A few hours in
When we left off, it was the year 18.
It all started innocently enough. I just wanted a few more citizens, a few more farms to support them, and more towers to fight off the dragon. I started with wooden archer towers, which I already had the capacity to make, but it seemed smarter to also have some ballista towers. But those would require a Chamber of War, and I think also iron, and tools? So that was another supply line to set up. And with new space being opened up, I might as well add some foresters, and larger houses, and the wells, markets, granaries, churches, and libraries needed to keep them happy…
It did work, though! The first time the dragon showed back up again, my towers scared it off without giving it a chance to inflict damage. The second time, we killed it during its first pass.
I felt like king of the world, won’t mind telling you: Like nothing on or above this earth could hold back my kingdom. Of course, that was the moment the Vikings decided to invade.
The Vikings were… let’s say a lot more of a threat than the dragon. They burned every building they walked past, resulting in a large swath of scorched orchards — that I’d just built an irrigation system for. It’s only because of my towers that they were fought back as ‘quickly’ as they could, and even then they took a bunch of my peasants with them. So, obviously, I’d need a standing army for next time. But that’d require a barracks, and more iron, and blacksmiths to turn that iron into weapons. And a General from the Chamber of War, which costs gold to recruit. And with happiness at a low, I couldn’t really afford to just raise taxes, meaning instead I had to expand the city to get more gold. Which meant colonizing the northeastern island as well. Might as well set up some resource operations there too, while I was at it. And hey, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to wall and dam off the entire lake?…
Well, long story short, you can see how I spent six hours on this one ‘simple’ town.
Kingdoms and Castles is an interesting game. It’s obviously a high-level kingdom builder, a macro-management game, which draws comparison to games like the Anno or Settlers series. It’s way less deep than either series, though, with highly limited play space, a small handful of simple supply lines, and complete absence of advanced tactical considerations — not to mention the aggressively cutesy graphics. You might be tempted to think of it as sort of a Baby’s First Settlers game. But then… It actually sort of leans into that? I keep coming back to ‘pleasant’ as a way to describe Kingdoms and Castles, but that’s just so accurate: It’s a nice game, something fun to play when you just want to unwind for a bit, or if you’re listening to a podcast or something. It had enough of the simple build-things-get-stuff reward loop to keep my brain engaged for over three-fourths of the map, even if I never had to guess at more complex problems than ‘is there enough food coming in for this populous’ or ‘should I build more charcoal builders’.
I’ll immediately add that it’s obviously not Kingdoms and Castles‘s intent to stay simple: Main menu patch notes clearly hint at big plans for adding functionality and expanding far beyond the base game. That in and by itself can be a consideration, if you like to buy your games to grow. But all the same, I think I’d prefer it if Kingdoms and Castles doesn’t go too complex. There are so few games that hit that Zen sweet spot of ‘my brain is engaged with something non-critical’.
This might sound like the review equivalent of shitposting, but I promise you it’s not. Mechanically, Kingdoms and Castles is honestly mostly just ‘alright’. It has a few simple supply chains that are fairly easy to manage: Food keeps people alive, stone is used for construction, wood is used for construction and is made into charcoal, charcoal itself is a consumer product and is combined with iron into tools, which help industries and are used for rock removal, and weapons, which you need to train soldiers. And then there’s gold, which you tax. It’s fairly simple to set up no-frills self-sustaining supply for all of these except wood, which you’ll probably have to keep manually chopping to keep up with demand. But even there, foresters alleviate the demands of charcoal burners, if you set them up right.
Similarly, the town-building is a highly simplified version of what you’d find in an Anno game. Houses and industries have to be close to roads, which all connect to the keep. Houses have demands, and gain happiness from having those demands met or from having luxuries nearby: Food, charcoal, a tavern, a town square, a library, being near water… While inversely, putting a house next to a charcoal burner or blacksmith penalizes it. Taxes also lower happiness, with the seeming intent being that ‘overall happiness’ acts as a cap on the amount of taxes you can reasonably raise. In theory, you need a certain gold income to pay for your doctors, soldiers, scholars, and preachers. In practice, it’s trivial to hit the gold cap of 1000 gold with the lowest possible tax rate of 1, making happiness mostly a non-issue except in years where everything goes wrong.
And then there are the threats. Sometimes dragons fly over your kingdom, which is easily alleviated by building towers here and there. Sometimes Vikings invade, which requires many towers, armies, and a willingness to rebuild scorched earth. I’ve read that ogres can also attack, but in my 100+ years of play that hasn’t happened yet. And sometimes the plague breaks out, killing some of your peasants based on how many doctors you have and how quickly those doctors can get places. Or heavy rains break out, flooding your normal farms and potentially emptying your food stocks — if you haven’t religiously been overstocking your pantries just as a matter of course. I don’t know, maybe you like to live dangerously.
These things are not what kept drawing me to Kingdoms and Castles.
