As history has shown, conquering an entire continent is no easy task. Ambitious rulers of many kinds have tried, but most fail for one reason or another. In Knights of Honor you get to give it a go in Europe, at a time when men truly were men: the medieval ages. To become the Emperor of Europe you have quite a few means at your disposal. Some may want to follow a strictly military approach. Some may want to use diplomacy and have other countries fight against each other, or perhaps you want to use spies for the ultimate surprise attack. In other words, if you're European and the country you're born in has an old grudge against another country then this is the game to get!
Knights of Honor doesn't really follow a strict storyline like many other strategy games, instead you have the option of starting the very dynamic main campaign, or jump into a quick battle. In the quick battle mode you and your enemy are given quite large and quite different armies, both of which are balanced in terms of units and geography. You may fight to attack or defend a castle, or face your opponent on an otherwise "empty" battlefield but more on battle mechanics later.
In the main campaign you start by choosing what period you'd like to play in early medieval (around 1000AD), high medieval (around 1200AD), or late medieval (around 1350AD). During the early medieval age you have 47 provinces to choose from, such as Pamplona, England, Wessex, Norway, and Highlands. In the high medieval age you have 53 provinces, like Sicily, Golden Horde, Kiev, and Cyprus. Finally, in the late medieval age you have no less than 60 provinces, such as Munster, Athens, Teutonic Order, and Sweden. Some of these "countries" may be relatively tiny from today's standard, but each has a fair shot at dominating everyone else, because each starts with a different number of buildings, with different friends and foes, and so on. In other words, starting with the largest country may not necessarily be the easiest. To win the game you either have to conquer all provinces try to claim the title of Ultimate Emperor and have other candidates vote for you, but winning is far from easy!
The gameplay can essentially be split into two modes, the strategic mode where you administer your country, your military power, your royal family, your finances, politics, and so on. The other mode is when you've engaged in battle and decided to take the lead yourself. I'll tell you about both.
Let's say you've chosen to play as Norway in the early medieval age. As some of you may know Norway wasn't a very rich country at this time, but it did have those ruthless Vikings, and a healthy dose of fish. When you've started the game you normally only have a few major towns at your disposal, along with various villages that help you accumulate food and other necessities. Each town can, and should have a ruler, and a marshal to lead the town's military forces. This brings in the concept of the Royal Court. At the top of the window you have a bar that can display up to nine important people. Each is assigned to a certain job, such as being a marshal, a spy, a landlord, or even an imprisoned enemy leader. With only nine spots available you have to be careful whom you assign where, and you also have to be careful to not spend your entire budget paying the knights you've hired. Fortunately, if you assign members of your royal family to the Royal Court you won't have to pay a dime, but should they be killed in a battle then you're in for some long-term trouble. The royal family will of course age like everyone else, so eventually you'll have to deal with new, inexperienced generations.
To improve your towns you need to construct new buildings. Each town normally has one or more special features, such as having a lot of fish nearby, or maybe fertile soil. This is important because it lets you construct buildings that'll give you resources you can use for trading; another important aspect of the game. Along with civilian buildings you have military buildings that unlock for instance swordfighters, mounted warriors, armored warriors, and so on. Finally you have special buildings that normally require various smaller buildings, but will naturally pay you back by giving you especially useful bonuses. These bonuses may be additional workers to all cities, extra food production, extra protection from siege attacks, and quite a few other things.
Knights of Honor has three main resources that you need to watch gold, piety and books. Gold should be self explanatory, but piety is used to improve happiness and perform some of the more special actions. Books are mainly used to educate and thus improve units.
The military aspect is very interesting, although it may lack a bit of depth here and there when compared to other games of the genre. When you assign a person to be the marshal for a town you can start purchasing units for your army. At first you can only train simple peasants, but as you build more and more military buildings you unlock new and more powerful units. In some cases the marshal also needs to have certain skills unlocked before you can build for instance ballista and other siege weapons. When you're happy with your army you can choose to move out of the town and head out. Playing as Norway you may want to liberate Oslo from the Danish, in which case you'd probably start by attacking settlements first, in an attempt to stop their food production. After a battle, successful or not, your marshal will have earned a certain amount of experience points. When you've earned enough you can spend it on new skills, much like in Warcraft 3. These can be chosen from a somewhat long list, and may give you morale boosts, improved speed, attack bonuses, and more.
After pillaging the villages you'll see that Oslo is quickly running out of food. This is useful to us because if Oslo runs out of food after we start attacking it the enemy's fighting capacity will be greatly reduced. As I mentioned earlier you can often choose whether you'd like the AI to handle the fighting, or if you want to take the lead yourself. If you went with the latter then you'll hop into the battle mode where you see the battlefield, your own forces, in this case a heap of buildings and fortifications, and of course the enemy forces. Geography plays a role, but not as much as flanking, using the optimal formation, and using the "right" kind of soldiers in a given situation. Those who know Sun Tzu's Art of War by heart should be able to use some of the old general's tips, but compared to for instance Medieval: Total War (or more recently Rome: Total War), it feels a bit less realistic and that's in terms of gameplay.
The diplomatic aspect of the game makes thing more interesting than your average military strategy game. You may for instance offer a trade agreement, a non-aggression agreement, an alliance, or maybe even a royal wedding. You can demand that a country attacks another country, something you'll find considerably easier if you've managed to form an alliance. You can offer peace treaties in exchange for gold, provinces, and even the hand of a princess. It's quite fun to manipulate countries, but remember that things go both ways. Using spies can also give you the results you want. A spy will do his best to be accepted as a knight in the country you've chosen. When this is done you can order him to dig for juicy information, try to have soldiers rebel against their leaders, or even try to assassinate the king. The chance of success depends on various factors, and like most important units in the game even spies can be educated and improved.
In terms of graphics it's not exactly amazing, but it serves its purpose for the most part. The strategic mode doesn't take too long to learn and the interface feels good in most cases. After spending a couple of hours with it you'll normally know where most of the things are, but to me it seems like it's missing a little depth. Micro management isn't always positive though, so perhaps it's for the better that we don't have to deal much with village management and such.
The Total War series of games is great in many ways; one being that during battles it's fairly easy to see exactly who's where, and what they're doing. The geography also makes sense because it's rendered in 3d. Knights of Honor, a 2d game, isn't exactly on par but it's not too shabby. The 2d artwork is very nicely drawn, with emphasis on the scenery. It can be a little confusing to discern what units you're dealing with, because they're both small and love to clutter your screen in the middle of a battle.
The audio is also perfectly okay. Though it may not have a huge musical score or particularly localized voice-overs, the overall quality is good and it rarely sounds repetitive. It could've been nice to at least have a few accents, but it's not really a big deal.
Multiplayer is interesting too, and it actually lets you play in a few ways that you otherwise couldn't. You can play online using Gamespy, normal TCP/IP, or on a LAN. Up to six players (3 versus 3, etc) can play against each other on the following modes: Open Battlefield, Town Assault, King of Towers, and Historical Battle (Hastings 1066, Lake Peipus 1242, Lechfeld 955, and three others).
There are many excellent candidates if you're after a new strategy game. Those interested in historical battles have had a few awesome ones to choose from, and Knights of Honor ought to be one to look out for as well. It may not be as pretty and as rich sounding as Rome: Total War, but if you want one very extensive game with lots and lots of replay value then give Knights of Honor a try. It doesn't redefine the genre, but I firmly believe that strategy connoisseurs will enjoy it.