The Orion Sector On
SPARTAN and GATES OF TROY
Before I got started with Spartan I also spent some time on its predecessors, Legion and Chariots of War. I really liked Legion, in many ways it rather nostalgically reminded me of when MOO1 was new to me. Although I didn't care for Chariots of War as much, it was still a decent game as well.
Yet it is still very easy to get into the game. Unlike some games where you have hundreds of options -- and often no clue what most of them do -- I liked the fact that you could simply get into the game and see what happens. You might later decide you didn't like that map or that tribe all that much, but if so, it was quite easy to just go back to the menu and pick a new map or a new ethnic group. The most complicated option on the entire setup system is the ability to select a tribe's starting position and victory conditions and then hit the "random" button until you get an ethnic group you want to play instead. This gives lots of options for interesting alternate-history scenarios for you to play out.
The UI I do feel is quite good. True the graphics aren't particularly flashy, but then they don't need to be. Their purpose is to display the information you need to track what your cities and armies and those of your rivals are doing, and they accomplish that. Almost any information I needed I found to be fairly easily accessible. In the few areas where things weren't completely obvious the manual usually picked up the slack. The only exception I found was that the in-game "Pedia" was not as easy to use as I would have liked.
The main screen I felt was very well laid out. Up top is an "empire status" section that gives your resource stockpiles and change per turn. The main map takes up most of the screen, it is where you do much of your manipulation of cities and units, and it gives lots of useful information in hover-tips. There is also a mini-map with huge capabilities that I also liked. I didn't notice all of the mini-map's features at first, but as I played more I noticed how it kept you informed of many bits of useful information, including key cities that you need to conquer to complete your tribe's victory conditions, locations of your units and some enemy units, and plenty more.
The user interface provided is fairly easy to understand. There is a slight learning curve to it, but most strategy gamers should be able to familiarize themselves with the interface quickly. Everything is clearly labeled, and all the information you need to run your empire is easily available. It is difficult to find fault in this department, and Troy provides a good example of how to do an interface right.
In order to build an empire in real life, you have to have the resources you need for building your support infrastructure. In Spartan it is no different. Like many other games of its type, you start with rather weak buildings that cannot support a large empire and must research newer technologies to obtain better buildings that can better improve your resource stockpiles.
Resource management is a key part of the game. If you don't have resources you better have a plan to seize some or you're toast. Many resources in the game are rather rare and can be hard to obtain, especially in the massive quantities you often need to fully modernize your empire. Often a main consideration of determining your expansion strategy is "who has what I need". Not a problem: if you hover over a resource icon on the main screen every city on the mini-map changes color, either black for "not available" or white for "available". Knowing where to find various resources on the map is a HUGE aid to determining your expansion strategy.
In addition you have constant access to a bazaar where you can sell your excesses and buy what you lack, though it can be quite expensive. You have to be careful not to sell all your excess resources, though, because some new condition is often right around the corner. You may find something you didn't need yesterday you suddenly need today and it's a lot more expensive to buy it back. Your harvest varies randomly year to year, so it always pays to keep a large stockpile of food because next year you might have a locust plague and not be able to farm at all for a full 12 turns! Plus many accurate historical events can fluctuate the supply of goods, you might gain (or lose) various resources based on what was really going on in those days.
Because resources are scattered around the map in what it supposed to be at least a semi-realistic representation of what was available in those days, some tribes have a very hard time obtaining certain resources. This is especially true for marble, but also gold, food, copper, horses, and iron can all be difficult to find. Most of the time the bazaar can help alleviate this but a few tribes are simply very weak. However, these tribes also have much lower standards of victory than the more powerful races. There are a few tribes I played where I felt the balance was just a bit too far off, but for the most part I think they did a pretty good job with this.
Resource management is one of the most important aspects of the game, and the economic portion is one of the gameís stronger aspects. Shortages in important resources such as food can cause your campaign to quickly grind to a halt, so it is important to manage them wisely. Certain rarer resources such as iron and marble are also important for building higher level buildings and units, and this does a nice job of creating strategically important cities.
Each city has certain resources available to it, and the player constructs buildings to harvest these resources. The number of buildings per city is limited, so the player is often faced with decisions on what resources are more critical to gather. Higher level resource buildings gather resources faster, with the building levels limited by the cityís resource availability.
There is also a market system you can use to buy resources you lack and sell surpluses. How much you can buy and sell each turn is limited by the size of your empire and the number of market buildings within it. A new market building with the increased buying and selling capacity can often prove more valuable to your empire than another resource gathering building.
Expanding Your Domain
In general, building a large stockpile of resources isn't all that satisfying in a game. It's often just a means to an end. In Spartan the next step is to build powerful armies and go take some of your rivals' cities for your own. Eventually you want to build enough of an empire that you win the game. Most tribes on the map can't win without expanding at least a small amount through conquest. While each tribe has different victory conditions, some of which aren't directly military in nature, even most of those still require you to develop a powerful empire to provide a base of support for your economic or civil goals.
