Kohan Is The Game Most Worth Saving From 2001

Every game released before 2005 is being destroyed. We only have time to rescue one game from each year. Not those you’ve played to death, or the classics that the industry has already learned from. We’re going to select the games that still have more to give. These are the Saved Games.

It’s not just that I want to save Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns from whatever gaming apocalypse is about to wipe all our hard drives clean, it’s that I want to save it from outright obscurity. I don’t know what happened to Kohan. I don’t know why more of us aren’t still talking about it, any of us. I suppose it’s ridiculous to expect any of us to actually still be playing it. But I am.

I played a couple of games again just the other day, games that reminded me how there’s not been anything quite like it before or since. It’s fourteen years old now and I still enjoy it, dated as it might look. Then again, that might be because it already looked so damn dated at the time.

We were already getting tired of real-time strategy games by the turn of the century. After the tremendous success of the ever-broadening Command & Conquer franchise, RTS games spent the next decade coming out of the walls. I’m old enough to remember a time when they clogged our shops, teetering on the shelves. They roamed the countryside in feral packs and thousands of them walked our streets every night, dimly, dryly moaning about how we should build another tank or repair some structure or other. Oh God, I got so bored of RTS games so fast and yet, as a PC gamer, I was supposed to champion them. Many were samey. Quite a few were terrible. None were like Kohan.

When it dropped through my postbox in the summer of 2001, the second game ever that I would be paid to write about, my reaction was something between amusement and disgust. There was no retro aesthetic back then, no celebration of simpler styles or basic presentation. In an era where PC graphics were taking brave strides forward every year, where everything had to be gloriously 3D, this apparently generic fantasy strategy game looked flat, looked bland, even looked like Age of Empires and that was four years old. C’mon, it’s the 21st Century. Who plays a game that looks four years old?!

I did not know what I was in for. Kohan took away just about everything I hated about RTS games, things like the throngs of idiot units, the build queues and the micromanagement required to get an army not to trip over itself, and replaced them with the broad strokes of battle, swept adroitly across a bigger picture that was about movement, supply and economics. It made me feel like something no other RTS game had made me feel like: a general.

For a start, it gave me companies. Rather than clicking over and over to build piddly little soldiers, the military units in Kohan were miniature customisable armies composed of a leader (a generic captain or one of the titular Kohan), a defining core (like archers or cavalry) and up to two additional support troops who could be anything from engineers to wizards. Immediately, I had no understanding of what I was doing. These things were expensive to build, I started to run out of money and I also hit my company cap right away. Two companies? I can only build two companies?

Then there were the cities. The (sometimes absurdly big) maps that Kohan sent me to war on were dotted with cities. These were self-contained bases, initially small and only having room for a few buildings inside, making the decision about what to construct very important. Each new building unlocked more recruitment possibilities, as well as providing resources. Quarries provided stone, vital for engineers, while a woodmill was a prerequisite for archers, who… wait, sorry. You’ve already maxed out your city. Time to upgrade it, which will cost a bunch of money and take several minutes. I hope you like the choices you’ve made.

Then there were the fights. When two of Kohan’s companies were joined in battle, you didn’t get to nudge individual soldiers around, telling them who or what to hit. No, one does not simply click their way into Kohan. It’s a battle down there and the best that you could hope for was that your troops were in the right formation when they engaged and weren’t met on the flanks or the rear. Then you watched or, when things got desperate, ordered your units to retreat. The latter was a confession that you were already beaten combined with a hope that, their backs turned, your fleeing troops would not be cut down and completely destroyed.

That was another thing. Kohan was about attrition and sustainability. A routing company was not the same as a destroyed one and, if brought home and given time, it would gradually rebuild itself, retaining the vital experience points it had gained. Given how damn expensive recruiting new companies could be, it was always, always preferable to flee and fight another day, just as long as you could get back to home turf. Those cities of yours were islands of calm, projecting forth great haloes of sustenance that slowly resupplied anyone within range. That’s as long as your economy was in good shape, anyway.

All the buildings within your cities produced resources. All your units used resources. Any resources overspent had to be compensated for from your gold reserves, which were always growing at the very slowest of rates, almost as slowly as your company cap as you upgraded another town or made the expensive investment that was a fragile detachment of settlers, tasked with building a new village somewhere out in the big, black unknown.

