This week we started a little earlier in the afternoon, and while we began with our gaming group being concerned with watching Game of Thrones and kids’ curfews just like the week before, all such concerns were forgotten as the night went on. We hadn’t had a long game night in a few weeks, and the storm of hail and rain with occasional thunderclaps no doubt helped to create a perfect gaming atmosphere that no one was in a rush to end. There was also a deluge of tacos, ciders, coffee, black bean chips, salsa, and blueberry pie to be enjoyed.
First we played the Secrets expansion to Castles of Mad King Ludwig. We have been itching to play this one for a while, but as Castles is already a two to three hour game for us, it has been pushed back several times to make room for other games. Also, it isn’t just a long game; it has a long set-up process that takes at least five to ten minutes, and as it was our first time playing Secrets, it took more like fifteen to integrate the new game components with the old. Now, I love Castles of Mad King Ludwig—it is definitely in my top ten games, and probably in my top five—but I hate setting it up. No doubt there are probably some arts and crafts oriented gamers with box organizers on Etsy (I haven’t looked) but right now, the copy in our group has twenty-plus plastic bags in it, the contents of which each needed to be sorted with care to work in Secrets. You don’t just combine both sets; you have to remove parts of original Castles to make room for Secrets. That said, the long set-up is worth it, as Castles is a unique game that I consider one of my “Diceless Heavens,” and Secrets adds a ton of content to the game that encourages players to strategize differently.
The basic rules of Castles of Mad King Ludwig are unchanged. Each turn, one player is the Master Builder. That player chooses what the price tags will be on seven different rooms: 1000, 2000, 4000, 6000, 8000, 10000, and 15000. Play than proceeds to the Master Builder’s left, and that person chooses one of the rooms to buy (or they can take 5000 coins if they are out of money). Each player pays the Master Builder for the rooms, until it is the Master Builder’s turn to purchase, and he pays the bank for the room he wants. Then it is the next player’s turn to be Master Builder.
So unlike most games, in which every player pays the bank for their purchases, Castles changes it up and keeps a lot of the money in the group by having three of the four players every turn pay the Master Builder. This makes Castles a fascinating economic strategy game, with lots of thinking, but no calculus, required. You learn as the game goes on that you only get to make money when you’re the Master Builder, so when it’s your turn to be the Master Builder, you have to put the really desirable rooms with a fairly affordable price tag, because it’s better to get paid on 6000 or 8000 than 1000 or 2000. Sometimes players will go for the cheap rooms just to save money, as each player has to make their money last until they are Master Builder. In order to get other players to spend more, you have to resist putting the rooms that they want on the high prices, because that will backfire. Just as in real life, players will wait for a price to drop before making a buy. Players also have the option to take 5000 for the bank if they feel that you’re pricing them out, and if all the other players choose to do this on your turn, you won’t make ANY money.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig is already a really fun game with an entertaining theme, satisfying strategic elements, and good box art, before the intriguing aspects of Secrets are added to the mix. The first thing that Secrets adds to the game is Barbicans and Moats, each of which comes with a castle wall with which to enclose your structure. The starting tile in Secrets is the Barbican, which is a castle wall with a gatehouse that you build upon just like the Foyers in original Castles. Each turn, in addition to being able to buy one of seven available rooms, a hallway, or a stairway, you can also buy one of the moat pieces to begin to enclose your castle. Your starting Barbican plus three Moats equals a four-sided enclosed castle. I decided to go for the moats, knowing from experience that the new features in game expansions often are the key to victory in those expansions, and pursuing this path did get me a lot of points, but one less point than the winning player, who only bought one of these moats and chose not to complete her castle wall. From this game, it would appear that the disadvantage of being hemmed in by a castle wall outweighs the cumulative point advantage to placing the moats.
The second new addition is the Swans, which are little precious objects that can be exchanged for coins or points. There are five different colors, and each complete set of five can be exchanged for 15,000 coin during the game or 15 points at the end of the game. A set of four is worth 10,000 or 10; three are worth 6,000 or 6; two are worth 3000, or 3; and one is worth 1000 or 1. If you end the game with seven swans, a set of five and a set of two, they are cumulative, or 18 victory points. Swans come with certain available room tiles, as the room tiles from the Secrets expansion are marked with one or two swans that you place on the room when it is drawn from its deck. Knowing that Castles often ends within a five or ten point spread between the winner and second place, both the winning player and the second player (me) did not exchange any of the swans for coins during the game. Similarly, my recommendation to people playing Secrets for the first time is to save your swans and pay attention to which rooms have which color of swans, as those points can add up fast.
The third new addition is Secret Corridors, which, when placed, double the connection bonuses between rooms. Our group found these kind of hard to place, as the rules governing their placement are pretty strict: they have to be placed between two entrances, but they can’t connect two rooms that are already connected. Playing Secrets a few more times may be conducive to our group learning how to place our rooms with more of a gap between them to accommodate the secret corridors, but in this first time playing Secrets, they did not affect the outcome very much.
Overall, the Moats turned out to be enriching, but confining; while each room I placed earned an extra three points for having an enclosed castle, the small area with which I had to work severely limited my choices of rooms. Also, it didn’t seem that the other players noticed, but other players on their Master Builder phase could put expensive price tags on all the small rooms, and cheap price tags on all the big rooms that they know you won’t be able to fit in your castle, hence pricing out the players that pursued the Moats.
