Every now and then, I stumble on upon a game that manages to capture my attention in a way I never quite expected. Kingdom: New Lands is one such game – and it grabbed me by delivering one of the most eye-wateringly beautiful pixel art aesthetics I’ve ever seen. It also happens to be a rather clever and compact strategy game in its own right.
Kingdom: New Lands has a curious development history. The game started out as a free, browser-based, flash game released in 2013. In fact, you can still play it right here. Apparently the game became enough of a cult hit that the developers decided to make into a full fledged standalone game called, appropriately enough, Kingdoms. The Steam version launched in 2015, and we saw that it was good. People couldn’t get enough of Kingdom. They asked for even more. So, in 2016 a cross-platform (Steam, iOS, and Android) version of Kingdom launched in an expanded form, named Kingdom: New Lands.
So what is this game all about? It’s really quite simple. You control a King or Queen riding on a horse, moving left or right across the landscape as befits your royal inclinations. In short order you’ll stumble on the ruins of a town with a few wandering beggars shambling amidst the ruins. Drawing from your royal pouch of gold, you can toss a coin to a beggar and convert them into a most trusted peon. Venturing into the nearby woods will reveal beggar camps (spawning points), where, again, you can drop coins to hire more of the peasantry into your service.
In addition to dropping coins on beggars, you also use coins to develop your fledgling town. Drop some coin at the newly arrived fletcher and your peons will take up a bow and arrow to go hunting (which rewards you with more coins). Drop some coin at the workshop and peons will become engineers. Place a coin on a tree to hack back the forest. Spending coins at the main town hall will upgrade the whole village. This in turn opens up opportunities for building catapults and training farmers, the latter of which can provide a more reliable form of income. You can also drop coins at certain locations where your engineers can build walls and towers.
Walls and towers? For protection against whom, or what? Well you see, every night there is a chance that a bunch of little evil fellas will creep out of a magical portal (tucked way off in the wood, obviously) and come to your village to steal your money and snatch away your peasants. So you need big strong walls, and towers filled with archers. But sometimes a blood moon happens, and then even more and bigger bad things come at you. Things like huge, wall-smashing trolls and nasty flying tentacle monsters. You better hope you have a lot or archers and some catapults at the ready, or you’ll be in for a permanent dirt nap.
The point of all of this is, first and foremost, survival. If an evil baddy touches you, you’ll lose a coin. If they hit you when don’t have any coins left, you’ll drop the crown. If they snatch the crown, you lose. If you get caught in the woods at night, outside the safety of your woods, you better run real fast to shelter or the horde of baddies will take all your gold, the crown, and the horse you rode in on. The game features permadeath with no save scumming allowed, so the danger is real.
Beyond survival, the bigger objective is to destroy the evil magic portals and eventually build a ship to leave your current island kingdom. Destroying gates requires leveling up your village to the max, allowing you to hire knights errant, which you can send along with a contingent of archers towards the portals in an attempt to destroy them. Each “land” has three or four portals, and each time you destroy one you must fight an immediate blood moon horde. Such is the life of a monarch.
Once you’ve cleared your lands of gates, you can move on to even more adventures. Players will find a wrecked ship on their island. Repairing the ship requires a hefty and sustained gold investment to fund the project. But eventually it will be sea-worthy and you can load it up with archers and knights and set sail for a “New Land” (apt title, eh?). Landing on a new island basically resets the whole process from the beginning. The rub is that each island has a special map to find, which unlocks a new special location type that can spawn on subsequent islands. These special locations can provide bonuses to certain worker types, extra resources, new (faster, meaner, tougher) mounts to ride, and so on.
That’s pretty much the game. I told told you it was simple! But of course there is still more tell.
I mentioned the game’s aesthetics right at the start. I must have played too many point-and-click adventure games back in the 80’s, because I’m a total sucker for good pixel art. And Kingdom: New Lands has delicious pixel art. I swear they have programmed a procedural weather generator into the game, which runs through some fancy pixel art engine, to render spectacularly captivating vistas. A cool morning fog rolls in, with torch-light reflected at the water’s edge. That gives way to a brilliant sunrise stabbing through the parting cloud cover. An afternoon rainshower. A clearing in the woods giving a fleeting glimpse of a sunset diving between the distant hills. A cloudless night filling the air with stars. I’m getting emotional. But seriously, the game is gorgeous.
Fortunately, the game gives you plenty of opportunity to enjoy these precious visual moments. Invariably, you’ll spend an awful lot of time simply running back and forth across your village dropping coins here or there. Or embarking on longer jaunts through the hinterlands to visit a shrine, or round up more peasants, or scout out the location of a magic portal. It’s during these jaunts, where you’re off on your horse just watching the landscape wend through its daily cycles, that you can enjoy the game’s visual charms.
But you’ll also find yourself thinking a whole lot during these errands. Thinking about where the next line of walls should go up. Thinking about whether or not tomorrow is a good day to send your knights on a portal raid. Or whether the eastern landscape is best utilized for hunting or should be cleared for farming. Wondering when is the next blood moon likely to strike and if there are enough archers to defend the ramparts. Is the time right to begin reconstructing the sailing ship, or shall we wait?
Ultimately, Kingdom: New Lands may be more of a puzzle game than a proper strategy game. There is really only one progression path through a given game as you develop your town, close portals, and construct the ship. But despite this, there is an aspect of skill at work. Timing when you make big advancements (e.g. leveling up the city, closing a gate, etc.) versus when you invest in more defenses or generating income is huge. Since your King or Queen can only be in one place at one time, how you distribute your gold across necessary tasks at the village (e.g. upgrading walls or fortifications) relative to taking money into the woods to donate at shrines or other special locations is rarely a trivial decision. Doing one activity precludes the other, at least within the confines of a given day.
The pacing of the daily cycles demonstrate a way in which I’ve found the game surprisingly immersive. I’m often thinking about how I need to be back in the village at a certain time to issue a certain order or prepare defenses. Or to be back, safe and sound, before the darkness falls. These critical timing necessities in turn cause me to take risks – perhaps running into the forest to visit a shrine as night draws in. The risk is being trapped in the woods when the bad things come. It’s daring and tense at times. At other times, it’s more controlled and relaxing, like watching carpenters hammer away at the ship, safe in the knowledge that all the portals have been closed and we’ll soon be setting sail. It is during these brief moments where you can savor the visuals a little more intensely and reflect on the prosperity of your little kingdom.
TL;DR: Kingdom: New Lands is not an earth shattering game, but it is impeccably comfortable in its own skin. The gameplay, while puzzle-like, nevertheless provides a challenge and sense of achievement and progress. It is a game that is simple but nuanced, with room for skillful play as well as catastrophic mistakes. Through it all, the gorgeous pixel art crafts a charming and delightful atmosphere. But this charm belies the danger lurking the woods and thoughtful decisions you need to make in warding off the danger. 10/10 would find new lands again.
You might like this game if:
- You are into pixel art – especially really gorgeous pixel art
- You are looking for a light, puzzle-like strategy game that still has room for skillful play
- You are looking for something easy to learn but hard to master
- You like medieval management sims with a bit of tower defense
You might NOT like this game if:
- You’ve decided that pixels are overrated and too trendy
- If you are looking for something with more complex mechanical interactions and systems
- Trolls and flying spaghetti monsters scare you. And eerie blood moons
- Anything approaching “puzzle-like” sends you into a rage
Game Information: Oliver Kiley has played 20+ hours of Kingdom and Kingdom: New Lands on an iPhone 6s+, iPad Air 2, and a Windows 10 PC laptop.