Knights of Honor is a medieval real time strategy title that lets you lead the many feudal kingdoms that came about after the decline of the Roman Empire in AD 1000, AD 1200 and AD 1350. With the recent release of Rome: Total War, most PC strategy fans will draw parallels between the two as Knights of Honor is similarly bifurcated into a kingdom strategy portion and a battle portion. Unlike the Total War series, though, the kingdom management section here is also presented in real time presenting a much quicker pace of game.
One of the neat things about Knights of Honor is how the developers have spread bonuses amongst kingdoms. For example, even though each kingdom is outfitted with a special military unit, you will also gain access to different units depending on where you produce them and what religion your kingdom is aligned with. Believers of Islam, for example, will have access to Saracen fighters. On the other hand, if you produce infantry in Constantinople, you will get access to Roman infantry. And if you have horses available in the province, you can get access to cavalry that is specific to your kingdom; steppe cavalry for the Eastern Europeans, desert ones for the Middle East and North Africa, and feudal knights for the rest of Europe.
Resources revolve around piety (religion), gold (economy) and books (knowledge). Buildings such as a university would produce the latter while a church would prop up religion. Because each province will yield a different type of resource, you will have to tailor the buildings in a city towards their natural affinities. Obviously, there’s no need to build a granary in every town, especially if a town must be geared towards harboring military barracks, defenses or dedicated mines and seaports. Producing certain types of resources and accessing specific trade goods will enable you to gain access to kingdom advantages. These pan-kingdom bonuses will affect all cities under your control. Urbanization, to take one example, would increase worker production (and therefore your military recruiting pool) across the board.
In addition to all of this, you can also customize your kingdom by recruiting knights. After all, the title of this product is called Knights of Honor. Up to eight people can be recruited for pay, although royal family members (princes and emperors/kings) can be substituted for free. The caveat, of course, is if your family member gets killed and you are left without an heir.
Knights come in different flavors: marshal, cleric, merchant, landlord, spy, and builder. The most developed of the knights is the marshal. He (and they are all he) resembles the traditional concept of a knight as he leads armies and appears as a unit on the battlefield. A marshal can attain different skills with experience such as increased leadership (morale), engineering (access to siege units), and many others. Each skill is also broken down into three levels of proficiency but each marshal can only learn a certain amount of skills. Most likely, out of the eight slots you have, marshals will be the majority of them as offensive military operations can only be conducted in the presence of a marshal. Armies cannot be built or lead themselves without one.
The cleric, landlord, builder and merchant are all domestic knights. The landlord and builder, for example, can govern provinces and give bonuses to the population and construction respectively. A merchant can increase the profits made in a certain province but he possesses the unique ability to trade with other nations for gold or commodities. Finally, the cleric can calm unrest and convert subjugated provinces of different faiths into your kingdom’s main religion. This is particularly useful after you’ve conquered new territory.
The spy is perhaps the most intriguing person in the game. A spy can be sent to an enemy territory to be recruited as the enemy’s knight. Depending on what your enemy is looking for, he will be recruited as such. If your spy becomes a marshal, he can cause all the armies to revolt. If he is a merchant, he can steal their money. If he is a spy, he has the ability assassinate royal family members.
The other portion of Knights of Honor that is particularly rich is the diplomacy model. While you do have the option to sign non-aggression pacts and alliances, Knights of Honor takes this one step further by allowing you to marry off your next of kin to other kingdoms. This is more than simply symbolic. On the death of your in-law’s regent, you have the opportunity to exercise your claim of inheritance. This can mean gaining territory and should it be too disruptive to that kingdom, it may fall apart and dissolve into civil war totally. Mind you, when your own leader dies, they have the right to claim territory from your kingdom too. Refusal will result in war.
A much stronger nation can also turn a weaker one into a vassal state. This will divert half of what the vassal state earns to your own coffers. Religion also plays a central role in defining relations between nations. Those under the Orthodox faith will have to donate piety to the Patriarch of Constantinople (Byzantine). Those under Catholic faith will do so to the Pope for the Papal State. The Pope also has the unique ability to call for crusades on non-Catholic nations, in which marshals from different countries can take the lead and get a chance to gain bonuses for themselves. Muslims, for example, can invoke jihad to defend Islamic territory from Christian or pagan aggression.
