BGG Ranks #60 and 75 – 2/16/2017
Question: What does the iconic Neuschwanstein Castle have in common with a generic cluster of suburban sprawl?
a) Both have been featured as the setting for multiple Pixar movies.
b) There’s a really popular T.G.I. Friday’s at Neuschwanstein.
c) Suburban architecture is heavily inspired by the works of composer Richard Wagner.
d) Each setting serves as inspiration for a Top 100 game by designer Ted Alspach which involves elements of variable pricing, tile laying, spatial planning, and a mix of shared and hidden individual objectives.
e) All of the above.
If you guessed answer D, you’re right! If you guessed something else, I look forward to hearing your explanation in the comments section below. First though, let’s jump right in to this week’s double feature, as I compare two very similar Top 100 games — Suburbia and Castles of Mad King Ludwig.
A Case of Deja Vu
I first played Castles of Mad King Ludwig about two years ago, and since that time it has become a go-to selection when my wife and I want to play a medium weight 2 player game. In Castles, players are rival builders seeking to win the favor of the Mad King through building the most impressive castle. Each game the king has several public criteria (“King’s Favors”) upon which he scores each player’s work, and they’re always sensible and not at all creepy. Take our most recent game for instance, where the King’s Favors included “most unfinished rooms” and “most square footage of basement space”.
So the king wants a half-finished torture factory? If only it were that easy. He’s also got some secret requests for each player. Everyone gets two personal objectives to start the game, which offer Victory Point bonuses for building certain types of rooms. Maybe the king will want your particular castle to feature as many kitchens as possible. Or lots and lots of stairs and hallways. Or rooms that are L-shaped, with an area of exactly 350 square feet each.
Additionally, each room has its own base aesthetic value, and many offer bonuses (or penalties) for proximity to other types of rooms. Completing a room (connecting all its entrances to other entrances) also yields an immediate bonus.
All of these various factors affect each room’s value. These values must be weighed against the relative costs, which are set by the Master Builder at the start of each round. The others take turns paying the Master Builder for the room they want, or paying her a set fee for stairs or a hallway, or passing and taking some money from the bank. The Master Builder goes last and pays the bank for her selection, and then the building supply is replenished and the role of Master Builder passes to the next player. If only the king knew that his contractors were building his castles completely out of pre-fab rooms and they’re all giving each other kickbacks! What a sucker.
This might all sounds like a really complicated math problem. And it is. But like a parent mixing chopped up cauliflower into some buttery mashed potatoes, Ted Alspach has tricked us all into doing maths while we think we’re just building a fun little castle! So sneaky of him.
I’d definitely recommend Castles to anyone who likes a good puzzle — you can think and plan and see your castle come together, which is a nice rewarding feeling. At the same time, it’s somehow not a game that is particularly prone to analysis paralysis. It’s medium-weight, but lighter in terms of down time and game length. If there’s one downside, it’s that Bezier Games did not provide any box inserts or containers for the many pieces. That can be remedied fairly easily, but it’s frustrating when manufacturers treat storage solutions as an add-on rather than a standard feature.
A Case of Deja Vu
I first played Suburbia about two weeks ago, and since that time… why does this feel familiar? Oh, it’s because Suburbia is basically Castles with minivans and soccer practice. Okay, there aren’t actually any minivans or soccer fields in Suburbia, and you can build skyscrapers and airports… wait, what kind of suburbs are these??
I digress, but the point is that the two games contain essentially all of the same core mechanics. Instead of buying castle rooms, you’re buying various hexagonal buildings to place in your suburban grid. The public objectives and personal objectives are different, but the idea is the same. There’s no ‘Master Builder’, but players still take turns buying pieces based on a slightly more rudimentary variable pricing system. Sure, there are some differences sprinkled in here and there, but nothing so dramatic that most people would feel the need to own both games. So which is better: Castles or Suburbia?
For me, Castles of Mad King Ludwig clearly beats out Suburbia. There are three reasons:
- Increased Player Interaction – The auction mechanic in Castles is far more interactive, as players to take turns setting prices for the pieces to be bid upon. Meanwhile, Suburbia involves much more focus on one’s own play area. The personal objectives have a bit more of a competitive slant in Suburbia (have the least of X, have the most of Y, etc.) but it did not create the same tension on a turn by turn basis.
- Greater Strategic Depth – The room completion bonuses in Castles allow for some pretty epic turns, with a little bit of planning. I especially like the bonus that gives you an immediate extra turn, and the one that lets you cherry-pick the next two rooms to be added to the auction block. Combine this with the auction mechanic, and I don’t think Suburbia can quite compete. They do have an interesting mechanism that applies costs based on the population growth of your town, forcing players to balance quick growth with building a strong revenue engine, and I’ll give them credit for that. It just feels a bit more static than Castles though, where the strategy can vary wildly based on the objectives you draw and the tiles that appear.
- Far Preferable Theme – Both games have a similar depth of theme, so I normally would not consider this a major factor. But ‘generic suburban planning’ as a theme simply does not do it for me. Don’t even start with me, Quadropolis — or should I say ‘Square City’? Want to make a game about building a historic empire or a specific modern metropolis? I’m in. You could call it “Boroughs of Crazy Mayor Boris”, for all I care. But a generic suburban sprawl? No thanks.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy both Suburbia and Castles of Mad King Ludwig. The spatial component gives them both that puzzly feel, but without the occasional monotony of an actual puzzle. Castles and Suburbia are so similar though, and to me it would be a little excessive to own both of them. Based on my experience playing them and feedback from others I played with, Castles of Mad King Ludwig is the consensus favorite. You may well enjoy Suburbia too — especially if you prefer a Euro with minimal player interaction and were a Sim City junkie growing up — but when it comes down to it, I’m picking just one and it’s Castles without a doubt.
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