You’ll notice I keep talking about either time or money, about how long things took or how expensive they were. Kohan wasn’t about small decisions or petty dalliances. Companies took time to travel, so marching reinforcements or a relief to a siege required foresight (sometimes even the admission that all was already lost). It took a concerted effort to chase down and finish a company. Troops were expensive. Losses were expensive. Cities were expensive and there was only so much space inside them, especially when they were starting out. There was a tremendous sense of consequence to so many decisions, even which battle to fight next or which direction to explore in, and I found myself playing the first RTS game that demanded strategic vision instead of click-spamming micromanagement.

And yet things still got grand. In the later stages of the cheesy campaign (noteworthy for featuring possibly the worst voice acting I have ever heard) I fought some of the toughest and largest battles I have ever seen in three decades of gaming. Managing dozens of companies, I had to orchestrate retreats, swap in and out groups of archers and footmen as their numbers fell or their morale began to dip, and be mindful to keep my Kohan alive. These elite captains, each with a special power, had gained experience throughout the campaign. Losing any of them meant a resurrection and resetting their experience to zero. It could be a terrible loss, the grandest of investments ruined. A great warrior forgotten.

A bit like the game itself, I guess. I don’t know what happened to Kohan. I don’t know why it didn’t do better. It deserves so much more than it ever got, which seems now to be relative obscurity, punctured by a decent but also largely forgotten sequel (with a pumping Jeremy Soule soundtrack). There remain a small cadre of us out there who love its sense of pace and scale, its random map generator, its endlessly customisable armies, but developer TimeGate sadly passed beyond the veil after that horrible business with Aliens: Colonial Marines.

It deserved to be remembered. It also deserves me not talking about it in the past tense any more, because it deserves to be saved. Kohan tried to do something different, a lot of things different, in a time when its genre was all about bandwagon-hopping and, y’know what? It got most of it right. I’m certainly going to keep playing.

Kohan and its sequel are both available from Steam.

Saved Games will be selected in no particular order, but in two weeks time: Rob Zacny selects the one game worth rescuing from the year 2000.

46 Comments

  1. briangw says:

    LOVED this game. Many hours spent playing this, the addon and the sequel.

  2. udat says:

    I remember this game. I remember it being quite hard too. It did some really interesting things with its systems though as Paul relates. One other idea it had that I liked a lot was that units/companies had an engagement range, and you couldn’t just waltz past them without being engaged. Withdrawing from an engagement was a whole thing unto itself. It meant holding a strategically vital pass or other point on a map was a thing you could do properly in this game whereas in most RTS your guys would chase after the enemy a bit, be surrounded, die.

    Deserves to be remembered. And emulated.

  3. Yukiomo says:

    Kohan II is probably my most-played and most-enjoyed RTS. I never got a chance to play the earlier games, though. Did they bring anything to the table that II did not?

    • Arona Daal says:

      Kohan 1 plays differently,it was 2D and looked better imho, greater Maps,Art Style,and several different Mechanics,f.E. no City Walls.
      Imho 1 is the best ,closely followed by Ahrimans Gift,and 2 did not quite catch the same Spirit.

  4. pandora says:

    I liked Ahriman’s Gift and would love to play more of that as well. Loved how companies worked.

  5. EhexT says:

    Kohan was amazing, and it’s funny how Stardock are hyping up their Ashes of the Singularity “meta units”, when Kohan did them years ago (as well as various other games).

    For a modern RTS with a Kohan-like combat system, Star Ruler 2 is a great one to check out. It’s a 4x with Kohan style spaceship battles.

  6. Haborym says:

    I love Kohan 1. It was a real shame when they dumbed down Kohan 2 to appeal to a broader audience. If Timegate were to make a really good sequel, I would be all for that.

  7. IEatCereal says:

    Timegate doesn’t exist anymore son T_T

    • IEatCereal says:

      In addition to the kohan hames they did Axis and Allies,the original F.E.A.R’s expansions,section 8 and its sequel and they were brough in to help with the clusterf*** that was Aliens:Colonial Marines

    • Haborym says:

      I’m sad to hear that. Kohan was my favorite rts ever.

  8. ScubaMonster says:

    Recently started playing Kohan 1. Holy crap that game is hard. I prefer Kohan 2 though, mostly because you have an actual fortress and not just a city represented by a single building sitting on the map.

  9. Behrditz says:

    You know what this looks like and reminds me of? Knights of Honor.

