Wot I Think: Crowntakers

A brief description of Crowntakers reads like an exercise in box-ticking. “Roguelike turn-based strategy meets RPG”, says the Steam page, “alternative endings…resources…companions…mighty equipment…hexagonal battlefields.” Behind all of that is a game that strips down almost every aspect of its design to present something half-way between a solo boardgame and a coffee break take on Heroes of Might and Magic. It’s a clever game, though not without its frustrations. Here’s wot I think.

Crowntakers is a broth. It is, on the whole, a delicious, hearty, warming broth, with the occasional unpleasantly stale crouton thrown into the mix. But on the whole this is good eating, made up of the boiled remnants of a carcass that has been picked over and carefully reduced.

The carcass in question is the bloated form of King’s Bounty or one of the more finely crafted Heroes of Might and Magic games. Like those lightly strategic entities of node-plundering exploration, recruitment and turn-based combat, Crowntakers is a game in which a hero wanders from point to point on a map, increasing in strength and gathering a band of companions.

Rather than sprawling campaigns, multi-tiered city construction and armies containing hundreds of mythological beasties, Crowntakers has a straightforward story of usurpation and vengeance. You’ll often be fighting with a single unit and it’s rare to have more characters in play than you can count on one hand.

Outside of combat, which I’ll discuss later, control is as basic as can be. On the small randomised maps, movement is turn-based, the hero and his entourage pausing whenever they reach a junction or point of interest. Pick a direction, or delve into whatever cave or building is by the roadside, and you’ll either move onward or trigger a brief encounter, described in text. There are sometimes options in those encounters but they’re not particularly challenging – will you search a house or wake its sleeping inhabitants, or choose to dig deeper into a creepy cave rather than bolting for the exit?

On repeated playthroughs, you’ll have a better idea of the pros and cons of each encounter, but there’s enough randomisation to keep things fresh. And that’s a good thing because Crowntakers is explicitly built around repetition. You won’t succeed on your first try – you can’t – but every level of experience that your hero gains, as well as those for every companion unlocked, carries over to the next attempt.

Eventually, if you’re patient and dedicated, you’ll unlock a difficulty level that scraps this quasi-generational system and allows you to go for a homerun starting from base, with every mercenary set back to level 1. I can’t even begin to imagine how I’d go about beating the game on that setting. It’s an extremely difficult task even on the initial ‘Easy’ setting (and how I wish that setting was called ‘Normal’ rather than easy, with the unlockable setting being labelled ‘Hardcore’ or ‘Soul-Sapping’ – ‘Easy’ isn’t ‘Easy’ and having to unlock ‘Normal’ seems immediately patronising and restrictive. SEMANTICS).

The naming of the difficulty levels aside, Crowntakers is a smart and focused game. The first time you play, and perhaps even the second, third, fourth and fifth time, you might think it’s a bit of a fruit machine because your inputs seem to create fairly arbitrary results, most of which result in your own demise. I should add that I don’t have very much experience of fruit machines and am unnerved by flashing lights in my peripheral vision while out sampling the local laughter liquid.

Once you’ve levelled up a few times and unlocked a couple of extra mercenary options, the tactical nature of the combat becomes clearer. Maps are tight and placement is random so improvisation is required. The goal is to kill everything but the process is about positioning and use of special abilities to herd and crush enemies. Attacks of opportunity are key to success and they require your units to work together, preferably bundled together in a corner so that they can all take a pop at opponents as they approach.

Victory is usually satisfying and hard-earned but defeats are often unfair. If an archer is placed next to an enemy when the encounter begins, moving to ranged distance gives the enemy a free attack and that can be enough to kill your unit before the battle has even begun. Some balancing is required to remove those kind of frustrations and the developers have stated that they’re working to retain the difficulty but remove some of the no-win situations.

In a nutshell – and remember, this is broth in a nutshell – Crowntakers is a game that just about fits into an extended coffee break but accrues complexity on repeated playthroughs. That might make it sound like King’s Bounty for a casual afternoon or for those without an attention span as long as a prog rock syntherlude, but the tight focus works in its favour. It’s a smart game, with a clarity that I admire.

Those balance issues are a problem though. It’s worth persevering to taste victory but there are unkind obstacles along the way. Each attempt is short enough that defeat has rarely driven me away for long – I’ve shed more tears over the loss of a good build on The Binding of Isaac in recent days – but the randomisation does feel like a greater influence than your own actions. Whenever that facet of the game becomes obvious, Crowntakers makes me rather cross, but when the dice gods choose not to thwart my every effort, I’m back to smiling again.

It’s an unusual game, not because of its content, which is all fairly typical, but due to the precision within which excess has been surgically removed. A shame that the cuts from that surgery are sometimes a little too messy because there’s a clever core here and it deserves an audience. Light on content but with enough sharp ideas to keep me coming back for several days, Crowntakers is pint-sized and happily enjoyed in moderation.

Like broth.

