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Castles II: Siege and Conquest review/retrospective

Castles II: Siege and Conquest review/retrospective

Review - posted by Whisky on Mon 18 November 2013, 17:34:11

Tags: Castles II: Siege and Conquest; Review; Tacticular Cancer

Tacticular Cancer member Jugashvili has written a review for Castles II: Siege and Conquest, a game little known these days, but notably difficult.

Castles II: Siege and Conquest review/retrospective

Now here’s an oldie. Castles II: Siege and Conquest is a 1992 game that was released as the sequel to the 1991 game Castles. The game was developed by Quicksilver Software, a company that produced a number of successful strategy games during the nineties and which has also published several military training software products during the noughties. It is also a game that never fails to evoke fond memories of the long hours of my precious youth I whiled away playing games such as this one. Castles II, however, stands out among all others for one simple reason – challenge. It was, perhaps, one of the most challenging strategy games ever designed, and the designers just reveled in it. The quotes I’ve littered throughout this review are from a guide written by the game designers themselves, called “The Armchair Strategist’s Guide: Expanded Edition”, an addendum to the guide included in the original game manual. However, Castles II also stood out due to its simplicity – simple, task-based mechanics, a relatively simple setting and a perfect balance between the contending factions. This, combined with the fact that its visuals and presentation have aged very gracefully, make it a game worth checking out even now, 21 years after its release.

The premise

Without further ado, let’s have a look at what the game is all about. A rousing narration with some nice illustrations in 256 colors and fitting music gave you the gist of the whole matter –a land vaguely based on 14th century France called Bretagne has been thrown into civil war after the death of its king without an heir. The player represents one of five noble families – Valois, Anjou, Albion, Burgundy and Aragon – that are vying to reunite the kingdom and be proclaimed king. A sixth player, the Pope, is also present on the map, and he wields considerable influence as not only can the cantankerous old Catholic excommunicate you if you get on his bad side, you also need him to proclaim you king once you’ve reached a certain level of power and influence. Claiming the throne, however, is a tricky question – claiming it early will cause all the other families to dogpile on you, but delaying for too long will often result in another family making its bid for power, and if they are proclaimed king, it’s Game Over for you, and your character is dragged off to the chopping block for a trim.

Just a trim, please

Basic game mechanics

6. Ignore a commodity because it's not important. Who needs Food, except to feed the army, recruit Knights, and make people happy? Who needs Timber, except to build castles, recruit Archers, and make

people happy? Who needs Iron, except to build castles and recruit Infantry? Nobody needs Gold, right? Right? ... Well, gold maybe ...

‒ The Armchair Strategist’s Guide: Expanded Edition, 1992

As you can see, the map is decidedly unhistorical, but it gets the job done. The map is split up into a number of regions, each of which has a single resource (or commodity) out of four – food, timber, iron and gold. These can be set to be random, balanced or geographic – random resource games are usually a lot harder as lacking access to one or more resources can cripple you on the long run.

Welcome to Pseudo-France!

These resources are used for, well, pretty much everything: recruiting and maintaining troops and siege engines, building castles, trading them for other resources, carrying out military, diplomatic and administrative missions, and dealing with random events that never fail to crop up.

Both harvesting these resources and carrying out the actions above are performed through tasks. You have a number of administrative, military and political points you can allocate to performing these tasks, and performing them frequently will unlock additional points and the ability to carry out more tasks simultaneously in these three fields. You can also, for instance, assign some of your free military or political points to an administrative task just to speed up the process, even though said points will be less efficient than when used for their intended purpose.

The more of a given resource you have, the more units of said resource you will obtain every time you carry out a harvesting task. Provinces with a castle, furthermore, produce a double amount of resources.

Seems straightforward enough, right? Well…

Expanding your empire

1. Attack two or three other players at once. Yeah, the more, the merrier. It's fun to send troops in every direction, grabbing territory as quickly as possible. It's fun to lose troops faster than you can Recruit them. It's fun to beat back counterattacks every two weeks. It's fun to restart the game every ten minutes!
‒ The Armchair Strategist’s Guide: Expanded Edition, 1992

You start out with a single province with a single resource and a somewhat meager army. This is not necessarily a problem, as you are initially surrounded by wimpy minor lords with no real army to speak of – easy pickings in an early phase in which securing strategic resources is of the utmost importance.

