Retrospective: Kohan II: Kings of War

By Kieron Gillen on October 24th, 2007 at 10:54 am.

[I wrote this for PC Gamer UK much earlier this year when I found myself playing this RTS. It ended up not running for one reason or another, so I'll immortalize it on the Electric Internet. It's less born of obsessive love, more trying to explain why people really should give it a crack, especially as it's only a fiver now. Kohan developers Timegate are, of course, now continuing the FEAR series for Sierra, which as far as odd change of development team directions go, is almost up to Digital Illusions moving from Pinball Dreams to Battlefield.]

Your friends are laughing at you behind your back. It happens to everyone, at least once. You’re going out with someone who no-one else can understand why you’re with. While to you, they’re all kinds of neat, to your friends it’s a clear case of WHAT ARE YOU DOING PUTTING YOUR TONGUE IN THEIR MOUTH AND WRITHING? Some wait it out politely. Others – normally the “better” friends – feel it’s in your best interest to take you to one side and question your madness. And laugh. Mainly, laugh.

I’ve been playing Kohan II: Kings of War for the last few weeks. It’s been a bit like that.

Kohan II laboured under a bad sign. Virtually unknown in the UK, the original was something of a critical favourite in the USA. Which was its initial problem: its fanbase were so fanatical, they lashed out at the corruption of their game as – you know – it wasn’t just the same game again. If bad word of mouth wasn’t enough, it had the misfortune to be released on the same day as both Dawn of War and Rome: Total War. Both cleaned up commercially, the former marrying Starcraft-esque polish while raising the expected graphical standards of the genre and the latter bringing the Total War series epic worldview into polygonal 3D. Between them they had the mainstream of RTS and the other the more radical alternative secured. There wasn’t much space for the quiet child Kohan 2, and was damned with faint praise in reviews. Including Mine. Kohan II was lost in the shuffle, losing the real-time strategy battle for shelf-space and gamers’ attention.

Fast forward a couple of years. Rummaging through an enormous pile of Budget games in the Gamer office, I found its current five quid release… and it was a bit like finding a puppy at your doorstep on a stormy night. Poor bedraggled thing. Better let it in to dry off.

So suddenly I was playing Kohan II. And people were laughing.

Dragons. Though knowing Kohan, they'll be called Drahunkunksiiiaskfh or something.

If I step back, I can see why. Kohan II is a fantasy RTS, including every traditional bad point of the genre. While admirable for trying to pull away from a straight Tolkein clone, it just ends up as an unmemorable chimeric blob of randomly arranged consonants. The fantasy universe has exactly one interesting point: the games heroes – the Kohans – are Immortal, returning to life after dying. This is actually a pretty neat justification for the fact that you can re-use them in your armies when you get them killed beneath an opponent’s rush or whatever. Bar that, it’s the sort of game that thinks having an elf on an ostrich makes it unique. The single-player campaign rushes from cliché to cliché, with some exchanges of dialogue so hilariously melodramatic that you wonder how the voice-actors managed to sound as if they weren’t having any fun spouting it at all. In fact, as I returned to the game, the voice-acting was the sole thing which I recalled from my initial play, due to the main female character saying “I feel nothing!” when she’s ordered to move somewhere, in exactly the same disappointed and frustrated tone you’d imagine a virginal middle-class English bride would use on a wedding night upon discovering her husband is desperately under-endowed.

(After 20 hours or so, I realised that she was actually saying “I fear nothing”, but the joke refused to shift inside my head.)

But still, while I couldn’t place it in my memories, I knew there was something there. That’s the real core of why I returned, despite everyone tapping their heads behind their back and saying I’d be back with Total War before the month’s out. Its memory nagged at me. I mean, even with all the problems, there was a reason why I scored it as I did. And it kept on turning up quietly in net debate in places whose opinion I rated. Kind of appropriately for a game that disappeared due to two obviously beautiful sisters-in-genre, Kohan’s beauty is an inner one.

He spilt my pint!

