In November 2019, I was listening to podcasts in my car, and I was catching up on Three Moves Ahead, a fantastic podcast about strategy games. There was a 2012 episode in which the Kohan series was discussed, and it intrigued me.
I knew Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns was an older real-time strategy game, released in 2001 and ported to Linux-based systems by Loki, but I had a hard time finding a way to buy it to play on my Ubuntu system in 2019. It was only available on Steam if I didn’t want to try to get an old copy on eBay or something like that.
I don’t normally play Steam games when non-DRM versions of games exist, but as I really wanted to experience Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns myself, I will say that Valve’s Proton, a fork of WINE, made the game work seamlessly on my system. I mean, periodically it will crash inexplicably, losing progress on a mission I finished, but when it doesn’t crash, it runs seamlessly.
Well, mostly. Apparently any screenshots I took are missing, and I managed to get to a mission that I can’t start because the game crashes when I try, but by then I think I got a good sense of the flavor that the single-player campaign provides.
Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns did some interesting things differently from other RTSes of its time. I am not going to pretend to be an expert on strategy games of that era, though. Around that time I had just discovered PC gaming as a colleague introduced me to Total Annihilation, and I eventually found myself playing Starcraft with coworkers at the help desk I worked at. I eventually played one of my favorite games Original War, and I fell in love with Homeworld: Cataclysm. All this is to say that my experience with strategy games in general is fairly limited, and so I am trying to play catch up by playing older games.
In this case, I wanted to see for myself what the Three Moves Ahead panel described as an “evolutionary dead end” for strategy game innovations which somehow also has influence on future games such as Company of Heroes.
- The voice acting is kind of awful.
- The enemy AI is not only putting up a fight but kicking my butt.
- Oh, I don’t create individual units, I create companies? Interesting.
- The economy is a bit confusing.
- The dragon looks awesome!
- Oh, geez, run away from the dragon!
- Oh, geez, the dragon is giving chase quite beyond where I expected it to run!
- HOLY COW THE DRAGON’S FIRE-BREATHING ATTACK HAS A HUUUUUGE RANGE!
- Ok, wait, so I just tech up to grenadiers and mow down my enemies?
- Why are my unstoppable grenadiers getting decimated so easily by the enemy all of a sudden?
I had a really cool screenshot involving a dragon just incinerating entire companies, but I can’t find it now. You’ll have to take my word for it.
So what makes Kohan special?
Let’s start with companies. You don’t create individual units like you would in Starcraft or Total Annihilation. You create an entire company of units at once by assigning a set of units to the front line and two support units. Each company has a captain, who can be some generic anonymous person or a Kohan, one of the immortal sovereigns who have amnesia in the campaign’s story but still insist on leading people to war.
What might not be obvious is that an individual unit is more like a symbol of recruited soldiers. If you lose units to battle but at least one member of the company survives, you can resupply and eventually get back your full company. The only exception is that the death of a Kohan in battle turns them into a medallion you can activate for 50 gold back in town. What this means is that if the company somehow survived while the Kohan died, it now has a generic captain in charge, and you can resurrect your Kohan to lead a different company.
Which brings us to the concept of Zones. Each zone could have its visibility on the map toggled on or off.
Companies have a Zone of Control, which I always left visible because when ZoCs overlap with enemies, a battle ensues. You don’t micromanage the battle, as the units fight on their own. It’s actually very enjoyable to watch since the 2D artwork and animation is gorgeous. The only things you can do to influence a company in battle are flee to a specified location or flee in whatever direction your company captain randomly decides to go. There were multiple formations you can put your company in, and each influences the ZoC. The terrain also did so, although I never understood why desert terrain would shrink instead of expand your ZoC.
Your settlements aren’t just places where you can invest in upgrades or create your companies. If your company has hurt or killed units, being within the Zone of Supply will heal them.
There is also the Zone of Population, but that mainly shows where you already have influence and where you can’t build settlements. I almost never paid attention to it since I never built settlements.
Extending your Zone of Supply is actually a key strategic point of the game, one that the AI knows how to handle well. If you start to send your armies against your enemies but don’t build settlements and outposts along the way, your companies will have a long retreat each time they need to heal up. Instead, I’ve found success in some tough missions involved leapfrogging ahead with soldiers to fight off enemies while my engineers built an outpost, which extends the range of my domain’s Zone of Supply. As a bonus, those outposts field their own guards, which means I don’t necessarily need to worry about using one of my precious companies to play defense. Then my advancing armies can retreat a bit to heal up and ready for the next wave of attack.
If you leave a company idle, it eventually fortifies its position, which increases its defensive bonus. It can often tilt the tide of battle, especially if the enemy is making its way towards your capital city and you need time to create a new company to fend them off.
Other bonuses come from attacking or defending from certain terrain, so an entrenched company in the forest will have a much easier time defending against an attack than a moving company marching through the open plains.
When a company’s Zone of Control overlaps with an enemy building, a siege occurs. The building’s guards appear automatically, and the battle ensues. When a building is under siege, it can’t upgrade or build companies, and the Zone of Supply for that building is disabled for the length of the battle, which is another reason to have outposts nearby.
The economy is interesting. I understand when I’m short on wood or iron that it prevents me from creating a company, but at some point even though the number is negative I apparently produce enough gold to pay for it anyway? I think it makes sense, and fans seem to love it, but it was hard to know what caused deficits in certain resources (was it the fact that I have too may outposts or companies which require maintenance/upkeep costs?). I never felt like I knew exactly what to do to make the economy go a certain direction. I basically invested in making enough gold that it covered everything and hope I did it right.
The individual units and makeup of companies has some intricacy I didn’t see initially. I found cavalry to be frustratingly weak, but they did allow me to explore the map much more quickly. I thought that grenadiers were both very strong and very armored, and creating a company of them was an “I Win” button. Eventually I learned that there is a bit more of an elaborate rock-paper-scissors mechanic, and I found battles were more likely to be won if I had a combination of archers, pikemen, and others fighting together. Unfortunately, much like the economy’s complexity, I didn’t feel like I understood exactly what did well against what.
Diplomacy between factions you meet on any given map looks like it should be more intricate, but other than one map in which I tried to bribe someone into liking me, I didn’t see it used as anything but a status indicator. Yep, that enemy is at war with me. That ally is not. Maybe there was more planned for this feature?
I haven’t played multiplayer, but I imagine it is potentially a different game?
The battles are enjoyable to watch, especially when magicians attack each other with explosive fireballs and demons expire by going back to wherever they came from. Since you don’t control individual units and the companies fight on their own, you are free to work at a higher level of strategy. I found the focus on Zones and their interactions made the game both manageable and enjoyably complex. I really, really liked the dragons, even though they were an optional part of any map they were on and didn’t play much of a role other than as a provider of a danger zone and a potential reward if you decide to take them on. I wish I understood the economy and the unit interactions better, and unfortunately it is difficult to find any guides or tips online that might shed some light on these key things.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time with Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns, and I wish it was more stable to play so I could finish the campaign. I also want to play games such as Company of Heroes to see where some of these interesting ideas went, but I think I’ll play the rest of the games in the Kohan Warchest first.