A lot of games have based themselves on the famous “Risk” boardgame franchise that Parker Brothers started way back in 1957. Because of the tremendous amount of time that it takes even to just set up the board for play, let alone roll dice dozens of times per turn for conflict resolution, the game lends itself to a computer adaptation very well. Of all the Risk clones that I have seen so far, Castle Vox may well be the most impressive. Of course there is a certain tactile pleasure in moving the pieces over the board and playing physical cards from your deck over the card table of world domination, but when you might only have half an hour to scratch that Risk itch, Castle Vox is your saviour.
Basically, the general goal for all players is to gain control over all the other player's headquarters territories. You recruit troops, move them over the map between adjoining territories and attack other players while defending yourself from their attacks. Gameplay is equally affected by skill and luck, and the cat and mouse style of turn based strategy tends to dominate. Tactics like overwhelming application of force at enemy weak points, concentration of troops at choke points and bluffing all become important over time. Players need to be able to choose the moment to attack wisely, for often timing as much as army strength can be a vital element of a victorious outcome.
The game board is divided up into continents, which are further divided up into territories. Each turn a player is paid a bonus for each territory that they control and an extra amount if they can control all territories of a continent. The money is used to buy troops each turn or can be saved if desired. Therefore, the snowball effect takes over as one player asserts their dominance and, generally speaking, once a player can control much more than half the board in their own right, they become very hard to stop.
There are some to the standard Risk rules. Most importantly, combat in Castle Vox is slightly more complex due to there being 3 units with separate attack and defensive values. The pawn has a higher defensive value and little attacking strength. The knight has high attack value and can move up to two territories, but is of less value on defence. Finally, the castle is immobile, but can defend and also allows for the recruitment of units in a territory that it stands in. Castles, unlike other units, can be captured by enemies sufficiently strong enough to wrest control of their territory. Having a good balance of attacking and defending units as well as castles strategically positioned throughout the empire is a key concept and adds depth to the game. Territories can be left undefended in Castle Vox, and often it's temping to move troops away from the core territories and onto the front lines where they can be more useful. This can be dangerous, because a fast group of enemy defenders can penetrate into the interior of your land and quickly convert large tracts of territory into their own, turning the tide of battle. Significantly unlike Risk, turns are simultaneous in Castle Vox, with a conflict resolution stage occurring after each planning stage. The resolution is fully automated and can be set to happen extremely quickly, with die rolls hidden from the players.
Many of the features that make Risk fun and addictive to play have been captured in Castle Vox, but by far and away the best feature of the game is the way that the developers have made it extremely moddable. Not only is it easy to create your own maps, but the very best of the most creative players in the community have designed some brilliant maps that really give each game a very unique flavour. From an in-game menu it's very simple to browse and download from a selection of fan made content that is every bit as good as the few default maps that come with the game. Whether you're trying to track down Robin Hood and his band of merry men in Sherwood Forest, escaping from Alcatraz, fighting a futuristic space war, assisting as the French in the American War of Independence or guiding Tokugawa to ultimate power in 16th century Japan, there are maps for all tastes available for instant download at the click of your mouse. Installation is automated and you're ready to play in seconds! The assets can also be modified so that if, for example, you're playing a WW2 scenario, the pawns become infantry, the knights become tanks, and the castles become forts. Each new map gives a whole new lease of life to the game. The map that I'm playing through at the moment is a giant, near future Great Britain map with over 500 territories!
The AI seems quite solid at the highest difficulty levels and certainly will be able to give even experienced players a good game. In Castle Vox, many maps feature team play, like in the WW2 map where the Axis powers face off against the Allies. You can co-operate with a friend over LAN or the internet or take part in one of many perpetual games that are always running. The server browser is also integrated right into the interface, and setting up a multiplayer session is as easy as pie.
Just a couple of gripes from me. When choosing to resize the window that the game runs in (useful for very large or very small maps) game performance can sometimes and unpredictably take a big hit. I found that especially on large maps, the control input became quite sluggish at times. I would always prefer to run games in a fullscreen mode if available, but it is not an option here. When resizing the window to fit desktop size, interface features can become hidden beneath the Windows taskbar, which was another minor annoyance. The specific combat values for each unit and the way that combat is resolved is of particular interest to me, yet explained nowhere in the documentation that comes installed with the game. After browsing the Sillysoft forums I did find a small FAQ section that dealt with this, but still have to admit that I don't have much of an idea as to the specific numbers involved. For example, the manual tells me that a castle improves my defence value in a territory, but not how it does, or by how much. Very frustrating.
The graphics are difficult to judge objectively because each map has a vastly different style and level of quality. But for the most part, they are clear and attractive and don't get in the way of the strategy based gameplay, which fancy graphics don't tend to enhance very much in any case. Keyboard shortcuts can be used in place of interface buttons for nearly all commands. Sounds and music are passable and, although there isn't much variety here, what there is at least is a good fit with the theme of the game. It would have been nice if map authors could have chosen specific tunes and sound effects to match their maps.
All up, Castle Vox is a good adaptation of a great old board game. It can be played solitaire or seamlessly in head to head or co-operative multiplayer mode and is a robust and accessible platform for map designers to create interesting and absorbing maps, and then share them with the community. The DRM is very non-intrusive, and the player is free to install on as many computers as they own. Better yet, Macs and PCs running Castle Vox can play together seamlessly. I love my turn based strategy, and have already put more hours into Castle Vox than I have invested into the, in my opinion, very disappointing Civilization 5. If you're a strategy fan, you just cant go wrong popping down $20 for this game. Nice work, Sillysoft!
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