Castles are quite possibly the coolest buildings in existence, bar none. They’re those eponymous war huts which feature in just about every medieval fantasy you’d care to mention, from the romantic ramparts of a Cinderella story to the Gothic depths of Dracula’s Castlevania abode.
In post-Dark Ages Europe, they were astounding feats of deadly engineering and careful co-ordination which could break Viking armies and bankrupt paranoid noblemen. Killer moats, boiling oil and murder holes were just a few of the traits which could turn an entire structure into its own freaking weapon.
Long before the Stronghold series emerged in the first tentative years of the new millennium, a bunch of really awesome developers decided to create a DOS-based game called Castles. It was awesome. It put you in the role of an awesome king who built awesome castles and got into awesome battles with awesome armies while basically engaging in a whole bunch of awesome management tasks like raising taxes and executing annoying people.
Nearly two decades later, the game is still a strong representation of how fun an oldschool strategy/building title can be. It balances castle construction chores with a simple (yet interesting) combat system, some pretty juicy medieval politics and randomly-generated plotlines which add a huge whack of flavour to the whole experience.
Most of the game is spent managing the labour mix of your workforce, assigning sections of the castle to be worked on, fending off bunches of angry Celts (those darn Celts) and making sure that you can pay, feed and protect everybody given only the paltry funds available to you. At the same time you’ll grant audience to a whole variety of interesting characters who can affect your kingdom: from bumbling dukes requesting aid in military campaigns to malevolent sorcerers bent on destroying you. The decisions you make in these encounters can have a startling — and sometimes detrimental — effect on your castle-building progress.
The second game in the series, Siege and Conquest, is just as strong an offering, though it focuses more on territory acquisition and less on the minutiae of individual fortresses. While balancing resources, maintaining shaky alliances and carving out your own zones of military conquest, you need to compete against several other lords for the throne of Bretagne by expanding your empire and earning the pope’s blessing.
Compared to most sim-like titles reviewed on this site, the Castles games are startlingly lightweight — which can either be considered a boon or a curse. There’s not a hundred and one structure types to choose from and both titles have the extent of their functionality contained within a few tabs, which opens them up to the risk of monotony for hardcore genre enthusiasts. More casual players, however, will love spending time with their miniature armies of soldiers and workers as they go about stomping the king’s stone-and-mortar authority all over the countryside.
If you’re a fan of the Stronghold series and wonder what its grandparents would have looked like, get this two-in-one deal and try them both. They’re quite an odd couple, but each can easily be considered heroes of the late DOS generation in their own ways.