If you know the name Mojang at all, you probably know it in the context of Minecraft, the highly pixelated building game that's become such a cultural force that I feel almost silly describing it. But after that? The going gets tougher. There's Scrolls, which looked like a fascinating take on collectible card games until Blizzard's Hearthstone crushed it into oblivion. There's the brand-new Cobalt, but it was actually the work of a different studio. And as of last Friday, out of the utter blue, we have the casual strategy game Crown and Council, which, oddly enough, is the first game developed by Mojang that's sold on the popular digital storefront Steam.
"Sold" is a bit of a misnomer, though, as Crown and Council is totally free. That's probably for the best, as it defaults to a static resolution that's too small for my giant monitor and too large for some older laptops, resulting in important buttons being stuck below the Windows taskbar. It kicks you into the game with no tutorial, and its button clicks sometimes don't seem to register. In other words, it's exactly the kind of polished experience you'd expect from a studio Microsoft paid $2.5 billion for in 2014.
Perhaps I'm being a little rough there. Crown and Council is reportedly the work of a single developer at Mojang, Henrik Pettersson, and he created it in a game jam. It's totally free, which should be a godsend in an age when developers saddle games with marketplaces that nickel and dime players past the original purchase.
And it's even fun, even only for a few minutes. You don't even need a tutorial, as it's easy to figure out that it's a turn-based strategy game that's about conquering tiny regions on a world map with mouse clicks and then earning one gold piece from those regions after each turn. From there, you can add one thing to each region to secure your grip or make it work for you, such as a fortress that must be destroyed before you can conquer an area or villages to increase income. Conquer everyone else, and you've won the round. There's a whopping 75 rounds to progress through, too.
But minutes in I found it relies too heavily on luck. There's technically some strategy involved in the way it requires gold generated from conquered territories to build things like those towers, villages, and even cheap armies to conquer adjacent tiles. Any pride I had in associated strategies, though, quickly fell apart once I found myself clicking to conquer regions with a tower, only to find my armies failed. And again. And again and so forth. The worst times were when I finally took the tile I was after, but my AI enemies had use that same time to conquer everything around me, thus earning cash while I was going broke.
All this says nothing of the game's ridiculous tendency to throw captured tiles into revolt, and then once again repeatedly thwart attempts to retake tiles with random failures. The A.I. also tends to go over any block of land that doesn't have any land on it, which devolves into pointless tugs-of-war on busy maps. Crown and Council is obviously meant to be a poor man's Risk, but it lacks even that depth. In the end, I found it better just to swarm the map's tiles before any of my AI opponents could, thus giving me cash to crush them quick.
I'd like to think it would be better with some kind of multiplayer component. If it had one, I could probably convince myself that my losses were really my own rather than from some built-in advantage in favor of the AI opponents.
To be frank, the only reason we're talking about Crown and Council at all is that it's a game from the Minecraft people that isn't Minecraft. That alone makes it very interesting.
Does it make it good? Not so much. But it's great to see that Mojang is still showing an eagerness to break out of the blocky walls of Minecraft and into new genres. Maybe the crown and council up there will pass us down something better the next time around.