Hey, you know what’d be nice? At the end of this, the Hell Year? To look at a video game that’s explicitly not about violence and destruction, but about development and creation. Too many games have a vocabulary of only violent verbs: kill this, destroy that, steal such, hurt so. And there’s room for those, to be sure, but sometimes it feels like they’re all there is room for. Or maybe they’re just what I reach for when I don’t feel like being critical, it’s entirely possible this is me. Either way, how about a more pleasant game for once?
Now, I can’t prove I mumbled this to myself mere minutes before the Steam promotion email for Lion Shield‘s Kingdoms and Castles hit my inbox. But doesn’t that sound like great serendipity either way? Just the fact that this game was apparently on my Steam wishlist… I don’t even remember adding it there. Plus, Lion Shield’s mission statement is explicitly “Lion Shield seeks to make games with three core values: players’ creative expression, strategic decisions, and beauty.“
If you add those two together, this might be a Christmas Period Miracle.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, high-ish.)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
Oof, ow, hello. Kingdoms and Castles‘s title screen is a rough blast from the past, in the sense that I didn’t even know they still (or ever) made games that default to 720×576 resolution.
Once that’s out of the way, though, I can’t say I don’t like what I see. Kingdoms and Castles opens on a lovingly-rendered, bright-colour voxel world, and I immediately get a taste of the game proper when I learn that the camera controls are fully functional, letting me-
Hold on one second.
Sorry about that! Anyway, the camera controls in Kingdoms and Castles‘s title menu are fully functional, letting me pan, click-and-drag, and zoom around to my heart’s content. It’s a pleasant place to look at, with pleasant pseudo-medieval tavern music to boot. And as far as camera tutorials go, ‘just having one in the main menu’ is far from the most obtrusive one I can think of.
Then the time comes to choose a region for my new kingdom.
Kingdoms and Castles generates a world for me with a terrain generation seed (1140983214, if you want to play along at home), and offers to let me fly through it a little before committing or re-worlding. But I don’t know what I’m looking at, or looking for, so this one’ll do. I pick a nice blue banner, from the four banners that I can select and the eight I can’t, and name my kingdom ‘Jarenthville’, because this time of year always brings out the delusional egomaniac in me. And just like that, it’s time to rule my kingdom!
Yup. Time to rule that kingdom. Any day now. Just as soon as someone gives me, you know, any sort of input…
I wait around for a few seconds, as music plays and clouds lazily voxel-drift in and out of existence. Waiting for any sort of tutorial pop-up or player guidance. But no help is forthcoming: Kingdoms and Castles seems just as content to just sit around and look at clouds as I am. Which is technically the exact kind of non-violence I requested, and yet…
So I start playing around. The top of the screen has my kingdom’s name, a menu, a version number, and what appears to be a The Sims-style time speed setting. Is time moving right now? I guess, from the way the birds and the clouds move. In the lower left, I see a bunch of resource counters: Wood, and stone, and food, and gold… All at zero, with no changes forthcoming. And in the bottom center-right…
Ah, there we go. Four tabs of buildings I can theoretically construct. Right now, though, only one is available: ‘Keep’, the only building that costs no resources and that acts as a prerequisite for literally every other building in the list.
Let’s see, where to go… If life has taught me anything, it’s that you can never go wrong putting the back of your vulnerable center of command to a large body of water. I pick a spot with a lot of open space, a few trees, and some rocks that seem like they might be nice later on, and plop the castle down.
In real time, I watch as the keep goes from dreamy outline to harsh reality, and just like that, Jarenthville becomes ‘A Quiet Hamlet’.
Again, I wait a few seconds for the game to give me any sort of indication of what I should be doing. Again, nothing happens. I notice that I have a handful of resources now, and there’s a new screen in the bottom right, showing the current inhabitants of Jarenthville: 5 in total, of which 4 aren’t doing anything. We also seem to have zero beds, which… might be a problem? Mousing over the ‘happiness’ number below shows our total happiness is trending downward pretty sharply because ‘peasants recently became homeless’. Peasants recently sprang into actual existence, but fine, alright.
Then, something happens! A big orange exclamation point over my keep introduces me to my advisors. I have three of them in total, one for agriculture and one for city and one for military. I can’t wait for these assistants to give me the barest inclination of what to do and how to do it.
Alright, fine, I’ll figure it out myself again. Where was that building menu again? With the keep now built and a smattering of resources in my stockpiles, I have a few more options. Let’s see…
My first thought is to build a hovel from the City tab, the lowest-quality house, which would house 5 peasants and basically solve the homelessness issue. I do have the wood, but there’s one (interesting) issue: Apparently buildings in Kingdoms and Castles need to be a certain distance from roads, which I don’t have yet. So let’s start there. Roads also need to be a certain distance from roads, but that distance is exactly 1 square: I can only build roads directly next to other roads, or next to the keep, which enforces a logical system of roads instead of gamified nonsense. I actually kind of like that.
Finally, I imagine that food’s gonna be an issue before long, so I pop over to the Food tab to select one farm. But, new issue: Farms can only be built on ‘fertile’ ground, which means ground that is light or dark green instead of yellow. Really would have liked knowing that before I picked this starting position, but fine, whatever, we’re fine. Farms also need to be close to roads, but (like hovels) not necessarily adjacent, creating some more play space.
