19 July 2018
You’re gonna need a bigger moat
That Ludwig II of Bavaria, eh? First, he goes and gets all his royal architects competitively building bizarre castles around his 19th-century kingdom. Now he’s got them all together and charged them with constructing one single, massive palace, even though they’re still scrabbling for his favour. No wonder he’s (a) stuck with opulent abodes where bedrooms strangely lead straight into broom closets and balconies, and (b) bankrupted the country. Mad.
If you’re one of those gamers who’s already familiar with the crazy tile-laying fun of Ted Alspach’s Castles of Mad King Ludwig then the American designer’s latest Euro-style release will feel reassuringly familiar. But, despite what you may have heard, this is no reimplementation. While many elements are the same – room names, the point-scoring favours mechanic, room-completion bonuses and the bemusing fact that you can only build ground floors and basements – it’s very much a case of same theme, different game.
Castles is a relatively gentle engine-builder, with each player mostly absorbed in constructing their own little points-yielding structure, only really interacting across the table via the game’s bidding system. Palace, by contrast, is sleeker, faster-paced and more directly competitive, with greater potential for have-at-thee tactics; you can easily arrange a room placement to mess up an opponent’s completion bonus (achieved by linking all a room’s entrances with others) by slamming a brick wall down into a doorway, for instance.
Not that it ever gets nasty. With each room entrance marked by a coloured swan (Ludwig loved swans), any colour-matching upon placement rewards both the new room’s owner and the owners of existing adjacent rooms with a token of that colour – useful to have, as sets of tokens reward points at the game’s end, and can be used as room, upgrade and favour-purchasing currency throughout the game. In this way, there’s often a benefit granted to ease the pain of any take-thatiness.
There are other superb touches, too; the way you can nudge unplaced rooms into upgrade slots along your blueprints board’s serrated edge, for example. And, above all, the fact that, after the first of five room-tile stacks is depleted, the moat starts surging in around the play area’s edges (via tiles placed by the current, room-completing player), gaining speed as the game progresses, increasingly limiting placement options and bringing about game-end when the two ends of the moat meet.
Like the weirdo, tabletop-smothering edifice itself, there are a few small niggles. The non-tile components are small and fiddly – the player markers especially. One sneeze or errant sleeve-sweep could easily ruin play. Then there’s the scoring. Unlike in Castles it’s all saved up to the end, and is so complex and intense Alspach even suggests in the rulebook that someone “relatively good at addition” act as scorekeeper. It rather leeches a little drama out of the game’s climax, waiting around while someone fusses over the maths.
But, like we say: small niggles. It is, by and large (with emphasis on the large) a magnificent game, and a must-play for all fans of tile-laying. And, if you really pushed us, we’d commit to saying it’s a better game than Castles. Even if that might sound like madness.
Less a reimplementation than a refined sequel to Castles of Mad King Ludwig, this is a gloriously fun, pleasantly competitive tile-laying beauty. If you come, you must build it.
Designer: Ted Alspach
Artist: Stephanie Gustaffson
Time: 75 minutes
This review originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products.