Spartan and Troy both provide a large number of very period-realistic units. You have both light and heavy infantry, mostly various types of spearmen but there are occasional swordsmen in the mix for certain ethnic groups. You have light and heavy cavalry too, skirmishers, and for a few groups bowmen as well. From cheap astynomia which can help keep law and order in your cities but are good for little else, to powerful hoplites, companions (cavalry), even tribe-specific units like Spartaites and Triarii, and lots of other types of troops between those extremes, the mix of forces available to your people mimics the units available in the era. Each racial group can only recruit a small subset of the available units, and no one unit is completely dominant (though Triarii and Spartaites are quite tough). There is always a counter, however, so you have to learn how to mix your forces for the best effect possible.
Once you have built your army combat is rather simplistic. You can auto-calculate the battle, which will often heavily favor the defender, especially the defender of a city, and will usually cost you lots of troops no matter who wins, or you can take "partial" command yourself. By partial I mean that you do get to set your troops up and give them an overall strategy, but how well they stick to that strategy when the actual combat is carried out is out of your control. You can help your troops a small amount by blowing a "horn of victory" during combat, which if sounded at the right time can help prevent a unit or two from routing, saving you many casualties and sometimes even the entire battle. Plus you can "sound charge" and "sound retreat" to override all previous orders with "everybody charge the nearest enemy" or "everybody run away" if things look to need more drastic changes. But other than that, your primary strategizing occurs before the battle starts, so it is important for you to understand your troops capabilities and mix them appropriately to defeat the types of units your opponent is most likely to field. It is also very important to consider the terrain. Astynomia would probably never defeat Spartaites but they might defeat regular hoplites if the terrain and numbers are enough in their favor. If there are lots of woods around cavalry won't do as well, though they will still do OK, and heavy infantry units will have a very hard time maintaining their cohesion, which after their armor is one of their primary advantages. All of this is very period-realistic and although some of it took some getting used to I found in the end that I very much enjoyed the results. My only real complaint about the combat engine was that sometimes what shows on the screen looks a little too much like a big furball rather than actual battles between trained armies.
Good strategy for your forces can have a huge impact on the outcome of a battle. Let me give an example. In one campaign I played a Macedonian tribe and came under assault from an Athenian expedition. The first time I didn't realize he was going to attack me, I was expecting him to attack the Persians. After that I brought in my main "invader" army, which fortunately was not far away, to try to defend against him. The first time I played the combat I just let him attack me, in several previous games I had noted the large advantage given to the defender and I expected to win easily. Although my first autocalc said we had roughly equivalent forces, I was absolutely annihilated. I ended up playing the sequence of events several times, and learned a great deal about the combat engine of Spartan. The invasion force consisted of 8 "size 4" squads of rather powerful infantry. I could only build "size 1" squads -- both my empire and my technology level at that point were quite weak. But I quickly built up an army of 16 squads at the city that was about to be attacked, thinking that surely I had at least caused enough casualties that this time I would win on the defense of the city. Again I autocalced, expecting the defensive bonuses would be enough. I was wrong. I didn't yet know how much larger his squads were than mine. But after a few more reload attempts I was able to actually come up with a strategy such that the original forces that he so completely annihilated at first actually cleaned his clock with almost no units lost myself. I realized that autocalc should only be used when victory was truly guaranteed, and that good strategy can make a big difference in the final results.
As nice as the economic portion of the game is, its main purpose is going to be to fuel the expansion of your empire. Each city can build a basic unit determined by your culture, and military camps can be built to increase the types of units available. Improving your military buildings will also improve the quality of the troops that you can train in the city. The game takes a rock-paper-scissors approach to many units, with each unit being good at countering certain other types of units.
Maintaining a military is expensive, especially early game. Most of the time, you canít sustain more than one or two armies for conquering and small garrisons for each city. In addition to protecting against enemy countries, you also have to deal with barbarians that can randomly pop up anywhere on the map, so itís a good idea to have military units stationed in every city.
Battles take place in real time, where you set up the orders and unit placement before hand. After that, the actual battle is mostly just for show. You can sound a retreat, or a charge, or attempt to rally your troops, but in most battles you wonít want or need to do any of these. Although military actions are one of main focuses of the game, the tactical portion of the game is one of its weakest points.
