by Derk Bil
reviewed on PC
Dullness, dragons and disease
Aspiring royals and city builder enthusiasts looking for an affordable and forgiving title this summer can get their hands dirty with Kingdoms and Castles. Painted with a basic but charming graphics stick, the game will see you expanding your city while fending off dullness, dragons and disease.
How challenging you want Kingdoms and Castles to be is entirely up to you as the game ships with three sandbox modes. The easiest of which will let you expand your city without any threats or demands of significance other than the possible outbreak of diseases and supplying your population with enough food. It’s a great mode if you’re interested in building cities but hate dealing with crises. If you do like a game to throw some wrenches at you, dragons and vikings can be added into the mix in the medium difficulty mode. This mode requires considerably more effort from your part, especially in the area of defenses and city planning. At the highest difficulty setting the growing seasons are much shorter, vikings and dragons more plentiful and penalties for prolonged unhappiness much more severe.
Kingdoms and Castles is largely self-explanatory even to non-seasoned mayors. Buildings are ordered by their material requirements and any prerequisites to build a certain structure are shown in informative tooltips. With a few exceptions, every building has a clear function and most do not require any further meddling once you've placed them on the map.
After plunking down your main keep, a sizable tooltip sporting an equally sizable exclamation mark will herald the arrival of several advisors tasked with giving you tips on agriculture, matters of war and city planning. As a new player, the advisors will often have something sensible to say, actually helping you find your footing in this brave new world. As a more experienced city manager I found myself tiring quickly of the many adviser notifications that pop up for no good reason and I turned them off pretty quickly.
Not everything is that well explained, however. It was not immediately obvious that, in order to silence the advisor who told me to tax my citizens, I needed to build a treasure room first and adjust the tax rate from there. It also wasn’t clear that my heroes were little more than cannon fodder until they have some soldiers to command.
Location location location
In Kingdoms and Castles’s early stages there's not a lot of leeway for doing your own thing or being creative. Your small supply of food and construction materials will run out quickly and you’ll be following pretty much the same path each time to get your town started. You have just enough materials to lay the first bricks for your road network, erect some houses and build a handful of farms. If you stray too much from the optimal path you may find yourself struggling early on, getting stifled due to being understaffed. Yet if you plan careful enough and manage to grow a little larger, you will find yourself with an increasing amount of idle citizens and a lot more options to build to your heart’s content.
Farms, and optimizing them, is both simple and cleverly done. Not all tiles can be utilized for farming purposes, which will leave you with plenty of gaps between them that can be used for windmills to boost farm-tile effectiveness or granaries. A minor spoiler warning here - the placement of granaries is at least as important, if not more, than just having a lot of them and I quite enjoyed this mechanic. Converting vast swathes of fertile lands into massive harvest-factories is not overly effective. Your peasants simply spend too much time walking between the farms and the granaries for them to be able to store the entire harvest before the end of winter. Building a kingdom actually requires a bit of thought.
And it is not just the food industry that requires optimizing. Happy citizens prefer their homes to have access to a church and a library and in walking distance from a tavern. Achieve this, feed them and don’t overwork them too much and it will be pretty easy to keep the spirits up. None of these requirements have the same graceful, simplistic and intricate implementation of the granary mechanic though, and this is a bit of a miss.
City builder lite
Kingdoms and Castles is a whimsical city builder and perhaps a bit of a lightweight. This is good news if you just like making artsy 8-bit medieval towns and don't want to get bogged down with heavy menus in order to build and maintain your empire. Seasoned players looking for a little more substance and complexity will probably bore fairly quickly. Yet if paying 10 bucks for perhaps short week's worth of distraction sounds acceptable, then by all means, give this one a go.
Lacking complexity, affordable