Seven Kingdoms is quite a surprising find amid the rubble of real-time strategy games. It almost passed by unnoticed, thrown in the pile with a couple dozen similar games. Interactive Magic had already earned our indifference with War Inc., but the "Designed by Trevor Chan" line on the box made me curious. Chan is the programming wonk who brought us the dry - yet strangely compelling - Capitalism. Was he a one-shot wonder or the next design whiz?
An hour with Seven Kingdoms answered the question. Designer Chan may be the next Sid Meier (Civilization, Gettysburg!) or Will Wright (SimCity), with ideas that make a nod to the past, yet have their own quirky individuality. Seven Kingdoms delivers on the promises made by Age of Empires by creating a real-time meld of Civilization-type empire building and WarCraft-style combat, with enough unique twists to make it more than a mere hybrid. It is one of the best strategy games of the year and deserves more attention than it is liable to get.
A glance at the box of Seven Kingdoms will show you why it's likely to be passed over in favor of more glitzy fare. The graphics are decent, but we've seen better this season. The images of little men running around fighting don't inspire us with the notion that there is something new and different here. But, in fact, it is new and different. Seven Kingdoms is not a game that is won by fighting. It can be, but not satisfactorily. It is won by planning, trade, deceit, intrigue, diplomacy, racial harmony (yes, really), solid leadership, exploration, prayer (yes, really), bribery, industry, and taxation. It is a complex world where the final goals (which are flexible) can be achieved in multiple ways.
After the intricate tutorial introduces all the game concepts, there are several ways into Seven Kingdoms. Scenarios offer specific challenges, usually with set goals and start-up units or even with complete kingdoms already built. The way most people will probably play, however, is to generate a new world. A plethora of settings can be tweaked to make each game different. Number of players, random events, world size, wealth, race, victory conditions, and other factors contribute to SK's strong replayability. Seven-player TCP/IP, LAN, serial, and modem play are supported, with spawning for up to four players from a single CD.
Seven races - Mayan, Norman, Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Greek, and Viking - exist in each game. As leader of one of these races, your goal is to build a strong and profitable empire. To expand your empire, you need to build up your starting city and begin taking over unaligned cities, a la Warlords. Aggressive expansion isn't always the key to doing this. You can beat everyone into submission, but your reputation will suffer and your overall rating will decline. You can also take over cities through grants (basically buying them), the actions of spies, or by building a fort nearby to house a strong army. If the general in command of that fort is of the same race as most of the townspeople, they will be more likely to join your empire, as they will be if you provide them with jobs and goods.
This complex modeling of races is at the heart of Seven Kingdoms. Each race has a different military skill. A Persian leader with an army full of Persian archers will soon be defeated. But with a mix of Persian archers and Viking axmen, he has a much better chance. Each race also has a magical scroll secreted somewhere in the world that enables the king to build a Seat of Power. These scrolls are usually hidden in the dwellings of Fryhtans: monstrous marauders who need to be destroyed. Theoretically, one king can capture all the scrolls and build a Seat of Power for each race. Once stocked with praying citizens, the Seats can produce Greater Beings who act as superunits, each with a different power.
At the core of a balanced empire is a strong economy. Three raw materials can be mined - iron, copper, and clay - and made into finished goods, which can then be sold in the marketplace. Each stage of this process - mining, production, and sale - requires a building. Caravans can haul trade to distant markets, and ships can haul it to distant ports. The economic model is fairly complex and could use a bit of tweaking to make it easier to manage. With ten caravans running all over the map, it's hard to keep track of who needs which goods. Some more minerals and finished products would also be a good touch.
Research buildings spend all their time producing better weapons. Catapults, balistas, cannons, spitfires, and porcupines can all be researched and then built in war factories. Eventually, you will have to fight, if only the Fryhtans. A complex diplomacy model is also available, allowing you to create trade treaties and alliances and even to buy another empire outright. Computer opponents seem pretty good, though they could use some further refinement to make them more unpredictable. Military units act intelligently and are aggressive when they need to be. Some of the latest real-time unit management features - saved paths, unit orders - are not in Seven Kingdoms, but since the combat element is not the focus of the game, they are not greatly missed.
There's much more to Seven Kingdoms, which is a deep, satisfying strategy game. There hasn't been an empire-builder this good since Civilization II. A more detailed research tree and more complex methods of keeping people happy would be welcome in any sequel, but this is more of a wish list than criticism. Seven Kingdoms is an outstanding game in every way.