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Kohan Is The Game Most Worth Saving From 2001

Saved Games: a retrospective series.

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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.

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