On Sovereignty: Crown of Kings

For the last week I have been tangled up in the 35 nations that make up the world of Sovereignty; from the pirate nations of the Azure Isles, to the landlocked dark-elf nation of Sirucil, to the icy tundra of Jotland.
The world of Sovereignty. It does look a bit like a twisted version of Europe, and while there are tinges of several eras in there I certainly don’t remember the elves, dwarves, orcs, giants & undead from history lessons.

Most of my time, outside of trying out different nations to see how they varied, was spent in a long, winding campaign to unite the known world under one banner. A terrible march which saw my entire army turn over at least half a dozen times. That was as Jotland, the -frankly- Norse-tastic Northernmost nation. A band of delinquent raiders who reportedly never tasted civilisation under the -now declining- expansive Boruvian Empire.

Now, the game world -as you can see it in the above image- might seem somewhat small. The image, in this case, is very misleading – the world is split into 250 regions, each of which are classified by terrain type, resources they supply to the owner, and their own buildings/economy set-up. Some also give boosts to magic, while others have special landmarks which aid the owners, EX: an abyssal maw which consumes an invading unit per turn.

Each of the 35 nations have five campaigns, three which are identical for each, a specifically targeted one, and another which sees you setting out to destroy a culturally relevant rival nation. Each have their own starting locations and domains, they also have their own troop compositions; and while some nations do share the occasional piece of artwork for a unit, the total selections of units are unique. Because of the regions generating certain resources, there’s also always a reason to trade or war.

There’s also a magic system, wherein each nation slowly unlocks new spells which can alter ally and enemy on a garrison, regional or unit level – from healing a single unit, to making the region ‘float’ so that it can’t be attacked by grounded units. You can only cast one spell per turn, so it’s not a majorly game-changing system, although it is enough that it can change the tides of a battle, which can sometimes be enough to win a war.

Note: My world conquest was brought to its knees when the only remaining region, Highgate -of the Valegorn Palatinate, a nation who if you declare war on normally will sick the entire civilised world on you (so I left them until last)- continually had the Floating City spell cast on it. With no flying troops I was left to surround them, save, and turn off the game. We’ll pretend that I starved them out and started a new golden age for the continent, but I suspect it’s more likely that my Jottians died of sore necks and arms from shaking their fists at the floating kingdom in the heavens.

A normally diverse and varied political map, painted pink by the Jotland Empire.

The diplomatic mechanics behind the game feel like a solid groundwork, however lack finesse. Each of the nations have a relationship score with one-another, ranging from ‘swears when they hear your name’, to ‘laying out petals for you to walk across’. It’s managed with a simple score, which doesn’t really carry any justification (outside of what you can remember) as to why it’s resting at that number. If you’ve been buying a lot of beer from Hadrigel to build up your barbarian army then you’re probably going to find it easier to strike up an alliance. It feels a little shallow… because it is, but it does serve a purpose, so I can’t discredit it too much. What is a real shame though is the fact that you can’t even negotiate passage through realms – and you can’t take a kingdom in a defensive war without being painted as an ultra-villain.

Outside of trading with other nations you can also trade with the marketplace, which is presumably a caravan of sorts, which can be accessed through the resources UI button.  The resources/trade button actually opens up one of, what I found to be, the most useful menus in the game -and one I wish it had covered in its tutorials. The game world’s resources are all listed with their current marketplace value, marketplace stock, and the rate you’ll get for selling them. This fluctuates quite wildly during the game based around how well something is selling. Beer, which I was regularly snatching up, was understandably maintaining a high price due to low stock.

In addition to hosting the marketplace, there’s also a button which makes a drop-down menu showing who is in possession of the selected resource. This completely shortcuts navigating the drop-down menu in the diplomacy screen to view inventory; getting you straight to the negotiating table of those who had the item you wanted. It really puts the diplomacy screen, with it’s awkward, isolated diplomacy screen (think, a GUI away from this wonderful map which you have to negotiate through the various nations) away from the action.

Sovereignty, considering the ease to resort to war, seems to have been built around the trading system. Alongside the above mentioned ways to get down to trading there is also prompts when in the unit recruitment screen which lead you to the marketplace to buy the items you are missing for said unit. Buildings too, also require a mix of resources that you’ll probably not have immediate access to. There’s definitely something to the systems, even if they are sometimes held back by the tiny resource filters on the marketplace screen, or the nigh barren early-game marketplace. Those negatives are washed away by the demand for resources, and the fact that the game’s AI is actually willing to part with goods right up until they think you’re worse than dirt. In fact, the marketplace livens up as you’ve thrown your lot in with some nations and sacrificed your relationships with others – it’s almost a resource transfusion service after you’ve lasted long enough to be considered a danger by others.

The Resource menu, saviour of the economic strategy layer. A few years into the game you can see the marketplace is rife with goods, including the oft-demanded beer.

The military side of the game is equally interesting. It plays out in two forms, the first as an auto-battling, token-sliding affair played from the strategy layer with units of your composition facing up against opposition through several phases, and a hex-based tactical layer which can be opted into if you attach a hero to one of your units. Heroes are fleeting, and seem to appear after a set amount of time, they don’t affect the stack in any way other than opening up tactical combat as an option (at first), and offering a few spells, although they do gain more abilities as they level up.

