It’s always seems slightly odd that sim management games should have such a strong following. Managing a city in exacting detail or building your own prison don’t exactly seem like the most relaxing of activities. They can, in fact, be relatively stressful at times, and yet they’ve always appealed to me deeply for some reason, with Kingdom being no exception.
However, it’s more than fair to say that the sheer complexity of these games can be off putting at times. Cities In Motion, for example, is a game that’s impressive in its depth, but it’s absolutely terrifying for the exact same reason. Even something relatively light like Sim City can leave you feeling like you’re juggling a lot of balls at one time.
In a refreshing change of pace, Kingdom goes in the complete opposite direction, stripping everything back to an incredibly simple core idea. Instead of piling up systems and menus as you build your kingdom on a large map, you have a 2D world, presented in a pixel art style, which requires the use of exactly four buttons: left, right, down and shift. As you’d expect, left and right move your mounted king or queen through your kingdom (with shift speeding you up to a gallop), while pressing the down key allows you to interact with the world, which is done entirely by spending gold.
However, simple systems don’t equate to a simple game, and Kingdom can build into a complex game quickly. Even with the game’s single gold resource that’s used for everything, you’ll spend a lot of time working out exactly how you should spend, with the clear potential for one misplaced coin to cost you dearly. Whether it’s investing too heavily in archers over farmers or upgrading your town hall instead of building more walls, everything you has the potential for wondrous success or dismal failure.
Unlike most other sim management games where failure tends to come via bankruptcy, Kingdom gives you an actual adversary. Almost every night your kingdom’s walls will be beseeched by zombie like creatures, seeking only to wreck your infrastructure, pinch your resources and, eventually, steal your crown. Losing your crown will cost you your kingdom, although in the short term the damage to infrastructure and the loss of resources are significant concerns in their own right.
That infrastructure consists of the basics like walls, farms and guard towers, but far more crucial are your subjects. There’s no point in having a kingdom if you’ve got no people to rule, so you’ll need to recruit yourself some townsfolk. Converting them from people wandering the forest to your loyal subjects will take one gold piece per person, and then you’ll have to pay to buy the tools and weapons that convert them into something useful. You can go with archers or builders at first, but once you’ve upgraded your village you can progress onto farmers and, eventually, knights.
Although the nightly raids can strip your villagers of their roles, or even take them back to non-villagers if their coin is stolen, once they’re assigned a position you can’t swap them yourself. This element can be somewhat frustrating, particularly if you’ve faced a tough raid that’s left you sorely lacking in one particular area, but forcing you to commit to your decisions is a nice touch in many ways.
As issued orders are similarly irreversible, you’ll have to be incredibly careful in how you manage your time, almost treating it as the game’s second resource. Take your builders, for example. You’ll occasionally need to set them to do work outside of the protective walls of your encampment, but if you time it wrong then they’ll be vulnerable when the nightly raid hits.
It would, perhaps, be nice if your builders retreated to the safety of your settlement once night falls, or even if there was a manual option to recall all of your subjects outside of the safety of the kingdom’s walls. While it’s not necessarily a major flaw of the game, it can be incredibly frustrating to realise you’ve mistimed some work orders and have left your builders as easy pickings for your nightly adversaries.
On the flip side, it would be nice if you had a bit more control over the disposition of your subjects, and your archers in particular. Archers act not just as protectors, but also hunters, and watching them head to a barren side of your encampment while the opposite side is bursting with potential prey which could then converted to gold is an experience that grates at times.
The final area that needs touching upon is exploration. As you can’t scroll around the world as you would in a normal sim management or strategy title, and the camera is locked to following your king or queen. Delving into the forest that surrounds your small kingdom is necessary if you want to see your kingdom grow, not only to boost your available space and recruit new subjects but also to purchase buffs for your archers and builders from statues dedicated to them. These are particularly useful when combined with your archers, turning them from adequate to crack shots.
However, even more crucial than this is finding the portals that the forest contains. These are where the monsters that attack you each night come from and, once you have knights, you can target them for destruction. It’s certainly not easy to take down even one portal, requiring significant investment in both your kingdom’s infrastructure as well as archers and knights, but taking down all of the portals is the only way to beat the game and ensure the safety of your crown. If I’m perfectly honest, it’s not something I’ve personally managed to achieve, and have only seen others manage the feat.
Make no mistake, Kingdom is meant to be incredibly tough. By mixing limited resources in both time and gold with a world you have to traverse yourself and permadeath if you lose your crown, the game can only be described as punishing at times, yet you’ll always want to come back for more, striving to survive a little bit longer and push deeper into the forest of the new world you find yourself in.
Ultimately Kingdom is a game that’s easy to love. Combining exploration, micromanagement and strategy in a way that continually feels personal and intimate is no easy task, but it achieves it by forcing you to do everything yourself. While simplicity is the key to the game’s mechanics, keeping everything on a very human scale is probably at the core of how it makes you feel. Very few strategy or management games manage to present things on a street level scale, but Kingdom does it perfectly and it’s all the better for it.