Kingdoms and Castles

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Developer: Lion Shield
Release Date: July 20, 2017

About Phillip Moyer

I majored in journalism because I wanted to use it as an excuse to play video games, but I accidentally got a real job along the way. Now I write reviews in my free time for WorthPlaying.


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PC Review - 'Kingdoms and Castles'

by Phillip Moyer on Aug. 16, 2018 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Kingdoms and Castles is a game about growing a kingdom from a tiny hamlet to a sprawling city and imposing castle.

The real-time strategy genre has undergone a major change in the last decade. Games where players are expected to build up an army and attack have almost disappeared from the popular consciousness, and they've been replaced by either hero-based multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games such as Defense of the Ancients and League of Legends, or by base-building games such Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld.

Kingdoms and Castles falls firmly into the base-building camp, and it shares many of the features of its better-known counterparts. A strong emphasis on micromanagement seeps through every aspect of its gameplay, where all your peasants must have ready access to food and shelter, and constructing a building requires your townspeople to transport every single block of building material from its nearest stockpile. This means that unless you plan your city with efficiency in mind, your subjects will be malnourished, and projects will take a long time to complete.

Time, however, is something that you often don't have, since the threat of attacking dragons and invading Vikings always looms, and if you're not judicious in setting up defenses, everything you've worked for will be reduced to ashes.

Well, that's the case on the highest difficulty, at least. In any other difficulty, the Vikings are less of a threat and more of a minor diversion that will show up, you know… eventually.

Even on the hardest difficulty level, Kingdoms and Castles is far more forgiving than its better-known predecessors. Much of the initial challenge comes from not knowing the game mechanics because the title lacks any sort of tutorial, manual, or tips to set players on the right path. Attempting to play the game without first reading a wiki guide or two will end with your peasants starving, spontaneous fires consuming entire city blocks, and citizens dying unexpectedly of plague.

Horrifying setbacks such as these can lead to an initial impression that there's a lot of depth to the game mechanics, but after you learn the ropes, it becomes clear that it's a lot simpler than it lets on.

For instance, the only real strategy to prevent fires is to have more wells around. This isn't because quick access to water allows for more effective firefighting; it's just that fires spread more slowly if there's a well nearby. It turns out the mere act of digging a deep hole changes the flammability of nearby objects.

Obviously, there has to be some level of simplification and abstraction when it comes to simulations of this sort, but the solution to far too many challenges seems to be "build the thing that stops it." If there's fire, build a well. If there's sickness, build a hospital. If there's unhappiness, build a tavern or a church — or both right next to each other so the peasants can attend services while wasted.

The strategy, such as it is, can be mostly understood within minutes of hunting down an online resource that explains how the game works. It almost feels like the title hoped to maintain its difficulty by hoping that the obfuscation of the mechanics would make things harder.

The graphics certainly don't help with this matter, either. The developer, Lion Shield, opted for a low-poly style. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the artist seemed to have used the style as an excuse to not put much thought into the building designs. All the structures look rather generic, and some look similar enough that it's difficult to identify which building has been placed where. This is problematic since this knowledge is essential to success in the game.

But Kingdoms and Castles is not a complicated game, and once the core ideas click, the management of the city begins to feel trivial, even if some of the design decisions cause problems.

Much of the challenge is front-loaded. If you don't place your keep close enough fertile land and all three resources, or if you aren't careful with the positioning of your first buildings, it'll take a long time to recover from the error. After the town starts growing and regularly producing everything your citizens need to survive, the difficulty plummets.

Challenges still exist later in the game, such as figuring out how to cram all the necessary buildings into the new areas you expand to, but at this stage, the title starts to take on a more relaxing, tranquil feel — aided by the soothing (if somewhat generic) medieval soundtrack. Kingdoms and Castles begins to feel more like Simcity than Dwarf Fortress, which can often be just what you're in the mood for if you want to have a pleasant time building a world without constantly having to deal with danger.

This tranquil atmosphere can serve to distract you from the fact that there is a threat out there, and one that you need to constantly keep in mind as you design your growing town. If Vikings attack and your town has no walls or defenses, you're a sitting duck, and you'll have to deal with a burnt-out town, kidnapped villagers, and a very unhappy populace. The game lets you build an army to fight back, but the only truly effective defense comes in the form of large stone walls and the weapons you place atop them.

Stone walls are expensive to build, and it takes a long time to collect enough stone to surround any large area with them. Once they're built, the attacks become far more manageable and can often be fought off without losing a single building.

Eventually, Kingdoms and Castles begins to grow tiresome. Once you successfully build a functioning society that can ward off dragons and Vikings with relative ease, there's little compelling reason to keep playing. The building system hardly has sense of progression, since most of the 47 structures are available to build immediately once the resources are collected. Without any goal to speak of, the game relies on the player making fun for himself. Unlike many of Kingdoms and Castles' contemporaries, the game offers little in terms of ways to find this fun. There's little exploration or discovery to be found, and the structures can't be used in any interesting means beyond the purpose for which they were designed.

Expansion is all there is left to do. While it continues to be a moderate challenge to not upset the delicate balance of your city, expanding simply for expansion's sake in a static world such as this ends up feeling hollow and slow. The larger the city, the longer it takes for anything to get built.

Every successful game will almost inevitably end with the player growing bored and not wanting to carry on. The earlier stages show promise, but eventually, it becomes evident how shallow and one-dimensional much of the content is. Content is still being added to the game, but there's little to suggest that the developer will add anything that revitalizes the endgame in a way that makes it remain interesting.

Kingdoms and Castles is a solid effort, especially coming from such a small team. The game lacks longevity, but at $10, it may be worth picking up by those who enjoy base-building games but don't enjoy the difficulty and complexity that often comes with the genre.

Score: 6.7/10

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