The Opinionated Gamers

The Palace of Mad King Ludwig (Game Review by Chris Wray)

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The Palace of Mad King Ludwig is the latest full-sized strategy game by Ted Alspach and his publishing company, Bezier Games.  Palace is a successor to the 2014 hit Castles of Mad King Ludwig, taking the room-completion mechanic of Castles and working it into a clever new entry in the tile placement genre.  

When I first saw a prototype of The Palace of Mad King Ludwig last year, I was intrigued.  Its predecessor is one of my favorite games of all time, so I was eager to try the new design.  I picked up my copy at Essen, and it has been a big hit with me and my game group in the weeks since.  The game was recently released in the United States, so I wanted to post about our experiences as architects of a great palace.

The Gameplay

In The Palace of Mad King Ludwig, two to four players work together to build a giant, beautiful palace for the Mad King, Ludwig II of Bavaria.  As the palace is built, it will slowly be surrounded by a moat, and the game ends when that moat is complete.  At that point, the player with the most points wins the game.

During setup, each player takes a blueprints board — which is used to track the rooms they’ve built — and a set of player markers in their chosen color.  The game board is set out, with the swans (a sort of in-game currency) and moat tiles (used to track the end of the game) sitting in their designated spaces on the main board.  

The room tiles are shuffled into five stacks, and the hallways and stairs form separate stacks.  Three hallways are set out in a line to start the building.  Lastly, four “favor tiles” (showing various ways to award points) are put out.

On a player’s turn, he or she has four choices:

A few of the room tiles put out at the start of the game.

When you place a room, if both tiles on a room’s entrance have a matching color, you earn a swan of that color.  Grey is a wild card, and if you have a grey room adjoining another grey room, you can choose the color swan to take.  Swans are worth points at the end of the game if you have different-colored sets.  

In addition to the swan bonus, there are bonuses for completing each type of room.  A room is only complete if all of the entrances to the room adjoin entrances to other rooms.  Entrances abutting walls or moats do not count as completed.

As the room stacks deplete, moat tiles will be placed out for each completed room.  These come in on the right or left of the palace, blocking off rooms and limiting the size of the palace.  There are rules about moat placement, but like the room placement rules, they’re intuitive: basically, fill in the space around the palace.  

The moat is starting to surround the palace!

After a player’s turn, the room tiles slide down the row, making them cheaper.  

In addition to earning items from completing rooms, players can earn rewards for completing certain goals on their player board.  Each player tracks their rooms placed on their board, and when a player has placed three of a room type, they get a swan.  When five of a room type are placed (i.e. you complete a row on the display), a player gets 10 points at the end of the game.  If you build at least one room of each type (i.e. you complete a column on the display), you get 10 points.  If you build two, you get an additional 20 points (for a total of 30), and so on and so forth.

The game ends when the moat surrounds the palace, the moat stacks are depleted, or the room stacks are depleted.

At that point, scores are tallied.  Scores are the sum of:

The player with the highest score wins!

My Thoughts on the Game

I’ve really enjoyed The Palace of Mad King Ludwig.  This game takes one of the coolest parts of Castles of Mad King Ludwig — the room placement bonuses — and gives them center stage in a clever tile-placement game.

You’ll be building rooms on the vast majority of your turns, and the challenging decision is what room to build and where to build it.  This can feel like a puzzle, as you need to both earn bonuses for yourself and block your opponents.  But in the end, the decision is nicely streamlined — the potential placement is constrained by the board, especially when the moats start coming out — and turns are relatively fast.

The moat mechanic is a cool thematic touch, and it is one of my favorite aspects of the design.  It is a clever timer on the game — all of my plays have ended with the moat being finished — and it adds a sense of urgency.  Plus, the moat is a fun way to block your opponents.

Though no room or moat placement decision feels like a game changer, the sum of your decisions add up over the course of gameplay.  There are several different ways to score points in Palace — and consequently several viable paths to victory — and you have to balance them both each turn and across turns.  

Ideally, your room placement not only earns you a few swans, but swans in the color you need for sets, plus a room completion bonus and maybe some progress towards a favor tile.  Often you can’t get all of these things at once, so you have to focus on optimization in the moment.  

A cool addition to the strategic depth is the in-game rewards for placing rooms horizontally on your player board.  That design element encourages players to think about short-term points versus long-term investment.  I tend to gravitate towards earning favor tiles, but I have fewer spaces for those if I grab these in-game advantages.  

Palace is a cool-looking game, with the sort of eye-popping table presence that causes other gamers to stop and ask what you’re playing. The production value overall is top notch, and there’s a considerable amount of cardboard in the box.  (This game takes a while to punch!)  The tiles are high quality, and I like that the graphic design adds greatly to the experience. The rulebook is especially well-written.

I think the game works well at all player counts, and it plays in a little over an hour.  Though I think this is a gamer’s game, Palace is a bit more approachable than Castles of Mad King Ludwig or Suburbia.  Though there is a bit of a point-salad feel in the scoring, the gameplay itself is streamlined and intuitive, and I’ve enjoyed this with new gamers.  I like how scoring was saved towards the end here: it makes the gameplay that much more engaging.  

The complaint I’ve heard most about the game concerns the removal of the pricing mechanic in Castles of Mad King Ludwig.  I never saw that as the central part of Castles — I always loved the room completion bonuses most — and I knew this game was going in a different direction, so I didn’t miss it here.  Neither did my game group.  But if you’re interested in Palace because of its ties to Castles, it is important to understand that the reward for room completion is the primary mechanic carried forward.

I love The Palace of Mad King Ludwig. It feels streamlined, well thought out, and well produced.  And my game group loves it too.  I’ve already had one request to borrow it, and one friend is a big fan likely to get her own copy.  It’s no secret that Ted Alspach is one of my favorite game designers, and Palace once again showed his talents.  This is one of the better games I tried out of Essen 2017.  If you like tile placement games, I enthusiastically recommend this one.  

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers

Doug G: Though I’m more partial to Castles, primarily due to the fact that I’ve played it dozens of times on the app, I enjoy Palace almost as much. Chris is right that the forefronting of the room bonuses is an excellent change to this game, and I like the fact that all players are working on the same castle, rather than their own – that means you can play off of what others have placed.  And Ted sure knows how to make the most out of all the cardboard tokens – that’s one HEAVY box! Shelley and I reviewed the game on episode 600 of the Garrett’s Games podcast.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

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