Publisher: Jason Rohrer
Developer: Jason Rohrer
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC
Castle Law, also known as Castle Doctrine or the Defense of Habitation Law, comes from the saying “one’s home is one’s castle” and allows for the use of deadly force against invaders one one’s own property. In other words, if someone comes into your house you have the right to trap them inside of a maze filled with Pit Bulls, electrified floors, and remote controlled doors. At least, that’s what I learned from the game Castle Doctrine so don’t blame me if my legal knowledge isn’t entirely accurate.
Castle Doctrine is a sort of home-defense and robbery simulator in which you build defenses for your own family, money, and valuables before going off to take those things from someone else online. Here’s the catch: when you go off to loot someone else’s house, your own house becomes a target for any other online players. It’s possible to execute a flawless burglary only to come home to a dead wife, two dead children, and an empty vault.
Of course, the Castle Doctrine doesn’t exactly make it easy to steal someone’s sweet, sweet loot. The game gives you plenty of obstacles and traps to put in the path of would-be looters, and implements a complex electrical system that functions not entirely unlike Minecraft’s redstone circuits but is centered on reacting to the actions of the player. For example, a common trap I ran into (and implemented myself) involves a cat that is programmed to run away from the player on sight. This cat would usually set off a pressure plate somewhere that would either lock a door behind me, release an angry pit bull, or simply electrify the floor I was standing on to fry me on the spot.
The game does provide you with numerous purchasable tools to aid your burglary attempts. A saw can cut through wooden walls, clubs can break windows or kill enemies, wire cutters can disable traps or destroy electrified floors, and the gun is, well, a gun. However, these items are expensive and are all one-time-use. By the time you finish constructing your house, you’re lucky if you can afford even one of the least expensive items. (Or, if you’re like me, you buy as many items as you can without building any defenses, die anyway, and try again)
The real threat the game poses is an incredibly steep penalty for failure: upon dying while trying to rob someone’s house, you lose everything. You lose all of your money, all of your items, and your own home gets wiped clean, erasing the half-hour you spent designing it. Rubbing salt in the wound, Castle Doctrine doesn’t allow players to rob the same house twice. This means if you mess up, you don’t get a second change. You can’t ever go back and try to solve the puzzle, despite how close you were to figuring it out.
The game is able to claim some modicum of fairness by making players prove their own house is beatable by forcing them to break in without using any items. You can’t design a scenario in which there is no way to win, such as sealing off your vault with walls or having something kill you on the first turn. While this seems on the surface to be a good thing, it actually creates many more problems than it prevents.
The biggest problem in the game’s design is that as long as you can make it to your own vault without dying, your trap-filled house is considered fair. This led me encountering house after house containing nothing but a series of closed doors with traps behind them. I was no longer solving a puzzle or trying to out-think the other player; instead, I was just rolling a bunch of dice, and if I got the wrong number I lost all my work up to that point.
The game, of course, has no problem with this because the house’s designer knew which of the fifty-or-so doors was the right one, and could easily prove that his house was, in theory, beatable. Despite this being an incredibly effective defense system, it highlights a serious flaw in the game’s design that should have been caught ages before it was released. My solution to this was to stop trying to rob houses altogether and wait for the would-be robbers to come to me. This brings me to my second issue with this game: boredom.
Castle Doctrine was apparently designed for incredibly patient and unambitious people whose idea of playing a game involves a large amount of not playing a game. At one point, I left the game running while I walked to a deli and bought myself a sandwich. When I came back, roughly an hour later, I had made one thousand dollars by killing a few hapless souls who wandered into my trap. By not playing the game, I actually started doing well in it. Two minutes later, some guy walked into my house, cut all my wiring, shot my dog and stole all my money, leaving me back at square one. It was not a total loss, luckily; the sandwich was excellent.
This example highlights another annoying aspect of the game: the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. A player that already has a lot of money can build more elaborate traps and defenses or, conversely, purchase enough burglary tools to make himself unstoppable. No matter how well-thought-out your elaborate plans are, one guy with twelve saws, five wire cutters, and a couple bricks will absolutely ruin your day. In short, the players that win are able to win again and again like they’re on some sort of inverse difficulty curve.
I know that I’ll never get to that level because the game leaves me with absolutely no incentive to play it again. There is no real reward for success other than not having wasted the past half-hour of your life. The game has no stat tracking or record keeping, so you’ll never be able to relive your brief moments of success or compare your performance with another player. Russ Pitts over at Polygon believes the game is trying to make a statement about futility and the fragile nature of our own existence, and I think he’s absolutely right. Playing Castle Doctrine was an exercise in futility that made me realize how fragile my attention span is.
Castle Doctrine is less of a game than it is a stock market simulator. You make an investment, forget about it for a while, and return a few hours later to find out someone stole all of your money. And shot your dog. And clubbed your kid to death. Okay, so the metaphor breaks down but I think I’ve made my point clear: Don’t buy Castle Doctrine, buy a sandwich instead. At least a sandwich won’t leave you bored and full of regret.