Played in a woefully-underused setting, 1992’s Castles II: Siege & Conquest supposes that a civil war breaks out in France in 1311, about a decade before the Hundred Years’ War was due to start. So rather than a century of grudge matches between the English and a unified French, we get a vicious battle between five claimants to the French throne: two internal powers (Valois & Anjou) and three mostly external agitators (Burgundy, Aragon / Spain, and Albion / England) who all have their own equally valid claims to the title.
They all start the game off roughly equal, but their starting positions on the map of France actually unbalance them quite a bit. Albion is generally the easiest to play, as a smart player can use diplomacy to focus on one target at a time. Burgundy and Anjou generally have it the worst, as they will always start the game off bordering too many opponents at once.
You play as an administrator-in-chief rather than the traditional micromanager-in-chief, making decisions and then waiting to see how they are carried out in a quite hands-off manner. Tasks are divided into three broad categories: Administrative, dealing with resources and castle construction; Military, directly related to all things aggresive; Political, or pretty much intelligence-gathering. You’ll combine all of these abilities to control territories that can produce one of four key resources. However, the goal is not neccessarily to control all of these territories, but to gain enough points (respect) to make a claim to the throne and then hold it for a period of about five months. Once you do so, you’ll be crowned King of France by that ever-blasted Pope.
What makes this game interesting is that all actions have a downside, and that you never have the time or ability to do all the things you would like to do. It’s rather like some of my favorite board games like Colossal Arena or Vinci in that way. It makes some definitely goofy design decisions (I have to send a scouting unit for a month just to see who owns the piece of land across the way?) and castles end up being kind of death traps for the defense if you run your own battles, but the game’s depth in other areas makes up for it. Consider the play session below, picking up about midway through a recent game…
The Tale of the Most Noble Poet-Warrior Count of Valois Here’s the situation: I’m facing the losing end of a three year war with the vile forces of Aragon. Early on, I found myself surrounded primarily by gold-producing territories and went a little nuts acquiring them. I let those other posers worry about territories that could produce crap like timber or even food.
As a result, I had a filthy-rich and filthy-tiny empire with a near-constant starvation problem. The constant invasions were only making us tinier and starving-er.
Even with a neverending Merchant mission to my only friend down in Burgundy (see earlier note about Burgundy being perpetually weak. VALOIS IS BEYOND REPROACH IN OUR DECISION MAKING, HOWEVER.), I scrounged up enough food to feed my peeps and build an army that could just barely hold the line. See, way back in the day, I had built a monstrously-large super-castle “Castle DeathEagle” well in my own territory, mostly in a bad-ass, Ozymandias sort of way.
Beyond impractical when it was built, Castle DeathEagle was now the only reason my empire continued. The stonemasons working on repairing the damage from the last seige would sigh and depart as they saw yet another advancing Aragon army pissed off about the latest messenger I had returned to them in pieces purely on principle. We’d then proceed to fight with the only serious losses being Castle DeathEagle itself. The stonemasons would return, looking ever more down-trodden, and continue their never-ending repair work.
I have to give it to those Spaniards though, they’re clever. Seeing the futility in further Super-Castle Super-Seiges, they then started pounding Burgundy. Normally I wouldn’t shed a tear over one less competitor, but seeing as all of my citizens’ food came stamped “Made in Burgundy,” this presented a teensy problem. I had at most a year to go from losing this war to re-entering it pretty aggressively if I wanted to avoid people feeding people to people.
There is one spy in the service of Valois who will have statues erected all over the good land of France for his discovery. Children will grow up knowing his legend to the point where Joan of Arc won’t mean shit next to this guy. Why, you ask? Well, it was right about then that he turns in a fairly standard report: Aragon has twice as many territories as you, about 2/3 more soldiers, and a Happiness of 4.
Wait.. a Happiness of 4?! You see, in Castles II each nation’s populace has a happiness rating from 2 to 9. It affects a variety of things like how difficult you are to sabotage as well as how effectively your men fight in battle. It turns out that even though I wasn’t making any kind of dent in Aragon’s army, each time I forced his army to retreat from the shattered hulk of Castle DeathEagle, his people grew increasingly despondant. It’s one of two things that will decrease the happiness of your land.
To make a long-story short, I spent the next year doing everything I could to make my people drunk with pleasure while the people of Aragon awoke to each day more sullen than the last. Constant saboteur raids meant that Aragon had to constantly and harshly police his own populace with his military. Meanwhile the people of Valois were having so many festivals and national celebrations (of what I can’t imagine. “Hooray We Have Food” Fest?) that it made Japan’s holiday calendar seem downright stingy by comparison. So when the food train from Burgundy finally did stop a-runnin, my people were near-euphoric with their fervent nationalistic glee.
“Zeal” was nothing to describe my 14-unit army when it finally took the field of battle against an army of 24, an army demoralized by a year of midnight raids and policing.
We stomped them. Burgundy may have been a fond memory by this point in time, but they were avenged by the sheer tonnage of Aragonian blood spilled that day. They entered with 24; they left with eight. By contrast, we lost two units.
The war would drag on, with Aragon even attempting to claim the throne of France at one point, but even the ever-blasted Pope had to eventually meet me at Castle DeathEagle to recognize my right to rule.
The Impact of Castles II Upon Me
Is Castles II even one of my favorite games of all time? No, not really. Only the midgame is really very interesting - the initial landgrab is always the same and the time difference between when you know you’ve won and when you actually win is far too long. Also, despite the story above, almost always the game turns solely upon army size and who you have as friends. For instance, if you’re Albion and you form both a decent army and a strong friendship with Valois, you’re pretty much going to win unless you’re playing on Impossible difficulty.
Additionally, the battle engine is pretty well broken. You can technically control your troops in battle, but it’s a death sentence to do so. If you want to win, you have to let the computer simulate the battles for you. So it’s definitely a game with flaws.
However, this idea of strategy games where you don’t have direct control over every action of the empire, but rather just what actions are being taken has stuck with me. While some games like Civilization have come close to this in certain regards, it still remains something I look for in many games.
The only game that really implements this is KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms IX, which is strange since KOEI isn’t really known for innovation (cough DYNASTY WARRIORS cough). It also remains one of the reasons I’m excited about playing some World in Conflict `ere long, as it seems to offer a similar level of abstraction over “uninteresting things” like resource gathering, etc. etc.