If you have been paying the barest attention to mobile gaming over the last couple months, chances are you’ve heard of the game Threes!, which was designed by indie developer Asher Vollmer. It turns out that Vollmer has been working on a different game in the wake of Threes! success and it happens to be one of the best games I’ve played at E3 this year.
Close Castles is a unique take on the tower defense genre that plays like a minimalist reduction of a real-time strategy game. In its current state, Close Castles has no single-player or online multiplayer and as far as I know there aren’t currently plans to make either of those features. The game pits two, three, or four local players against each other in a battle of wits.
The premise of Close Castle is, fittingly, that each player has built a castle too close to the neighboring castles of other nations and this has started a war. The war takes place on a grid with each castle residing in a different corner of the grid. Players move their cursor to different squares within their territory to build one of three different structures which then expand their territory. The most basic structures necessary for securing victory in Close Castles are houses, which spawn knights that can attack enemy buildings. If an enemy is invading your lands, towers are a great investment as they assault attacking knights. However, houses and towers don’t just build themselves; all buildings cost money and the more money a play has over their opponents, the more likely they are to secure a victory. To that end, markets are a must for any long-term conquest. I know that I said there were three structures, but another key element to Close Castles is constructing roads. Roads cost nothing and don’t expand your territory, but they are how you direct your knights from their houses to attack enemy buildings. With these basic rules and mechanics, Close Castles sets players loose against each other.
On the surface, Close Castles looks simple enough: The last player with a castle standing wins. But how do you go about besting your friends? Do you go for a building out towers to slowly and safely expand your empire? Or do you build a couple early markets and then blitz your opponents with several houses spewing forth knights? Each strategy has advantages and disadvantages. Allowing a player to turtle for too long can result in an unstoppable wave of knights later on, while neglecting early defense can leave you wide open to an early house rush.
There is definitely a learning curve to Close Castles that lends itself to evolving strategies over time. One of the hardest lessons to learn is how to build roads. Roads are what allows your knights to target enemy structures and you can target more than one building at a time. However, targeting multiple structures will result in an even split of your knights between those targets. Therefore, the more targets you have, the more you divide your forces. This can allow you to hit multiple locations at once, but if you aren’t careful you can simply end up losing all of your knights and leave yourself open to a counterattack.
It is worth noting that we played Close Castles entirely with Xbox 360 controllers, which might make it the first RTS-like game able to be enjoyed with a gamepad. Each building was mapped to a different face button, while the cursor was moved using the left joystick. It felt smooth and responsive, which is incredibly important when you need to respond to an unexpected enemy attack.
Close Castles is still in the early stages of development and there are almost certainly features that will be added or tweaked, but as it stands right now it is one of the most game-like games I’ve played at E3. It completely embraces the spirit of tower defense, while getting at the heart of what makes real-time strategy so engaging. It takes those concepts and strips them down to the bare essentials. That this is played against people who are physically present and frantically strategizing both against and with you adds to a sense of frenetic excitement.
Though currently there is no release date for Close Castles, if the build I played went on sale for mobile, PC, or consoles tomorrow, I would pick it up and recommend you all do the same. Not because it is doing something radical or something new, the concepts on display are old as Chess, but because it does those old things so well that it makes them feel new. Like I said, Close Castles seems simple enough on the surface, but that simplicity stems from elegance. And elegance is a beautiful thing.