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Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig / Secrets & Soirees

The Castles of Mad King Ludwig was published by Bézier Games in 2014 and Stonemaier Games published Between Two Cities in 2015. They are quite different games so there were some gasps of surprise when, in 2018, Stonemaier collaborated with Bézier to release Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig: ostensibly a mashup between the two earlier games.

Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig was designed by Matthew O'Malley and Ben Rosset - the designers of Between Two Cities - so it's perhaps not surprising that its mechanics more closely mirror the design of that game. In fact, Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig is essentially a reimplementation of Between Two Cities but adopting the theme from Castles of Mad King Ludwig. With art by Agnieszka Dabrowiecka, Bartlomiej Kordowski, Laura Bevon and Noah Adelman, there is even some crossover artwork. We were especially impressed with the fact that all the standard room tiles are unique.

Like Between Two Cities, Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a tile drafting and placement game where players are taking a randomised bundle of room tiles, selecting two and placing one out to add to the layout of a castle to their right and the other to their left. Tiles score for their positions relative to others in the castle. Every player is contributing to two castles. This means that you are working cooperatively with each of your neighbours to maximise a castle's score but this is nonetheless a competitive rather than cooperative game. You're comparing each castles' scores when the game ends, and you score not for your highest scoring castle but for the lower of the two which you have helped build. That means you cannot boost one at the expense of the other... And tho' the semi-cooperative play may well feel alien to newbies, this is nonetheless an easy to play 'gateway' game that can be used to introduce players who are new to modern board games.

The Mad King Ludwig theme does add to the appeal of this Between Two Cities mechanic. And the mechanic itself, with its simultaneous tile selection and placement, makes the game playable with quite large numbers. The core game takes up to seven players and, indeed, it's at its best at higher player counts because these sharpen the tension between the cooperative and competitive elements. Once you've selected the two tiles you're going to place, you're allowed to discuss them and their optimal placement with the neighbours with whom you are cooperating. With four or more players, you can work this so that players always discuss first with the player to their left and then with the player on their right; that way, everyone is always fully involved. With only three players, one is left out while the other two are conferring. The game is played over two rounds, so each castle will end up with a total 16 tiles, plus any that get added as a result of a set collection bonus.

The Secrets & Soirees expansion adds more room tiles into the mix; and not just more of the same as it includes tiles that score quite differently to any in the core game and 'hidden rooms' that mirror the characteristics of a neighbouring room. The expansion also ups the maximum player count to eight. And, just to reiterate, this is a game where adding players does not materially increase the playing time. Secrets & Soirees also incorporates two different solitaire versions of the game for solo play plus alternative rules when playing with two where you drop the 'between' and each player works on their own castle.

The other big plus for the Secrets & Soirees expansion is that it's designed to fully integrate with the core game; to the extent that it even comes with an inset tray that's specifically designed to dovetail with the trays that come with the core game. The expectation is that you'll mix the new tiles in with the old, split them all across the various storage trays and throw away the expansion box.

If you're already a fan of Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig then you'll definitely want to add Secrets & Soirees into the mix. It makes an already very good game even better, and it manages to add more without extending the 60-minute playing time or imposing layers of complexity: even when you've fully incorporated the expansion in with your base game, you'll still be able to break out Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig to introduce as a gateway game.

(Review by Selwyn Ward)

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