King Arthur’s legend is one of those ageless tales which spawned so many interpretations that each approach seems to bring something new, but without tarnishing the aura of mystery and adventure. Which is why the folks over at Neocore Games decided to give it a shot with King Arthur: The Role-playing Wargame, a title that seeks to lure both fans of RPGs, as well as strategy games.
You are Arthur Uther Pendragon, a young lad who just became famous for pulling Excalibur out of some rock, which made him both envied and hated. However, you’re not king yet (and there are many who swear that you will never be), so you must gather the knights of the round table, explain the new situation to the enemy lords, and defeat the monsters that are pouring out of the Bedegraine forest, since Britain we speak of fears the Saxon invasion less, and more the creatures that dwell just north of Hadrian’s Wall.
In order to claim the throne you must first conquer a good number of provinces, and for this you need an army led by a Knight, since leaderless troops can’t move without a commander. Each such province has a small village where you can recruit new units or just reinforce the ones you have, plus a few interesting landmarks which offer bonuses to the armies that settle there. Furthermore, each region has its own population, morale and production of gold and food, which are needed to sustain your armies.
The movements on the strategic map take place in turns, and I was initially thrilled by the division of these turns as seasons, hoping for a resurrection of a great economic model like the one found in the now venerable Lord of the Realms. However, things are much simpler here, with a winter season when you will receive the income from the provinces, will be able to pass laws to tend to your army and knights leveling up, while in summer time your army will simply move faster. That’s all there is to it, and it can be quite tricky to maintain said army, since you will only get your resources during the winter while your loyal soldiers need food and payment year-around.
To balance these expenses, each of your Knights can receive up to three provinces to govern into a new age of prosperity or quite the opposite, into rebellion and bankruptcy. This is because each lad in shining armor has his own set of governing attributes that can enhance the production or morale of a region, or make them more rebellious.
In fact, the management of the Knights is one of the upsides of the game, being complex and interesting. Besides the governing attributes, each hero has a set of skills and special abilities which can be improved as they level-up, with effects varying from better morale and combat prowess to the amount of experience the Knight and his troops get from combat.
Furthermore, there are three classes available, namely Sage, Champion or Warlord, each having its own set of spells and special attacks. You can also equip Knights with up to four artifacts which can improve his governing attributes, skills or special abilities, and even can make him more popular. And if the offer still seems a bit thin, then you’ll be pleased to hear that each hero can be married to a young lady of noble birth, who possess a set of attributes of her own, such as beauty (higher loyalty in provinces) or nagging (slows down her husband’s army). These ladies can also join Arthur’s court after they are rescued from some evil Knight, or as a reward for a quest, but you can even “purchase” them at the marketplace.
The units under the Knight’s command, organized in the classical triangle of infantry-cavalry-archers, can also advance in level as they survive more and more battles. Each unit has its own values for attack, defense and stamina which can be improved, and once every five levels they can even receive a special ability, such as invisibility during night time or a more powerful cavalry charge.
The actual combat takes place in real-time, following the pattern made popular by the Total War series, with a few differences, such as Victory Points. These are special locations on the battle map, usually in strategic places such as ridges or deep inside forests, that once captured will decrease enemy morale up to the point where they turn back and run. Which means it’s possible to win an engagement without a fight, but it would be a pity considering we have all the elements that would make the combat interesting. These include the importance of terrain and the ability to engage the enemy forces with the right units, not to mention the special abilities and spells.
However, there are a few problems with the unit balancing. The most obvious one is the archer unit, which at least until the development of shielded or heavy armored units are the unofficial kings of the battlefield. Any frontal assault on them will be doomed from the start and even their traditional antidote, the cavalry, will easily succumb to a simple volley of arrows.
Should the riders even survive in decent numbers, they will no doubt fall to the archer’s Swiss army knife, which doesn’t sound exactly fair. This issue has been acknowledged by the producers themselves, and as such a patch included the “Weaker Archers” option in the menu, which proved to be vital, at least in the early stages of the game.
The AI is also evolved and ruthless, using terrain and special abilities with maximum efficiency, and this became painfully clear when I positioned my archers on a hill, supposedly on a better firing position than that of the enemy, only to find them all belly-up after just a few moments of looking elsewhere.