For almost every traditional mechanic in a real-time-strategy game, Kohan has its own distinctive take. Since the direction it went in is pretty much opposed to the way everyone else went, it means the game remains fresh. For example, it’s radically against any form of micromanagement. Units are actually arranged into companies. You choose up to a front row of troops, a flanking unit of troops, a couple support troops and a hero if you have any remaining. So, you could have a front row of swordsmen, a supporting bank of archers, and a zealot and a healer or something similar in the back, and then a wizard hero. All these are controlled and manoeuvred as a single unit. When applied to combat, all will use their special abilities automatically – the wizard lobbing fireballs, the zealots driving your troops into frenzy and the healers replenishing everyone’s energies automatically. Rather than the tactics being applied on the battlefield by desperate clicks, the tactics are worked out upfront at the point of arranging a unit. While there’s some combinations that you’ll return to again and again, there’s a mass of variation to play with, especially when economics dictate you can’t afford another unit of knights.

And economics dictate come into it far more than most RTS. If there’s been a trend in the last couple of years, it’s been away from this side of the genre, but the finesse Kohan deals with the counting of coins hints at neglected unexplored possibilities. It has five resources: gold, stone, iron, wood and gems. Gold is the master resource, spent for most things, but the other four don’t actually accumulate. So if your empire has +6 stone, it remains constant until you assign it by building troops. So if you make a construction unit (-6 stone cost), that would reduce it zero. If any of them go negative, the surplus is made up by reducing your gold income, which can cripple your kingdom. Since different units spend different resources, more than anything else, you’re left asking whether you can afford certain units at every step of the battle. Yeah, adding extra wizards to the unit would be great, but the kingdom’s treasury won’t stretch to it. Maybe you can expand your production of gems somehow and…

Purest Green. Oh God. That's a Blackadder joke. Damn us. Damn us to hell. Take us off your RSS feed. Never link to us. We're so ashamed. We're so fucking dirty.

Tactical decisions just compound upon each other, especially when specific elements differ slightly – yet significantly – between the six races. There’s always something to be thinking about, and it’s not usually something which you’d be thinking about if you were playing another real-time strategy game. And for a fiver, as much as its trains your economic brain in play, it won’t strain your real world finances.

In which case, it explains why I find myself in the arms of a B-level RTS from a few years back. Because it’s not a B-level RTS from a few years back. It’s its own game. It’s brave, and proud and there’s nothing quite like it. And I know this, and me alone. And just like the partner no-one else understands, that’s more than enough.

So, laughing friends, me and Kohan II? We’re laughing at you.

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27 Comments »

  1. Feet says:

    *sniggers*

  2. Thelps says:

    Sounds like tabletop Warhammer mixed with elements of Supreme Commander’s resource system (made more complex with the finite gold thing). Guess it’s worth a flutter. :D

  3. Nick says:

    I loved Kohan, but could never get Kohan II to work on my machine. At least I bought it, I feel good about that…

  4. KBKarma says:

    Yes, but I’m STILL laughing at you!

    OK, seriously, it doesn’t sound too bad. I might give it a try if I find it.

    However, now you’ve sparked an entirely new idea…

    Ostrich vs. Elf. WHO WILL WIN?

    Cast your votes now!

    In my opinion, the Ostrich. Elves are good, but Ostriches can kick hard enough to dent metal (slightly, true, but still) and break bone. And they can run FAST. Xeno’s Paradox will take effect when the Elf fires an arrow, and then the Ostrich will be ON TOP OF HIM AND OH MY GOD I DIDN’T KNOW ELVES HAD THAT IN THERE AND WHO THOUGHT THEY HAD TWO STOMACHS OH GOD THAT’S REPULSIVE and the Ostrich wins.

    QED.

  5. finished_okami_a_while_ago says:

    I love Kohan II. Really, I do. It’s one of the greates fantasy RTSs ever made. The story and background are rather cheese cookie cutter stuff, but so is allmost every other story of every game ever made. Can’t really blame K2:KoW (I love acronyms) for beeing a computer game, can you?

