The app version of Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a very rich implementation of the game, with a lengthy tutorial and an involved, challenging solo campaign. The physical game is one of the top 100 games on Boardgamegeek, although after playing the app for several hours, I’m starting to think that I love the app more than I like the game itself.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig takes the very common mechanic of “build some stuff, collect some bonus cards, build stuff to max out the cards” that is in more games than I could even count and adds a layer of puzzle-completion on top of that. Players select room tiles from the display to build out the castles on their boards, but space is somewhat limited, and the points you get from placing a room depend on where you place it – specifically to what type of room or rooms you connect the new tile. Completing a room tile, which means connecting it successful through all doors (little spaces) on the tile’s edges, brings a different reward or bonus depending on the room type. There are seven room types plus stairs and hallways – you need stairs to build basement rooms, which can be as ridiculous as the mold room or the bottomless pit – but the biggest bonus comes from completing orange utility rooms, which have just one door (reducing future expansion options) and give you another bonus card for end-game scoring.
Part of my dislike for the game is aesthetic. You are filling out a puzzle without completing it: you will often block doorways, which means you don’t complete those tiles for bonuses, and also means the resulting castle is ungainly. And part is that the sheer variety of tile types, shapes, and sizes (size does matter, here, Donald) means that with just seven tiles on display for purchase at any time, you’re frequently left at the mercy of the market, like in Alhambra, which makes any kind of planning ahead difficult. The best strategies are to leave the maximum number of options open on your board, or to get really lucky.
The app, however, does a great job of implementing this game’s complexity. There are just so many rules to understand here around the different room types, and the app’s very detailed tutorial doesn’t just lay them out, but has you play through a series of mini-games with specific goals to teach you the game’s mechanics. The campaign is pretty difficult – you often have to win against one or more AI opponents and meet two other tough criteria, or to reach three criteria in a solo game – and thus serves as a further teaching tool as well as an enjoyable challenge. I do find some of the text in the rooms hard to read before I zoom in on my old iPad 2, and I wish the pass button were located away from the rotate and cancel buttons, but those are minor, especially the first point, which I assume is less of a problem on better screens. The AI players seem strong enough to me, a novice player, although there’s a certain amount of game-theory stuff (e.g., knowing I’m unlikely to take a certain tile) that no AI player in any app can do.
Returning to the mechanics of the game itself, one aspect that was novel (to me at least) was that in each round, the first player gets to rearrange the five to seven tiles on the market across the seven spaces, each of which has a price from one coin up to fifteen. Other players buy tiles by paying the first player, not the bank. That player then goes last in the purchasing phase, so s/he gets to take in a bunch of coins and can manipulate the market to try to make other players pay more for tiles they want, or to try to rid the market of tiles s/he doesn’t want. I think that would make playing the game in person against multiple opponents a very different experience from playing via an app or playing against a single opponent, because your decision set would include how to maneuver the tiles to best suit you and deal any disadvantages to other players.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig lists for $6.99 on the iTunes app storeand on the amazon Android store. I received a review copy from the publishers, but I’d say I’ve gotten well more than $7 worth of value from it given how many times I’ve played it just working through the solo campaign.