Wot I Think: King Arthur

Neocore’s new “Role-playing Wargame”, King Arthur, has been available for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve been sinking a surprisingly large amount of time into it. It’s a little bit Total War, a little bit fantasy, and a little bit unlike anything else out there. Read on for a round-table discussion of wot I think…

At the broadest level, King Arthur looks like a Total War game set in a fantasy universe. The action steps between a turn-based map of Britain, and real-time battlefield strategy maps in which you control your units from an omniscient camera in the sky. So far, so Medieval, but this is very much its own game: the field of battle is littered with fantasy units – translucent alien elf-things, giants, ludicrously armoured warriors, and generals who look like a cross between Sauron in armoured form, and a Power Ranger. There’s also an arsenal of magic spells to be accessed via an RPG-lite levelling up of your knights.

The campaign map for King Arthur tells a story – one of the return of ancient evil and the fate of man who wields Excalibur – and paints a picture of Britain that is half-myth, half-developer fiction, with a vague sprinkling of history and actual geography in the mix. The Roman city of Virconium is mentioned, for example, as one of Arthur’s possible capitals. They’ve done some research, and really not taken it very seriously. This is maximalist absurdo-fantasy with lightning wielded by god-generals, and faerie armies in the forest.

Anyway, what is most interesting about King Arthur is the sheer amount that’s going on in that campaign map. It’s turn-based, with limited action range for your armies, each of which must be led by a knight. England is broken up into many smaller kingdoms, each ruled by its own kings, as well as a spooky forest of death to the north. The year is divided into four seasons, too, each one of which is a turn. In winter you don’t get to move or fight, but that’s when you level up units and knights, and also when you receive your resources from your vassal regions.

Quests appear as you play, and these amount to a number of different scenarios which may or may not involve a visit to the battle map. Sometimes they’re diplomatic situations in which you can trade precious artifacts, gold, food, or even women for a winning move. Other scenarios are brief text-tree adventures, where you explore a number of options and either talk your way past a fight, or cause a fight to kick off, resolving either way with a mission complete. Quests spring up constantly, and demand that you solve issues between warring kings, or save lost travellers, or investigate weirdness in the great northern forest, and so on. They all earn you money, XP, and occasionally new units. (I’ve just bagged me some giants, for example.) These missions can also change your morality, and that has a deep effect on your army. Righteous knights won’t want to fight under a tyrannical general, and having giants alongside humans can reduce morale for the entire army.

The big morality board is a fun thing, and it slowly impacts more and more on your decisions. It’s a graph with “Old Faith” To “Christian” on the X axis, and “Rightful” and “Tyrant” on the Y-axis. Your decisions in quests slowly move you across this chart, and will have some influence on what spells you are able to unlock, and what factions will be favourable toward you. I’m going to have a rather different experience aiming for Rightful Old Faith than someone aiming to be a Tyrannical Christian would have.

All this missioning is undertaken by a series of knights that you – as Arthur, who isn’t a character in the game as such, but who appears to be omnipresent, and also has a portrait-shot like Jesus – must keep at the round table. If you choose to suffer major failures (and don’t just reload, as I have been doing) you can lose knights from the roster entirely, and if you run out of knights, then it’s game over. Knights can die in combat, too, which makes things doubly dangerous.

So yes, this campaign map is a splendid thing. Beautiful, detailed, and providing multiple levels in which you must manage your realm as you extend your reach across the country. It’s a shame this doesn’t allow for some more traditional base-building and tech-treeing, however. You can’t, for example, do much to grow the soldier output of your kingdom. I’ve basically reached in impasse in my current game where I need cavalry. None of my towns supply cavalry. What can I do? Nothing. Actually, there is something. You can research new units once you can capture a capital city, something you don’t have to do immediately and won’t necessarily do for many hours if you didn’t realise it was the most essential thing in the game. I didn’t attempt it at first, thanks to how tough the defending armies were, consequently making my experience even harder. That’s probably partly me being stupid, but also the game hiding what was crucial to progress.

Worse, however, is that the combat in the real-time maps is clumsy, and occasionally frustrating. The terrain is beautiful, but it lacks the clarity of other, rather more accomplished RTS games. More feedback about what units are doing, where they are, and what condition they are in is definitely required. Archers are absurdly over-powered, too, so much so that there’s actually a tick-box option in the game for “weaker archers”. Having seen entire armies decimated by just a couple units of archers, I have decided it might be time to tick that box. Why they are this powerful by default is baffling. Cavalry die within seconds of coming into range of even basic archers, and the side with a good combination of cavalry and massed archers will pretty much win every time. Except when there’s a super-unit on the field that kills everything else, of course. Balance, it seems, is a bit off.

