Sunday, November 07, 2010

Castle Vox Review

Castle Vox, developed and published by Sillysoft.
The Good: Intriguing balance of production and territorial control through movement, simultaneous movement forces you to defend, flexible online games and custom maps featuring team-based play, exceptional AI, multiplatform
The Not So Good: No random maps, terrible “tutorial”
What say you? An advanced version of Risk: 7/8

Do you like Risk but hate having to (a) play with the same board every time and (b) have to find actual friends to play against? Well, have no fear, because Lux was five years ago. Seriously, where have you been? Anyway, the developer is back with another variation on that classic theme with Castle Vox. This iteration combines the classic game of global domination with tenants from turn-based strategy games, like simultaneous movement, defensive structures, and multiple (well, two) unit types. Is this a marriage made in strategic heaven, or strategic hell?

Like its predecessor, Castle Vox tries its best with 2-D graphics. The maps are pretty bland, but since you can easily import any image to create a custom map, you can actually make the maps as detailed as you want them to be. Because of the use of colored provinces to indicate ownership, it’s probably not surprising that most maps lack much detail on the actual game board, reserving pieces of flair for the edges. Not only can the maps be customized, but the sprites for the units can as well, fitting the appropriate time period for that particular battle. There are no battle animations present in Castle Vox: attacked territories simply turn red as control changes hands. On the sound front, Castle Vox features some repetitive battle effects but enjoyable background music, so that’s a plus. Overall, the simple presentation found in Castle Vox is pretty much all you can expect given the game mechanics.

Castle Vox takes its inspiration from Risk: you start with a number of territories and must take over more through military conquest in order to out-produce your opponents. The game only comes with a couple of maps (including a tutorial that doesn’t teach you any of the game mechanics), but luckily there are already lots to download directly from inside the game. This is possible through the game’s map editor, where you can import any image file, draw the boundaries, and assign territory bonuses, all from the comfort of your home! Sadly, Castle Vox does not feature random maps, something which Lux did, so you are at the mercy of the map designers and their purposely unbalanced layouts. Castle Vox relies more on teams, dividing players up evenly or giving one player (or team) a superior starting force: neat. If going up against the AI isn’t enough, Castle Vox features an in-game browser for finding multiplayer games. These can have turn limits between minutes and days, so you can determine whether you want your contest to last a single day or a number of weeks. Finally, Castle Vox supports Macintosh, Linux, and even a strange, niche operating system called “Windows” (I know, I never heard of it either). The features are strong with this one.

Unlike Risk, Castle Vox features simultaneous turn resolution: everyone queues up their orders and everything is executed at the same time. This has a dramatic impact on the gameplay, one that I feel is quite positive: this forces you to defend your territory, since you can swap positions if you dedicate all your forces on the offensive. Castle Vox features two types of units: pawns can move one space, defend better (a rating of 3), and cost three gold, while knights can move two spaces, attack better (a rating of 5), and cost five gold (the game hides the actual attack and defense values; I had to contact the developer directly to obtain more detailed information). A move is considered an “attack” if the enemy owns the territory of the skirmish, while you “defend” moves against your own property. It’s a very simple but nice system that adds a bit of strategy to the mix in two ways. First, you must balance how many of each unit your purchase: too many knights will leave recently acquired lands vulnerable to attack, while too many pawns will stunt your growth. Also, you need to coordinate offensives: typically, knights will do the attacking and pawns will fill in behind them. Even thought pawns stink as attackers in enemy territory, they do absorb damage before knights, giving them a suicidal role in attack maneuvers.

Another difference from Risk is the restriction on new unit placement: you can only bring in fresh troops at a castle, and each side only starts out with one. You can construct forward bases at a very exorbitant cost, so it’s only a viable strategy if you have a large economic lead. Also, units are recuited only after movement and combat is resolved, preventing last-minute defenses of that castle you forgot to fortify. Gold is earned based on the territory you own, and specific provinces or continents may net a bonus income. If members of the same team control a single continent, the bonus is divided between those respective parties. While the name of the game is territory conquest, I feel the unit production and turn resolution elevates the strategy beyond the simple realm of Risk while remaining accessible to novices. Like its predessesor, Castle Vox features a very strong AI that has an excellent grasp on the game mechanics. They will routinely go after undefended territory and exhibit varied strategies, from focused expansion to defensive turtling. The AI is a real challenge that provides a good substitute for human opponents.

Castle Vox takes the base of Risk, adds a couple of new elements, and produces a slightly unique and entertaining strategy experience. Castle Vox is more sophisticated than Risk: you must balance producing defensive pawns and offensive knights, as the simultaneous turn resolution requires you to defend. It’s a well-made system overall: neglecting purchasing and placing pawns in newly-conquered lands leaves you open to raider attacks by mounted enemy knights. Restricting new recruits to being placed only at castles also adds another layer of necessary planning and generally makes the game more defensive and subsequently longer: you can slow down a steamroll since new units need to be ferried up to the front lines. Resource collection is still based on territory, so constant expansion is the key to victory. The AI doesn’t make things easy, though, as they are quite adept at handling the game rules and will provide a challenging opponent and exhibit different strategies during each contest. While the base game only includes a couple of maps, there are already a bunch to download easily from inside the game, and the ease at which you can import custom images promises the number to steadily increase over time. I do mourn the loss of random maps, but the available ones do provide good enough variety in terms of starting conditions, balance, and game length. Finally, the game features robust multiplayer matchmaking and is available for all three major operating systems. Castle Vox is strongly recommended for all players who thought Risk could use a bit more depth.