Again, Castles of Mad King Ludwig and Secrets are great fun, and we all love it, but it isn’t an appreciation without reservations. My main criticism is that at times Castles and the Secrets expansion are overwhelmingly fun, an oxymoron derived from the fact of the long set-up and break-down of the game, as well as the already long decision making involved in adding rooms in Castles that is compounded by the confining walls of Secrets.
You may recall from my post on theme that I mentioned that we only played Star Trek Catan once before, and perhaps this influenced our decision to play Star Trek Catan for our second game of the evening. Also, as we have been consciously avoiding Catan to play other games, it may have been our unconscious minds seizing on an opportunity to let Catan creep into game night. Just as drunks don’t know how they ended up in their garage, we had no plans to play any form of Catan that night, and suddenly there it was on the table.
Make no mistake: Star Trek Catan is about 92% Settlers of Catan in Trekkie cosplay. There are a few differences, which I’ll mention later, but if you know Klaus Teuber’s 1995 classic game, it will take you about five minutes to learn the 2012 Star Trek rendition, and any strategy that works in the former works in the latter as well. Everything is simply changed via substitution, so that wood becomes dilithium crystals, brick becomes tritanium, wheat becomes oxygen, ore becomes water, wool becomes food, knight cards become Starfleet Intervenes, settlements become outposts, roads become starships, and cities become starbases.
I previously mentioned the wheat/ore/wool domination strategy in 10 point basic Settlers of Catan, and I decided to use it here in Star Trek Catan (where it is an oxygen/water/food strategy) as the only other time I had played it I went for a more basic “build to win” strategy. By “build to win” I mean playing Settlers of Catan the way that it is represented in the rules, that is the winner should be best represented on the board by a predominance of their color, having eked out an empire of settlements, cities, and roads. I prefer this classic Settlers of Catan playing style, as it is more satisfying to have a sense of development on the board. But, as you can see from these photos of our game board, the winning player’s development was mostly off the board. When you look at these photos, intuition would tell you that red should be the winning player, but it was blue (me), who had that tiny empire on the right, that was the winner.
But you can see that my off-board development was pretty intense.
Also, my small Cardassian empire is all Starbases. (No, you don’t actually get to play Cardassians; but I may have been imagining that while playing.)
There are some differences between Settlers of Catan and Star Trek Catan, the main being that you have six settlements (called outposts) instead of five, but that they do not get returned to your supply when you upgrade them to cities (called starbases). The starbase instead is fitted on top of the outpost on the game board. This means that it is a little harder to get the 10 points to win in Star Trek Catan than in Settlers of Catan. In order to get to 10 points in Star Trek Catan you either have to use all your Starbases (8 points), plus the two remaining Outposts that can’t be converted to Starbases (2 points), or you have to be aggressive going after the Longest Road, Largest Army, and the victory points buried in the development card deck. In original Settlers of Catan, after upgrading your settlements into cities, your settlements return to your hand for new scoring opportunities, and as this does not happen in Star Trek Catan, the latter encourages old-fashioned Catan players not to use the classic “build to win” strategy in order to get their winning total, and to learn some new tricks instead.
Another difference are the Starfleet Officers that each player can claim at difference points of the game. I discovered that Dr McCoy was a great facilitator to my ore/wheat/wool (water/oxygen/food) strategy, as Dr. McCoy can substitute any card he wants when buying a development card. As he can do this twice before he has to be exchanged with another Starfleet Officer, this was a great help in acquiring the Largest Starfleet and all those extra Starfleet Intervenes cards (that I wanted to be victory points for an earlier win). I was switching between McCoy, Spock, and Sarek in this game, as they seemed to have the most useful enhancements for my chosen strategy. Spock lets you claim a resource of your choice when the dice do not allow you to produce, and Sarek lets you upgrade a outpost to a starbase for two water and one oxygen instead of three and two.
Lastly, we played Superfight for the first time, which was the perfect game to round off the evening, as it is a non-strategic party game. Players play character cards and ability cards in order to make a powerful or amusing combination that are judged by a referee. I can say unequivocally that this is a perfect game for your next party, because we had a ball with it even though we played it completely wrong. We were pretty excited to play this one, and skipped some important rules in our haste, but my impression based on the hilarious card combinations that we played and the rules I found online is that it will be even more fun if played in the correct way. My main criticism of referee based games is that they are plagued by bias, or even worse, The Sanjaya Effect, if players want to be particularly obnoxious.
It was a satisfying game night, with the bedrock of Catan modified by the novelty of its Star Trek theme, a hilarious party game played wrong to the merriment of all, and our first time playing an epic expansion to Castles of Mad King Ludwig. Of all these games, my greatest recommendation goes to Castles of Mad King Ludwig, which despite the long set up, is one of the best games on the market right now.
Buy Castles of Mad King Ludwig on Amazon
Buy Secrets Expansion on Amazon
Buy Star Trek Catan on Amazon
Buy Two Map Expansion for Star Trek Catan
Buy Superfight on Amazon
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