Review: Strategy and Tactics: Dark Ages10 Aug 2017 0
Review: Strategy and Tactics: Dark Ages
Released 04 Aug 2017
The Dark Ages is a popular, if misleading, title for the what is actually the Early Middle Ages - the period of time that is generally considered to start after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but is not quite considered the Middle Age "proper". The name and the myth was cooked up by Renaissance-types to discredit the age that followed their beloved Antiquity, and it's persisted through time to fuel call kinds of fanciful notions of the fall of civilisation. True to form, Strategy and Tactics: Dark Ages has an even shakier grasp on the whole thing.
The Fakelands represented in the game are really weird. You have early Middle Age nations (post-fantasy Carolingian empire) rubbing elbows and crossing swords with Hanseatic League’s landsknechts. Meanwhile, the League’s arquebusiers are mowing down rank after rank of... Akkadians? Wait, what are they doing here!?
The game is historical in the flimsiest sense, in that units appearing in the game may have been in service at some point in time (except for Black Company mercs, who are straight up fantasy murdermen). The whole warfighting aspect has also been abstracted to a great degree. Maps are separated into provinces, and an army can only move one per turn (unless it's an all cavalry). Most provinces provide some income to their holder, and their terrain influences performance of your units. Some provinces contain cities – the only places where heroes can raise armies. However, some tiles also let you to replenish your forces, too.
In terms of army building; Cities give you a selection of troops to purchase – how many of them you'll hire per turn depends on the money you have and your general. A great general will be able to lead 9 “squads” and hire 6 per turn, leading to greater ability to replenish your forces after disastrous battles. Meanwhile, a run of the mill general might only lead 7 and hire two or three. And that's it! Money is the only resource in game, each “squad” is bought instantly and no upkeep has to be paid. Mauled units can be replenished for money.
In battle, the army is separated into three sections: centre and two flanks. Those positions have a front and back row – cowardly militia love to cower in and cover the back. Better generals have more formation options, and those are important when you want to outmatch the enemy in battle. After all, you don't want to have the bulk of your army to target the enemy's empty flank, where they will spend one battle round doing not much else but marching into contact with the enemy.
Of course, some units work better when they are flanking. That's because each and every unit has some sort ability, whether its lowering of defence for archers or being more defensive when in the back row for all sorts of militia types. And units gain more abilities as they survive, gain experience and advance in rank – one of the new ones is usually some sort of substantial damage boost for the first round of battle.
All of those abilities have to trigger every turn, making noises and showing animations (units are only ever present as their unit cards, while generals’ cards don't fight – instead, they provide their ability bonuses and maluses). It's a good thing, then, that battles are automatic. If you are attacked, you best hope is that you have the right mix of units in a formation that matches the enemy. If you are attacking, you get to select formation – better generals have access to more – before you commit.
Watching battles is strictly optional -- mostly done to inspect the performance of units in the field -- and it can only be done after it happened. It makes the game go smoother, specially if two armies clash in a very slow, low power grinding match. You also don't need to suffer through all of those ability activations, which take up more time than actual attacks.
Other than that, units are pretty simple. They have strength stat (representing mans still left standing), which influences their attack and defense stats (a unit gets less powerful the more depleted it is). They also have a morale stat, which, all things being the same, goes lower every turn, only increasing through destroying enemy units. It's really hard to make the enemy force to just run away, but it is technically doable.
However, you'll care more about your dudes running away – if they don't get smashed. For you see, Strategy and Tactics: Dark Ages, a scenario based single player game, has a very simplistic approach to challenges. You start every scenario outnumbered and outgunned. Stacks that you can't even approach in strength roam the country, and you will have to play a very cunning defensive game to lure those stacks into battles they can't win and grind them down with sacrificial armies (no, you can’t do a combined, two army assault). The scenarios also love to spring random invasions on you, especially on your flanks or in your centre. The enemy will also have advantage in powerful units that you can't hire that are also at the top of their veterancy chain. So yeah, the early parts of scenarios in this game are basically replaying Barbarossa, and you're the Russians.
Other than that, scenarios require you to take certain cities or capture generals, but the loss conditions, especially when they're timed, are really annoying. It is kinda hard to go on the offensive when your first turn started with no money and you had to immediately retreat. However, when you're past the initial grind and the initial enemy stacks, you can kick back and take as many turns as you want to win.
This will make you fail some timed optional objectives, but those mostly matter to get points. Said points are then used to upgrade your units in the forge; a light infantry attack upgrade will boost attack across all of light infantry you will ever have in any army or scenario, for example. The points are also used to enter any great generals you might have hired in the scenario into the Pantheon, which is a pool of generals you can usually draw from when starting new scenarios. You will also need to unlock pantheon slots and you'll have the ability to buy slightly historical legendary generals for a great amount of points.
Gameplay aside, SnT:DA is an OK looking game. It did not try for 3D graphics, and it worked out in their favor. The maps look OK, the general cards are decent, and the unit cards don't look too bad either. The developers could have worked a bit more on selecting a better font for lore – and maybe hiring a better writer, too – but in the end, the game looks decent and runs quite smoothly.
Strategy and Tactics: Dark Ages is a bizarre, history-light game. The mishmash of cultures divided by both time and space is probably the most bewildering factor in the game. The transparent technique of crafting scenarios is a disappointment. All in all, considering the simplicity of its design, I could definitely see it as a mobile game, and on that platform, it would probably stand out a lot better.