It seems ages since I’ve played a good fantasy turn based strategy wargame. So many of them focus on 4X-style play, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The problem is, when you go to 4X, you have to devote so much game design to eXpanding, eXploring, eXploiting, and eXterminating that designing the wargame system well enough to make interesting battles becomes a very low priority.
Shattered Throne ignores all the 4X, and gets a nice payoff in terms of interesting battles. Unfortunately, the focus on “single battle” play makes it hard to spend a whole afternoon playing the game.
There are two ways to play, “single battle,” or the campaign, which is a sequence of single battles—nothing you do in any of the campaign battles carries over to the next, so it’s better to just view the campaign as a series of puzzle fights. A battle can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, although longer battles generally mean you screwed up.
For a battle, you first need to pick a leader (in the campaign, the leader is chosen for you, making the campaign only good for one play-through). Leaders come in three general army types (human, faerie, and undead), and also come with two special abilities. The latter can only be activated after killing enough enemy troops, and, used judiciously, can dramatically affect the battle. Each army type has a choice of three leaders, and they’re balanced enough, I suppose.
The armies themselves have an impressive array of unit types. For example, the humans half a dozen basic troops (light and heavy infantry/cavalry, and archers and healers), advanced troops (siege engines and angels), and a pair of naval units. The other army types have analogous troops (for example, the advanced units for the faerie are treants and gryphons), but each troop type has two or more special abilities that serve to further distinguish the armies, and units can gain more abilities as they gain experience through battle.
The battles, especially in the campaign, are really nice. 4X play leads to pretty lazy battles, tactically, since if you just focus on maximizing gathering resources and production, you don’t have to think much, just overwhelm your opponent every time.
Time and again I found myself losing a battle in Shattered Throne, not because the computer had an unfair advantage (hey, Sid Meier made a career out of giving the AI an unfair advantage in his games), but because I was lazy and stupid. I’d lose, then play the second time around without believing that I would just overwhelm the enemy through superior numbers, and the “impossible” battle became simple once I used a better strategy than just going in swinging hard.
While use of terrain and unit abilities are important, you also need to buy the right units for the right scenario. You also need to concentrate your attacks, and, while this is the game’s premise, it’s also a bit of a weakness.
The basic way how combat works is your unit attacks the enemy unit, and the enemy possibly counterattacks. Each consecutive attack, past the first, will generate bonus damage, and weaken the counterattack (subject to special abilities, of course). If you do anything besides string attacks, you lose all bonuses.
While “concentrate fire” is the premise of the game, there are two flaws here. The first is the “lose all bonuses” penalty if you do anything else, like move or attack another unit. Time and again I’d set up a big kill, then go “oops, I forgot to move the transport first,” and lose it all. There’s an “undo” move so you can backtrack (I should mention the game is completely deterministic, there are no random effects like damage or whatever)…but it’s inconvenient to backtrack over and over again just to get around this pointless, arbitrary, penalty.
The second issue is “concentrate fire” is a key strategy to just about every other wargame. I’m hard pressed to even think of a game where focusing on one enemy, finishing it off, then move to the next isn’t a core winning strategy. Don’t get me wrong, Shattered Throne does bring some good ideas to the table, I’m just disappointed: I wish the game didn’t merely reinforce what is already a good strategy. It’s like being given a new version of Monopoly, where the winning strategy in the new version is to “get monopolies, build hotels, and bankrupt everyone else,” as opposed to how you win in the “old” Monopoly.
While the core of the game is warfare, there is a bit of expand and exploit here—many maps have villages, which you can capture and then upgrade into cities, forts, or whatever else, depending on your needs. There’s plenty of depth for what, on the surface, looks like a simple little game.
The AI plays a good game, it’s possible to play against another human and there’s even an editor to make your own scenarios, although there are a few rough edges here. Most glaring is the lack of a “next unit” button. If you try to end your turn without activating all your units, you’ll get a warning…I found myself peering at the map quite often, looking for that one unit I forgot to move (if I could move units when I feel like it, instead of being forced to adhere to “concentrate fire” so rigidly, it probably wouldn’t happen so often).
I have quibbles here, but overall I have to be pleased with a game that actually made me think about what I was doing, and exploited my mistakes both mercilessly and fairly. Fans of strategy games looking for an interesting, albeit quick, fix, should check out Shattered Throne.
Overall Rating: 83.