    • SwiftRanger says:

      Wow, Knights of Honor, talking about a very underestimated game (though perhaps not as underestimated as the older Birthright: The Gorgon’s Alliance).:) In atmosphere alone KoH blows any Total War or Paradox title straight out of the water. It’s a lot more empire-building than RTS compared to Kohan though.

  10. namad says:

    broadstroke rts’s is something that absolutely already inspired the present. other games have squads, or lack resource micromanagement… games like maybe dawn of war or even total war work a lot like this.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      Total War predates it even, they look like quite different games but I was reading the bits about strategic decisions and feeling like a general and thinking did the author really never play a Total War game?

      • Munin says:

        Yeah, I’d definitely want a compare and contrast with Total War. A lot of what is being pulled out as valuable are all features of the Total War games.

        That said this one does have the fundamental difference that the strategic layer is real time, which it is not in Total War, and the tactical battles are automated. This instantly changes the entire feel of the action and presumably changes what would be a several hour long campaign in TW into an hour or half hour struggle in Kohan.

        • Hedgeclipper says:

          Oh, no doubt they’re different games, its just when I think of ‘feeling like a general’ do I pick the game where the only battle field choice is fight or retreat or the one where I’m ordering thousands of troops round a battlefield (not that TW is perfect by any means).

          And then there’s another 2001 game that had a real time strategic layer and relatively abstract battles with a retreat/fight choice – Europa Universalis. Wre could also look at the Dominions games where you put an army together out of units set tactics and send them off.

          I don’t think I’ve seen another game put the elements together in exactly the same way as Kohan but I do think we can see a lot of them in other games of the same era that have run a lot further with them since.

  11. mukuste says:

    I remember playing the demo for Ahriman’s Gift and bouncing off it because it was so hard.

    I’m actually downloading it again this minute… this is going to be interesting…

    • mukuste says:

      Doesn’t seem to work well on Windows 8/10, freezes for a second or so on every click. Shame, really.

    • Vesperan says:

      I bought all the Kohan games because of how hard that demo was. Beating it was epic, I was just dissapointed by the campaigns.

  12. FriendlyPsicopath says:

    I played the shit out of this game, and the maps I created to beat late <3 dragons and dozens of nests, you have not even mentioned the techs you got exploring in the campaign.

    oh man Kohan I and II are the Rts that I love the most, because it was never the clickfest aps clusterfuck, it allowed tatical and deep thought of strategies, the online was brutal, everyone was soo good and the free for all maps were insanely fun!
    I think dawn of war 2 gets a bit close of the concept, I really hope dawn of war 3 expands that reaching the scale that late game kohan had!

    • mattevansc3 says:

      That is one of the things I liked about Kohan that just seemed to have been dropped from the genre. The carry over tech.

      I know you get the Risk Continent mechanic in some RTS games such as the Dawn of War Dark Crusade expansion or the 2nd LOTR RTS but not that complete quest A on map X to get a permanent bonus throughout the rest of the campaign.

  13. Infinitron says:

    TimeGate actually did not shut down because of Aliens: Colonial Marines but because of some kind of legal dispute about another game.

    • IEatCereal says:

      This is certainly true Infinitron. At the end of the day they actually owed tens of millions of dollars to several places, and the suit they lost at the end didn’t help. I guess I felt that colonial marines was the last nail in their coffin because that debacle ensured they could never recover, although perhaps its debateable they would have been able to recover anyway. They never seemed to manage themselves properly :P As much as I loved Kohan 1-2, they never had the kind of commercial success they were looking for. Section 8 for example was a good, if flawed, game that had too few players to sustain itself. *Shrugs* the fact that Gearbox used them as a convenient scapegoat will probably always taint my memory and my love for Kohan has probably inflated them into a better developer than they probably were.

  14. Bobtree says:

    I really liked Kohan 2, and even re-bought copies on Steam to play with a friend. The interesting economic model and unit compositions were highlights. TimeGate also made Section 9, which was novel and fun. It was a shame to see them close down.

  15. Blastaz says:

    But you’ve killed max Payne!

  16. Premium User Badge

    AceJohnny says:

    Add me to the list of Kohan lovers. I first discovered it because it was one of the few to have been ported by Linux in its day by Loki Software. I rediscovered it a year or so ago on Steam, and play it again every now and then. The “build-your-own-squad” concept is wonderful, and I also love the 4X Endless Legend for incorporating that mechanic.

