Slitherine/Matrix, over the past few years, has been expanding their offerings. A company that once catered to the hardcore PC wargamer market now has releases in a number of other areas; they sell rulebooks for the table top version of Field of Glory; there is the occasional console offering; and, of course, many of their games have multi-platform releases for both tablet (IPad and Android) and PC.
One such game is HISTORY™ Great Battles Medieval. It was released in 2009, roughly simultaneously for PC, Android, iPad, XBox, and Playstation (3). The game is a Real Time Strategy offering set during the Hundred Years War. Think of it as a Medieval: Total War ultralight version. It was one of (and, as far as I know, the last* one of) several “History Channel” themed games developed by Slitherine in the late aughts.
Some time ago, I picked up the “free” version for Android. This is essentially the playable demo for the full Android version, although it’s not necessarily marketed as such. The Android version (currently at $4.99), in turn, seems to be a subset of the PC version (currently at $19.99), which adds user-created scenarios and modding into the mix. Some of the reviewers on the Play Store seem a little miffed about the teaser nature of the free version. I, honestly, don’t remember what I was expecting when I got it. There was a long gap between when I installed it and when I first tried it out (waiting for some car repairs), and then another long stretch before I played it through until “the end.”
That end comes quickly. The game shows two historical campaigns: The Hundred Years war from first the English side and then the French. In addition, there is a “skirmishes” campaign, which I interpret as using the army building mechanic, but through random battles rather than historical battles. In the free version, only the English campaign for the Hundred Years War can be accessed and, within that, only the first two historical battles are playable.
The game consists of a strategic level, where you as the player can customize your “army” and choose which battle to fight next. When a battle is selected, you move to a tactical layer where your armies are deployed against an enemy on a 3D terrain divided into a square grid. After a set-up phase, you begin giving movement orders to your units. Orders are given while the game is paused, but execution of those orders occurs in real time. Units engage enemy units within their range; one square for hand-to-hand weapons and multiple squares for archers. Engagement is automatic, and combat continues until the units, from one side or the other, break. Units will automatically change facing when, for example, moving into a flanking position on an enemy. In this way, multiple units can attack a single enemy, significantly increasing the odds of success. An additional level of player interaction is in the form of “cards,” which can be played to temporarily enhance the ability of a unit.
The units take both morale losses as well as physical losses. Leaders are also modeled, with the death of a captain dealing additional morale damage to a unit. Once a unit routes, it heads towards a friendly board edge, effectively removing itself from play for the rest of the battle – an exception being that a rally card can return a routed unit back into the fray. When all of the units from a side are routed, the other side wins the battle. If the player has won, he receives rewards in experience and money – which can be used to further upgrade units in the strategic interface.
As I think about it, the battles in this game bear a certain resemblance to the tactical battles in Birthright: The Gorgon’s Alliance. Birthright was released in 1997 has a hybrid strategy, tactical, and role-playing game based on the Dungeon and Dragons** world of the same name. The player assumed the role as a ruler of a kingdom and managed the business of that kingdom in a turn-based, grand-strategy game. That strategy layer had some very interesting detail to it. When nations went to war, the battles were fought on a tactical map with the player directing his armies. Finally, the world had various quests whereby the player and a few henchmen could go on a classic D&D dungeon crawl via a first-person, 3D action environment.
The game was released buggy, and a series of patches never brought the game up to fully-acceptable functioning. The grand-strategy portion was the closest the game came to getting it right, but that was only a part of the game. In fact, given its lineage, one might say that it should have been was the strategic icing on a Role Playing Game cake. That is, the pen and paper version of the Birthright setting was created to flesh out the role playing game, not the other way around. A computer port of just the strategic “side game” was not what the developers were after and may or may not have ever been acceptable to players.
The 3D dungeon crawl was likely its downfall. The game came out after the massive success of Doom and Doom II. That seemed the natural way to portray a Dungeons portion of a D&D game. The problem was that a 3D “mini game” portion of a Birthright was never going to be able to compete with a game designed soup-to-nuts to be a 3D, first-person dungeon crawl. My memory has Hexen as the state-of-the-art at the time, but that was already out a couple of years. Many of the big franchises had either just made the shift, or were making the shift to the Doom-like graphics. I, personally, could forgive the weakness in this part of the game and look at it as a merely a part of the whole. For sales, however, this obviously cut into the appeal.
The third portion, the tactical battles, was a key part of the concept. The player worked at the strategic level to manage the kingdom, zoomed down to command armies in battle, and then zoomed down further to fight monsters hand-to-hand. The battles were a continuous-time fight that had animated units meeting across a battlefield. The battlefield was divided into which was divided into a 5X3 square grid. The control of those armies was done through a smaller grid at the bottom of the screen where you would give commands by moving a block representing the armies from square to square. The corresponding units would then respond to your commands in the upper part of the screen, moving and fighting in full animated glory (circa 1997). The problem was, in playing the game, one had to focus on the lower portion of the screen. Concentrating on commanding the armies, using what looked like a tic-tac-toe board, meant there was not time to sit back and watch the units execute your commands. Thus much of this feature’s potential was lost simply through the way it had to be used.
I wander down this particular memory lane in part because I thought Birthright was going to be my ultimate game, mixing all the genres into one perfect world. Patches came out, seeming to get closer and closer to the promise of a working game. And then Sierra gave up. Part of me seems to just love the exercise of thinking back and wondering what might have been.