Troops and armies are recruited on a unit-by-unit level, with up to twenty units forming a single stack. Units fall into one of  six categories: archers, cavalry, infantry, irregulars, naval units, and siege units. Many races are missing more than one of those category (only a couple have naval forces), however there’s normally about ten units available for each of the nations. In the case of Jotland these were mostly split across infantry and irregulars.

Each type of soldier has different stats, from ranged & melee attack & defence to resolve, as well as different abilities/skills, for instance some will fly while others will attempt to hit-and-run enemies scoring themselves a much longer life should they manage to put distance between themselves and the target after a direct hit. Of course, there’s a wide gap in the upkeep costs of units, as well as unit quantity restrictions on harder to come by units like ents & unicorns.

The strategy-layer battles, as I mentioned earlier, play out in phases which even on autopilot take a lot of the different stats and abilities into consideration. As combat starts the various attacking and defending units are drawn up onto two grids, with the units (and any defensive structures) deployed in a logical manner. I generally built my armies up to feature 10 Berzerker units and 10 bow units – in the strategy-level combat this would lead to a drawn front line of mentalists, and a back line of archers. Battle then plays out through stages, a few volley rounds where siege and archer units each get to take a shot at the opponents (this includes melee units which can attack ranged), before a frontline engagement, and then a brutal melee. Before any of these points you can order a retreat, which can be enough to salvage the core of your corp before they all become corpses.

It’s quite interesting to watch the battles play out with the auto-battles, although there is a speed-up button, which becomes quite useful when you’ve accidentally started a war to conquer every known land, or an AI happens to be attacking your enemy while in your line of sight.

Unit diversity is really good among the various nations, with my shock & rush tactics almost failing against bulky, tank units (like the Giants have), or factions better at ranged combat than I – like the Dwarves of Cor Vilaad, who kept attacking me alongside the Orcish Iron Banner.

Capturing a region for your own is a rather simple exercise, as might be expected, with you just needing to move an army onto an unoccupied area and then hold it until a turn-timer ticks down. As there’s no regional garrison outside of what you recruit, this does mean that if you stretch yourself thin you may find enemies sailing through your land while you’re not looking – there’s minimal pop-ups in the game, until the area is secured in their name, that is. That said, if you are aware of it then it’s very easy to recruit an army (most units only take a turn or two, and most annexations take 3+) and then simply place it in the nearest secure region.

A negative of this system is that if you leave a besieged area in any way then the siege ends and the enemy will immediately spawn more units in. It’s always odd when you decimate an area in a game and then it manages to field an army. That said, even if you leave just one soldier behind on the tile then it will maintain the occupation, meaning you can theoretically move 19 out of the 20 units onward in the invasion, and snake new units through piles to keep reinforcements flowing. Sadly the AI doesn’t think to make much use of similar tactics, and while sometimes it is smart enough to surprise attack you when you are stretched thin, at other times it falls short of the mark.

Finally, then, is the tactical combat. Nestled away in a game that feels built around stalemates & economy, and also reliant on you having a hero attached to your unit, the tactical combat is probably quite a surprise to players who skip the tutorial. Bearing in mind that the game is developed by The Lordz Game Studio (Warhammer 40K: Armageddon, Panzer Corps) it’s unsurprising that the game’s tactical combat is both hex and turn based – however, what is surprising is how well the various units translate to the battlefield.

Arguably the selection of fey, fantasy & medieval, and the balancing of the units, is one of the greatest accomplishments of the game, with several of my attacks culminating in massive battles against large hero units; my squishy units -who are normally used as skirmishers- trying to surround and fell a damage sponging beast.

It never felt boring and repetitive, with maps changing based on locations, and faction troop compositions (and defensive structures) also changing up.

Any Wargaming fan should be able to figure out what’s going on here, now imagine this with slingers, giants, dwarves, orcs, unicor…

The only real negative comes from the fact that the tactical battles are based around who holds control of the map (through annihilation, or scaring off,of foes) or, otherwise, who controls the city tiles on the map once a set amount of turns have ended. These win conditions are fine, and the map size never makes tile acquisition hard. What is wrong, however, is that the AI doesn’t seem to be aware of how to win.

Most of the time they’ll put up a damn good fight. Sometimes -however- it’ll run its units to the edges of the map, sometimes it’ll march them entirely towards the main body of your troops, so that you can dash a single cavalry unit (they move like the wind, and they -interestingly- do more damage the further they run) to capture all of the cities while your other units simply hold out. From a studio that has done a really good job with tactical AI in their other titles this is very odd.

As a final note, before the conclusion, I should add that I was quite enamoured with the game. As a matter of fact I was so tied up in the ‘one more turn’ cycle of my conquest that my first three sessions were only ended due to crash-to-desktops. I’m still unsure of what caused them, however my game-state was intact right up to the crash, so it was little more than a strange annoyance.

Sovereignty: Crown of Kings is, at its current state, somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades in the various genres it crosses, unfortunately that also means that it is a master of none – but as a package it is convincing and very engaging. Something else worth considering is the fact that the developers have been pushing major updates and overhauls to the game on a regular basis over the last few years (it launched from early access), and so it is worth a wishlist & follow over on Steam, if you’re even marginally interested in it.

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