What King Arthur also does with it’s real-time game, which isn’t entirely helpful, is provide “victory locations” at points across the landscape. These can earn you a win if they’re captured and held for long enough. It’s bizarrely stacked against you if, however, as you don’t seem to able to get hold of much in the way of cavalry. To get the locations quickly, you need horse-speed. But by the time my infantry-heavy armies have taken one location, an enemy with just a couple of cavalry units has won the battle, even if I held the field with soldiers.

This is especially galling when you’re watching the last enemy on the field die and then DEFEAT pops up in front of you. Oh, they tagged all the victory locations, even though I captured their general and killed every other man on the field. (Nor does the AI seem to handle the concept of these locations particularly well. It will move to capture locations, but often won’t think the recapture locations it’s just a few yards from if you’ve swept through and recaptured it at some point in the battle.) What grates most about this is that it seems like an easy fix: force the capturing side to keep units in the vicinity of a capture point, or have the capture “run down” as the game goes on, or something like that.

Most battles I’ve experienced thus far have been decided by direct confrontations, but the fact that you can lose purely because you were too slow to tick a number of flags is basically rubbish, and leads to just getting the biggest army you can to auto-resolve the battle in your favour. Worse, the campaign delivers fairly incoherent objectives after the first couple of hours, so that you’ll regularly run into objectives that are too hard for you to take on, forcing you to reload repetitiously.

All of which grumbling leads me to some other issues with the game: the rough edges throughout. I’ve had a couple of very strange bugs appear, the most lethal of which was soldiers unable to finish a fight on the field, despite having killed all the enemy, and becoming stuck in place. My entire army became lodged in this state, and I had to restart. Other King Arthur players have complained about crash bugs, but I’ve found it to be fast and very stable indeed. The one other key problem I had with it was the apparent failure to explain recruitment, which is done on the army screen when an army is in a recruitment-friendly settlement. It’s not complicated, it just wasn’t immediately explained, and that’s happened with a few other aspects of the game as I’ve explored it. There is an air of lavish craftsmanship here that’s sullied by a few splinters in the finish. It’s just not quite smooth enough.

That’s not to say I haven’t been enjoying my time with the game: the effort is mostly commendable. From the little text-adventure side quests, to the heavily decorated battlefields, it’s a hugely interesting campaign to get through. The art-style is fantastic too, delivering a world littered with gothic towers, dragon-skeletons and sinister bogs. Neocore have evidently enjoyed creating this grim Arthurian fantasy, and it shows in everything from the big spikes on shoulder-pads, to the misty intricacy of the campaign map. That shines through in the game you end up playing.

Nevertheless the uneven real-time experience and occasional random spikes in difficulty is what’s holding me back from recommending this. There is a substantial and interesting game here, but I’ve not found the tactical challenge to be coherent and fluid enough to stand up without a comprehensive overhaul and rebalancing.

King Arthur is out now on Steam.


  1. Kelron says:

    Is there an autoresolve option for fights? The campaign map sounds good, the battles would put me off completely.

  2. Jim Rossignol says:

    There is an autoresolve, yes.

  3. Bhazor says:

    I’d been put off so far as this was the only review I’d seen
    link to youtube.com

    He may recommend the game, but honestly you want me to agree with this guy.
    Fuck. That. Shit

    • Bhazor says:

      Also my limit for buying games is £25 unless its a big ass collectors edition like the last Anno which came in a wooden treasure chest with a working ships compass and a packet of almonds. So the news this game is $37 in America but £35 here is the second thing putting me off.

      But Total War style strategy but with no pretense to historic accuracy and magic people biffing each other? Very tempting. But I’m going to have to wait for a weekend deal at that price.

    • Rich says:

      almonds? I’m sold.

    • Bhazor says:

      Just look at this thing link to amazon.co.uk

      I’ve never played an Anno game but I bought this on sheer principle. The chest is frickin’ Leather bound and the compass is made of brass. That’s how you get me to pay £30+ for a game people.

  4. Snarkland says:

    Does he eventually get around to talking about the game? I made it three minutes in and had to turn it off.

  5. westyfield says:

    “a spooky forest of death to the north.”

    It’s called Scotland.

