Hidden within the shadow of more famous contemporaries such as Age of Empires and the Civilization series, the Seven Kingdoms games have eked out a humble existence by straddling the line between combat-based RTS and economy-based management sims. In a nutshell, Seven Kingdoms 2 is the computer game equivalent of an identity crisis — without the annoying teenage angst.
SK2 is a strategy-slash-economy-management thingie that has the player striving to rule over everything forever with one of seven historical empires (well, twelve, but one can overlook that small detail). Like its predecessor, it throws away the classic “build lots of units and hit the enemy with them really hard” paradigm of most RTS titles: here, players are offered additional depth in the form of population attitudes, espionage, trade, and diplomacy. Combat units (including, at times, gods and heroes) become a component of your economy and expansion, and often don’t need to be called to battle at all if you can wangle a treaty with your opponents. Independent cities and populations are wooed with money or inspiring leadership, rather than violence.
And yet the game can be very rough-and-tumble, too, particularly if you play against (or for) the clans of mythical monsters known as the Fryhtans. Their proficiencies include looting, pillaging, and being overall rotten diplomats, steering the game inexorably towards conventional, combat-oriented strategy.
This war with the Fryhtans is the premise of the game’s campaign mode, which is a province-based, randomly-generated set of scenarios that focus on providing unique playthroughs rather than a preset story. Players are challenged in a variety of ways: some situations require defending a province from Fryhtan raids using limited troops. Others set you on quests of exploration, or require you to assassinate rival leaders. Some events need you to build and maintain a high economy rating, or train a platoon of skilled soldiers.
This game’s versatility is great, but can also serve as a drawback. While the idea itself is admirable (and pulled off pretty well) some players may be frustrated by the way that the variable playing styles are actually enforced: those who are intrigued by the economic system may find themselves thrust into mad and bloody sorties with Fryhtans far too often, while military buffs will lament scenarios which require peacefully building up and maintaining an empire over the course of several years. Indeed, it often turns out that random scenarios and skirmish modes are far superior to the campaign because they tend to allow players to go through the game in their own style.
Seven Kingdoms is an oft-overlooked gem. It may come across as odd, and may even be frustrating to start with. But if you persevere just a little, you’ll find a rich and versatile strategy experience which has something for everyone, and doesn’t shy away from the concept of being unique and interesting.