My little blocky people get to work, and half a minute later, the house stands, the road lies, and the farm is ready to be farmed. All is well with the world.
I’m sure you understand this tune by now. I wait a moment for Kingdoms and Castles to tell me what I should, or could, do next. But nothing is forthcoming. Time passes, and I enjoy watching my little people grow big yellow blocks of food on the one farm, but this otherwise doesn’t get me anywhere.
‘My lord,” the top left screen yells, “two people visited, but none could find a home. Our city is full, we need more homes!” Which, that’s fair, but I don’t know how. I’m out of wood! And as far as I can tell, I have no way to get new wood. There isn’t anything in the Castle, Town, or Food tabs that seems like it’ll help. And while the Industry tab has a ‘forester’ building, building that one costs wood, which I just used the last of to get this town started! Plus, it also costs stone, for which I’ll need to build a quarry at a suitable site, which also costs wood! It’s like I’m in this bizarre catch-22, where everything I could theoretically do to get wood costs the very wood I’d get.
I get increasingly frustrated as time passes. Look, there’s snowfall now! It’s winter, and still no wood. What do you want me to do, game? Do you want me to chop down those trees myself? Just click on them over and over unti-
Okay, in my defense, this is now how any of these games usually work. I was working on Settlers or Anno logic here. But fine, fine, whatever. I mark several trees for destruction, and my lil’ blockheads obligingly run out and chop them into kibble. No matter the absence of roads, or the long, long distance. For only the second time since starting this game, I’m getting the sensation that maybe this waterfront starting place wasn’t the most ideal.
Now that I understand woodcutting, though, things do actually develop at a rapid pace. With wood in my stockpiles, I build two more houses, four more farms, and even a ‘charcoal burner’, which takes wood and turns it into baskets of charcoal — something that the residents want, I’m sure, when the cold winter sets in. And I extend a road to the nearest source of usable stone, so I can get a quarry up and running: The quicker I have stone, the quicker I can build that forester, as well as everything else cool.
My advisors, in the meantime, keep offering inane non-suggestions. The repeated favorite is ‘The peasants are happy, you should build a Treasury Room and tax them into general complacency!’ Which I would, but I don’t have stone, and you know I don’t have stone.
But hey, no rush. The kingdom slowly develop as the years pass (in Speed-2 mode). Resources roll in, charcoal is burned, new people enter the kingdom, and more food is produced than we can eat. The quarry comes online in year 6 just as I finish clearing all the wood to our west, giving me a great space to get a forester up and runni-
I extend a road to the east, where forests still remain, giving me an okay space to get a forester up and running. That should help with the wood shortage, which — while not pressing — is definitely the number one issue looming over the kingdom right now.
A dragon flies in from the distant sea. It makes a beeline for my settlement, then… just sort of hangs there, for a while, flapping menacingly. Then it flies off again. Well, That could have gone worse. Still, I’m harshly reminded (by my military advisor) that I didn’t pick the Ultimate Peaceful setting: That dragon will come back, and I should probably be ready when it does.
I start ‘preparing’ by drawing more people to Jarenthville, so that hopefully the dragon grows bored of eating them all on its next trip. This has the side effect of upgrading the hamlet to a Small Village, which is cause for celebration!
Ten seconds into the celebration, the keep catches fire.
Good, good. This is fine. Don’t pay attention to the smoke.
The next dozen years fly by as Jarenthville slowly grows. The forester doesn’t quite alleviate the need for wood: While it automatically plants new trees, and marks trees around itself for chopping, I still find myself chopping trees manually to keep up with my demand for wood. But hey, that shouldn’t be anything more foresters can’t fix. As I expand to the north, I start experimenting with resource stockpiles, granaries, and wells.
My small stockpiles and granaries fill up quickly, so I add larger ones. Heavy rains destroy significant parts of the harvest in year 12, so I start looking into orchards as a food source, which are immune to rain damage but require a square of 4 fertile plots. I finally build that Treasure Room, which lets me tax my peasants into unhappiness, then build a library, to get that number back up. A mill should improve the output of these farm plots, I can add a second quarry to this other source of stone, and now that I have enough stone, I could actually start looking at the larger cottages, couldn’t I?
Eleven years pass in the blink of an eye. On the one hand, this is good: I’m obviously having a good enough time with Kingdoms and Castles to lose myself in its continuing bustle. On the other hand, did I ever get those defenses set up?
Well… maybe this dragon’ll take pity on me again?
Alright, well. Guess I can always rebuild that quarry. And as far as wake-up calls go, this one wasn’t ineffective. I should look into how buildings towers works, which I think involves manually stacking blocks and building archer huts. Would I need iron for that? I’ve seen iron deposits around, I guess I could start exploiting those. And how about gold? I have a small trickle of gold income now, but if I want to expand that without taxing everyone into revolt, I’ll need more houses. Which means more woodcutting operations, and I’ll have to expand my food growing too. More granaries would make sure the food is actually harvested before winter, and I’ll need more wells to minimize fire risk…
I’ll just… keep playing for a few more minutes. Nothing too major, just a few more in-game years. You guys wait over there, I’ll be with you in a moment…