Overall Score 91%
Casual strategy games seem to be gaining in popularity. I've recently been playing quite a bit of Bronze from Dreamspike studios, and really love the simple to play but difficult to master mechanics of that turn-based gem. In a way this week's game reminds me a little of Bronze. Although it's not quite as polished (ho-hum), it has that certain quality to it that there's more than meets the eye when you first pick it up. Certainly, the first striking feature of it is that the game runs in real time rather than turns which is very unusual for a hex-based strategy game indeed. This gives Little Kingdoms an immediacy and vibrancy that is perfectly complemented by its cartoony graphical style. I really like it. It is a casual game in terms of the player being able to sit down and play a level in just a few minutes, but the strategy is deep enough that it engages in a way that few casual games can.
In very basic terms, Little Kingdoms is a land grab game. By that I mean that the ultimate goal of the player is to either take over the territory of all opponents, or ally with them to win the game. It's a 5 minute game that combines resource collection, territory defence, economic management, and diplomacy with a healthy dose of panoptic strategy. It's quite an addictive mix, but there's never much time to get bogged down on one element or another. You need to be able to switch between tasks rapidly and keep an eye on all of your opponents, as the situation can change quite quickly at any given time.
The player expands their territory by building towers in their own hexes. There are 4 types of towers that can be built. Clay towers are the weakest and project their influence over 2 hexes in all directions around them – they are built with food!? (go figure). Food is collected at a set rate per time click (about a second or so) in game and this rate corresponds directly to the amount of territory that the player controls. For Wooden, Stone and Iron towers, the player needs to harvest those materials from the map directly. Lumber camps built adjacent to forest hexes yield one wood per forest per time click. Iron and Stone is collected in a similar fashion using mines. But here's where it gets interesting; lumber camps cost 250 food to build, stone mines cost 250 wood, and iron mines cost 250 stone. Each material is incrementally more precious than the one that comes before it. This is important because each corresponding tower type is more powerful and projects its influence over a larger area than the last. By the end game, you will need access to iron towers, and the decisions such as when to curtail expansion and to start to concentrate on resource gathering can be a pivotal point in the game. Wait too long, and you'll be overwhelmed by more powerful towers of your opponents, start too soon and you won't have the economy to keep up in production. Each map is randomly generated and unique, so this decision is not always clear cut.
Each tower of any given type is more expensive depending on how many have been placed on the map. Clay towers start out very cheaply at just 250 food, but after you've placed a half a dozen or so, they cease to be very cost effective as well as being vulnerable to higher tier towers. If you don't have access to forests by this stage of the game, then you'll have to use trade to increase stocks of wood. You can trade food for wood on an ongoing basis at a rate of about 20:1 initially. This probably sounds like a pretty bad deal, and quite a waste of food. In fact, it is. Only by building markets can the player begin to change that ratio to something more appealing. By building (or capturing) enough market buildings you can trade for wood for a measly 5 food. It's not just food to wood either. The trade ratio applies equally to wood to stone and also stone to iron trades as well. It's a vital game concept that newbies are liable to overlook. The player needs to pay attention to not only the trade ratio, but also amounts of resources to trade on an ongoing basis.
Next, we come to diplomacy. Probably the most unintuitive aspect of the game, and the least useful in my opinion. Why? Well, relations with AI opponents can be manipulated by offering tribute to them on an ongoing basis very much like trade. If tribute is reciprocated, then this can form an alliance between the two kingdoms. Relations are measured on a scale of -2 to 3, with positive values indicating a peace agreement. I find it semi-useful in the late game to bribe distant kingdoms into an alliance rather than to go through the late game mopping up, but earlier in the game, I find that resources can be put to much better use to build towers or infrastructure, with the residual going into trade. Still, it's a good feature to have and it does offer a few choices that would not be present otherwise, and might suit the playstyle of other players more then it does for me. Just as markets can manipulate the trade rate, embassies can be built or captured to change the rate of resources needed for one unit of tribute.
Little Kingdoms is a single player game and the AI comes in 3 flavours; Peasant, Knight and King. The King AI is reasonably competent and can topple me often on a large map with many opponents. These games are the most fun. The Knight AI will struggle to beat most humans, unless the player receives a really unlucky start position, and the peasant AI is really only useful for learning the game and as a placeholder (perhaps used as an allied Kingdom on a large map?). In any case, the map generator provides lots of options to customise map style, size, number of opponents and creates maps in a flash. The interface is laid out very nicely, the display is clear and the colours are vibrant. Using hotkeys to swap between economy, construction and diplomacy tabs and the mouse to control the action is the best way for me to play, but if you just wanted to go with the mouse, then that's an option too.
On the negative side, there seems to be no way to customise the player name (it's set to Andreil) and colour (always green). Very few options exist, and there seems to be no way to run the game in a window or change resolution. There are no help files or documentation, although there is a tutorial that will take you through the very basics of the game and this is spread over 3 maps. The music gets quite repetitive, although there are options to turn the volume down or to disable it entirely. The two or three tracks that play are a good fit for the style of game though. I just wish that there was a bit more variety really.
Overall, Little Kingdoms is a brilliant little strategy gem that hits the sweet spot in so many ways. I love the quick pace and frantic switching between game elements. The random map editor, coupled with the ability to set up teams and start positions is perfect for customising the challenge to the player's skill level. At just $5 on the Desura distribution platform the game is a steal and will provide many hours of fun. It's just as well suited to the 15 minute break as it is to the 3 hour marathon and is an ideal game for casual strategy fans aged 9 to 99. I'm going to bust out the gold star for the first time in ages.
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