Sometimes the best way to conquer your foe is to not have to fight him at all. While not always the case, there is a reasonably powerful diplomacy sub-game that can have large effect on who your enemies are. Sometimes this isn't so, all the kings horses and all the king's silver couldn't make the Lacedaemonians and Persians get along. Most of the time the Thracians and the Macedonians are going to end up fighting it out no matter what you do. Other historical rivalries return as well as historical friendships. This can have a big effect on just how much you can actually accomplish with diplomacy, but there are always possibilities even with a tribe that wasn't terribly popular. There's always somebody out there who can at least tolerate you, and from that you can sometimes build a friendship and maybe eventually an alliance. For example Sparta wasn't terribly popular in Greece proper, but the Lacedaemonians and Rome tend to get along pretty well in the game.
What you do militarily can also have an effect. If you invade a friend of theirs (or worse, an ally) a tribe is not going to be terribly happy towards you. Also if you have resources they feel they need, sometimes no matter how experienced your diplomat there is no overcoming their greed and jealousy.
But others can be influenced and this is the primary function of your diplomats. You don't have a very large supply of them, unfortunately, so you have to spend them wisely where they are truly needed or useful. Over time your diplomat will (very slowly) improve another tribe's opinion of you, but he can also perform missions to attempt to improve things faster. Some of these missions also gain you a favored trading status that makes your purchases on the open bazaar a bit cheaper, though unfortunately does not increase your sale prices and is very short term. There are also some spying missions and other interference missions he can attempt to perform that can disable or at least weaken your enemy, but usually these are only useful when an enemy doesn't hate you yet and you want them to start. Once they dislike you your diplomat won't usually get to stay in their territory long enough to perform any missions. Many of the missions carry a risk of failure, the penalty for which can simply be the loss of funds, lack of positive effect on relations, or sometimes even the worsening of relations or even the life of the diplomat! True to real-world conditions of the day, the life of a diplomat is not in the least bit sacrosant. In fact, sometimes the means of ejecting a diplomat can be the most valuable way to start a war, assuming that's what you wanted. Though you must be careful to avoid overuse of these tactics as other tribes will often dislike you a bit as well, you can definately provoke a rival you were planning on conquering anyway by sending their diplomat's head back on a platter. Of course, they can do the same to you, so keep a close eye on falling relations in a rival where your well-trained diplomat is visiting, or you may lose his services permanently.
Each empire gets a number of diplomats dependent on its size. You can send these diplomats to various other nations, which has the effect of slowly increasing that nations opinion of you. Each diplomat in a nation also increases that nations treasury, so itís a good idea to try to get as many other nations as you can to send diplomats to your own. Conversely, you often have to weigh the decision to improve your relations or conduct espionage and sabotage against the prospect of increasing an enemyís treasury.
Diplomats each have several missions available to them while they are stationed in a foreign country. These include missions to improve your relations, gain favored trading status, steal resources, locate military assets, destroy buildings, and more. The missions available depends on the diplomats level (which increases as they age) and the diplomatic buildings youíve built in your capital, if any. These buildings are accessed by researching the gold technology tree. Two types of buildings are available: spy and diplomacy buildings. Each game, you can only build one of those type at a time, and which path you choose has a huge effect on which missions are available.
Given time, if you can increase your relations with a country enough, you eventually receive the option to make them a puppet state, which is a form of diplomatic annexation. This costs a huge amount of cash to do, though the cost can be lowered by using a higher level diplomat. The cost for diploannexing any but the smallest nations is still usually unfeasible, even in the late game.
Spartan does have a tech tree, if a somewhat small and simplistic one. You can't just build whatever you want anywhere, you have to research the technology to unlock many of the upgrades to resource production facilities. There are also many buildings you cannot build at all without research.
However, it does take quite a long time to reach the highest tech levels in any field, as the research costs get quite high rather quickly. I cannot conceive of a winning strategy where the game would not be over before you can totally finish out the tech tree. The turtle/technocrat strategy simply is not the best strategy for this game, it might work sometimes but there are always better ways. However, technology can provide a large advantage to you if used properly, if you heavily emphasize the areas of technology most useful to your strategy. If your troops aren't particularly powerful on their own, perhaps a few armor upgrades from the iron tech tree would be a good choice. If you face an opponent who really likes archers, improving your troops sheilds may give you the edge you need to win. If your oponent and you are very evenly matched, researching larger squads might be enough to do the trick. And a tribe starting in rather poor farming territory may find one good city that they have to build up as an extreme breadbasket so they can feed their people and troops, this might force you spend a lot of time in the farming tree. Other times you need a mix of several tech trees, perhaps because you need the resources to sell so you can buy what you lack. All these and more are valid strategies that the various tribes may have to adopt at certain times.
The technology of this Spartan and Gates of Troy is fairly simple. It is set up into different paths, one for each type of resource. Each path has seven levels, and each level increases the maximum improvement of your resource gathering buildings for that appropriate resource. In addition, most levels of each path also make available other improvements. These can include better barracks that build higher quality troops, armories to increase your units stats, or many other types of new buildings.
