Knights of Honor


posted 4/21/2005 by Tyler Sager
other articles by Tyler Sager
Paradox Interactive has a habit of bringing us some very deep, very complex strategy games. And while their games are often quite entertaining, they do require a great deal of effort to overcome some surprisingly daunting learning curves. So when I loaded up Knights of Honor, Paradox’s latest foray into medieval European real-time-strategy conquest, I was expecting to put in some serious work before achieving any semblance of entertainment. In reality, I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible this title was. While it’s still quite a complex outing, compared to many of Paradox’s other titles, it’s a walk in the park. Thankfully, it’s also quite fun.

Since Knights of Honor is a “conquer the map” game, there’s not much in the way of plot. Play begins in one of three medieval periods, with players taking on the role of a Guiding Spirit for a particular kingdom. From there, players guide their kingdom through the generations as it gains more and more control of the land, either through direct military action or through diplomatic channels. Victory comes when players manage to gather enough votes to claim the title of Emperor of Europe. A minor victory is awarded when players manage to grab all the Trade and Exotic Goods needed to complete all 10 Kingdom Advantages, the Knights of Honor version of technologies.

The building blocks of the kingdoms are provinces, made up on a single Town and outlying villages, monasteries, and farms. These towns are the production and building centers of the kingdoms, while the villages and farms provide the resources necessary to keep things running. Each town is highly customizable, able to be built up to best compliment the properties of a given province. Provinces can have up to three different special features, such as Mineral Deposits or Fertile Soil. These features determine in part which buildings can be built in the town, which in turn determines which kind of Trade Goods are possible to manufacture. Since these features are randomly determined at the start of each game for each province, the replay value is fairly high.

Each kingdom is governed by a royal family, and one key to keeping the kingdom together is keeping that royal family line strong. Since Knights of Honor spans many years, rulers will age and eventually die. If there is no clear successor to the throne, bad things will happen. Therefore, it’s vital to arrange for proper (and profitable) marriages for the royal children, and hope for a fertile marriage. In addition to solidifying the family line, royal children (at least the Princes) can also work double-duty and fill in as one of the kingdom’s nine titular Knights.

Knights are the backbone of the kingdom. Each Knight can take on the role of a Marshall, Merchant, Cleric, Builder, Landlord, or Spy. There’s no limit to the number of Knights in a given office, but there can only ever be nine Knights at any one time. Members of the royal family can be assigned to Knighthood for free, while hiring Knights from outside the family will drain the kingdom coffers. And each additional type of Knight costs more than the previous, so hiring six Merchants can become prohibitive. All Knights except the Marshall and Spy can be assigned to govern a particular town, providing bonuses. The Merchant gives a town a bonus to income, or he can be assigned to open trade relations with friendly kingdoms. The Builder and Landlord increase the amount of workers and food in their province, respectively. The Cleric is a particularly useful Knight, with the ability to help pacify unrest in a province, in addition to greatly increasing the amount of Books produced. Books are useful for calming a rebellious province, or they can be used to educate a Knight and increase their effectiveness. The Spy is used a bit differently than the other Knights. They are sent to another kingdom, where they wait around to be hired as an enemy Knight. Once in place, they can cause all sorts of havoc in their office. Of course, the enemy is sending their own spies, so a Spy can also be kept in waiting at the Royal Court, as a counter-spy operation. Finally, the Marshall is the military leader of the game, and a great deal of time will be spent ordering these guys around the map.

Armies consist of a Marshall and up to 9 military squads and 4 siege weapons. Since no units can be fielded without a Marshall, a given Kingdom can only ever have 9 armies at a given time, and that’s only if they decide not to fill any other Knight offices. Military squads are produced in Towns, depending on which buildings are built there. As with the province special features, different military units are available in different provinces. Some are regional, such as Feudal Knights, some are kingdom specific, such as the Viking units. All told, there is quite an impressive array of medieval units. Once an army is raised, the Marshall can leave the town and begin their military campaign.

When two enemy armies meet, battle ensues. Battles can be automatically resolved or the players can take control in a rather simplistic RTS combat. While it’s certainly simpler to let the computer decide the victor, taking personal control of the combat can greatly improve the outcome. The RTS component is decent, but not terribly impressive. Each squad is deployed on the field, along with the Marshall and his guards. The controls are a bit clunky, although the action is pausable at any point in the combat, so things don’t get too out-of-control. In addition to health, squads also have a morale value. Morale is depleted by taking heavy losses, gained by doing particularly well, and bolstered by the presence of a Marshall fighting nearby. When a squad loses too much morale, they’ll break and run. If either Marshall is ever killed in battle, or if all units of one side are wiped out, the battle ends. While the open-field battles were a bit bland, I found myself enjoying the town sieges quite a bit. Unfortunately, the AI isn’t great, and a few tricks were soon learned to make some battles laughably easy.

Military might isn’t the only route to victory. Diplomacy also plays a vital role along the path to controlling all of Europe. Neighboring kingdoms can be cajoled, coerced, or threatened into furthering the player’s cause. A relatively detailed diplomacy system is in place, allowing players to set up and break treaties, arrange marriages, demand vassalage or tribute, or when all else fails, make a formal declaration of war. How a player deals with his neighbors is noticed by all, detailed by a Kingdom Power rating. Breaking alliances and treaties willy-nilly causes Kingdom Power to shift downward, causing other nations and one’s own people to become annoyed. Spend a little money and resources, Kingdom Power rises, and with it political clout.

Not only does a kingdom need to deal with secular matters, they must also pay close attention to matters of religion. Each kingdom has a dominant religion, which greatly affects how the game plays. Playing a Catholic kingdom nets some pretty big rewards, but it severely limits actions against other Catholic nations for fear of excommunication. In addition, the Pope will often call upon some of the best Marshalls, and “offer” them the chance to lead a Crusade. Failure to answer this call can, once again, put a kingdom in the Church’s bad graces. Players can also play an Orthodox kingdom, a follower of Islam, or a Pagan nation. Each has benefits and drawbacks, and each lends itself toward a different style of play.

There is a skirmish mode available for those who want to just play the RTS portion. However, Knight of Honor isn’t a good RTS game, it’s a good real-time kingdom sim with some RTS aspects. Sure, the skirmish mode can be fun for a while, and it can be useful to get the hang of some of the various battle types in the main game, but this is just not the strength of the game. Still, it was nice to include this as an aside. There is a multiplayer component to Knights of Honor, but since it just consists of the mediocre skirmish mode, I didn’t spend much time there.

Knights of Honor looks good and sounds great. However, the interface is a bit clunky in places, and not just on the battlefield. This is a complex game, which requires several different screens worth of information for any given action. After a while, I was comfortable with the control scheme, but I wish it had been a bit more fluid and intuitive. The learning curve is quite high, although nothing near the levels of earlier Paradox titles such as Hearts of Iron or Europa Universalis.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Knights of Honor, even though I’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of advanced tactics. This title is much more accessible than some of the other Paradox games, yet it’s still deep enough to please fans of the more hard-core games. More importantly, it’s a lot of fun, and I found myself falling victim to the “just one more minute” tendency frighteningly often. With high replay value stemming from the ability to play well over a hundred different kingdom starting points, Knights of Honor is sure to bring countless hours of world-conquering goodness.

Conquer Europe in this deep and satisfying real-time kingdom sim with some RTS elements. There is a moderate learning curve, but it’s well worth the effort.