Instead, what keeps me firmly grounded in this game is the mood. I love the blocky voxel art style, the bright simple houses and trees and clouds that drift by. And the various pseudo-ren-faire tunes that play from time to time are just noticeable enough to be nice, but not so strong that they’re consciously in the way. It’s, I’ll say it again, a pleasant game to exist in.
No, but listen, this is actually important. Because Kingdoms and Castles is both so pleasantly nice and so mechanically simple, what happened to me is that I started getting genuinely immersed. Like, on a narrative level, an experiential level. More and more, the city I was building stopped being a collection of more-or-less-optimized mechanics and started being a city. Still mostly built from an optimization standpoint, but also its own thing, a living thing.
Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to tell you about the neighbourhoods in Jarenthville. This is not a game mechanic, or anything that’s in any way coded in. This is just the way I found myself looking at this city, after four hours of play — the way it evolved and what that meant.
For instance, this place here, I sort of see as the industrial district. It’s an offshoot of when the city was still a small village, and we needed some place to put the charcoal burners and iron mines and blacksmiths so they wouldn’t be in the way of the gentry. The growing city’s long-swallowed the surrounding territory, but the small inlet of industry has persisted — flanked on both sides by guard towers, one built in all haste after the first dragon attack that burned down the quarry and one built later, after the quarry was fixed.
The area close to the keep is the old city center. You can still see the chaos of our start there, with me plopping down buildings based on immediate need rather than some long-term plan. It’s packed with our early farms, wells, and granaries… but all the same, our first manor also stands here, as does the treasury and the Chamber of War. As a bonus, you can see the wild forests up north, the one area I’ve chosen not yet to expand in.
In contrast, the eastern part of the island — above the Soot Bay offshoot — is a celebration of fancy living and urban planning. Sure, I initially moved there to stock up on orchards, owing to the fertile land and the irrigation system. But with space left over, why wouldn’t I turn the remainder into a rich district? A tall fort looms over the waterway, my attempt to reinforce after the second Viking invasion landed from the north (and burned down an expensive hospital).
Finally, the area up northeast is almost its own microcosm: After I cleared out most of the forest there, and built a wall against future raids, I decided to try and optimize the space as best I could. It’s not easy living on the outskirts of everything else, and I imagine the Island residents have developed their own subculture in response, an us-against-the-mainland mindset. I wonder if they see the fortress the same everyone else does.
And then, of course, there is the Grove.
Do you get what I’m getting at? I love existing in this world. And Kingdoms and Castles in no small part supports that, too. The animations (such as they are) of your little blocky people going about their business are cutely disarming, and when clicked on, they have interesting things to say about life in the kingdom. Very often, this will play into something you actually did: More than once I was amazed to see thought like ‘so-and-so wonders why these rocks are getting removed’, or ‘such-and-such is glad for the protection of the new walls’. Everything about it — the animation, the cutesy aesthetic, the peasant thought, even the advisors on rare occasions — make the whole place feel alive. Like an actual kingdom that you are actually managing.
Now, I’ll be honest: The charm can wear off, and probably will. Kingdoms and Castles suffers from the combined problems of limited content and repetition: You’ll have seen every natural event and every single thing any advisor will ever say to you before the first hour is up. And I hope you like hearing about diseases and people dying of old age every five minutes or so! Depending on how resilient you are to this repetition, how charmed you are by cute graphics, and how much you enjoy dragging weird Dwarf Fortress-esque projects out of this game’s limited-but-permissive landscaping tools, you might run out of steam with Kingdoms and Castles before long.
Here are the things, though: One, there’s more coming. And two, even if there wasn’t… I got six hours of raw enjoyment out of it. Couldn’t that be enough?
Let me go back in real quick to check.
So, final fun thing about Kingdoms and Castles: There are two types of towers you can build, wood and stone. You build towers by ‘stacking’ blocks to a certain height, and then putting archers or a ballista on top; the higher you stack, the farther the range. Now, wooden towers can only ever go up 3 stacks. But stone towers work differently: They can go up to 3 stacks higher than any adjacent stone tower. Since the ‘health’ of towers and walls (which are made from the same blocks) is based on their height, this is intended to make stone structures stronger and better than wooden ones.
There’s just one problem, which is that the game never actually forces you to stop stacking.
What more can I say? Kingdoms and Castles isn’t the most involved or complicated kingdom builder, but it’s fun, beautiful, simple to play, and overall incredibly pleasant. If you like managing simple supply lines and building cutesy fantasy kingdoms, or even if you like testing your mettle against dragons and Vikings and the ravages of time, Kingdoms and Castles provides a good few hours of entertainment — right now, with more content planned for the future. It’s ten bucks on GOG and Steam both, which for the amount of active and passive enjoyment I got out of it seems like an entirely fair price.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go see if I have the resource to build a second tower…
Jarenth lives out his tower-building fantasies in video games, since he’ll never aim for the stars himself. Share kingdom achievements on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?