31 Comments

  1. Echo says:

    I played a version of this on an iPad back at Gamescom and remember not feeling very impressed by it. The combat feels very repetitive, I didn’t enjoy it. However I liked the storytelling aspect of the game, as you move between each “encounter” on the overworld/map.

    It’s ok, but personally I think it belongs on a tablet or mobile.

    • trjp says:

      I’ve watched a view videos (generally positive about it) and nothing about it seems to yell “touchscreen” so I have to assume you’re somehow trying to push games off the PC platform purely because you don’t like them?

      Some of us have played games on PCs long enough to remember that diversity in gaming was good – we battled to get people to accept the PC as a games platform – what we don’t want to do is tell people to go away again!?

    • Lianodel says:

      The game at the Gamescon was an old version of the game, it was not the final product. Please always keep that in mind.

  2. Shar_ds says:

    I find it heartening when a game comes out that runs parallel to a half-cut game design I pondered earlier this year. Shows that the idea did have some merit, and it much less effort for me if someone else goes and implements it :D

  3. Baboonanza says:

    The mix of RPG-style progression with pretend rogue-like permadeath is a terrible combination IMO and the main reason I stopped playing Rogue Legacy in disgust.

    Permadeath rewards a player as their skill increases through experience but adding RPG mechanics just turns it into a pointless grind. The player no longer needs to improve their skill as mere repetition will allow them to pass any obstacle.

    I can’t say if this game handles it better the Rogue Legacy though, and I probably never will.

    • ChrisSuffern says:

      This. Exactly.

      Soon as the novelty wore off, and I realized the only thing needed to beat RL was time, I stopped playing.

      Crowntakers might side step this issue by offering the no progression difficulty level. I’ll still probably give it a go.

    • malkav11 says:

      If mere repetition were sufficient to beat Rogue Legacy, or even progress in it, I would have actually gotten somewhere in it. You can muddle along for a little bit without mastering the systems at work, but gold costs escalate so rapidly and upgrades do so little to improve survivability that I hit a wall quite early on where without an extreme amount of luck I would not be able to garner enough gold on a run to upgrade anything at all and of course, you can’t carry over gold from one run to the next.

      • jrodman says:

        My solution when I encountered this in Rogue Legacy was to edit the memory to give myself 10 million gold, and then I finished the game. It allowed me to turn a stupid and crappy experience into one that was mildly enjoyable.

    • Lianodel says:

      Crowntakers is totally different compared to Rogue Legacy, there is truly some mechanics that you need to find to help your journey. But it’s a game that demand thinking, analysing and strategy. More you play, more you learn. If you don’t take time to think about your death and your thoughts are immediately “God this game is not balance, it’s shitty”, your not playing this game the right way.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      This 100%. Permanent stat boosts inevitably turn roguelikes into grindy, inherently unbalanced and boring games.

  4. Jim Rossignol says:

    Makes me want to replay King’s Bounty.

  5. Joshua Northey says:

    I am a little sick of the “easy” title for difficulty levels where the chance of victory is extremely low. Just as I am sick of “normal” on difficulty levels where it is impossible to lose.

    Maybe they should stop naming them and just provide a roster of the changes at each level. Or list a target win %?

    • Hex says:

      Ugh, the two difficulty options for Dungeon of the Endless are “Too Easy” (which I haven’t tried) and “Easy” (which is effing impossible).

      The actual difficulty settings seem to be dictated by the various starting capsules in which you’ll find yourself at the beginning of each run. You can select various capsules as they’re unlocked through playthroughs, and these capsules will impact things like how much health your mans have, how much damage you do, how deep in the dungeon you start, etc.

      I’m pretty much resigned to never seeing most of the capsules, as they’re typically unlocked through game wins, which, as I said, is an impossibility. And I’m unwilling to play a mode which calls itself “Too Easy.”

      Bastards.

      Seriously. Any Dungeon of the Endless players out there? Having any luck? This shit is fun, but the insta-party-wipes are kind of getting under my skin. (Not to mention on the best run I’ve had, one of my heroes MURDERED another one due to some plot shit — immediately after I spent a bunch of resources on equipping/leveling the murdered hero. Fuck you very much, Amplitude.)

      • Montag says:

        My last “easy” run ended during the last floor… I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to win, one day.

        They adressed my main tricks I used while playing early access, it has become really hard. But it’s challenging in a good way, I love what they done.

        • Hex says:

          Wow, sounds like I should be approaching you for advice. Were you using the starter capsule, or one of the unlockables? (I only have the Infirmary available. In the middle of my first run with that one, now. Pretty sure I’m about to get rekt.)

          So my issue over and over is I get around floor 7 or so, whenever bosses appear, and the swarms of monsters that rush me are just overwhelming. Is it more important to prioritize food for leveling up my mans (which honestly I haven’t tried too much — having been going for what I think of is a balanced approach focusing primarily on industry) or what? In those later levels, dust scarcity is a huge problem.

