Seven Kingdoms was one of the most pleasant surprises of 1998: an unexpected, original, and deep game of conquest, economics, and diplomacy. Created by Trevor Chan and Enlight Software, the developers of Capitalism, Seven Kingdoms became a favorite with critics and built a loyal following based on word of mouth. Chan then went right to work on the sequel to build on this success and improve and expand upon the original. And despite some bumps in the road, Seven Kingdoms II is finally done.
While fans of the original may find that some of the new conventions take a little getting used to, there's no question that Seven Kingdoms II is a richer, more fully realized game. Every single aspect of the original gameplay has been modified, streamlined, expanded, or improved in some way. You can read our review of the original Seven Kingdoms to get the full details of the game and its world, but the basics are simple enough to explain. Seven Kingdoms II is a pseudo-real-time strategy and empire-building game that merges the feel of Civilization with the real-time combat of games like Warcraft, all on one screen. The object of the game is conquest through financial, military, or diplomatic means. However, performing this task is a remarkably elaborate yet completely manageable process, and displays an astonishing balance and integration of elements.
The best way to understand what Seven Kingdoms II does - and does differently - is to take on its changes one by one.
First, you can not only play as one of twelve human races, but also as one of the seven monstrous races known as the Fryhtans. The human and Fryhtan civilizations are substantially different. Humans are penalized for killing civilians, while Fryhtans are rewarded. Fryhtans must breed soldiers, while humans can recruit them from neutral towns. The Fryhtan economy isn't driven by trade, but by tribute from enslaved towns. In addition, each human and Fryhtan race has its own units, structures, and attributes. To create a well-rounded force of skirmishers, cavalry, archers, and other soldiers, humans must take over the neutral towns of another race or hire mercenaries. All this can lead to some pretty interesting interactions; Fryhtans can take over the rule of human kingdoms and even join forces with them.
Units are either civilian or military, and both are able to double as spies. New spying technologies can be researched such that experienced spies can steal technology and information, start a war between two countries, and even become invisible. Military heroes can be developed or hired, often wielding powerful items to give them an edge in combat. In the original Seven Kingdoms, civilians would train in a trade, build a structure, and then enter that structure to work. In Seven Kingdoms II, civilian training is gone, and structures are built by recruited townspeople. This change may not sit well with everyone, since workers can't begin with a skill boost and you can't just train a bunch of workers, send them out to build structures simultaneously, and automatically staff those structures. Instead, you recruit a band of roving carpenters to build all the buildings. Once the building is complete, you can access a slider bar for that building to set the maximum amount of workers that will be drawn from the idle pool in each adjoining town. This is a more streamlined way to handle structures and workers, but it takes a little time to adapt to the new convention. Another big change is the expanded role of research. There are now multiple areas of research, and the path you follow is determined by your gameplay strategy. If you want to build a strong economy and buy victory, you can focus on technologies to improve various aspects of trade and production. If you'd prefer a more stealthy approach, espionage technology can provide spies with advanced skills. War machines, from the catapult to the cannon and spitfire, can be developed for those who enjoy a good siege, while various offensive, defensive, and ranged attack boosters can be explored for combat. These alternatives all constitute a simple-to-use yet expansive tech tree that can result in some interesting late game kingdom profiles.
Overall, the interface's feel has remained quite similar to that of the first game, while its function is very different in many cases. Hotkeys have been assigned to almost every function and enable you to cycle through important units and structures at will. The map filters can be used not just for information, but to select a specific map feature to cycle, such as mines, Fryhtan lairs, or independent towns. The caravan interface is also greatly improved. Point-and-click starting and ending points for each caravan are matched to both custom and automatic cargo selection, so you can tailor each one for maximum efficiency. An improved menu screen allows more precise tracking of each caravan, its current status, and profit to date. Unit construction can be queued to the limit of the structure making the units. Units can be given rally points for automatic deployment, and waypointing and grouping options provide plenty of flexibility in unit control.
There are so many ways to play Seven Kingdoms II that it offers virtually limitless gameplay opportunities. Every parameter of stand-alone scenarios can be thoroughly customized, from starting wealth and race to Fryhtan aggressiveness and town resistance. These stand-alone missions take place on randomly generated maps of various sizes and terrain types. Single missions are included with specific goals, often involving an advanced kingdom with problems, certain limitations, and victory requirements. Randomly generated, non-linear campaigns with the option to carry important units from mission to mission keep the long game fresh as well. Enlight has set up a nifty little server with a clean front end that works well too.
Finally, the biggest noticeable enhancement is Seven Kingdom II's graphics. They're markedly improved over the original and can stand with any strategy game now on the market. Maps, units, and buildings all simply look better; they're more detailed and shown at higher resolutions. The improved visuals should definitely appeal to fans of Total Annihilation and Age of Empires, who might have been put off by the outdated graphics of the original Seven Kingdoms.
Every single aspect of the first game has been modified in some way, and all of it for the better. The only real problem is that maps could be a little larger to make longer games more interesting. Trevor Chan has created a perfectly balanced conquest and combat game that deserves the widest possible audience, and has all the depth that Age of Empires lacked. Seven Kingdoms II is without question one of the finest strategy games on the market, largely because the world it creates has realistic dynamics and complexity. That complexity never overwhelms, but adds a richness found far too rarely in strategy games.