After all, it is only a matter of time until, having clobbered all the tiny independent lords around you, you run into your new neighbors – the other major families. These are the real contenders in Castles II, and you would be ill-advised to go on a conquering spree against them from the get-go – you will, in all likelihood, get your ass handed to you if you do.

Who cares if everyone hates me? The Pope is on my side!

It’s worth calling a Council regularly and checking the Relations screen to see who’s at war with whom and, especially, who’s in the pope’s good graces. Attacking families that are blessed by the pope is a good way to become fair game for all the other families, and being at war with more than one enemy is always tough – remember, your army can only be in one place at the same time, and you will only have half your troops available to fight back an enemy invasion.

“Well,” I hear you say, “surely it’s easy enough just not to piss people off, right?” Well, not really. For starters, the other players, not least the Pope, are a bunch of greedy bastards who never seem to have enough and who will constantly swamp you with ambassadors begging for gold. Sharing your precious gold with all and sundry will put your economy under constant strain, but failing to do so will simply ensure that you never get anywhere in the world of Castles II. Eventually, once your economy is strong enough, you should also regularly send diplomats and merchants to your neighbors, and send gifts to the pope to stay in his good graces.

Later on, however, you will have to start picking the low-hanging fruit and declaring war on your weaker or less prestigious neighbors, eating them up before the others do.

Speaking of which…

The military system

5. Let your army starve or go without paychecks. Why, when you were in the military you went six, seven years without eating. Yeah, and when you ate all you had to eat were rocks. Yeah, and when you got paid you got paid in sticks. Yeah, and they were wet too! After all, you only lose one military unit on the first delay. Why should you care if it's your best unit? You have more Knights than you can use, don't you? And don't worry about the fact that you lose double the units after every further delay. You have more important concerns than maintaining an army.
‒ The Armchair Strategist’s Guide: Expanded Edition, 1992

There are a number of military actions you can carry out in this game. The basic tasks include recruiting swordsmen (melee infantry), archers (ranged infantry) and knights (heavy cavalry), building siege engines, policing the realm (catches enemy saboteurs, but reduces happiness). Recruiting these troops requires iron, timber and gold, and they must also be paid and fed regularly with gold and food. You can also use military points to send saboteurs into enemy territory to poison their wells, kill their troops, ruin their castles or perform other kinds of mischief.

Rape underway

The battle system itself is fairly straightforward, and tactics are only really useful when you’re hopelessly outnumbered. There are only a few simple orders you can give your soldiers – stand, melee, destroy and retreat. Using boggy or rough terrain to your advantage may allow you to inflict some extra damage to a powerful opponent, but temporarily losing some terrain and living to fight another day is often preferable to having your forces decimated, as they take a fairly long time to recruit.

Things start getting more complicated when castles – some of which have moats and tall walls – enter the equation, requiring siege engines or overwhelming numbers to capture them efficiently.


7. Don't build castles. The name of the game is CASTLES II. But that has nothing to do with it. You're too busy conquering neighboring territories to worry about those pesky revolts. And who needs doublé commodities anyway? (see above) And you can always reconquer the territories you lose. Your neighbors would never even think about trying to capture a neutral territory that was once yours. And how much protection can you really get from a pile of stone? Ten archers posted on the walls can't possibly be very useful. Why would you ever imagine that they might be safer up there, or might be able to shoot arrows further? And what possible advantage could there be to protecting all of your Infantry and Knights from enemy Archers?
‒ The Armchair Strategist’s Guide: Expanded Edition, 1992

Serfs gonna serf

The game just wouldn’t be Castles II if it weren’t for castles. Indeed, far from being mere defensive structures, castles are the cornerstone of your power in the game. You can build up to one castle in each province, and you can either make your own designs or use stock designs provided by the game. Each element of castle design is worth a certain number of points, and having a castle over 100 points strong will prevent revolts in one province and all neighboring provinces. This is extremely important as, in the absence of a castle, your far-flung possessions will eventually secede from your domain and become neutral fiefdoms again, which your cunning adversaries may try to grab before you can retake them.