  6. jti says:

    This game obviously should’ve been developed for at least a year more before publishing. It has potential, but as some of the most basic things don’t seem to work at all, I won’t bother… A shame really.

  7. Scoteh says:

    I did get this on release, and frankly I enjoyed the campaign enough as to keep playing well after I’d written off the real-time as a non-starter, due to all the reasons mentioned above, among others including the occasionaly inexplicable slaughter of youre entire army by units that you were pretty sure were evenly matched…

    What killed it for me was the fact that the auto-resolve is, not uncommonly for this type of game, really rather poor at fighting. So if you come up against an army which you don’t outnumber 2:1, then in all likelihood you’ll lose it, and unfortunately this cant be gotten round as it was in Total War with simply moving several armies round and engaging as one super-army. After every single battle became a case of reloading 6 or so times until I was victorious, I decided this really wasnt how a game should be played and uninstalled it. A crying shame given all the promise it had, but how it just stumbled at the last hurdle of polish and balancing.

  8. jti says:

    It isn’t Finland? I’m disappointed.

  9. Shaker says:

    I bought this after misreading the new release offer as £23 instead of £33. The game was, and remains buggy. There will be a boxed release in a few months time, so this is essentially a high-priced beta like Blood Bowl was, only this time I fell for it.

    Although they’ve resolved most of the crash issues (but not all of them – play for long enough and you’ll still get a c++ error), my current save has the game in an unwinnable state because my quests wont advance. Add to that the complete lack of balance in the game – beyond archers, there are certain units and knights that get a teleport spell. It works even better than you’d imagine. There are also certain opponents who get a full stack army of elite troops every spring, and if you play aggressively you will find huge numbers of high level enemies spawning.

    The controls are rough, but not unusable. Try charging an enemy unit, you have to right click at the exactly right tempo or your men slow to a walk. Right click and drag near them and your men will run – which is a bit confusing after the total war series. Withdraw, and if you forgot to turn off ‘autofire’ and your men will charge back in after falling back a few yards, etc.

    The graphics are good – they look fantastic, if stylistic, on my pc, which runs everything on maximum. The animations, not so much. What I really miss is huge units, the largest you get is 48 men, and you can only field up to 15 units at once. There’s no multi-stack battles, and the better units tend towards about 20 men, so your war bands cap rarely reach above 500. Which is reasonable for the time period, but sometimes a bit underwhelming to watch.

    Aside from the odd translation/grammar error, I love the CYOA style quests, it has to be said. It’s fantastic kicking ass with the heroes I grew up with. And I really like the idea of an objective based Total War game. So much so that I’m now tempted by Napoleon, but that’s another story.
    Despite all my negativity, I might restart this just to get some awesome stories about Lancelot and Tristan destroying entire armies on their own…

    Oh, @Rossignol – to recruit cavalry, capture a citadel and start researching them. To be honest, I make do with the few free units I got (a couple even came from hiring armies from revolting provinces) and a lot of my alignment units. I’ve focused on economy and spells instead.

  10. unclelou says:

    Neocore’s new “Role-playing Wargame”, King Arthur, has been available for a couple of weeks now

    Unless you live in one of the countries where Ubisoft has the publishing rights, and you’re locked out from all DD channels.

    I had to check my calendar, but yes, it’s 2009.

  11. Flop says:

    With regards to your lack of cavalry, have you considered researching cavalry in the tech tree?

  12. h4plo says:

    Mostly agree with Jim’s werdz, but to chime in with another nasty bug I encountered: alt-tabbing can render the keyboard completely inoperable in RTS mode. Vicious, evil, game-breaking bug.

  13. Jeremy says:

    Why do games continue to not support alt – tabbing? What are we in the Stone Age! Monsters.

  14. clive dunn says:

    “a spooky forest of death to the north.”.

    That has got to be Yorkshire before they chopped all the trees down

  15. Vinraith says:

    Sounds like, with good post release support, it could readily be patched into something brilliant. I’ll be interested to know whether they actively support it and listen to their community in the coming months.

    • Ira says:

      Pretty much my thoughts. Loved Total War and any game that takes design cues from it. Add some magic and it is sounding very sweet. I’ll see if any of the balance/gameplay issues are addressed and if so I’m going to pick this up.

    • Psychopomp says:

      IF the first patch is any indication, I have high hopes.

  16. Funky Badger says:

    Sounds like Pendragon: The Game!

