City-building games with timers are increasingly common on mobile platforms. Xbox Windows Phone has seen a few, including Gameloft’s own Ice Age Village. These games lure players in with their initially rapid progression and lots of loot to collect. But the longer one plays, the less new things there are to see and the more the feeling of sameness pulls in. Do we keep playing them for fun or out of habit?
So the question becomes how to make a city builder with real lasting appeal – one that keeps providing players a reason to play and maybe even spend some money. Electronic Arts found a clever way to do so by adding timers to its Sims franchise and calling it Sims FreePlay. Now Gameloft returns to the genre with Kingdoms & Lords. The hook: they’ve thrown strategic battles into the mix.
Kingdoms under fire
The game starts out with a light narrative involving a king’s assassination. This act thrusts the medieval world’s four kingdoms into chaos. As the player, you’ll need to set things right and find the evil force orchestrating the conflict.
NPCs will occasionally deliver tidbits of dialogue that embellish the premise, but the main way the story advances is via a series of boss battles. By reaching the proper experience level and completing required quests, players will unlock boss conflicts on the world map. Bosses must be defeated three times before admitting defeat and opening the way to the next opponent.
It bears mentioning that you don’t fight the actual boss in combat, just his or her flunkies. Since all the bosses can be unlocked as playable heroes, it makes little sense that they don’t show up in person for the story battles. But hey, at least the battles lend the game a structure other than just building things and collecting coins forever.
This type of game is aimed at casual players, hence the battle system isn’t too complex. Both sides during a battle can have up to five units that take turns attacking each other. The speed rating of the unit affects the order of its turn, not unlike a role-playing game.
Units have several ratings including attack power, defense, hit points, miss rate (basically reverse accuracy), and critical hit chance. On top of that, every unit is strong against four other unit types and weak against the same number. Cavalry are better against the three infantry categories, for instance, while ranged units get attack bonuses against horse-riders.
Taking units’ strengths and weaknesses into account won’t win you the battle all on its own, however. Each category of units such as swordsmen, pikemen, etc. comes in several classes. A higher class unit usually holds a significant advantage over lower class units thanks to its increased attack, defense, and health ratings. The only way to unlock better units is by leveling up, so you might
find yourself running up against bosses and opposing player teams that simply outclass your best team from time to time.
Players can also cast single-use magic spells during battle, upgrade units to make them more effective, and hire costly hero units to take into the fray. Our In-App Purchase Guide has more details on all three mechanics.
Beyond progression through the campaign’s boss battles, players can also work through a variety of quests. Many quests appear when you reach a certain level, while others unlock after completing previous quests.
Quests boil down to standard genre tropes like planting specific crops, placing decorations, expanding your kingdom, reaching population milestones, or performing social interactions with other players. Completing a quest rewards you with gold (the game’s soft currency) and experience.
As you finish quests in a chain, you’ll eventually run into quests that require diamonds – premium currency – to complete. Nothing to do about that but ignore the premium quest and move on; you need your diamonds for other things. There’s always a non-premium quest or two to work on instead, and quests aren’t the only way to gain gold and experience.
One steady source of income comes from your citizen’s dwellings. Each house or windmill produces gold and experience at regular intervals ranging from a few minutes to several hours. Houses also contribute to population, a value that matters for population-based quests and nothing else. Perhaps population could have been better integrated into the game’s design.
The most important and flexible source of gold (and to a lesser extent, experience) comes from farms. Farms can plant various crops, with harvesting times ranging from a few minutes to a full day. Strangely, the payouts sort of level off after 12 hours; a 16 hour crop won’t pay significantly more gold than a 14 hour one.
You can build as many homesteads as will fit in your kingdom, with the only other limiting factor being how much energy it takes to harvest them. Yes, collecting from farms, houses, and other buildings actually depletes your energy meter. Run out and your range of actions will be limited until you get more. Luckily energy refills over time, so its limited nature won’t hamper progression too much.
Three additional resources: wood, stone, and wool require their own special buildings for production. These materials cost gold to produce, with increased payouts for longer production periods. Wood, stone, and wool are used almost exclusively to produce military units.
Xbox Windows Phone gamers haven’t had much exposure to social interaction in their city buildings games. The social features in Ice Age Village never worked properly and Electronic Arts annoyingly chose to omit Sims FreePlay’s social features entirely. Lucky for us, Kingdoms & Lords has a strong asynchronous multiplayer component that actually works the majority of the time.
By accessing the game’s social menu, players can choose to interact with their Xbox Live friends. There’s no Facebook support (despite mention on a loading screen), but that probably ends up for the best considering all the Facebook integration issues we’ve seen in Ice Age Village and Tetris Blitz.
Some friendly interactions are cooperative in nature; players can visit each others’ villages and harvest five resources or buildings and send gifts of magic spells (the best gift) or other items once per day. The other option is to invade a friend’s village, which pits you in a battle against your pal’s defense team. If you succeed in the invasion, your friend has the opportunity to repeal the invasion in a follow-up battle.
Attacking friends seems less than friendly, but invasions provide an important source of social stars. These can be spent on materials needed for unlocking unit upgrades. Counterintuitive as it is, players are best off getting their friends to choose deliberately weak defense units and just making invasion easy for everyone involved.
Of course, weak defenses won’t help you against attacks from random players. Fighting random players can be quite fun, but the matchmaking is terrible. Choose to engage in such a battle and you’re thrown into a fight against someone who could be much higher or lower level than you. It would be fairer to match players of similar levels or allow the player to choose between a few different opponents.
The game also suffers from connectivity issues in which it sometimes can’t connect to the server at all or drops a connection during battle. Dropped invasions of friends can be resumed but random battles can’t. These nuisances are still relatively minor compared to Ice Age Village’s severely broken multiplayer.
Good news: all of Kingdoms & Lords’ Achievements can be unlocked! Bad news: some of the boss Achievements might fail to unlock. But there is a workaround. If you defeat a boss for the final time and his or her Achievement doesn’t pop, immediately exit the game. When you start up again, choose to load your cloud save instead of the file stored on your device. The cloud save should roll you back a bit and provide another chance at the Achievement. It worked for me!
Also note that two Achievements’ descriptions are vague or misleading. For ‘Demon’s Nightmare’ (Successfully resist invasion 100 times) you must resist invasion from friends, not random opponents. The invasion counter on the Achievement screen also seems a bit wonky. And ‘Good Luck Follows’ you requires players to win 50 battles with only one unit remaining on their team, which the description doesn’t spell out.
Kingdoms & Lords doesn’t quite transcend the genre. If you’ve never cared for mobile city building games, this one won’t likely change your mind. But the addition of combat and player-versus-player battles does make for a more engaging experience than previous “village” games.
Compared to other Gameloft titles, this one has far better cloud save support since you can save to the cloud at any time. If the upcoming Windows 8 version shares the same save and Achievements, checking in from the device of your choosing should be a most convenient way to play.
- Kingdoms & Lords – Windows Phone 8 – 122 MB – Free – Store Link