Constructus interruptus

Castles over 50 points also boost production and can be life-savers to help you produce goods that are scarce in your realm.

The Pope

2. Ignore the Pope: attack Blessed players: get Excommunicated. So what if they are the Pope's friends? So what if eventually this gets you Excommunicated? You're too tough to expect your people to be happy. Besides, no iron-fisted ruler worth his garde-robe worries about those Holy Rollers. And don't worry about the precipitous drop in your army's morale because your people are unhappy. Your army is three times bigger than any other in Bretagne -- at least, it was the last time you checked. Besides, you don't need to send no stinkin' Merchants.
‒ The Armchair Strategist’s Guide: Expanded Edition, 1992


The Pope is the big mediator in this game and probably the single most important player, considering he’s the guy who will make you king. It wouldn’t be so bad if he weren’t so damn hard to please! Attacking players he gets along with is a surefire way to get excommunicated, which is probably one of the worst things that could happen to you in-game, and having poor relations with him is like a huge green light for other players who are just chomping at the bit to steamroll you. The pope will, furthermore, constantly bug you asking for money – and gold is hard to come by in this game – and making you offers you can’t refuse.

Fortunately, a good option is to just cede some land to the pope – this may sound like a big deal, but there are times when you’ve just got too much land on your hands and you might even be glad to get rid of that one troublesome province. Furthermore, the pope acts as a huge roadblock, as his army is ridiculously strong and no-one in his right mind would mess with him, especially during the early game.

Other considerations

The demagogue Arinseault

Finally, the game also has a certain RPG element to it – the player character may be contacted by a number of characters, entering a series of quests that are resolved over time. Prior knowledge of the possible outcomes of each questline is a huge advantage here, but discovering them and their tales of treachery and righteousness for oneself is also great fun. They are all related to the game’s backstory, which is expanded upon in the manual, as well as a nifty description of the different contenders given from each one’s perspective. Some of the characters, such as Arinseault, the philosopher and rabble-rouser, the boring bishop Winslow or disgruntled former queen Catherine, are quite memorable.

Another element that adds flavor is the inclusion of low-res VGA clips from two classic films, Alexander Nevsky and The Private Lives of Henry VIII. They may not seem like much, but watching your fatso king blow a gasket when he learns of the loss of a province, or seeing your troops line up for battle prior to an encounter never gets old.

The music, however, is maddening. Don’t be fooled by its quaint Medieval charm – you will be listening to that little 30-second ditty for hours on end. It makes Chinese water torture look good.

Beating the damn thing

Always Remember! If you lose, it's dumb luck, the computer cheats, you hit the wrong key by mistake, and you took your eyes off the computer to catch the replay of Brett Hull's hat trick. Good day, eh?
‒ The Armchair Strategist’s Guide: Expanded Edition, 1992

All you need to do to win is to claim the throne once you’ve got over 7000 points, and remain above 7000 points for a few months. How hard can it be? Well, the only way to experience the difficulty of the game is to give it a try yourself. Claiming the throne will make everyone, including your friends, gang up on you, and if they manage to bring you below 7000 before the timer runs out, your bid is done for and it’s back to square one.

I’d say the biggest difficulty of this game is juggling all of the variables at hand – you hardly ever feel that you have too much of anything. Your resources and capabilities are constantly being strained by a number of factors, and unlike in many games where the economic system can be easily broken, you’ll be stuck in a long, hard uphill struggle to get a good endgame position and successfully petition His Holiness for the crown.

Whether you decide to build a sufficiently robust position, successfully weathering your opponents’ ruthless assaults while keeping your points above 7000, or to choose the hard route and conquer everybody, including the pope, to be proclaimed king by an anti-pope, you will eventually reap the fruits of your hard labor:


And, unlike with most games nowadays, once you do hit that victory screen you’ll feel like you’ve really earned it.

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