  17. gor says:

    “None of my towns supply cavalry. What can I do? Nothing. ”

    i guess someone didnt find the magical button that lets you do research

  18. Steven Hutton says:

    Maybe they were going for historical accuracy with the archers thing? I mean, I’m not expert but I’m sure I’ve been told that long bows were the proverbial Bees Knees when it came to medievil warfare.

    • CMaster says:

      Meanwhile, English kings regularly used giants and elves as part of their retinue in the 12th century.

    • Tei says:

      I have read on the wikipedia that english longbows are strong enough to kill knights. And other interesting trivia… like the V sign evolved because the french use to cut these fingers from the archers porting longbow, so showing these two fingers to the french was somewhat like a “fuck you french” sign.

      Wikipedia, mostly boring, but with some hidden gems.

    • Hmm says:

      There’s a lot of divided opinion on the effectiveness of the longbow against a knight’s armour, Tei. And the origin of the v sign has no supporting evidence, and “pluck yew” probably wasn’t the origin of “fuck you”.

    • Starky says:

      Yeah the V sign Archer thing is a complete myth, happily and thoroughly busted by QI

      As for the Longbow vs. Armour thing, it seems that the longbow would have had little effectiveness against plate armour – even at short range, longer ranges it would be utterly ineffective except for maybe lucky shots.
      Proof: link to youtube.com
      That link above is just plate with cloth padding under it, it would be much less effective against a knight wearing a chest plate over chainmail.

      It’s the reason why crossbows became popular, because at short range they could penetrate plate.

      The longbow was a devastating weapon against regular troops, but against fully armoured knights? Worthless.
      Actually I take that back not worthless – the only use a Longbow might have against a knight is not killing the knight at all, but instead killing the horse he rides upon. Since a knight on a horse was a devastating killing machine, a knight on foot was not very effective (slow moving, and clumsy)

    • mrmud says:

      I was under the impression that longbows pretty thoughly decimated french knights during the hundred years war. And that an important reason in the rise of the crossbow was similar to that of the rise of the firearm. Namely that it was much easier to operate and didnt require as much training.

    • Starky says:

      It depends how you deem effective, all armour has weaknesses and gaps, you fire enough arrows at a few enough number of knights and you will get kills.
      That was the major reason for their success in my opinion – cheap peasants armed with a bow, vs costly knights (both in gear cost, payment, and social status), field enough longbow men and protect them properly and you will get kills.

      Here’s another video showing the effect that repeated sustained fire can have upon plate – I take this with a pinch of salt though, as it fails to account for 3 important factors.
      First and foremost that the plate isn’t the primary defence against archers, the shield is. Plate is there to stop ones that get through that defence (which would probably be raised to cover the face and neck during a charge).
      Second that almost all knights were mounted troops, fast moving charging targets – the effective kill range of the Longbow vs. Plate is at most 20 metres – that is IF it penetrates at all, a big if. Meaning if your Archers are close enough to be truly effective, then they are exposed, they get one shot then they are dead as horses hooves trample them.
      Finally, as said above, that plate was worn over chain more often than not, wo while the arrow might put a small hole in the plate, the plate would probably absorb enough of the impact energy that there was little chance the arrow would penetrate the chain also.

      As I said though, this doesn’t make them ineffective – you get a good number of longbow men, random firing from a well protected line, and you’ll get lucky kills, horses and men will die from raining arrows.
      That doesn’t make the longbow effective against armour, it just means that even an inferior ranged weapon will still be effective if you put enough ammunition down range.

    • Starky says:

      Oops forgot to paste the link I talked about, here it is: hhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-Xp56uVyxs

    • Starky says:

      link fail: link to youtube.com

    • Taillefer says:

      It’s thought the main reason for such an overwhelming defeat at Agincourt was more down to the terrain not allowing the knights to flank the archers effectively, and the knights themselves being disorganised. Knights at the time, of course, despite popular depiction, weren’t necessarily professional soldiers, simply the French aristocrats who could afford the equipment. So they’d charge the English, funnelled in a tight formation, some horses would be brought down by the arrows and cause chaos. Knights would fall over other knights, some would be trampled, the ones that weren’t had to trudge through mud in full armour. Also, archers often drove big wooden stakes into the ground in front of them, so even if the cavalry reaches them head on, they get impaled.

      The longbow still would have been responsible for hundreds of kills, but it wasn’t as much of a decisive weapon (in that particular battle, which probably made it most famous) as first thought. Still the weapon of its day though, certainly.

    • mujadaddy says:

      One thing that was somewhat off-putting to me when I watched the Dev Guide trailers (last week?) was the fact that all these knights were running around in full plate, hundreds of years before that was the style.

