Max Tillberg’s Warring States is a rare turn-based strategy game for the Pocket PC. Those that are available now are dubiously ones where the ‘strategy’ revolves around a simplified version of Risk, or even worse, something like chess or checkers where combat goes on ad nauseum. Warring States capably avoids falling into that trap. Taking place during the tumultuous period of the Warring States, from 464-222 BC, you assume the role of a single ruler dedicated to unifying all of China. The period Warring States comes hot on the heels after another epoch known as the Spring Autumn period, which marked the descent of the Zhou (or Chow) dynasty. Because the imperial administration was so weak, China, as it had in many times before this, fragmented into city-states controlled primarily by warlords with military backing. It took nearly two centuries for the country to be united under the brutal and authoritarian Qin dynasty. Warring States allows you step into the shoes of the Qin or its many rivals to unify Chinese citizenry.
Warring States pays much attention to the authenticity of the period and throughout the game, you’ll find that there is a delicate balance between gameplay and history. Each ruler you select is able to offer several bonuses in attack, defense, economy and science. Some rulers offer very little bonuses but have no penalties. Others suffer from massive penalties in research, for example, but have extraordinary bonuses in military matters. Afterwards, the map of China is divided up into specific provinces where you choose your starting position and proceed to subjugate free states under your banner, while contesting enemy states.
Each turn proceeds not unlike the game of Risk. You can hire scholars to do research, put money into festivals to increase morale of the army and hire new soldiers. War proceeds on similar lines. If your province is adjacent to an enemy’s province, you can send your troops over to do battle which are played out in a statistical fashion with the game taking into account your troops’ morale and numbers. One caveat is the fact that your troops are available in all provinces at all times. Unlike Risk, this is a concession to simplicity on the developer’s part. Special abilities can be granted from a ruler’s personal charisma and special bonuses are awarded through research. A person who has researched improved walls gets a defensive bonus while people who have researched cavalry get offensive bonuses.
Research plays a great deal in adding depth to Warring States. Without it, it could have easily been a boring version of chess. Luckily, there is a research tree you can follow, although no path is exclusive from another: You will ultimately complete research of all the perks. Not only does new technology add to the effectiveness of your military operations but it also safeguards against domestic strife. Irrigation fends off against floods. Pottery helps negate the effects of locusts.
One of the things Warring States does particularly well is its ability to constantly keep interest up at a high level. Random events occur at the end of every turn and there are so many different events that there is something new in each game. Some are very mundane like volunteers joining your army. Some are clever, like corrupt administration preventing the collection of taxes. And some could prove detrimental to the course of the game, like the incursion of barbarian hordes, internal rebellions or the rise of a new hero ruler.
The beginning of each turn is marked by a period where you collect taxes. Taxation is really a hit and miss phenomenon. Some provinces will generate lots of tax while others may not. In rare instances, you might not even get any revenue from tax. The gold you receive, however, is essential to expanding your empire. Your AI opponents will be doing the same and they are apt to take advantage of weaker empires with fewer soldiers in the long run. The more states you possess though, on average, the more income you will receive. Success feeds on itself irrevocably and there is no better feeling than that of victory on the battlefield.
All is not rosy with Warring States though. While the research tree adds much to the depth of the game, it lacks any alternate way to achieve victory. Noticeably missing are the diplomacy options traditionally found in Koei published titles. I mention Koei because Warring States poignantly reminds me of Koei’s Bandit Kings of China or Romance of the Three Kingdoms; a perennial seller in overseas Asia. Warring States’ AI also has problems with the mid-part of campaigns. Once you’ve built up a solid base with constant income and eliminated any straggling foes, the empires will degenerate into oppressive arms races, where nearly all tax revenue is then devoted to recruiting more troops, researching new technologies to a point that war becomes inevitable or the only option available. Neither empire wants to attack one another because none want to expose themselves to a potential two front war or be picked off by neighboring vultures. All of this eerily reminds me of the causes of World War I, gunboat diplomacy and the dreadnaught arms races. Again, diplomacy, blockades or an alternate way of victory may help to break stalemates like that.
The Warring States period may have been marked by constant war, civil unrest and a general breakdown in overall government but it also, ironically, gave rise to the most brilliant intellectual and artistic endeavors of the Chinese culture. Confucian and Taoism philosophy arose from the ashes of conflict. Warring States gives little treatment to that. What writing it has is mostly in the manual, which is inconsistent in its English but Warring States has a shallow enough learning curve that you shouldn’t need to dwell on that. The lack of a save feature is also disconcerting, considering the length of some of the games.
Nonetheless, as a strategy title, it is a piece of solid work that takes advantage of a theme that is in vogue in the Western world (thanks in part to the film industry with the recent appeal of Chinese films being à la mode). However, the cultural theme is not so overbearing that it crimps on the actual playing. At no time did my lack of knowledge of Chinese history serve to prevent me from enjoying the title. After my exposure to handheld titles, I’m surprised there are so few strategy games available. The constricted viewing area, slow pacing and limited hardware would, at a cursory glance, be a natural fit for this genre. Tillberg’s Warring States is a freshman effort and already, I believe it has set a number of de facto standards for titles that follow it. Characteristic of the developer’s modus operandi, Warring States is also a free download, making it something every intelligent Pocket PC owner should venture to try out.
[10/10] Program Size
[12/15] Learning Curve
[ N/A ] Multiplayer