    Nice article, Kieron, though you’ve forgotten a few things, that make the game unique:

    Suppy Zones (or whatever they’re called):

    As long as your city or your oupost (the Kohan equivalent of defensive towers) are not under siege, they’ll generate a suppy zone around them. If you have friendly companies within your supply zones, they’ll automatically regenerate health, even going so far as replacing dead units.

    As long as a company has even a single unit remaining, you can pull them back from combat and have them back at full health in a short time. Since your units and heroes gain experience (that they’ll loose if wiped out) you tend to not just throw every unit away as you’d do in other RTSs.

    What else have you missed?

    There are no worker units. You have to build engineer or settler companies to build mines, outposts or cities, but once those are built, they manage themselves automatically. No pressing ‘.’ repeatedly to find idle workers. If your cities get damaged, workers will automatically come running out of the town’s center to repair buildings.

    If your city or outpost is under siege, it will spawn militia units to hold the enemy at bay. This means that you can leave your cities unprotected without the fear of loosing them to a single fast cavalry unit, that snuck behind your lines.

    The level editor and AI scripting deserve a special mention too:

    Building and scripting maps is really easy and intuitive. The editor might not be as powerfull as the warcraft3 editor, but it’s a lot easier to learn. The developers are a friendly bunch too (or at least they were three years ago, when I was pestering them with stupid questions about how to create ingame dialogues..).

    Kohan2 also features it’s own AI scripting language, that allows people to build really intricate AI opponents. This has also spawned what has to be the fringiest (is that even a word) part of gaming subculture: People scripting their own AIs and letting them fight against other peoples’ AIs to see who can make the best AI player… I think that’s even nerdier than raising your own Virtua Fighter 4 pet…

    Have I mentioned, that Kohan2 is one of the best RTSs ever made?

  6. finished_okami_a_while_ago says:

    I thought hard about whether I wanted to out myself, but I’ve actually created 2 maps for Kohan2 (with a third halfway finished). They should have been the beginning of a mini campaign detailing the adventures of the game’s anti hero Melchior.

    You can get them here http://tinyurl.com/2p82kg and here http://tinyurl.com/3bmww5.

    I’m pretty sure they are buggy as hell and the second mission is missing the end cut scene and might even be completely broken. But they still serve to drive home an important lesson: Getting a job in the gaming industry is easier than it might seem, because I used these maps to get my first job as a level designer. Really, it’s that easy…

    The reason I never finished those maps was that I suddenly got paid money for designing clichèed fantasy games, so I never really went back to Kohan2.

  7. Bet says:

    Normally I would have read this and said “well that’s nice” after finishing it, then forget it in lieu of Company of Heroes, Supreme Commander, and World in Conflict. However, I just noticed it’s on GameTap. Downloading.

    I love micro-management. Love it a lot, to the point where it’s my favorite part of Company of Heroes. But the anti-micro of this game, where you choose formations and whatnot… well, that actually seems like a relaxing idea at the moment. Especially since the tank AI in CoH is busted beyond belief and pro micro results in epic frustration.

  8. Kieron Gillen says:

    Finished Okami: Yeah, I could have gone on and on about the details, but wanted to hit a couple of good ones to give the flavour of the beast. It really is lovely.

    KG

  9. oryly says:

    I really like the fact that it plays like a turn-based 4X game…except in real time.

  10. Zell says:

    I really like the fact that I can read game reviews in the morning and actually be laughing before I even have my grumpus-banishing coffee. Thank you for building this site.

  11. David says:

    Alright. I’m almost through Space Rangers 2 nad looking for a new game so I do believe I’ll be picking up Kohan II on budget; thanks for the tip-off!

  12. Pidesco says:

    All the Kohan games are quite awesome, and more importantly, they are original. And, as RTS is a genre where originality is, for all intents and purposes dead, this game should be praised like no other RTS in recent memory.