I also indulge myself now because Great Battle Medieval gets right what that game got so wrong twenty years ago. The battle itself is very similar to how they worked in Birthright. You command your units in a square grid, and the fights take place when units move into adjacent spaces. But the modern command interface is set right on top of the 3D animated display, making commanding much more intuitive. Even better, when you start giving commands to your units, the game automatically pauses. This means there is no chance of missing-out on viewing the lovely 3D battles because you are busy giving commands.
All of this suggests to me the place that this engine could usefully sit in the gaming pantheon. It would make a great, quick resolution for battles which come about in a detailed strategic level system.
But that is not what this game turns out to be. While it seems to aim for a Total War – lite, too much is “lite” and not enough remains. From Total War, it takes the 3D animations of the units moving and fighting, but does it serve a purpose with so much less under the hood than the Total War series? Total War already leaves one wanting when it comes to historical battle simulations, so what is left if you remove unit facing, formations, etc?
If the Great Battle Medieval tactical level, relative to Medieval: Total War, has been has been watered down, the strategic level is really gutted. The idea is that your tactical results feed back into a strategic-level game and carry forward to the eventual victory or loss in the war. The problem is that there is very little strategy in the strategic level. Unlike the Total War concept where, unrealistic as it may be, there is a form of operational consideration to the strategic layer. Armies must be raised and placed, and the infrastructure to support them must be maintained. Great Battle Medieval, on the other hand, is rather more of your basic, casual-games inspired grind. You do choose an order to the battles that are fought, and victories in those battles earn you coin with which you can purchase upgrades or new units. You thus build your army over the course of the game, and work through the named historical battles. It’s a strategic level that owes more to Panzer General than Total War. It could be a nice wrapper over a great tactical package. But in this case, maybe it is all wrapper and no present.
Again, it might all be forgivable if the “History” part of the name were what shown through. If the historical battles themselves were, even if simplified, instructive about the units, weapons, and tactics deployed historically. The problem is that four units (the unit count for Cadsand) on a square grid just doesn’t immerse one into the history.
Some attempt is made to move in this direction. For example the second battle, which has you refight the Battle of Morlaix, scripts the battle so that it is split into two phases. The events of that day took place when a French force moved to relieve the the English siege of Morlaix in the fall of 1342. That battle has not been well documented but a key feature is that the French initially attacked the English positions with a division of knights. The results of the mounted charge were inconclusive, but it was enough to cause the English to withdraw from their lines into cover, allow the French army to lift the siege. In game, as the English player, you first must fight off the attack of a mounted force and, having defeated that, then route the remaining French forces.
While this adds some historical color, it doesn’t really lend any gravitas to the exercise. What can be done in scripting a battle (and I imagine the locked battles do even more along these lines) is counterbalanced by the fact that you have a user-managed and upgraded army that you are carrying from battle to battles. Between battles that, in actuality, had nothing to do with each other.
Whew. That was pretty harsh.
Perhaps I’m judging this game a little too rigorously. Instead of asking, does it somehow improve on Medieval: Total War, maybe I should be asking how it stands up as a Panzer General -lite with Hundred Years War chrome? Would it be something that would be fun to have on a tablet for a 5 or 10 minute distraction? Well, my answer is that the demo didn’t convince me it was worth the $4.99, as little as that is, to continue the journey. If the game were a little more about the tactics, and a little less about the grind (buying bonuses for your army), I might think otherwise. But from the demo, it just doesn’t seem like there is enough there.
Now, the (more expensive, I should add) PC version seems to offer extra features. How much more it contains above the tablet version I shouldn’t speculate on, as the only demo available is the Android version. I would guess the graphics would be tweaked to take advantage of a PC’s graphics cards. There are also scenario editing functions to allow for more battles beyond what comes with the campaigns.
It probably blows the financial model, but one feature that might move the attractiveness meter on a game like this is if the PC scenario editor could create games that could then be distributed to the tablet players.
Lets go break some heads
The first battle in Great Battles Medieval, the Battle of Cadsand, is also available for me to play as it was modeled by a Field of Glory user.
It is not a battle that really belongs in a campaign system, as it had little to it in the way of strategic purpose.
The outbreak of hostilities in 1337 largely centered on the southwest of France on the disputed control over Gascony. British King Edward III, however, planned to defeat France by leaving Gascony to its own defenses and invading France from the north. His plans were stumbling, however, as he struggled both with raising the funds for the the English army and corralling his allies from the Low Countries into also supporting his campaign. By late fall, he decided that he needed a show of military prowess in order to bring all parties into line.
Sir Walter Manny was given command of a small portion of the army which Edward was assembling in England and was sent with it to invade the Flemish island of Cadsand. It was of little value, either militarily or economically, except that is was it was across a narrow channel from the port of Sluys, itself garrisoned by a substantial force. Instead of assaulting Sluys directly, Manny commenced a program of rape, pillage, and plunder all throughout the rural island. The force at Sluys was honor-bound to respond, and met the English force on ground of Manny’s choosing.
Surviving details of the battle are scant. We know that it was a decisive English victory and that the English force withdrew to England afterwards. The action did seem to have its desired effect, demonstrating as it did the capabilities of the English army.
There isn’t too much to say about the scenario itself. It is a decent example of what Field of Glory does with medieval actions. It is fairly well balanced but, given the lack of historical record, probably doesn’t provide much educational value as to the conditions in the actual battle. One feature I was impressed with in this one is the terrain. The small size and limited scope of the screenshot doesn’t quite do it justice, but the large “island” terrain surrounding the battlefield looks pretty nifty.
*Slitherine distributes a History:Legends of War for the PC, which seems to originally have been a Playstation title from an unaffiliated developer. It’s a turn based, 3D game of squad-level fighting in World War II.
**Yes, I know that what I’m referring to as D&D is really AD&D in every case. I don’t care.