Castles (PC) review
"Building a castle once is fun - eight times in a row, less so."
As a young boy, I loved to join my elder brother in playing with Lego. We (well, mostly, he) would build spaceships, and I'd be eager for the part where it was done and we would play with it. I didn't realize at the time that the building, for the most part, *was* the playing. I had to think of these times again when playing through Castles,a 1991 game that involves the building of a castle, then when it holds up to one attack, leaving it and moving on to the next stage with a new castle to build.
The backdrop is you are king of Albion and you're settling (as in, conquering) the lands of the Celts by building your castles in each province. After you start a campaign of one, three or eight castles to build in a row, you are dropped in the main interface, and your first task is to design the castle from a sparse set of simple building blocks. Your castle mostly consists of wall segments and towers, somewhere is going to have to be a gate, and often a moat can be dug around the keep. To do the work you hire on various kinds of workers, including masons, carpenters, smiths, quarrymen and laborers, after which free personnel can be assigned to build up various parts of your castle. Meanwhile you hire infantry and archers to defend the castle, as attackers will frequently take a stab at flattening your castle before it's done. The laborers and soldiers will have to be paid by the month, and food will have to be bought to make it through each winter. Income to pay for all these things comes from taxing your people, and this becomes a tight balancing act very quickly, between raising enough money to get things done (and paying your workers enough so they will be willing to do it), and not upsetting your people with heavy taxes. There is never *quite* enough money.
Some variation is permitted when building your walls and towers, permitting you to make them a little higher or lower (a tradeoff between defensive strength and time to build, clearly), and make walls thinner or thicker for the same trade-off. It takes a little while before the first attack comes, but the enemy will eventually test the strength of your fortifications, so you can't spend all the time you like designing without starting to raise an army and building up some defenses. Time keeps on ticking.
Every so often the building is suddenly interrupted by a bit of roleplaying. As king, somebody is coming to see you, a situation is presented to you, and you have to decide between two or three options. It may be the bishop complaining your knights are using a territory that used to belong to the church, with your options between siding with either side, or even seizing the lands for yourself. Or an enemy army has been seen approaching and your options are between preparing your defenses or trying to negotiate a truce. Often, scenarios have a followup, and a few months later the consequences of your first choice become apparent and a new choice is presented to you. These role playing sections are typically about balancing your reputations with your people, your knights and the church, and often deciding one way earns the ire of another group. Losing the support of your people means fewer people eager to work on your castle, whereas losing support of the knights or the church tends to have no immediate consequence, but does factor into your final evaluation at the end of the game.
Personally I enjoyed the choice moments more than the castle building, even though the immediate impact is often slight. It may be that extra enemy attacks come from them, or you spend some money or even earn some, but for the most part it's a brief distraction from the building. The same goes if your castle comes under attack. You are warned from which side the enemy approaches, you put down the troops you've hopefully hired inside or outside your castle, and then the attack begins and the enemy rushes in to try and wreck your castle. Your troops are mostly automated, with infantry rushing to stop the attackers and archers raining down arrows from the towers you hopefully placed them in. Attackers will fill up your moat and bring down your walls and towers, though if you outfitted your walls with cauldrons, it will be a costly affair for them. Stop most of the attackers and the rest will flee, leaving you free to rebuild whatever they managed to tear down.
The main problem with Castles is that what is described above is pretty much the game. When you finally finish building a castle, you get one final attack on it, then you move on to the next province where you build a new castle, which is required to be a bit bigger than the one before, and the enemy attacks become more serious. But it is essentially still the same game. I found the complete eight castle campaign is too long for its own good: by the time you've built four or five, you've seen most of the role playing events come by, some are repeating from scratch, and the building is made more annoying by negative random events coming up. Workers may go on strike, the occasional wall or tower may randomly collapse and need to be rebuilt, or rats may eat your food reserves.
And it becomes much worse in the final stages, with entire troop garrisons wiped out by plague, earthquakes destroying a significant part of your castle, and one problem I had was with a "The Celts are coming!" event that kept repeating itself, no matter if I bought them off or had my troops fight off the attack (a fierce one that would usually destroy a year's worth of building). Whether it coming back every few months was a glitch or just the difficulty ramping up was hard to say, but the random events in general were bad enough at this point that I resorted to saving a lot and restoring when something happened that I didn't care for. These events always come by on the 15th of any given month, so making sure I'd save on the 13th or the 14th, and saving again if the 15th went by without some disaster, became commonplace. But at this point I *was* asking myself why I was still bothering. Honestly a shorter, three castle campaign gives a good taste of the game without going through the torture of the later levels.
Limiting yourself to just a few castles also means that the irritations in the interface are easier to swallow. To build up the castle, you click tower or wall segments to select them, then use two arrow-shaped buttons to assign more or fewer workers to building. You can only pay for so many workers, so you typically have nough to work on maybe six towers or wall sections at a time, then have to wait for them to finish the building (a few months ingame, several minutes in reality), before the workers become free and you reassign them to a different component. And you want to do this methodically, because it's not always easy to see if there's a wall or tower you haven't *quite* finished, and then as you think your castle is complete and you notice the level is not finishing, you are painstakingly checking every segment for the one bit that needs a few workers assigned for a little bit longer. Another recurring irritation was that messages from the game tend to come in sudden popups and any mouse click closes the popup. I was frequently assigning workers to a new section when suddenly a popup came and vanished again, and I never knew what the game was trying to tell me. This is particularly bothersome if it just told me an attack is coming and now I don't know if it's from the south or the north. In the later stages, not knowing this and placing your troops wrong can be enough to lose the battle, and the game.
After finally beating the campaign, I got a single static picture of the king on his horse overlooking his newly built castle, and a short evaluation of how I'd done, saying that the people loved me, the church considered me a defender of the faith and my knights hated me (caused by a repeating event where the only way through that worked for me was to bribe off the attackers, which likely made me a coward in their eyes). I spent a little time fiddling with another option in the starting menu to play in a Realistic or a Fantasy world. The only difference appears to be that choosing Fantasy adds a few more possible events to the selection, involving ogres and magic, but the game is essentially still the same. If ogres do attack, it works precisely the same as any other attack, just the little figures attacking are green instead of grey. It's not the game changer I'd hoped for.
In the end my joy with this game was largely in the variety of events to play through. Whether I was just suggesting names for newborn sons and daughters of my knights (no gameplay effect), replacing commanders with their sons, preventing a mad abbess from burning my workers as witches (but without angering the bishop too much) or playing out a bonafide Robin Hood scenario with *me* as the king being rebelled against, these were the most memorable moments in a game of building castles which simply doesn't have the substance to entertain you for a full campaign. I enjoyed going through a full eight castle run once, but I don't expect to return.
Community review by sashanan (May 21, 2018)
Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.
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