by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
You’re not crazy
If you are staring at Grand Ages: Medieval’s classification as a Grand Strategy game on its Steam page, some mild confusion would be perfectly understandable. Let me set you straight: you’re not crazy, the game is not mislabeled, and it really is the grand strategy game that Steam says it is. Its only relation with the previous Grand Ages games are the name and a historical setting.
But don’t let that deter you from picking up a very enjoyable game.
If anything, Grand Ages: Medieval has more in common with Kalypso’s trade empire games Patrician and Port Royale. Chances are, though, that this kinship does not seep through to your brain until after you have spent a few hours playing the game, all the while experiencing a mild sense of déjà vu.
Grand Ages: Medieval is set in Europe and the Middle East during the High Middle Ages. You control a small town in a region of your choice and use it as a springboard to launch your campaign to rule the known world. It does not take long to figure out that in this game, it is not the sword but trade that is your most powerful tool to achieve your goals. Trade generates income, fuels the growth of your cities, and with that your ability to raise an army and wage war. Base goods like wood and coal aren’t going to cut it, though. You’ll need to work your way through the production chain; take the coal to a town that produces Metal Wares and take those to a town that uses it to manufacture high-value luxury goods.
And with the right goods, trade acts as a catalyst for friendship. When combined with gold, it is friendship that opens more doors than you would initially think could exist in a game of conquest. But make no mistake: conquest - is - the objective here. It’s just not always conquest by the sword. Scouts can be sent out to find new lands to be explored and settle, neighbors to interact with and spot thugs that are threatening to rob your traders of their hard-earned gold and valuable goods.
What’s yours should be mine
As your civilization expands its borders, you’ll soon start rubbing up against the borders of others and this is where things get interesting. Conquest by sword may at first appear to be the most straightforward way of taking over other cities. You send in your knights, archers and spearmen, defeat any defenders and lay siege to a now suffering town. With no trade goods coming in, the mood in the city grows dim and the will to fight your men dwindles as a result. But their mood is not the only mood to be potentially shaky; all military units will draw resources from the town nearest to their location. If the town cannot provide, your army will lose heart and withdraw, giving a great boost to the moral of besieged town.
It’s a smart and natural way of dealing with huge empires that have large standing armies that could potentially overrun smaller empires at a speed which is simply not all that much fun as a game. To be successful, you will need to plan ahead, build up a town close to your intended target and make sure it is large enough to support your expansion efforts.
However, if you are looking for a deep combat system here, you’ll be hard-pressed to find it. Commanding your armies involves little more than sending units to besiege a town or to intercept an army and monitor progress so that you can pull heavily wounded units out of the fray of battle before they collapse.
I would like what’s yours to be mine?
So the straightforward way may not always be the best way. Sometimes a little elbow grease and a well-positioned bribe will do just nicely. This is especially true when you are either at a military disadvantage or simply don’t fancy a war with a close ally whose town you… fancy.
With the right approach, you can almost literally charm your competitors into handing over the keys to their towns. First you suck up to the locals by sending your traders over with the goods they are craving the most. Next you bribe the town’s owner into liking you and, finally, you close the deal by offering him a large sum of money to transfer ownership to you.
A larger town means bigger bribes and a lengthier courting period with its citizens. A large town is obviously well cared for – otherwise it would have stayed small – and it may be a challenge to bring goods that will actually make the population happy and like you more. The lump sum to seal the deal increases exponentially and it’s not unheard of to pay several million. It is definitely not a cheap way of conquering Europe but it is certainly nice to have options, right?
It big, it very big
Whether you choose to go the peaceful route or the bloody one, winning this game involves generous quantities of time and planning. Not a single one of my hasty attempts to take over a town has been successful. My carefully planned attempts on the other hand, all worked out brilliantly. Because of this, Grand Ages: Medieval is also a very long game. The campaign map is absolutely huge and conquering it all is a matter of weeks, not days. The AI players are adept expansionists and will fill up the map quickly, meaning you will have to fight or bribe your way through a significant amount of towns. To give you smaller pieces to work towards, the map is divided into regions which you get to call yours when the majority of its lands are under your control.
None of your plans will work without a well-oiled trading machine. The larger towns won’t be wowed by trading them grain and animal hides – unless of course these are in high demand and low supply. More likely, they will want luxury goods of one type or another and you will need to produce these in your settlements. Your own citizens will be your foremost customers for anything that you produce as they too strive for ever more prosperity and growth. No town is able to produce every type of good, so as in Patrician, you will have to cart both base goods and finished products around your empire.
And now we’re back to the link with Patrician and déjà vu. Trade is at the heart of both, as is setting up large and sustainable economies. Pirate hideouts have been replaced by robber hideouts and the role of sea lanes is supplanted by intricate networks of upgradeable roads. Traders do not sail ships but use carts to hawk their goods in towns. But where Patrician’s end goal was to become the fattest trader of the lot, your goal in Grand Ages is to become the most powerful ruler. Many of the gameplay mechanics are the same or at least similar but the difference is big enough that the experience has some familiar aspects yet is totally different.
Grand Strategy it is
The brilliance behind Grand Ages: Medieval’s unique blend of grand strategy, trading and diplomacy takes a while to sink in. Building a sea trading empire immediately sparks the imagination, especially in someone born in a nation with as rich a seafaring history as the Dutch. Tall ships just aren’t that easily replaced by trading carts. Yet I realized as my empire grew that I became ever more involved in the game. It reached new heights when I shared borders with three other players and I had no way left to expand organically. It was then that my brain went into overdrive, seeing possibilities as well as the dangers. It turned out that all three bordering empires had allied each other. I had been sleeping while they forged bonds behind my back. How could I expand if I could not single out a target for my overly large army that was draining my cash reserves as fast as they replenished? It became an intricate puzzle just begging to be unraveled, which started with tearing at the fabric of the - for me - unfavorable alliance. The game had me right there, and did not let go.
Must be witchery
Grand Ages: Medieval rewards strategists, people who like to plan ahead and like to take time to sit back and oversee the big picture before deciding what to do next. Micromanagement is not required, just encouraged, and optimizing town wealth, output and growth through trade can be a fun challenge all by itself.
Yet somehow the team at Gaming Minds have managed to keep the game surprisingly fast-paced. I cannot put my finger on how they have done it, it all just… flows very well. I blame witchery myself. It is that pace and flow that opens up Grand Ages: Medieval, not just to patient thinkers but also to would-be conquerors, with a little less leniency towards deep strategy. Approved for rulers of all tendencies.
Fast-paced yet deep
You'll forget to take nourishment