      Agincourt was around 1400…isn’t Arthur supposed to be around 400?

    • Arathain says:

      That’s the thing about plate armour, really. Historically, it was only the thing for a very short period, pre-Renaissance. Very shortly thereafter firearms started to show up regularly on battlefields, which made plate obselete fast- the cost of an arquebus (or whatever early variant) and the training of a peasant was vastly less than letting a rich noble in hugely expensive custom tailored plate get shot by one.

      Plate armour survives in our minds because it typically looks fabulous, not because it played a big part in history.

  19. DJ Phantoon says:

    Sounds like King Graham Chapman and not King Arthur to me.

  20. Severian says:

    Thanks for this review. This was one of those games I actually had my eye on ever since you guys previewed it a month or so ago. Thought it might be an interesting hybrid combination of grand strategy TBS, RTS battles, and some fantasy RPG spice. I also got the sense that the designers really seemed to love their project and were putting lots of time into the fine details. Too bad the execution failed – maybe some patches will resolve it.

  21. meagain says:

    Longbowmen took a lifetime to train properly and once under siege and out of ammo they became useless. Their bows could apparently strike plate armor at short range but would have better penetration through mail. I would rather be a mage with fireballs.

  22. bill says:

    Yay! Isca Dumnoniorum!! You’ll never defeat OUR armies!!

    (i’m from Exeter btw. )

    There is something about playing games set in places I know that makes them much more fun. I remember getting Midtown Madness (2?) just after I went to San Fransisco, and enjoying it much more because of that.
    That’s why i wish they’d release another Shogun: Total War. Now that I actually KNOW what all the different regions of japan are like.

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      I’m hoping for a Shogun: Total War remake in the new engine too. Seeing as Creative Assembly remade Medieval there is hope.
      Loved all the Total War games up to Empire (which I haven’t had more than a quick go on a friends Steam version) but it appears they’re working on “Napoleon: Total War” which I expect will be Empire but with more development on the naval battles (and obviously set in the Napoleonic wars period) but Shogun remains my favourite to this day. It just has something elegant & pure about its implementation of the various different samurai units.

  23. Namos says:

    You’re damn right longbows were the Bees Knees. Just look up Fighting Jack Churchill.

  24. Tyndareus says:

    I was looking forward to this one; pity it seems to have some serious issues with the RTS element. And, since I’m no fan of RTS in the first place…

    I hope these issues can be dealt with through patches; the TB map looks great.

  25. Collic says:

    I really want this game to be good. The Total war franchise is in desperate need of some competition.

  26. Namos says:

    Of course longbows are the Bees Knees. For proof, just look up Fighting Jack Churchill, war hero and awesome dude all around.

  27. Kieron Gillen says:

    In passing – with all the Longbow debate, I’d recommend the splendid Warren Ellis short OGN Crecy. Imaginative essay-in-comics about the famous battle.

    Go gets!


    • Collic says:

      That book is excellent. It was lent to me by a friend. Easily some of the best Warren Ellis I’ve read. Nasty and funny in equal measure, and reasonably accurate from what I’ve managed to gather, too.

  28. Railick says:

    I agree the Longbow is certainly one of the best war machines ever made. One of the best attack helicopters ever created IMHO :)

  29. DK says:

    Almost all the criticism in that Wot are user error. Archers, for example, are only overpowered if you do nothing to counter them – woods, spells and most importantly formations. A single click on “horde” formation and archer effectiveness plummets dramatically.

  30. UK_John says:

    Agree with DK. Patches have cleared almost all the problems – you really think Creative Assembly would have made a patch where a menu item would be added to make archers less powerful? I would rather have a game like this that needs patches than get another of those boring unreal engine built corridor shooters that are so si9mple and shallow they rarely need patches!

    This is a company with 1% of the funding of a Creative Assembly, let alone a SEGA,and yet it has manged to produce a gem, in my opinion!

    This is a deep game. The manual HAS to be read, and you have to think about what you are doing! Also, like all great games of old, if the opposition is too strong, run away and fight another day! What’s with all this re-loading!!! If you had done that in games like Daggerfall, you would have missed a lot of the great features of the game!

    Seems too many gamers have been softened up in this multiformat world! Luckily I have never owned a console, so I haven’t got used to playing games where you only need to die half a dozen times in an 80 hour game (Oblivion anyone?!) or where it autosaves every 17 seconds! :)

  31. free business advertising says:

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