All of this complexity plays out in an interesting fashion. When I was playing the Byzantine empire, I was able to subjugate a good number of vassal states and used my finances to prop up Orthodox nations in order to gain additional revenue. In fact, good statesmanship allowed me to grow my coffers to rival the papacy – all without attacking across borders.
Or another incident where Knights of Honor impressed me was the recruitment of my spy into an enemy kingdom. When the leader of the enemy kingdom passed away, the remaining knights will scramble to grab the throne. It happens my spy did this and he promptly turned over the entire kingdom to me. That’s probably why Germany was always a bunch of unconnected fiefdoms. In yet another incident, my spy became a marshal for the enemy kingdom and was ordered to defend against a siege laid by my own marshal. He ended up dying – fighting against his own people incognito.
However, in spite of its depth, Knights of Honor suffers from a weak battle model. Unlike the gorgeous battles painted by Total War, battles in Knights of Honor are unsatisfying mainly because they are fairly unrealistic. Yes, in Knights of Honor, the critical component is morale. This tends to favor armies that have a very skilled leader – one whose skills are in leadership and other morale boosting items. Early in the game, armies tend to be composed of peasants and I can’t imagine any type of morale bonus would result in the defeat of three squads of heavy cataphract cavalry from untrained peasants. It just wouldn’t happen. On the other hand, if you wield only one or two squads of archers, you can 99.9% of the time put the enemy into submission by doing a hit and run on the battlefield. Once one enemy squad is thoroughly decimated, the computer will automatically sound a retreat.
Knights of Honor does provide the ability for you to set up formations and wheel your troops to face the enemy. But the battles happen in fairly small maps. Once you are engaged, you pretty much end up in a make or break situation. There’s no place to back out and make contact at another location or regroup your troops. And perhaps the most disconcerting thing is the auto-battle function. Given a general with sufficient numbers and a skill/morale advantage, the computer controlled marshal can emerge victorious with zero casualties. Whereas if I play the battle, if I don’t have any hit and run archery units, there’s absolutely no way I can emerge victorious with zero casualties as any level of cavalry/infantry will sustain casualties upon contact with the enemy.
Customary with all medieval warfare, there is a siege component to the game as well. Depending on what fortifications you have built, you will be endowed with extra defenses. Or if you are attacking, you will face those extra defenses. But I found the computer usually avoids riding out to defend or rushing in to attack heavy fortifications opting instead to burn and raze the land until your populace revolts. And if you choose to sit it out in a siege, the battles are all done automatically by the computer. Again, they are far more efficient than you controlling them in the battle portion of the game.
Aside from the battles, the other major imperfection I discovered was the management of provinces. Because of the inability to zoom out and the fact the map is divided by province and not city, it’s very hard to find exactly what is being built where and where rebellions and civil unrest are. You constantly have to flip between the main map and a secondary political map.
Of course, these management problems would not crop up if you were restricted only to one continent or if you take on the role of smaller empires, such as the battle for Britain or France. Playing as Byzantines meant inheriting remnants of the Roman Empire spread across Italy, Middle East and Eastern Europe. I was constantly flipping back and forth. And those who desire world conquest will find the game unwieldy after your empire grows to a certain size. Eight knights are not a lot of people to hold down a huge tract of land.
Knights of Honor has already been released in Europe so those seeking for multiplayer will most likely find people available already on the Internet. Furthermore, a set of historical quick battles round out the game but the piece de resistance is still the single player campaign. Despite its wrinkles, Knights of Honor kept me engrossed. Its depth in diplomacy and its new take on the effects of religion and ethnic background made it more interesting to me than the relative homogeneity of strategy titles today. If only the battle portion were better and the management section more accommodating of large empires, Knights of Honor would give the Total War folks a serious run for their money.