Sunday, May 3, 2015

Madness in Grayscale: Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Castles in contemporary culture are almost invariably associated with a certain skew towards the less than sane. They occupy a strange corner in our architectural imagination, somewhere between Arthurian nostalgia for the medieval and the dark whimsy of old fairy tales. They almost construct themselves in our mind’s eye the moment we think of them, setting a mood and sense of place that induces us to fortify against some imaginary onslaught and expand inward, room by room, at our luxury.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig attempts to tap into this allure in an obtuse way by revisiting an earlier design, Suburbia, which garnered much of its success by interpreting core aspects of Sim City into a board game. Castles leverages the urban expansion engine of its predecessor while cutting back on some of its complexity and depth in favor of its most approachable aspect: tile placement. While players of Suburbia enact a sedately planned suburban sprawl through zoning for victory point synergies and carefully balancing growth and economy, they occupy a simpler, more improvisational role in Castles of Mad King Ludwig.

In each round, players expand their individual castle with a single room or enclosure tile. These are selected from a set of rooms of different shapes and sizes that are put up for sale on a “contract board” comprised of five to seven different price slots. Each of these rooms provides meager points unto itself but connects to several other point systems which can shift from turn to turn. These include adjacency bonuses/penalties, secret individual goals (e.g. have the most square footage of sleeping spaces), randomly selected achievement bonuses or “favors” for each game, and “completion rewards” for connecting all doorways in a room. These rewards in particular can be quite powerful as they allow players to bend the game rules (e.g. manipulate the next set of rooms for sale, or take an extra turn) or get substantial boosts in VP or income. Placing a room instantly awards points from these systems, often chains of them, which can feel like the satisfying leaps of bonus points in a pinball machine. This appeal lends itself to some unconventional room placements which are right in line with the “mad king” spirit of the game.

But each of these rooms, each of these triggers for the player’s elaborately planned cascade of points, has a monetary price. So how is this price set, and how do players make their money? These are both addressed by the clever use of the old technique of “I cut, you choose,” which brings an element of interaction between the players.

Each round begins by passing the role of “master builder” to the next player who replenishes the rooms on offer and assigns them to different price tiers on the market. Everyone’s payments go to the master builder for the turn but with a catch: the master builder is the last to select a room. This puts the master builder in a precarious position, balancing the affordability of these rooms to meet conflicting goals. She would prefer her room of choice to remain unselected without pricing herself out of buying it. However, this requires monitoring what opponents might want in order to ensure at least a couple of purchases, without also awarding rooms that would give opponents too much of an advantage.

This aspect of the game may set off analysis paralysis alarms until players are reminded that some of the bumpers in the pinball machine are in fact invisible: everyone has hidden objectives that can derail the best laid passive aggressive plans. Nonetheless, this can be a jarring element in the tempo of the game, giving careful pause between bouts of crazy room placements. Perhaps this is another echo of the madness of the king, alternating between shrewd manipulation of the labor market and the reckless joy of laying out elaborate room plans to suit his whimsy. While this particular contrast works for the most part, there are a few less intentional, and less successful, inconsistencies in the design.

After completing the first few games it occurred to me that the art on the box cover is an order of magnitude more evocative than the game itself. This isn’t unusual in board games, but it made me realize that this discrepancy didn’t exist with its predecessor Suburbia, underscoring some aesthetic issues in this game that may disappoint some players. Suburbia’s intentionally sterile visual style had a businesslike “urban idyllic” quality befitting the subject of suburban planning and lending itself to the readability of the game. But it seems as if this same style choice was ported more or less unquestioningly to Castles without enough consideration for the smaller, closer scale of the game, or for the opportunity to convey a unique sense of place and theme that should be felt by the player when building a castle rather than a suburb.

Looking at a tile layout in Castles of Mad King Ludwig often feels more like staring at the dull architectural schematics for a mansion. The tile art is devoid of inhabitants, though their furniture and other belongings are meticulously composed in a perfect overhead angle, making visual details rather geometric and abstracted. There are a few props here and there to justify the name of a room: some pots (grey circles) on a counter (brown rectangle) in the food prep room, some manacles in the oubliette (line drawing of handcuffs in a black circle). But few tiles, with the exception of some of the larger ones, carry a sense of place or uniqueness beyond their iconography and color-coded floors. This seems like a lost opportunity to have more fun with the art and visually convey the game’s implied whimsy instead of relying on room labels and the willingness of the player to fill in the oddly missing atmosphere.

The style of the iconography, while very readable, is also discrepant with a medieval setting, feeling more consistent with airport or road signage. This would be less noticeable if it didn’t often dominate the artwork on the tiles -- especially the smaller ones -- with a layout that can also be difficult to parse for a newcomer. Room types are indicated by a miniscule icon on the bottom left while the adjacency bonuses are front and center and much larger, which can lead to confusion while learning the game unless players are told that room types are also color-coded. The overall effect can lead players to stare at a puzzle of stylistically neutral icons and numbers instead of the bizarre castle underneath.

While the player’s castles have an element of (pastel) color-coding, the scoreboard and central board, which take up a comparatively large area on the game table, are entirely grey with an antiseptic cobblestone pattern; no shading, no signs of wear, no ivy, no castle madness. This scheme recurs on the inverse side of most of the game’s cards and all of its tiles, all of which are initially stacked on the same central mat. This creates a depressingly large swath of flat grey in the game, a color that, while certainly a dominant element in real castles, becomes abstracted and simplified to a dull, lazy visual shorthand.

