I always loved the fantasy of being a medieval lord, designing and building unconquerable strongholds and then watching my enemies shatter themselves against the ramparts. But I never felt like any of the games that take the medieval fortress as their backdrop really captured the daydreams I had when I contemplated the homicidal architecture of the castle.
Kingdoms and Castles, which released on PC, Mac, and Linux a couple of weeks ago, has brought those old daydreams to life. It asks you to do a little bit of a lot of different things—from fortress design to medieval town management—but never seems to sweat the details. Everything is just tricky enough to be rewarding, but just loose enough to allow for experimentation and mistakes.
That laid-back approach is initially Kingdoms and Castles' strength but, with time, might prove to be the where the breach opens up in its defenses against routine.
Kingdoms and Castles begins as a medieval village sim as you scaffold your economy from basic materials like food and stone into high-end buildings like libraries, hospitals, bakeries, and weaponsmiths. Good public services make citizens happy, which causes more workers to immigrate but also places more demands on your economy. Don't worry too much if you get it wrong, though: A few starved peasants won't do much harm, nor will a housing bottleneck take more than a couple moments to sort out. The idea is to keep you honest and force expansion across the map, not to send you into an economic tailspin.
The real danger is supposed to be the dragons and the Vikings that show up at irregular intervals to torch your settlement. Dragons fly straight in and attack at random, while Vikings end up playing more of a traditional tower defense game, proceeding from their seaborne landing points along the easiest paths toward valuable buildings. To stop them, you'll need walls, armed towers, and eventually an army. Every time you fail to fend-off an attack, you've usually lost a few buildings, a few workers, and suffered a plummet in happiness that causes a surge in emigration and hinders your recovery.
It's in the in-between stages that Kingdoms and Castles is at its most interesting. When you are transitioning from undefended or partially defended village into a full-fledged castle town, or when you extending your original battlements to encompass a huge swathe of valuable and vulnerable territory. Figuring out the best defensive lines—the kind that will offer both protection and unimpeded access to valuable resources—and then painstakingly creating your fortress under the constant threat of attack is both tense and enormously satisfying.
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Eventually, you'll have layers of walls and turrets ringing your most valuable districts, and maybe even your whole island's coastline. At that point, Kingdoms and Castles is mostly about watching your village work as it lays waste to waves of attackers, and it's probably time to start over on a new map.
All of which is delightful in the way that good toy set can be delightful, or an amazing miniatures diorama. Even the dragons and Vikings don't seem that intent on trashing your village, and so once again they are just there to spur the use of defensive tools, not to seriously jeopardize your game. If you get it wrong and a dragon runs rampant over your city, you'll fix the damage in a few minutes. If you get it right, then you'll watch your ballista crews transfix the little wyrm and send it falling to earth like an autumn leaf.
But there's not much that comes after that moment, which is the main problem that Kingdoms and Castles has. It's so forgiving that it never feels like you're in danger of capsizing. Once you've parried its challenges, there's no further escalation headed your way, and maybe not much more reason to keep playing.
Which I don't entirely mind. Kingdoms and Castles is a fun toy, something easygoing and cool that can help you while away an afternoon, the gin & tonic of tactical city-builders. But those first hours with it are so charming and satisfying that it's just a shame the game can't quite stretch the journey out a little longer. No sooner have you started to feel like you're getting it than the game is over, solved, and put away. Time flies when you're having fun, but does it have to fly so damn fast?