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Seven Kingdoms is an real-time strategy game with the focus on empire building through diplomacy, trade, espionage, and/or conquest. Imagine Lord of the Realms combined with Civilization, all in real-time, with even more features. With the horde of real-time strategy games hitting the market, I am glad to see such diversity and excellence. If you are like me, you play and enjoy a wide variety of games. With limited funds, you are forced to pick and choose based on quality and gameplay aspects. This holiday season the decision is going to be difficult.

Seven Kingdoms has several levels of depth in gameplay. You start the game with a village, a fort, and a king. The village is the source of your most precious resources-peasants. You can train peasants in construction, leadership (soldiers), mining, manufacturing, research, and spying. Each peasant has a skill level (10-100), and any peasant can learn skills simply by doing. The advantage to training peasants is they start at level 20 in their chosen skill, and skilled peasants can train other peasants faster. This experience system represents one of the few unit upgrade systems that I have ever enjoyed.

The first order of business is to get a small kingdom going. It is usually smart to train some peasants in leadership, and send them to the fort to begin training with the king. This provides first level defense against overly aggressive neighbors. Next, you have to get the economy going. To accomplish this, you build a mine to harvest resources, a factory to produce finished products, and a market to sell and trade resources, finished products, or both.

In Seven Kingdoms, placing buildings in close proximity to each other "links" them, so they can work together. This allows peasants to automatically transfer from the village to workplaces, and allows supplies to be transferred freely from one site to another. For example, the mine, factory, and market all need to be close to the village for labor purposes. The market also needs to be close to the village to sell goods to the peasants. The mine needs to be linked to the factory to automatically transfer raw material. Otherwise, you must dedicate a caravan to haul goods for you. Similarly, a factory needs to be linked to the market to automatically transfer finished products to the market. Villages are limited to 60 units, i.e. peasants or their derivatives, thus you do not want to needless waste peasants on activities that are normally free.

Once you have the local economy up and running, you can start looking at the big picture. Depending on your strategy and the disposition of your opponent (computer or human), you may make trade treaties. This allows you to transport goods to foreign markets, and puchase goods from them as well, which helps bring up the bottom line pretty fast. You may form alliances which prohibit two kingdoms from attacking each other without declaring war.

Espionage offers a wealth of gameplay opportunities. You may send spies to infiltrate the enemy villages. Spies may get transferred along with villagers to village jobs, which increase their usefulness. Spies can sow dissent, conduct sabotage, recruit new agents, steal information, capture enemy buildings, assassinate generals or kings, or may serve as "sleeper agents". The great thing about espionage is that its implementation is mostly random. Since spies can only infiltrate villages, where they end up working within the enemy village is largely left to chance. A spy that is trained by the enemy in leadership could potentially end up being a general or in the most remote chance succeed to the throne.

Since the village only supports 60 units, in order to grow you must absorb other villages. There are a few ways to accomplish this: settling, taking over, or absorbing. You can send some of your peasants out to settle a new village, or you can attack and take over enemy villages. Independent villages may have a peasant population composed of any of the seven nationalities in the game. Peasants of your own nationality are more disposed to your rule, but you can still sway a population by posting a general of their nationality in the fort. To absorb a village you need to build and garrison a fort linked to the village, send in a spy to break down resistance of the villagers, and grant the villagers money.

If all this sounds simple, it is. However, at this point is when things start getting interesting. Every unit has a loyalty rating, including villages and peasants. Everything affects loyalty. If the king or general and the garrison leave the fort for combat, loyalty goes down. Recruit too many peasants or overtax them, loyalty decreases. Granting your peasants money, honoring or promoting your troops, and raising your kingdom’s prestige all raise loyalty. You also need to leave enough peasants in a village to farm food for your subjects. One peasant produces enough food for three subjects.

There are a few higher level buildings you can construct. A war factory allows you to research and build several types of weapons including catapults, ballistae, cannons, spitfire, and porcupines. Each of these weapons has three levels that can be researched to increase damage output and hit points. An inn attracts skilled mercenaries that you can hire. I like to hire skilled soldiers of other nationalities, promote them to general, and send them to man forts in villages with the same nationality. This increases the chances of absorbing an independent village. A harbor allows you to build traders, transports, caravels, and galleons. Ships open up new transport and trade possibilities, and offer a new plateau for combat.

Finally, there are Fryant Lairs on the maps. Fryants are monsters with their own AI that act depending on the game settings. These guys may stay in their lairs or pillage the countryside. Destroying Fryant Lairs yields gold, more prestige for your kingdom, and a scroll of power. With a scroll of power, you can build a Seat of Power. Then, you staff this building with peasants who pray to summon a greater being. There is a different greater being for each of the seven nationalities. These beings are immune to mortal weapons and wreak havoc on the enemy. Summoning one of these guys is definitely a goal for the expansionist.

Gameplay in Seven Kingdoms is complex and addictive, and presented on an easy to use interface. The graphics are not 16-bit high color, but are good 800 x 600 x 256 colors. Different nationalities are distinguished from one another by their headgear and weapons. Units hack at each other and shoot arrows. Weather effects like rain and snow look like lines streaking down the screen rather than falling to the map, but the lightning effects are cool and will surprise you the first time. The sound effects are so normal you almost don’t even notice them. There are normal unit sounds and battles sounds, but these pretty much run together. There are also different music tracks provided for each nationality.

The interface is easy to pick up and use. There are eight scrolls in the bar at the top of the screen which allow you to view and manage several types of information or tasks. These include the kingdom, village, economy, trade, military, technology, espionage, and ranking scrolls. Next to these is a quick summation of your kingdom’s status including food supplies, money, prestige, and the date. On the right side of the screen is a minimap and unit information. Click on a building or unit and its information pops up here. You can select units and right-click the map to autotask them, in a way similar to Warcraft II, or you can select the appropriate task button and left-click the map. Recent news pops up at the bottom of the map allowing you to automatically respond to the message, call up additional detail, or cancel the message to remove it from the screen.

Seven Kingdoms provides 20+ scenarios to play with specific objectives and a random map generator for single player missions. Multiplayer support for two people is provided via modem or direct connection, and for up to seven people via IPX network or Internet. The customizable options for random map generation in single player and multiplayer games is staggering. The random maps even provide a MAP ID, so if you like a particular map you can recall it later. Both single player and multiplayer games autosave automatically allowing you to reload, and you can also save one multiplayer game.

The tutorial for Seven Kingdoms is exceptional, teaching you almost all aspects of gameplay. Any of the 15 tutorials can be called up in any game. It simply overlays the top of the map with a transparent or opaque window, and you flip through the tutorial using the <> keys. From the main menu, you can call up an encyclopedia that describes the various nationalities, units, buildings, Fryants, and beings of power in the game. With each description is a beautiful rendered still image of the item in question.

Ratings Defense
If you cannot tell by now, I thoroughly loved this game. Seven Kingdoms is one of the most complete games I have ever played. The only downsides are some poorly implemented visual effects and sound effects that tend to blend together. But from the encyclopedia to the tutorial to the efficient interface to the computer AI to the depth of gameplay, this game is extremely well implemented. I gave this game 4.5 heads for quality. For the many customizable options for single and multiplayer games, the online encyclopedia, and the solid manual. Enlight Studios and Interactive Magic have delivered a great game. Seven Kingdoms is as fun as any empire building game I have ever played.