These aesthetic hangups may seem petty but they can create a cumulative sense of disconnection that drains just enough fun and atmosphere out of the game to become irksome. It betrays a subtle, maddening cluelessness about the appeal of castle-building, never quite bridging a schizophrenic gap between some of the game's most satisfying mechanisms and its purported theme. This creates the impression that it tried to recapture lightning in a bottle without completely understanding the thematic coherence which allowed that original success, a King Midas groping at game elements and coming back with dull architectural drafts instead of gold.

Some players will be predisposed to enjoy the feeling of building a castle and will look through the strangely utilitarian art, the airport signage, and the muted color palette and invest some imagination into their crazy constructions.  Those less inclined to do this may still greatly enjoy the compulsion of maximizing their point bonuses and achievements or the perpetual “I cut, you choose” puzzle that occurs throughout the game. If neither of these aspects appeal, you probably won’t find any further hooks into the game and will instead relegate Castles to an appropriately grey area in your collection: the “solidly decent” shelf, a dungeon the game could have easily escaped by indulging in just a little more of the madness of its own subject matter.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Shadows of Malice: Towards Better Fantasy in Board Games

Shadows of Malice effects a bold and evocative fantasy adventure framework, showing design choices that I (perhaps vainly) hope will be carried forward in future games in this genre. It has some lessons to teach which deserve attention in the growing representational fantasy juggernaut of giant miniatures, overwrought lore & event text, license tie-ins, and exclusive Kickstarter content franchises.

The nuts and bolts of this system don't seem revelatory at first glance, albeit refreshingly straightforward. It provides a versatile d6-based roll modification system (using some satisfyingly chunky and colorful acrylic "crystals" to trade, expend, and harvest) for chance-driven elements ranging from movement and combat results to skill procs, in combination with some card draws for battle loot and other item acquisitions and the occasional effects of "fate". All of this is draped with just enough narrative cohesion onto an archetypal struggle of light versus dark beings which carries a few, thankfully subdued elements of game lore.

After the first few beats of the game, though, it becomes clear that there's a refreshing efficiency to this framework, combined with a respectful amount of restraint and remove; a lack of contrivance where it was apparently never needed. This noticeably cuts through a rule fog that tends to creep between the player and the game world in more baroque designs such as Mage Knight, while the thematic openness allows the player to more fully invest themselves in the game and inhabit the experience rather than spectate fantasy cliches.

The culminating feel can be summed up as less filler, more space. This certainly feels revelatory in a fantasy adventure board game: that the player can be trusted to take their cues and build an experience, rather than flipping a card, reading some mandated text illustrated with cliche van art, and shoving a Cthulhu or Star Wars model around a map. The game certainly provides props toward the experience, but these are more considered and less obtrusive: from the clean, minimal box cover, to the maps which take cues from the front or back pages of old fantasy novels, the clean symbology, and the crystals that refract the light on your game table and tie into the theme of the game in such a simple but aesthetically effective way.

For me, the way in which Shadows of Malice distinguishes itself shows an element of maturity and confidence that I don't often encounter in this genre. It respectfully leaves the staging of its narrative and actors -- as well as their visual illustrations -- to the player's own imagination, which makes for a much more immersive and personally fulfilling experience. The monster generation system is a prominent example of this design choice, where the player rolls to determine monster type (partly based on terrain), combat power, and special abilities. The image of the creature thus created is left entirely to the player's imagination, which can be fascinating and memorably bizarre, provided that you refrain from falling back on your own tired Tolkien visual tropes.

This is one of the few games where encountering a dragon or a Nazgul oddly feels disappointing because it seems like the result of a failure of your own imagination. There are much more interesting battles to be fought here.

I risk overstating the openness of this system, however. There is definitely a designated flow and goal to the game. This isn't a sandbox or a mere collection of tools for a fantasy crawl. The rules are clear, and the goal of your avatars is always to gain the strength they need to unlock certain locations, Light Wells, while the strength and number of shadow beings grows through a quasi-AI system to seek out these wells and trigger their own end game: the ultimate incarnation of a dark being named Xulthul. If you are beaten to the punch, you're in for a difficult battle, fueled by tough odds and a hopefully grandiose imagination to match.

The heavily luck-based systems may become off-putting for some who would perhaps rather fall back on more stable, incremental, deck building systems or rules puzzles to allow them to hone and craft the most efficient series of actions for their turns. There can be some measure of satisfaction and control gained from this, but at a cost that Shadows of Malice doesn't really care to pay. The filter between player and game world would become less raw and immediate, the "gameable" elements becoming a means detached from the ends, something this spectrum of board games has always struggled with. I don't believe this game is designed with that mindset. Instead, it targets those who can comfortably bridge the managed chaos of the dice with the significance of unfolding events in the game world. It's a weird, liminal form of roleplaying and fatalism that should be familiar to a distinct audience.

For anyone who remembers those harrowing encounters in D&D, where you feel like you're throwing every possible roll modification at a fight to surmount an increasingly desperate, evil dice-fest that seems to be driven by some sort of dark magic against your favor... and finally pulling through, limping away hemorrhaging with every status effect you can think of, understanding that your struggle with the dice was modeling a ridiculous bloodbath of a battle (or a comedy of errors), welcome back.  It's good to be home, isn't it?

In all of these respects, Shadows of Malice exemplifies how to do fantasy better in board games.  It understands and respects the heart of the genre and gives us some wonderful adventures in the process. What more can we ask for?

Note: This is a revised version of a review that I originally posted on boardgamegeek. I've since been recruited by gamingtrend to publish reviews for them. As such, future posts on this blog will consist of personal gaming updates, general musings, and will include links to full reviews on gamingtrend.