Review: Castles—Seige & Conquest
Publisher: MacPlay Division of Interplay
Phone: (80) MACPLAY
Fax: (714) 252-2820
List Price: $34.95 U.S. for CD-ROM; $19.95 diskette (where available)
System 6.0.7 or higher
Monitor with 256 colors
2 MB free RAM
13 MB hard drive space
The year is 1312, a time of tumult in feudal France. In your palace, sweat beads your brow as you ponder the famine ravaging your provinces and the treachery of the spy you ordered to Brittany last month. A messenger from the arrogant Duke of Burgundy suddenly appears, ominously demanding a gift of gold. On the other hand, a fanfare of trumpets has announced completion of your castle in Nantes, doubling your production of metals and suppressing an incipient rebellion by your ungrateful subjects.
This is life in Castles: Siege and Conquest, MacPlay’s aging strategy game, now in its third incarnation since 1990. As one of five ruling lords vying for the vacant throne of Bretagne, you are challenged to employ all your resources, political; economic; diplomatic; and military, to outwit your opponents and claim the throne.
In an age of multimedia-conceived games, Castles seems woefully quaint at first blush. Its vintage 512 x 384 window floats on your monitor screen, the ’port is pure DOS, and text messages drive much of the game play. If you don’t disable the tootling music track, you will surely go mad. The game is made no less eccentric by the QuickTime clips from the silent classic “Alexander Nevsky” that punctuate game events. But don’t be misled. Skilled gamers who take this AI too lightly will quickly find they’ve won, not the coveted throne, but the post of Rat Catcher, Food Taster, or Village Idiot, depending on their point score. It could be worse. Beheading is another common reward for failure.
To reach the throne, you employ scouts, spies, saboteurs, police, diplomats, merchants, and armies. You must call councils, maintain the happiness of your surly subjects, cultivate alliances, recruit soldiers and siege engines, and manage your economy. Each province produces a single product, wood; metal; gold; or food, and whatever products you are unable to produce must be bought from your allies or purchased on the risky black market.
As in all well-conceived strategy games, Castles is easy to learn but difficult to master or, in this case, “impossible;” the other three difficulty settings being hard, average, and easy.
Most game play takes place in the “strategic” window. From here, you direct the activities of your provinces with all actions limited by a strict economy of “ability points.” These control the amount of time required to complete tasks, the critical factor in real-time game play. You can divert, say, political efforts to the military, but beware of falling into disfavour with the Pope. Diverting military effort to the economy can jeopardize your defenses. In addition to the main window, a tactical window allows you to design and build castles for the defense of your provinces. All combat also takes place in this window.
Military gamers take heed. Armed aggression has no advantage over commerce or diplomacy as a path to victory. There are a few deployment advantages to be gained in the tactical window, but actual combat plays out automatically. Relying on warfare alone will quickly win you the post of Court Jester, though neglecting one’s army and building cheap, flimsy castles will have the same result. Victory points toward the throne are awarded for armies, diplomatic relations, happiness of your subjects, economic wealth, provinces owned, size and number of castles — in short, the whole complex of your status as a ruler.
“Castles” isn’t for everyone, of course, least of all gamers who take neutron blasters seriously. But if you value well-conceived strategy game play in a stylish and witty, albeit dated format, it might be fun to acquire this minor classic from the days when the phrase “Mac strategy game” was almost a non sequitur.