The first threat appears when my kingdom is nothing but a small castle, a few farms, and a sprinkling of tiny peasant hovels. It's a red dragon, a big blocky one, soaring over the fields during a thunderstorm, periodically roaring and pausing to hover menacingly. I sit there watching and nervously wonder if it's going to torch my meager holdings and end my game before it's barely begun, but it doesn't—the beast eventually flaps away over the sea, letting me get back to chopping wood, building roads, and growing food. I also add something to my to-do list: build defenses.
Kingdoms and Castles, which was successfully Figstarted back in January, is a medieval city building sim. I know there are lots and lots of Minecraft-lookin' games out there, and there's a fine line between the ones that look warm and charming and those that make you roll your eyes and say "Ugh, another one?" As you can see, Kingdoms and Castles is the former: the art and animation are perfectly pleasing and watching your town grow and your residents live their tiny, blocky little lives is fun.
You begin by plopping a small castle down, aiming for a nice spot close to the resources you're going to need: lots of trees for lumber, a good amount of fertile land for farming, plus stone and iron deposits for mining. Your most important resource is your population: the itty bitty peasants that will be doing all the work for you.
This makes beginning the game a bit slow: you need citizens to chop lumber and work the farms, but without homes (built with lumber) and food (grown on farms) it's difficult to attract new peasants to join your community. Everything needs to be near a road, which also requires lumber, so the initial game can be a bit laborious: waiting for your tiny collection of peasants to slowly hack up enough logs so they can build their own homes, while you pretty much just sit around and wait, leaning on the fast-forward button.
Thankfully, once you've attracted a few more people to your castle town, things begin to move a bit more quickly and the sim becomes more enjoyable. You can build orchards (an improvement over farms), a logging mill (which will re-plant trees for future chopping), markets, quarries, bakeries, pubs, churches, buildings that let you stockpile food to last through the winter, and bigger cottages that can hold more peasants. Many of these buildings need to be staffed by several workers: constructing multiple mills won't do much to increase your lumber supply if you don't have enough bodies to operate them, and you can also temporarily close buildings to divert workers to where you need them most.
Meanwhile, you can grow your castle: add a treasury so you can begin to tax peasants, build defensive towers for archers and ballistas, and military buildings to train heroes and recruit soldiers. You can even build a moat, which I wasn't able to do since I built my town pretty much right up against my castle walls so I wouldn't have to use all my lumber for making long and winding roads.
This is all a perfectly enjoyable clickfest, plopping down buildings and watching them be constructed, seeing the villagers carry buckets of water from the well to douse a fire, and watching the seasons change as the years speed by. There's no real tutorial, but a trio of advisers in your keep will regularly alert you to the problems you're facing, like food shortages, unhappy peasants (or happy ones, which means it's a good time to raise taxes), and other events.
I haven't see the dragon again (there are apparently ogres as well) but I've been invaded twice by Vikings. I get enough warning to know they're coming: they sail slowly across the sea and then trudge through the forest to my (still) defenseless town. As they march down the roads they burn everything they pass: cottages, a tavern, even the road they're marching on. Meanwhile, I'm busy trying to build a barracks and recruit some soldiers, but I only manage to train a couple of heroes, who aren't terribly effective against the Vikings. At least the Vikings don't stay long: after a bit of destruction, they politely return to their ship and sail away.
The next time the Vikings attack, I'm a bit better prepared. My heroes again prove a bit useless, but I've got a manned ballista which fires away at the invader, and as you can (sort of) see above, the Viking (carrying a red banner) keels over before he can do too much damage and escape. I clearly need to keep building up my defenses, especially if that dragon every returns.
You can play Kingdoms and Castles without threats, if you'd prefer a completely peaceful experience, or with occasional threats (as I did), or with more frequent ones for a greater challenge. I'm finding the middle difficulty a nice fit, just enough to keep you on your toes without seeing your town razed every few minutes, and there are plenty of other problems to solve like food shortages and bouts of illness that can hew down your population.