Strategy games are built around a fantasy that we can be the big, bright minds that direct some little corner of the world. By navigating civilizations, armies, or individual zerglings, I can get this thrill of making and enacting a plan all of my own design that gets me toward some kind of win state. Death Crown takes this to a wild-ass, bizarro extreme by allowing me to play as the very concept of Death that is pursuing a jovial king who just refuses to die.
Playing the villain isn’t all that strange in strategy games. Dungeon Keeper, Evil Genius, and certain factions in the Disciples franchise allowed me to get my fill of being the big bad throughout my youth, and relatively more recently, Overlord and Impire have carried the torch of allowing me to do evil strategy stuff. What’s different about Death Crown is that it plays itself much straighter than these other games. There’s no winking about how I am being so bad by killing off the heroes. There’s no humor to it, no chuckling about the ironic reversal of what I would normally be doing in a game vs. what I am doing here.
Instead, Death Crown puts me in the shoes of a gothic-inspired Death who doggedly pursues this scamp of a king, and the tone is one of absolute mystical seriousness as we participate in battles across a world map. These battles, which take place on a small hex grid, are deceptively simple. You build mines, which generate gold, and you can use that gold to create graveyards that spew dead troops and towers that will stop enemy soldiers from attacking your deathly cathedral. It happens in real-time. It’s tense, difficult, and overwhelming in the later stages of the game.
Much like Circle Empires, another weird strategy game I love, Death Crown is a game that wants you to learn how to create a death ball. Being good at the game means optimally placing your resources, quickly routing your troops to destroy enemy resources, and then doubling down over and over again until you eliminate the opposing castle. Winning the game isn’t aesthetically pleasing; you didn’t elegantly make the right choices to hit the AI in its Achilles heel. Instead, you are this overwhelming natural force that just repeatedly plops down skeleton-spewing hellmouths in your insatiable lust for the end of things. And damn, it totally works.
This simple strategic pulverization, rather than building specific units to counter their units or investing in technologies to parry theirs, is something that I really like in smaller strategy games. Instead of a big if-then chart of potential moves, I can only plan a few steps ahead, turning my strategy into tactics and then into just smashing down as many unit producers as I can to crush the king as soon as possible.
Death Crown is a lighter strategy game that gave me just the right amount of enjoyment for about three hours, and its cinematics for beating the end-game bosses are some of the most aesthetically pleasing I’ve seen in a game in a long while.