Review: Knights and Merchants
I have been tricked! There are no merchants in this game! There are plenty of knights though, and they’re mostly kicking my royal ass so I could do without those, too. Of course then you wouldn’t have a game, but then again I’m not sure the world still needs an RTS with overcomplicated supply chains in a Warcraft 1 era engine. And when I put it like that, I’m sure it doesn’t.
Knights and Merchants is indeed a real-time strategy game set in Ye Olde Medieval Tymes, and purports to be historically accurate insofar as the tools and weapons go. What that means is that instead of building a barracks to crank out soldiers, you build a barracks that requires recruits from the schoolhouse, axes from the weaponsmith, and armor from the armorsmith. And those crafters require materials like timber and leather, which are produced at workshops from raw materials like wood and hides, which are obtained from even more workshops. All of these buildings must be built by your laborers using materials carted around by your serfs from the warehouse, and staffed by special craftsmen trained at the school. And all of these people eat a well-balanced diet of bread and meat and wine, so you’d better have your agriculture chains laid out before you get into the serious stuff.
If reading that paragraph made your eyes glaze over then you have a pretty good idea of how Knights and Merchants plays. Each map requires you to erect a sprawling village of craftsmen and laborers just to produce even the most basic militia. Every unit of every resource must be carried by a serf from its point of origin to its destination, including stones for paving the roads that must connect your buildings in order for them to operate for no clear reason. This is somehow even more frustrating than it sounds because the map is essentially gridded out, and each square can only contain one unit, and they cannot move past each other.
Now imagine that you have spent the requisite half an hour to build up a thriving village and produce an army of soldiers a few dozen strong. These soldiers need to eat too, and there’s a “Feed Troops” command that will restore each man to full health. When you push that fateful button, a serf must travel to the warehouse, collect a unit of food, and deliver it directly to a soldier in that unit. This must happen for every single soldier in that unit. And those serfs can’t pass through your neat rows of troops, so you get to witness a bizarre, mechanical shuffling of bodies as helpful servants slowly tear your lines apart to shove a loaf of bread into your standard bearer’s face.
“Slowly” is the operative word here. Everything you do happens so slowly that it sucks any potential fun out of the game. Just constructing one building has you waiting on laborers to level the land, laborers to clear the road to the building, serfs to bring stone to the laborers to build the road, serfs to bring materials to the building site, and laborers to build it. Each of those steps happens one at a time with pauses in between for the AI to recalibrate itself. And God help you if you try to build more than one structure at a time, because your little helpers might decide it’s more helpful to build the entire barracks before even clearing the land for the weaponsmith or bakery or whatever you need first. There’s no way to give orders to your serfs or laborers, and even the combat commands for your troops are basic and slow to respond.
It’s not a bad-looking game, with detailed sprites and animations on display. The faux-3D landscape can be ugly at times but you’ll be wallpapering it with buildings anyway. The sound effects are jaunty and Middle-Agey but all play over each other at the same volume, so try not to linger over your village or big battles lest you go deaf. You’ll have plenty of missions to crawl through if you dare but they start hard and only get harder, challenging you to build settlements under threat of attack right from the first few scenarios. Wrestling the janky combat controls while sussing out the dozens of buildings in your production chains is not a winning combination, so anyone looking for a quality mix of real-time strategy and city building is better off elsewhere. Maybe somewhere with merchants.