab a stack and you’re ready to go. When packing away, you can shove regular tiles in anywhere. This suits your needs for ‘random shuffling’ for next time you play. The 48 Speciality Rooms and 28 Royal Attendants have designated spots within a second tray.
The anatomy of the tile layouts is logical, but the graphic design and iconography is small. The scoring system for the tile explains which tiles earn points according to placement. A white square indicates this tile, while black squares/arrows indicates neighbouring tiles. Coherent enough to read at a glance, but these squares are minuscule! They’re 1x1mm. This isn’t an issue once you become familiar with the game – you skim-read this iconography after a while. But for newer gamers to the hobby, this could be tough on the eyes.
The art, though, is a sheer delight. No two regular room tiles out of the 147 are alike. It was a joy to spend time drinking in the rooms I built into my two castles. For Stonemaier fans, there’s even some Easter Eggs to look out for. It’s tough not to want to draft the Scythe Room, for example…
The seven different castle tokens are chunky wooden silhouettes. (Can I call them meeples? How about ‘keeples’?) They act as the castle itself that you and your partner build together. There’s a wonderful nod in the rulebook telling you the actual names of these seven castles. One is the aforementioned Neuschwanstein. These could have been the same castle shape but in seven colours. But they’re not. Details like this are what make board gamers thrum with next-level geekery.
Final Thoughts on… Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig
When push comes to shove, you want to know: is this better than Between Two Cities? A step up from Castles of Mad King Ludwig? Between Two Castles scratches the same itch as Between Two Cities, for sure. There’s still the wonderful mechanism of you passing your hand to your neighbour, hoping they draft a certain tile to add into your shared castle.
The major difference is the ‘Mad King Ludwig’ aspect of a sprawling, unpredictable layout. They can have tall towers and deep dungeons. I revelled in this part, rather than it feeling confined to a strict grid. I’ve played games galore where tiles must remain ‘within the lines’. Ludwig doesn’t care about that, and it’s a refreshing change. It does mean you need a sizeable table, though.
The rooms here are all square (they have to be, for uniform secrecy and drafting purposes). You lose the even-madder puzzle nature of regular Castles, where room shapes differ in size.
Nevertheless, games like this stir inner feelings of pride after the final scoring. You sit back and marvel at the structure you’ve built. I challenge you to resist taking a picture of your pièce de résistance. Your eyes wander over the design you co-constructed. You smile at the rooms within this crazy castle. You follow the Hall of Puzzled Floors that leads into the Archery Range. Of course you’ve built the Crown Storage next-door to the Rabbit Room!
The suggested player range on the box says 3-7 players, which is unusual for modern games. There is a two-player variant, which requires a dummy AI opponent to sit in, creating a third player. While this makes Between Two Castles playable at this head count, this mode isn’t as enjoyable as with 3+ players. Players take turns allocating two tiles from ‘Ludwig’s’ hand into either castle. This feels distant from the crux of what makes the game tick. I’ve heard that the expansion, Secrets and Soirees, has extras that could help with this aspect. But that’s for another review, and another time…