  13. someone says:

    This is an excellent game. You have nothing to be ashamed of Kieron. Your quote about ” I feel nothing” made me laugh, because I thought the same exact thing, and quite frankly, I like the mistake version better.

  14. Kieron Gillen says:

    Sexually frustrated Fantasy heroines strikes me as a trope that should proliferate.

    KG

  15. *XandersBlade*{LT} says:

    Full time Kohan enthusiast! Theres always time for a game of Kohan II Kings Of War in my schedule and I belive it’s one of the most underrated games I have ever played. Check out my video tutorials and guides if your interested in this game. You can only fully enjoy this game when you unlock the door to its unique features and gameplay.

    http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=aloba16

  16. malkav11 says:

    So far all the positives I’ve heard (and they are indeed good things) were true of the original Kohan as well, and were why I loved it so much. Is there anything new to Kohan II that makes it stand out over the original?

  17. *XandersBlade*{LT} says:

    Fixed settles, new strategy techniques, new races of course, researchable technologies, faster game play, larger scale battles, breachable city walls, and much more. The community has been working to make a mod to address some imbalances in certain races. The editor is easy to use and I have personally created a few unique team maps, which include a “transport” feature, along with a new campaign that I am working on in my spare time. Kohan II is my oldest game and it still brings me back. I would probably give the credit to the online portion of the game.

  18. lesslucid says:

    I loved Kohan 1, but I had trouble getting into Kohan 2. Didn’t like the 3D graphics, and it seemed a bit same-y after the first one. Maybe I’ll give it another shot sometime, though…

  19. Mistwraithe says:

    More to the point the Kohan games are genuine RTS’s. By that I mean they have strategy to them and strategy is actually an important factor in winning.

    Many games labeled as RTS these days are really RTT (Real Time Tactics) in that games are won almost entirely by battle micro and tactics, rather than managing a bigger picture properly.

  20. kuddles says:

    Yes, I really like the Kohan games too, and I feel they probably helped pave the way for other RTS titles nowadays that don’t make things like resource gathering so annoying anymore.

    Also, all reasons you mentioned: no micromanagement, no major resource gathering, you control sets of troops rather than each individual soldier and both turtling and rushing aren’t effective strategies. I find the Kohan series to be the best recommendaion to people I know who are turn-based strategy fans who could never get into RTS games, because it’s almost like a fantasy TBS in real time form and you can also take a bit more time doing things so I find it’s a great starting point.

  21. Deadron says:

    I quite enjoyed the game and was amazed at the number of innovations it employed. The first few missions kicked my ass until I started to understand the model, after which it was just plain fun. Unlike so many games, I finished it and wished there it had sold enough to warrant an expansion.

    It was definitely all about the game, and not about the cheesy story/writing/acting!

    I’ve seen grousing by Kohan 1 die-hards that it’s a complete let-down after the original. So it’s on my list to try out the original sometime.

  22. Dreadlich says:

    With downloadable AI files set to hard difficulty, this game has very competent computer players. Download some and try them out.

  23. Nordramor says:

    Thanks for the retrospective Kieron, from some of the devs. 3 years later, there’s still nothing in the RTS genre like what we tried to make with Kohan 2. It’s nice to see that while it might have taken awhile, players did understand what we were trying to do not just with Kohan 2, but the RTS genre as a whole.

    Here’s to hoping we see a 3.

  24. 5ITH says:

    Yeah, Kohan rulezZzZz

    USA fanpage – http://kohan.strategyplanet.gamespy.com/
    Czech fanpage – http://kohan.kx.cz/

  25. Ian Klimon (Aephir) says:

    Thanks Kieron, as one of the developers it’s really great to see someone appreciate your work, even if it is years later.

    :) And while I am no longer at TimeGate, I would be first in line to play a K3. :)

  26. flintfeet says:

    I am a big fan of the Kohan games.
    Working with an office consisting of game developers (but currently not on a games project ) I was surprised that nobody else had jumped onto these titles.
    I’ll point them here … maybe that will push some over the edge.