    • Premium User Badge

      AceJohnny says:

      I was also excited to discover there had been a sequel with Kohan 2… only to be sorely disappointed. I guess it was those awkward years when people didn’t really know how to do 3D effectively for an RTS :(

    • maquis196 says:

      Snap, might never have found it if not for the fact Loki ported it. We shan’t speak of the transgaming “wrapped” version we had a bit later.

      Fact remains though, it never worked well cross-platform on multiplayer but luckily, wine has handled the windows version forever. Such a great game, you knew you were safe the moment you got 3 companies of elite archers up and running.

      That resupply system made late game AI fighting tedious, just wave upon wave of enemy that my glorious elites would mo down.

      /me tempted to go spin it up.

  17. Premium User Badge

    ErraticGamer says:

    You are so right; Kohan is so good.

    Now I gotta reinstall Kohan.

  18. Voodoo says:

    I so loved Kohan!
    It was the one RTS game in which I actually felt like a general not a clicking machine (and a slow clicking machine at that).
    I played a geme I’ll always remember with a friend and even games with and against strangers onver the internet at a time when it was not so obvious to do so.
    A real crying shame it did not get more love and thanks for reviving it, RPS!

  19. RegisteredUser says:

    As someone already said, Max Payne was also 2001.
    As was Ico. Serious Sam. Some would maybe mention RuneScape.
    As for the state of RTS? Shogun: Total War had come out a year earlier.

    Kohan doesn’t stand a chance / is one of the lowest picks in my to-save pile.

    • BooleanBob says:

      Well, it IS kind of a silly conceit for a series. But Paul’s put out a damn fine article so it would be churlish to complain. I’m deffo going to be checking Kohan out.

      Paul, if you’re reading this, who did you review it for? I could swear I never heard a peep out of PCG about it.

    • LaurieCheers says:

      Not to mention Giants: Citizen Kabuto, Aliens vs Predator 2, and muhfukin’ Silent Hill 2…

  20. MageVortex says:

    LOVED this game. Probably my favorite RTS of all time, the only competitor for my love is the Total War franchise.

  21. bill says:

    This was the only RTS I ever really liked….

    … which I guess might be why it wasn’t super successful and isn’t that well known. It was an RTS for people who didn’t like RTS.

  22. NathanH says:

    I only played the sequel, which I really liked. From this writeup, the original is mechanically very similar. Would someone mind giving a brief overview of the differences between the games and whether it’d make sense to give the first one a go?

    • bill says:

      I never really played the sequel, but it seemed that it was a bit closer to a regular RTS… it was definitely trying to get some of that warcraft appeal.

  23. Premium User Badge

    Carra says:

    I remember playing Kohan 2, was a fun game. Makes me want to play it again :)

  24. Timbrelaine says:

    What a cool premise for a series!

    And I had never heard of Kohan before. I will add it to my enormous wishlist and hope for sales.

  25. Egun says:

    OH MAN, thank you! I’ve been trying to figure out this game demo i played when i was 12 FOR YEARS. I remember i got it in a PC gaming magazine and could never remember what it was, only that i was playing some immortal elf or something? prolly in one of the expansions. Either way, I made an account just to say: THANK YOU RPS!

  26. rabbit says:

    sounds pretty great! will have a look

    though the aliens: colonial marine admission did … raise an eyebrow

  27. MadPen says:

    First RTS I didn’t hate. CoH was the 2nd.

  28. Suedealien says:

    Best RTS ever! It was a shame that its production values were so weak (for a reference in graphics, Warcraft 3 came out about a year later).

    One of my favorite things about the game’s strategy was the ability to fortify. If troops stood in the same place for a long time, they would become entrenched, and you could make your units go into faster formations in exchange for a hit to their combat stats. So you would often have the weakest units in the game, entrenched, holding their own against much stronger units in last-ditch efforts. It really allowed for so much variety in play style. I favored cavalry archers (in Ahriman’s Gift), and my friend favored fortifications, so our battles would just be these huge hit-and-run cavalry charges where I tried to whittle down his militia. Then I would put my cavalry into their fastest formation (where they ignore all enemies) until they got past his front line, at which point they would blossom out into fighting formation, laying waste to his archers, but getting themselves surrounded with no chance of escape.

    And the AI was hard as hell. You could set up a map with 7 AI players each on their own team and have a 4-hour slog-fest where you didn’t know, moment to moment, which team was going to win.

    That game made memories like few others. Good choice for a game to save. Very good choice.