Stacking stone on stone. (Castles and Warlords computer games) (Column) (Evaluation)
by Orson Scott Card
While I'm no expert on the medieval era, it's a fascinating period of history, from Beowulf to Canterbury Tales, from Arthur to Alfred the Great, from Edward the Confessor to William the Conqueror. It was a time when wars were fought with a relative handful of men and international crises where handled like spiteful family quarrels. Somewhere between Lion in Winter and Robin and Marian it became the period of history most often in my dreams.
Now there are two games that bring it to life with amazing realism and--best of all--lots of fast-moving fun.
Castles, by Interplay, in some ways resembles the old task-management game Kingdom in that you have to balance your resources and deploy them wisely, or your risk disaster. But unlike Kingdom, it has an achievable goal: building enough castles to secure the Kingdom of Albion from the depredations of the Celts. Once you have all eight castle built and garrisoned to withstand all attackers, you've won. (Shorter games can start with the goal of three castles--or even one.)
But to tell you that much is to tell you nothing. First, the interface isn't one of those loathsome simulations that's harder work than your day job. It takes almost no time to master the push-button commands to keep your castles well defended, your people well fed, and the masons and carters putting up walls and towers.
The game feels deliciously real. From the moment construction begins, a dog and cat frolic and fight around the castle. Then you get to see the walls slowly rise, with workmen bustling away. And when the Celts attack, you get a rousing little battle that can end either in their ignominious defeat or, if you didn't prepare well, in the collapse of your walls and towers.
I can't tell you how much fun it is to design a castle and then see how it holds up to attack. There are some absurdities--you're almost forced to leave your infantry outside the walls, for instance--and at times it's a little frustrating that once you've deployed your soldiers, you have so little control over them. But, in truth, that's one of the most realistic aspects of the game--medieval warfare was like that, with commanders having relatively little control over the events of battle once it had been joined.
Castles isn't a war game, anyway: in fact, much of your time is spent dealing (in well-written, often funny scenes) with a mad abbess, an ill-tempered bishop, an insolent poacher, and worried masons. You get to make real choices in your dealings with them, and Interplay did a fine job of keeping the choices realistic, yet simple and clear.
Then, just to show that there are many ways to do it right, we come to Warlords, from Strategic Studies Group. This is a map-oriented war game in which you capture castles and build up your empire and resources until you're able to overcome the seven other players (human or computer) and conquer the medieval fantasy world of Illuria.
You get to choose that kind of army each castle is going to produce. No two castles give you just the same choices. You can pump out light infantry every turn, for instance; devote a castle to creating powerful griffin armies every 7 turns; or even, with some coastal cities, spend 15 or 20 turns producing a fleet. From time to time, if you keep enough gold handy, heroes offer their services to you, and you can send them in search of magical artifacts in ruins scattered here and there.
The interface is superb, and the game moves swiftly.
The graphics communicate clearly what your relative strength is likely to be. My only quibble is that the map itself is absurd, with rivers that have two mouths and no source for instance. Yet even at that I must say that the map is well designed for play, with enough obstacles to keep you from having to deal with everybody at once.
I'll bet that if you had heard the designers of Castles and the designers of Warlords talking about their plans early on, you might have though they were setting out to make the same game. And yet the result of their work is two completely different games of extraordinary high quality.
This leads me to conclude that when we see games that are clearly derivative of some other company's hit, we don't need to pay the slightest attention to the copycat designers who whine, "Of course they're similar--we're simulating the same situation." Truly creative programmers will never end up with identical games by accident.