Like most humans, I wish to crush the many countries of the world beneath the boot heels of my unstoppable army. That's why Crown and Council is so appealing. This fun, simple PC game, which casts you as a despot bent on world domination, comes from Mojang, the developer that brought you Minecraft. With only a handful of elements, Crown and Council manages to squeeze a lot of strategy out of a very familiar formula. But while it is playable, it doesn't feel quite finished. Don't expect Crown and Council to be the blockbuster, genre-defining game that Minecraft was. At least not until Mojang adds some more polish.
Crown and Council is available on Steam for free, which makes sense, as it feels somewhat incomplete from a feature and play standpoint. Mojang, everyone's favorite division of Microsoft, notes that it was originally made as part of a game jam, when developers try to create playable games as quickly as possible. That sounds about right.
I had no trouble installing the game on my Dell Latitude E7250 laptop running Windows 8.1. Unfortunately there are no Mac, Linux, or mobile versions of the game available. While installing the game is easy, I did notice a few bugs. Occasionally, my cursor wouldn't select what I clicked, and the graphics were mixed up at one point. The game also only displays in a small window; taking it full screen just adds black space around it. Minecraft has seen many incremental updates since its initial release, however, so perhaps Crown and Council will improve over time, too.
Take a Risk (Get It?)
At its heart, Crown and Council is a very traditional (and entertaining) war game following in the footsteps of Risk and its ilk. But the game's presentation is a bit strange. There's no menu for selecting a difficulty level or creating a map. Instead, you play through each level in sequence. At launch, there are 75 maps, with an engine to generate more after that. Some of the game's core features are explained in random splash screens, which is far from helpful.
Each map is made up of several crinkly edged countries. Most are crowded into continents and few stand isolated in islands of varying sizes. Each has a procedurally generated name, which is a flourish that I appreciate. Long have I lusted over the fertile fields of Drumfoss, Cathain, and Hornsop. Your starting position is random, so sometimes you might end up within striking distance of your enemies, and sometimes not.
I haven't said much about your enemies, because there's really not much to talk about. There's no multiplayer mode, so you only face the game's built-in challengers. I'd love the chance to square off against my friends in Crown and Council, but it's not an option. It's an oversight similar to the multiplayer situation in the Android adaptation of Exploding Kittens, which makes playing against friends in the same room irritatingly difficult.
Thankfully, the game's AI opponents provide more than enough of a challenge for even the most seasoned warmonger. Each is represented by a little medieval-styled portrait and has a territory shaded purple, yellow, or red. Your lands are always the noblest blue, and your portrait, that of a bearded king with a commanding presence and eyes greedy for new lands.
Interestingly, one of the game's splash screens says that you can activate a multiplayer mode by pressing number keys. However, it seems this only works when you put the game into debugging mode. Perhaps it's a sign that the ability is coming soon?
We Will Be Greeted as Liberators
At every turn, you can take as many actions as you can afford. Using an army to invade a neighboring country in need of your liberation costs one gold, while dispatching a Fleet to attack any country on the map costs four gold. As in Risk or Civilization, each battle is decided randomly. In Risk, it's decided by a die roll. Crown and Council does the same kind of calculations, but unseen by the player. I found that Fleets tend to have less of a chance of success than Armies, which makes distant invasions an especially costly risk. Unlike other war games, in Crown and Council there's no need to stack up multiple units in each territory. Instead, your attacks are limited only by the size of your purse and the strength of your bloodthirsty will.
Capturing territory doesn't just bring you closer to winning you the game (which you do by conquering all the lands), it also earns you money. On every turn you get one gold from each captured country, which you then use to fund your unquenchable lust for destruction. But a country you just captured is still a smoking ruin; you have to wait a turn before you can benefit from the labor of your populace. It's a neat mechanic, but sometimes it leads to an endless back-and-forth between enemies, neither of whom get a decisive edge in gold production.
The only way to beef up your defenses is to build Forts, which lessen the chance of an invading army successfully taking your territory. You can also build Cities, which increase the amount of gold generated by captured territory from one to two. An interesting strategic twist is that Cities can be captured instead of being reduced to ruins, as unimproved territories are. Mines also improve the payout of each territory, but they are naturally occurring and can't be built by the player.
The biggest difference between Crown and Council and other war games is that you can turn an occupied country into a place of learning by building a University. These earn research points once per turn, and after you've accrued 10 research points, you can upgrade your Armies, Forces, Fleets, or Cities. Think of it as the tech tree from a real-time strategy game such as StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void. This is a late-game investment that can really pay off. Perhaps too much so, as the game felt significantly less balanced when the upgrades were in play.
I've mentioned the randomness of combat already, but that's not the only element of chance. Plagues and rebellions can also strike your countries when you least expect them. When a plague hits, it destroys a City. A Rebellion wrests control of a country from your iron grip, forcing you to recapture it. If you had built a Fort or a University, you'll be forced to destroy your investment in recapturing the land it's built on. Elements like these liven up the game, and I'd like to see more of them.
On the Warpath
The first nine maps of the game serve as a kind of tutorial. A splash screen explains the Unit or concept that you're meant to learn about, and then you're off for some on-the-job learning. I appreciate that even in this simple game, Mojang cuts out any fluff and presents the game as it is. But while most tutorials are a safe sandbox in which to learn the ropes, Crown and Council has you fighting for your life. This makes Crown and Council more than a little unwelcoming. I lost numerous games just trying to learn what all the units do, and had to spend precious resources experimenting with units to see how they work.
It's worth noting that other, more complex games like Lords of Waterdeep handle tutorials better. That said, the experience of losing so many games while learning the rules means I won't soon forget those hard lessons.
Minecraft is also tough for beginners, offering no story, no tutorial, and no explanation within the game. That fits well with Minecraft's themes of hard work and exploration, but it feels sloppy in Crown and Council. This is especially noteworthy since there's no obvious way to restart a level, short of quitting the game. Instead, you have to press "R." Playing a level you're certain you'll lose? You can press "K" to have the game autoplay to the end. These are useful features, but I only stumbled across them after having played 13 maps. A simple start menu would help solve this problem.
I also find the game a bit unbalanced. Sometimes in my testing one player achieved an unbeatable advantage and the outcome of the game became a foregone conclusion. Other times, all the players got locked in a stalemate, unable to get a critical edge. Occasionally, the only solution is to do nothing for several turns and just earn more gold, but that's pretty dull.
Also, the name "Crown and Council" implies that there is a diplomatic aspect to this game. Short of a splash screen informing me that attacking enemies makes the more hostile, the intent and temperament of the AI opponents is a mystery to me.
In board games, designers include purposely game-breaking elements such as cards or special powers that augment the core rules of the game. In Small World 2, for example, each species has unique abilities. Mojang would do well to include something similar to provide a check against stalemates and overpowered players. AIs ought to concede unwinnable games, too.
War of Attrition
Despite my complaints, I enjoy Crown and Council. It's interesting to get a taste of that work-for-everything ethos in what's essentially a classic board game. And the idea of a war game is still extremely compelling. Case in point: I still sometimes play Risk despite how broken it is.
Like Minecraft in its early days, Crown and Council feels like the beginning of a good idea. If Mojang decides to release updates that include, say, a basic menu, a multiplayer mode, and some more nuanced mechanics, it could be excellent. It might also be a better as mobile experience than it is a PC game. For now, however, it's a fun little time waster that I'm glad is free.