          Which, by the way, reminds me to ask — is there any point in saving dust at the end of each level? It just vanishes. Seems like a wasted opportunity to reward players for being frugal. Especially considering how hard the game is. Any opportunities to do something nice for us would be welcome….

          • Montag says:

            I have no additionnal capsule, only unlocked a bunch of heroes.
            My memories are fuzzy, played it two weeks ago. I don’t remember having bosses so soon, but maybe it is because I learnt to fear to open the last doors of a level. This gold version of the game learnt me to fear on each action.
            But bosses are the good transition to the food/industry equilibrium : you have to meet these bosses thus you want to have grown up heroes. On my last run, had maybe 3 lvl 7 and one lvl 9 ?… This isn’t too much on the latest floors. However, I used to max food but you can’t do anything against mobs if you dont have the right modules in a “bottlenecking” room… I would say the second half of a run has to be done with a bunch of good modules (turrets, etc…), the first half should be doable without any or so.
            Keep enough industry between floors to build at least one industry module on the new level. And you’re right, I really don’t think there’s any way to keep dust… And the lasts levels, you only power like… 3 rooms. And it makes you cry blood and feel so weak. I LOVE.

            Be strong.

            Oh and… This is really about microing you heroes after all. And hating the “me first”-boost of some armors, making you heroes being wiped out in a second of neglect.

            I’m glad to help and speak about this game, add me on steam if you wish :-]
            steamcommunity com / id / montag_mcclellan /

      • ChrisSuffern says:

        Yep. I’m also unwilling to play a mode called “too easy”. Only reason I’m playing on easy is because I’m forced too. And my ego does not like it. Especially as I’m still getting my ass handed to me.

      • lomaxgnome says:

        Not to sound too harsh, but you’re essentially trying to pad your ego by reviling in your own stupidity and stubbornness, which seems pretty pointless. By refusing to play the lower difficulty, you make the game harder, thus increasing your failing, thus damaging your ego as a result. It’s a lose/lose situation for your ego either way.

        Now, if you’re refusing too easy simply because you want your eventual triumph to be as a result of a greater challenge, that’s fine. But if you truly think you’ll never beat it, your current path of action is at best masochistic.

        • Hex says:

          I didn’t make the game. I can’t “make the game harder.” I’m a veteran roguelike player, so I expect to fail — my ego isn’t being damaged, thank you for your snide concern.

          In closing, if you’re going to tell someone he’s stupid, maybe you shouldn’t immediately precede it with a misspelling.

          Dick.

      • aphazard1 says:

        I knew Dungeon of the Endless would get mentioned in comments as soon as I saw Adam’s “semantics” note. :-)

        I have to agree that labelling difficulty levels like this has become a little too cute, and a little too common. It was amusing in the first game which did it, but now it is everywhere. Maybe devs could go back to funny/descriptive naming, like Duke Nukem 3D’s “Piece of Cake” or “Hurt Me Plenty”, if they don’t want to do the standard Easy, Normal, Hard?

        Anyway, Dungeon of the Endless would be more accurate with “Normal” and “Brutal”.

    • Kitsunin says:

      I think the one thing that should remain constant is that the “normal” difficulty should be the “true experience” level of difficulty in games which are built around skill. Isaac Rebirth annoyed me a little because I played on normal for my first two rounds and it just didn’t have the same pitch-perfect zesty challenge as the original.

      On the other hand a game like Metal Gear Rising I expect to be not-particularly-challenging on normal, and indeed hard is perfect for me…having to second guess the developers’ intentions is annoying. I like it most when they have a brief description like “pick this mode if you like a challenge” or “pick this if want a well-rounded experience”.

      Resident Evil 2002 was an example of doing this about as poorly as possible. “Hiking” and “Mountain Climbing” tell you absolutely nothing.

      • MellowKrogoth says:

        You’re basically asking all developers out there to base their game on your personal skill level. As it is they have to try and evaluate the average skill of their audience and base Normal difficulty on that. If you’re not average, you’ll find it either too easy or too hard.

    • Wulfram says:

      I always felt the Civilisation system of using Cheiftain, Warlord, Prince, King etc was better than picking a “normal”

  6. Hex says:

    I really wish Steam would start recommending games like this to me instead of every FPS, ever. I play exactly one FPS — CSGO — and while yes, I have a lot of hours in it, everything else I play is a turn-based, tactical, or roguelike game.

    Get it together, volvo!

    • malkav11 says:

      Maybe it’s just me, but I find Steam recommends most games to me based on them being either 1) new, or 2) more commonly, “popular”. Which is spectacularly unhelpful, of course, since while I do enjoy some popular games (certainly more than I tend to enjoy the most popular music or books), I’ve bloody well heard of them, haven’t I?

  7. Shardz says:

    It sounds like this article is much longer than a single game run. It seems roguies and RPGs are a lot like cookies; everyone has their own idea of how they should taste.

  8. alms says:

    TBH the Easy/Normal thing FTL did it too and the description of encounters also reminded of that game.

  9. SecondSystem says:

    Why is the music in that trailer from Wargame: Red Dragon?