I love the blocky, saturated aesthetic and minimalist presentation of Thronefall. Fortunately, it’s also really cleverly designed and fun to play, distilling the tower defense strategy formula down into its compelling essentials so you can experience why fans of the genre love it without feeling overwhelmed or wasting a ton of time on managing extraneous details.
Out in Steam Early Access as of August 2, Thronefall is the latest game from indie studio Grizzly Games, the geniuses behind 2019’s super chill city builder, Islanders. You control a lone commander on horseback and set about building up a small kingdom while fending off waves of increasingly difficult enemies. It starts out simply enough, but new enemy types and increasingly complex maps add new hurdles for you to overcome. So far I’ve finished the tutorial and first two maps, and am absolutely in love with it.
Anyone who’s played Kingdom: New Lands or Two Crowns will see a lot of its inspiration in Thronefall, down to how you pop coins into slots to upgrade structures. But where those games were side-scrolling pixel art affairs, Grizzly Games’ latest is top-down, low-poly, and cuts down even further on the busy work.
There are only three factors to manage—gold, upgrades, and soldiers. During the day you visit nodes on the map to choose what to spend your gold on building. New houses and farms will earn more gold, while walls, watchtowers, and barracks will improve your defenses. It seem simple at first, but the streamlined economics offer just enough interesting trade-offs to make you think without turning every round into a mini deathmarch of planning and number crunching.
For example, you’ll want to spend most of your gold on buildings that generate revenue early on so you can start compounding your earnings. Leave yourself too defenseless, however, and you’ll get easily overrun. Barracks and archery ranges, meanwhile, let you choose which types of units to recruit. Knights are armored but slow, while pikemen are faster and have higher damage. Crossbow units are strong but short range, while ones with long bows can hit enemies that are farther away. Once you select which route to go, you’re locked in, making it important to plan for the future without getting bogged down in tons of possibilities.
At night, you face off against mobs made up of all different unit types coming from multiple directions. Your armies will target whatever’s closest or you can marshall them around in small groups by walking up to them, clicking, and then having them follow you somewhere else. Your commander will also attack, take damage, and buff nearby units if certain upgrades are unlocked. That’s the extent of your moment-to-moment impact during fights, and it provides a nice balance between the micro-management of a full-blown real time strategy game and the completely hands-off approach of some city builders.
The nicest thing about Thronefall is its upkeep. Units are slowly replenished for free as they die, and buildings that are destroyed automatically get resurrected at full health the next day. The only penalty is that they won’t generate more money for you if they were destroyed the round prior. Otherwise there’s no real negative consequence for getting completely steamrolled as long as you keep your central castle intact. In addition to cutting out a ton of tedium, it also reduces the anxiety and frustration associated with wasting resources. Thronefall focuses more on rewarding you for making smart decisions rather than punishing you for the bad ones.
“Getting older and caught in the usual swamp of work and responsibilities, we realized we don’t have the 100 hours to sink into the next super-complex game anymore,” Grizzly Games’ Paul Schnepf told Game Developer in an interview. “We felt there was a need for wholesome and deep, but also less time-consuming, experiences.”
I’ve enjoyed how breezy the game is, but I can definitely see the difficulty and complexity ramping up a bit further in. As you play you unlock additional perks that you can choose between at the start of each map, like whether to arm your commander with a spear or bow, or whether to increase your money generation or get bonus health for your castle. There’s also a set of mutators you can mess around with to increase the challenge and in turn raise your high score. I’m sure I’ll get there, but in the meantime it’s the little things I’m enjoying about Thronefall, like the super-satisfying clink of all the gold filling my coffer each morning.