Original Release: 1992, Platform: PC, Developer: Quicksilver Software, Publisher: Interplay, Image Source: GOG
My soldiers march to war over a thick layer of December snow. I can't imagine they appreciate the cold, but I honestly care little for their plight. For years now I've been forced to deal with the insipid politics and intrigue that dominate the land. I've long since grown tired of it; making deals and paying pointless pittances to the other lords competing for my crown. The day of my ascension has come. I will unite our country with blood and steel.
Our first attacks break the back of Burgundy. In a few swift blows, I crush their armies and my men are soon washing across their territories like the unstoppable waves of a conquering sea. Eager to expand on these early victories, I push hard across their land, pressing our advantage and ignoring the mounting casualties suffered by my men.
This impatience is my undoing. While we succeed in conquering Burgundy, the final battles leave my army in shambles. Sensing opportunity, the lord of Valois moves in with his own forces to capitalize on my poorly led campaign. They attack, crushing my weakened forces and putting me on the defensive. In the space of a few months, all my gains turn to losses. My ambitions now taste like ash in my mouth.
I stare at my computer screen and sigh. This was the closest I've come to winning a game of Castles 2. As with all the attempts that have come before however, it's clear that I'm going to fail. Building my army had been a long, resource-intensive process; not the sort of thing I can do on a whim. With Valois already driving hard into my lands, and the other lords badgering me for gifts of "goodwill," it's only a matter of time before the enemy destroys me or someone else decides to get in on the action and carve out their own piece of Stew.
Pushing out one final, regretful gust of air, I quit to the game's main menu. Unfortunately, the itch that's been driving me to play this game for days hasn't left me and I soon find myself reloading my game to before my attack on Burgundy to try it all again. I had planned on playing other games this weekend, but I know now that that isn't going to happen now. I'm just caught up in playing "just one more round" of Castles 2: Siege and Conquest.
Set in the year 1131, the game drops the player into the shoes of a medieval lord trying to grab power in the wake of the death of France's King Charles. You do this by using a combination of economic, military, and diplomatic options to conquer neighboring provinces and defeat the other lords competing for power. That might sound simple, but it's actually anything but. While the controls are markedly uncomplicated (you can play the game with just the mouse), winning involves a surprising level of complexity and long-term planning.
On the whole, the game could best be described as a contest of competing needs. There isn't a single moment of the game where someone doesn't want something from you. The other lords want bribes, "Heeze Holineese ze Pope" wants donations, your armies want food and payment, your peasants want happiness; your attention and resources are constantly being pulled in different directions.
And as much as you'd like to ignore their nagging, victory pretty much depends on doing a good job of managing their many demands. You might want to flip the bird to the opposing lords but, for most of the game, you're too weak to survive the wars that would inevitably follow such insults. Ignoring the Church, likewise, is a fantastic way to get excommunicated, something that works wonders for destroying the happiness of your populace who are already looking for any excuse to revolt. If you want to succeed, you basically have no choice but to find some way to keep everyone appeased while you build up your power base.
The challenge with this is that the game is designed so that you don't have enough resources to satisfy everyone all of the time. When each new game begins, you're only able to farm one resource type (there are four total) at a time. This eventually expands to two, but even then you'll be hard-pressed to keep up with the deluge of requests that are constantly being sent your way. Add in the cost of building armies and castles, and you can guarantee that you won't have enough to give everyone what they want. You'll often have no choice but to look at all of your various relationships and decide who's most likely to turn against you if you refuse to give them their regular dose of bribery.