The game allows you to split your research amongst each of the different paths to perform research simultaneously, but in practice this is usually a bad idea. There just isnít any good reason to split research, itís always more to the players advantage to focus all research in a single category until you gain a level there, and then switch to whatever you want next. Still, the technology isnít the focal point of the game, and what is there serves its purpose nicely.
Spartan is primarily a single-player game, though there is a multiplayer component. But even in a multiplayer game you will likely find yourself facing at least some (often lots) of AI empires that you must compete against. The AI is not the best I've ever seen, but it's not the worst by any means. It tends to play fairly weak on the easier levels, but when it gets the advantages of "very hard" and "impossible" it uses them to great effect, and these can provide you with quite a challenge, especially if you are playing an unpopular tribe.
Its main flaw -- in my opinion at least -- is that it's a bit too strongly married to the dictum of a good offense being the best defense. This dictum is true, but it predicates on the idea of being able to first use your offensive troops to defend against the attack and then turn around and effectively counter-attack. On the lower levels, however, the AI would not counter-attack often enough for my tastes, nor would it attempt to intercept my invading forces. On higher levels it was tough enough that I found it far wiser to try to avoid a war entirely unless I was prepared to take an enemy all the way out, if not I would find myself permanently stuck on the defensive and that would be all I wrote. Or in other words, if I wasn't sure I could finish it, I better not start it, and I better do everything I possibly could to prevent them from starting it as well. But the defense was still lacking even on the higher difficulties.
Another minor flaw was that the AI tended to build its invasion armies in the open, which could tell me a bit more than I should know about what might be shortly coming my way. I'd have prefered they left those in their cities until they were ready to move. Had those forces been garrisoned in a city they would have made it much harder -- at times maybe even impossible -- for me to conquer them. It seemed their cities were almost always under-defended, and in some ways that makes sense because you don't need to leave lots of troops in a city that isn't either on the verge of revolt or about to be attacked. Still, I would have prefered to have it be a bit tougher for me to conquer their cities.
The AI provided by Spartan is enough to provide a decent challenge when you first start playing, but the challenge fades rather soon as you get better at the game. Most of the difficulty comes at the beginning of the game, but once your empire starts gaining momentum the AI just isnít strong enough to stop you. The stand-alone expansion Gates of Troy does a lot to beef up the AI, making the AI more aggressive and the game pretty difficult at the harder levels, but it still suffers from some of the same intelligence issues that the Spartan AI does. Even though it plays better in the early and mid game, by late game it just isnít a serious threat anymore. This seems to be par for the course for most TBS games, so itís difficult to be to harsh on Slitherine for this.
Spartan contains extensive support for modding, giving many options to alter the game to your tastes. It is fairly simple, if not always very easy, to alter existing maps, units, buildings, technologies, sound and graphic files, etc. You can also create new ones of any of the above, including new maps. Although the tools provided are not very easy to use, they are effective and powerful, and very little about the game cannot be changed to suit your tastes. The map editor is especially clunky, but it gets the job done. The text files were quite extensive, with lots of options of things to tweak, and although the documentation in this area is a bit weak, there is still a lot you can do fairly easily and plnety more that can be done if you are willing to spend the time to figure it all out.
The Bottom Line
In summary, I really feel that Spartan and Troy are really good games. There are a few things I personally have tweaked in mods, but the basic game is really well done and a lot of fun. The lack of active control in combat is a bit of a disappointment, especially for people like me who really loved Lords of the Realm II back in the day. But the rest of the game I really liked, and I think that if you liked LotR 1/2, MOO1/2, GalCiv 1, Space Empires 2/3, or similar games you will probably really like Spartan. You may note that I'm consistently comparing Spartan to older games, and this is deliberate, as it doesn't quite have the feature list of newer items like GalCiv 2, Space Empires IV or V, etc. However, neither does it have the higher cost of newer titles, as both games retail for only $24.99 USD.
Spartan and Troy are both decent strategy titles, and a good buy at their current price. Though they have some problems, most players will probably be happy with the games and be able to extract many hours of fun out of them. For those deciding which to buy, the standalone expansion Gates of Troy offers a better AI, though there are fewer scenarios included, most of which are different from the ones that come with Spartan. Spartan has more scenarios, and its AI will still be able to challenge first timers. To get the full experience though, youíll need to get both, which gives you access to all the campaigns created for the game, and lets you play against Troyís improved AI on the original Spartan maps.
About the Reviewers
I've run this site since Leiavoia stepped down about two years ago now. My taste in games is pretty specific, I've played lots of other games and types of games, but my one true love is turn based strategy. Until recently I had never heard of Spartan or Troy (or their precursors Legion and Chariots of War), so I have no history with the series at all.
Pentium IV 2.4 Ghz
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