Original Release: 1992, Platform: PC, Developer: Quicksilver Software, Publisher: Interplay, Image Source: GOG
My soldiers march to war over a thick layer of December snow. I can’t imagine they appreciate the cold, but I honestly care little for their plight. For years now I’ve been forced to deal with the insipid politics and intrigue that dominate the land. I’ve long since grown tired of it; making deals and paying pointless pittances to the other lords competing for my crown. The day of my ascension has come. I will unite our country with blood and steel.
Our first attacks break the back of Burgundy. In a few swift blows, I crush their armies and my men are soon washing across their territories like the unstoppable waves of a conquering sea. Eager to expand on these early victories, I push hard across their land, pressing our advantage and ignoring the mounting casualties suffered by my men.
This impatience is my undoing. While we succeed in conquering Burgundy, the final battles leave my army in shambles. Sensing opportunity, the lord of Valois moves in with his own forces to capitalize on my poorly led campaign. They attack, crushing my weakened forces and putting me on the defensive. In the space of a few months, all my gains turn to losses. My ambitions now taste like ash in my mouth.
I stare at my computer screen and sigh. This was the closest I’ve come to winning a game of Castles 2. As with all the attempts that have come before however, it’s clear that I’m going to fail. Building my army had been a long, resource-intensive process; not the sort of thing I can do on a whim. With Valois already driving hard into my lands, and the other lords badgering me for gifts of “goodwill,” it’s only a matter of time before the enemy destroys me or someone else decides to get in on the action and carve out their own piece of Stew.
Pushing out one final, regretful gust of air, I quit to the game’s main menu. Unfortunately, the itch that’s been driving me to play this game for days hasn’t left me and I soon find myself reloading my game to before my attack on Burgundy to try it all again. I had planned on playing other games this weekend, but I know now that that isn’t going to happen now. I’m just caught up in playing “just one more round” of Castles 2: Siege and Conquest.
Set in the year 1131, the game drops the player into the shoes of a medieval lord trying to grab power in the wake of the death of France’s King Charles. You do this by using a combination of economic, military, and diplomatic options to conquer neighboring provinces and defeat the other lords competing for power. That might sound simple, but it’s actually anything but. While the controls are markedly uncomplicated (you can play the game with just the mouse), winning involves a surprising level of complexity and long-term planning.
On the whole, the game could best be described as a contest of competing needs. There isn’t a single moment of the game where someone doesn’t want something from you. The other lords want bribes, “Heeze Holineese ze Pope” wants donations, your armies want food and payment, your peasants want happiness; your attention and resources are constantly being pulled in different directions.
And as much as you’d like to ignore their nagging, victory pretty much depends on doing a good job of managing their many demands. You might want to flip the bird to the opposing lords but, for most of the game, you’re too weak to survive the wars that would inevitably follow such insults. Ignoring the Church, likewise, is a fantastic way to get excommunicated, something that works wonders for destroying the happiness of your populace who are already looking for any excuse to revolt. If you want to succeed, you basically have no choice but to find some way to keep everyone appeased while you build up your power base.
The challenge with this is that the game is designed so that you don’t have enough resources to satisfy everyone all of the time. When each new game begins, you’re only able to farm one resource type (there are four total) at a time. This eventually expands to two, but even then you’ll be hard-pressed to keep up with the deluge of requests that are constantly being sent your way. Add in the cost of building armies and castles, and you can guarantee that you won’t have enough to give everyone what they want. You’ll often have no choice but to look at all of your various relationships and decide who’s most likely to turn against you if you refuse to give them their regular dose of bribery.
Adding to this juggling act are the “plots.” Basically small side stories that hit the player at random times throughout the game; they can lead to rewards or consequences depending on how you respond to them. There’s one, for instance, where you’ll receive reports about a mine explosion. The miners come to you for aid and you need to decide what to do. Giving them gold to hire more rescue workers will endear the peasants to you, but could leave you short of coin depending on your current financial situation. Ignoring them, meanwhile, is more cost effective, but it’s also a jerk move that your peasants will hate you for.
I’m going to be honest and say that I didn’t really like the plots all that much. While I enjoyed them at first and appreciated the flavor they added to the game, there just aren’t enough of them to keep the idea fresh. Once you’ve played three or four extended games you’ll pretty much have seen all of them. Making matters worse, while some plots vary and have different conclusions, there are others where there’s only one definite right answer. The second you learn what it is, the fun of repeating that plot is drained away. Luckily, if you feel the need, you can turn the plots off. That said, the idea on its own isn’t bad and it stinks you’d ever want to.
Seemingly more repetitious, at first glance at least, is the game’s combat. While you do have some limited control over your military units, most battles basically amount to your army and the enemy army hacking away at each other until one side comes out the victor. While this might seem tedious on the surface, however, Castles 2 actually does some interesting things to make the combat more complex than it initially appears.
For example, the game will limit the number of units you can deploy when you’re on the defense. That might sound unfair, but it becomes less so when you consider some of the advantages it trades you for this handicap. While your units might be outnumbered, they’ll gain access to a defense bonus that boosts their stats enough to give them a better chance in one-on-one matchups. This puts you enemy at a disadvantage and also leaves you with troops to strike back and turn the table if you’re able to push the enemy back. When you’re defending, you’ll also be able to choose your starting position, an advantage you don’t get when you’re on the aggressive side of things. That patch of trees in the middle of the map? Feel free to camp your soldiers behind it and then rain arrows on the enemy while they struggle through the woods to get to you.
One element of the combat that I didn’t like that much (ironically in a game named Castles), was its implementation of castles and siege warfare. While castles themselves can be great for stabilizing rebellious provinces and improving the happiness of your peasantry, in combat they’re basically just glorified barriers that provide little actual protection to the soldiers inside. When I picture a castle, I think of fortresses built to help a small force hold off vast hordes. In Castles 2, all you need to overwhelm a castle is a decent-sized army and the patience to watch your pixilated soldiers scale the walls and kill the people inside. To be sure, it’s nowhere as dull as the castle combat in Lords of the Realm, and there are definitely moments where a castle can make the difference between victory and defeat. Ultimately though, they still felt a bit shallow to me and I was disappointed.
Which is okay because Castles 2, overall, did anything but disappoint me. While it possesses many of the same sorts of archaic problems that plague many older games, the overall product provides an insanely addictive experience that will kick your butt, but do so in a way that keeps you coming back for more. If you’re in the market for a strategy title with a different feel and a different focus than most of the genre’s modern standards, Castles 2 is a game that should definitely be on your to-buy list.
Next week I’m going to look a bit more closely at some the films that were used to make Castles 2. After that I’ll be dipping my toes in the sea of CRPGs with Dragon Wars. Feel free to PM me any comments or suggestions you have in the mean time.