Knights and Merchants is based in the Anglo-Saxon period around 1200 AD and puts players in the role of engineer, commander, and mayor. The player must build up what is left of the king's last province and turn it into a bustling center for commerce by constructing the appropriate buildings. After the buildings are erected, gamers can decide where and how the merchandise is transported, and the serfs will start crafting independently, delivering their goods within their own mission area. The player has complete control over the military, however, and must use them to defend the province against enemy attack.
This once peaceful and fertile land is in a state of civil war. Plague, starvation and, of course, war have taken their toll on the innocent. The situation is bleak -- the good King Karolus and his army have retreated as far as they can. Will this be their last stand, or will good triumph over Karolus' evil son, Prince Lothar and his army? That decision is yours alone, and to reach it you'll need to make many other wise decisions in hopes of taking back and rebuilding the country in Knights and Merchants.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Looking for a challenge? This is the hardest strategy game I have ever seen in my life. I thought I was doing something wrong until I found that even the tech support guys at Interactive Magic weren't even past level four yet (which did make me feel better as I was on level two at the time)! This can make the game a bit frustrating, but persistence and brains will get you by -- and when you do get by, you'll be cheering along with your subjects.
Although the game itself is very difficult, the interface is simple enough to get the hang of after you've played for about a half-hour. There are two parts to the screen. The right two-thirds of the screen shows you the playfield while the left third shows you a miniature version of the whole map and either buildings available for you to build, where resources should be distributed, statistics for your people and town, or the options menu.
This is a very hierarchical game -- there are many different buildings and people which must be built in a certain order before you can gain access to other ones. For instance, to get leather armor you must have an armory workshop and a carpenter to run it. To get the leather rolls needed for the armor, you must have a butcher working in a tannery. To provide the skins for the butcher, you'll need a swine farm to raise pigs. You'll need a farm for wheat to feed the pigs. A farmer must be trained at the schoolhouse before you can farm. First, but not least, you need to make sure there are roads connecting all these places together. All of this hustle and bustle makes the game very lively and fun to watch as well as play. There are specific people trained to do specific tasks. Stonemasons mine stone, bread and corn are provided courtesy of the baker, carpenters are quite versatile in that they process wood into timber, make weapons and armor, metallurgists will supply gold and steel. The list goes on. Sound complicated? It is, but the manual comes in handy for letting you know who's who and what's what. You don't have direct control over your people, as compared to Age of Empires. When you train individuals, if their building (or home) is built and vacant, they'll go there and wait for work unless it's already piled up. When hungry, they'll head over to the inn for a bite to eat. Managing your population can get tricky, as there is no limit and if you have too many people, they'll do nothing except sit around and eat (wasting valuable resources for participating members of society). When building your town, you must be creative and smart to be successful. For instance, you should build your inn, schoolhouse and storage house centrally. Buildings which require other buildings for supplies should be built close to each other so your subjects don't have to walk as far to deliver goods.
Just as you think you're overwhelmed, you're ready for the other half of the game: controlling your military (and if not, tough -- you'll have a trial by fire soon enough...). Since your country is at war, it would be a very good idea to learn how to use your troops effectively. This is not at all an easy task, and one that requires a lot of brainpower and patience. The troops can be divided into three group types: Infantry, Horsemen, and Bowmen. Each troop has a specific purpose and each troop needs to be used accordingly to obtain the best effect. For instance, you would want to send a pikeman, rather than anyone else, up against any horsemen as the pikes work great for dismounting (and ultimately killing) the horsemen. Unlike the townspeople, you do have direct control over your military. You can group, place, and line them up any way you like. Also, unlike the townspeople, the troops will not automatically eat when they are hungry, so you must keep an eye on them to keep them well-fed. A starving soldier is a useless soldier, as he will have no energy when going into battle. I found that while you have a lot more control over the units, they were still difficult to manipulate at times. For instance, I would tell a group to turn right and some soldiers would, some wouldn't. The problem is that in order to tell someone specific to do something, he must be ungrouped first. This type of thing can become a serious problem when you're getting ready for a mass assault or are being attacked yourself, as some of your soldiers may not go in the right direction.
Fortunately, there are tutorials for both building your town and controlling your military. Be absolutely sure you play these. In fact, you may want to play them a few times to get the hang of the game, as the hardest aspect of this game isn't actually building or controlling your people, it is how much stronger your enemy is. The enemy frequently has more and stronger troops than you, and if you aren't ready for them, you can say Good Knight, sweet prince!
A detailed game deserves detailed graphics, and this one definitely doesn't fail in that category. The artwork is very cartoon-like, vivid, and fun to watch. Want to see if your inn is fully stocked? Just look at it. Half the time there is no real need to actually click on a building to see what it has in stock, as you can usually see the items in the window or under an awning. If you watch your subjects run around town, you'll see them carrying wares, eating and working. If you look off to the side, you may see a crab crawling on the beach or a wolf running through the woods, too.
Magnificent enough to make even King Karolus bow to it. The music in this game is very lively, cheery, and industrious, perfect for building a happy, thriving town. There are also some more serious numbers available for battle scenarios. The music tracks can be switched at any time through the game menus. Methinks this is good enough for listening whilst thou dost commute to work on thy horse. The general sounds are varied and never seem to get old. All different types of people have their own unique and always positive way of responding to you when they are selected. When surveying your town, you can hear the sounds of mining stone, chopping wood, squishing grapes, pigs squealing, and the schoolhouse bell, among others. These sounds will change volume depending on how close you are to them.
When was the last time you completed a level and felt like you had really accomplished something? As I'm sure you can tell, this game is for someone who really wants to spend some quality time in front of the computer. Apart from the general difficulty and problems I had in manipulating my troops, this is an entertaining game that should appeal mostly to advanced strategists. This, along with the superb graphics and sound, all adds up to a great game.
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