One genre that has mysteriously died a death in recent years is real-time strategy. Sure, you have Starcraft II and the Total War series, but when you really think about it, that’s pretty much it.
The RTS genre has become a very niche one which is no longer really even looked at by AAA devs. It’s not even really looked at by indie devs either, because they are difficult to make and the return on investment is increasingly weak.
Beyond the two aforementioned titles, in recent years it’s only been Grey Goo which has caught my attention – I genuinely can’t think of any others.
This is strange when you cast your mind back to the 1990s, when you had a veritable smorgasbord of RTS games to choose from, with classics such as Dune and Command & Conquer, Warcraft II and Populous, Age of Empires and Dungeon Keeper… and so forth. Dozens of well-loved, well-executed titles from AAA devs.
However, it wasn’t just the big boys that were making strategy titles – many slipped under the radar yet were still excellent titles in their own right. It’s one such title we’re going to look at today; one you have probably never heard of. It’s Seven Kingdoms: Ancient Adversaries.
One thing to get briefly out of the way – I am not referring to Seven Kingdoms II: The Fryhtan Wars, which is the sequel. It’s a decent game in its own right, but it doesn’t quite capture the feel of the original, which is a deceptively deep and surprisingly addictive experience.
Seven Kingdoms is the brainchild of Capitalism developer Trevor Chan, allowing the player to take control of one of ten races of people (yes, ten… the expansion added three more and basically made the title of the game very confusing as a result!) and battle it out with other kingdoms to achieve dominance over a map, with the achievement of preset victory conditions the end goal. So far, so Age of Empires, but Seven Kingdoms is a vastly different game to that classic RTS series.
Yet on paper… it sounds identical! Yes, you establish a mine for resources, you research new technology and you develop increasingly advanced armies to send on the march against your foes, but it’s how you go about it that differs dramatically. For example, research is more streamlined and limited to military and seafaring advancements only, armies are restricted to one type of unit with race-specific attacks – no horseback riders here.
Sometimes you won’t have a mine, so you’ll have to trade to develop your economy through different ways, such as by trading raw resources with allies or having a large populace that you can tax.
This is where 7K really stands out – it doesn’t just simulate war between nations; it simulates politics, the economy and espionage, which in turn offers a wide variety of ways to win the game. You can send spies to your enemy villages, infiltrating their forts and factories, bribing workers or even opposition generals (who can then capture enemy forts), stealing research or even assassinating the opponent’s key leaders. You can forge alliances with other nations, requesting aid in battle against opponents, beg to buy food when you run low or offer to purchase their pathetic kingdom outright. In the midst of all this, fantastical creatures called Fryhtans lurk in lairs scattered across the map, which you can attack for hidden riches and secret powers… or they can even attack you, depending on the settings of your game.
It’s this level of detail that keeps me coming back to this title year after year. I love the feeling of backstabbing an ally at the perfect time, just as they are worn out from a war with another nation. Or that feeling of pure cunning when you infiltrate an entire nation and, in one fell swoop, take their fort, hijack their mine and subjugate entire villages before they know what’s going on. At these times I feel like a virtual Vladimir Putin and can’t help but allow myself a Mr. Burns-esque ‘Excellent!’, complete with hand movement!
The game can be as easy or difficult as you like too, thanks to the excellent level editor. Before every random map, you can select size, number of opponents, availability of resources, frequency of random events such as earthquakes and tornadoes, and so on. A handy difficulty counter keeps track of just how hard your set-up is going to be, which is a fantastic feature that should be in more titles.
Added to this is a campaign mode of sorts, which is a set of 20+ predefined scenarios that give you a unique backstory and drops you in to a saved game with a set challenge. Playing these in order really does allow you to master the game mechanics in a gradual way, but the difficulty spike late on is ludicrous – there is one scenario that I won’t ruin which in 20 years of playing I have beaten once by pure luck.
Graphically, even by 1997 standards, this game is lacklustre. You can tell this game was designed on a relatively tight budget. Luckily, the graphics are functional and allow you at a glance to determine exactly what is going on at all times, which means that against all odds it actually plays just as well as it did at the time of release.
Does it have flaws? Yes. Massive ones, in fact. The computer AI is generally OK, but it can be manipulated very easily. For example, if a huge enemy army is about to attack and you’re not ready, then figure out roughly where about they are marching to and delete your fort just before they arrive. This will completely throw the enemy AI and they’ll turn around and go back home, because the AI was set to attack and destroy the fort at all costs.
But that’s not even the biggest flaw. By an absolute mile, that accolade belongs to the fact that everything to do with the sea is entirely broken. Warships exist, but the enemy AI does not have a clue how to use them, so they simply don’t. At best, they might make and use a transport boat every now and then, but it’s so rare that if you set up your kingdom on an island, you are basically immune from invasion. If you develop a navy, the AI won’t respond, meaning you can attack with impunity – but you shouldn’t do that, because in general having a navy is completely ineffective.
That should be a gamebreaker that makes this title completely impossible to recommend, but it’s not. Despite these flaws, Seven Kingdoms: Ancient Adversaries is a thoroughly unique and absolutely engrossing RTS – it is completely free, so check it out. What have you go to lose?
Oh, insert Game of Thrones ‘Seven Kingdoms’ joke here. Yours will be better than mine!
“BACK IN THE DAY” VERDICT: 85% – Upon release, Seven Kingdoms flew under the radar, yet those who did pick it up generally loved it. It offered a more intellectually challenging RTS experience in a universe similar to Age of Empires but with enough innovation of its own to make it completely unique.
“MODERN DAY” VERDICT: 85% – It’s just as good now as it was in 1997/98. Nothing else has come since that compares to it – I’d absolutely love for an indie studio to pick this licence (or general idea) up and bring in into the modern age, but for now it is still a compelling gaming experience.
Release Date: 1997 (Ancient Adversaries released in 1998)
Developer: Enlight Software
Publisher: Enlight Software
Available: PC – completely (and legally) free at 7kfans.com. Also available on GOG.com.