Date of publish: 10/08/2020 22:18 CET
Originally released in Europe, and now making its North American debut, Cossacks: European Wars is set in 17th and 18th century Europe. More appropriately stated, this period provides the underpinning for the basic game model, which is much more of a real time strategy (RTS) game in the mold of Starcraft, Command and Conquer and Age of Empires than it is a historical wargame. Granted, you can play representations of 12 historical battles from five of the major wars of the period (including both the Thirty Year War and the Seven Year War, as well as the War of Spanish Succession), or play these as a campaign, but you cannot do so in solitaire mode, and so must seek out a human opponent online. This was a major oversight on the developer’s part and one cannot help but wonder if this design decision was made because of difficulties in programming the AI opponents in these battles to perform credibly. More on that suspicion shortly.
Cossacks European WarsPlayers elect to represent either one of the major (France, England, Spain, Prussia, the Netherlands, Russia or Turkey) or minor powers of the period (Algeria, Piermonte, Sweden, Saxony, Poland, Austria, Ukraine and Venice), and receive concurrent benefits and disadvantages befitting their choice. These differences are subtle in their presence, and players will still have to make other things happen correctly to take advantage of them. For example, England will not automatically rule the waves just because it creates a seafaring presence, but the English shipbuilding economy is strong, relative to other nations, and her crews perform admirably under adversity.
As with other games of this genre, players begin with some peasants and must create their kingdom from scratch. The basic settlement consists of a town hall (to produce more peasants), a barracks (to produce infantry), blacksmith, stables (to produce mounted units), mill (to harvest food), mines (to produce gold, iron and coal) and armory (to build artillery). Churches produce Priests, or their equivalent, that can go with the armies into battle to heal the wounded. The Academy is necessary to conduct research and development (Cossacks features a very extensive technological matrix of over 300 possible upgrades), and Shipyards produce fishing boats (an abundant source of food), ferries to carry troops on amphibious invasions, and warships. Storehouses can be placed in close proximity to resource points, to reduce the amount of time it takes to get these commodities into the treasury, and defensive towers can be built to command a greater view of the surrounding territory and aid in warding off enemy incursions. Two other structures, Marketplaces and Diplomatic Centers, will be dealt with later in the review. One of the nice touches of the game is that each nationality features unique architecture, and some of the cities that you can create (especially Venetian ones) are quite lovely.
Resource management is as much a factor in this game as it is in other RTS titles, but it is handled quite differently from anything released to date. Players can still set the levels of resource abundance on the Random Map generator. However, these levels affect the density of deposits, and therefore their corresponding proximity to the city site you choose to build upon, not the actual fixed quantity of resources for which players must compete. A single coal mine, for example, has an unending source of coal, but you are limited by the rate at which you can extract it, (which can be raised by technological advances) and the all important level of consumption. As your empire grows, the demand for all resources (food, wood, stone, coal, iron and gold) grows accordingly and you must stay ahead of this demand. Doing so requires a balance of opening new ore deposits, adding workers to the production crew, and making those workers more effective by improving technology, or raising their wages. One particularly noteworthy game mechanic is the depletion of coal and iron reserves every time a rifle or cannon equipped unit participates in combat. The last element you want to occur is for your units to literally run out of bullets and become easy prey for the enemy in a protracted war of attrition.
Marketplaces can help to offset production shortages, in one or more of the basic commodities, by trading surpluses of other goods for the material required. This functions much like a world bank, if you will, in that exchange ratios fluctuate based on what is being bartered with in every country. Glutting the market with gold, for example, will decrease the buying power of your enemies who are attempting to use it to offset their shortages in coal, for example. In this sense, and this sense only, some limited form of economic warfare is possible.
Raising a decent standing army takes some time, and it is worthwhile to invest additional time in training and maintaining their readiness via musketry and fencing drills, defensive exercises and so forth. These are accomplished in the respective buildings where the units are initially raised and outfitted, and upgrades affect all units subsequently created by those structures. Units of the same troop type can become more effective if they are grouped with an Officer and a drummer, and then placed in one of the available formations (line, column and square). Lines are good for infantry attempting to cover a broad front. Columns are best for cavalry, but can also be used for infantry that is trying to mass and break through an enemy line, squares are best when infantry must defend against a flank or rear attack, particularly from cavalry. Squares reduce the amount of firepower that can be put to the front, but they are much safer formations than their counterparts overall.
Individual formations can also be grouped to move and fight as a unit, so it is possible to orchestrate grand battle plans with hundreds and even thousands of units, it is just time consuming to set up the groups in the first place to do so. The effort of meticulously forming squares, and supporting them with overlapping fields of fire from artillery batteries, pays off though when thousands of Cossacks come thundering across the tundra at you. When units are so grouped, it is also easy to click and drag the entire block of them to reorient their facing, or axis, of advance.
If this review of Cossacks, and indeed the game itself, ended here, we would have a somewhat rosy picture of a good game with a slick interface for both economic development and combat, as well as outstanding building and unit graphics. Alas, the story does not end here.
Cossacks has some blemishes that hold it back from being a breakout game, as well. Often, the enemy AI commander will harass you with a steady stream of small unit actions in lieu of massing for a concerted assault. While this can be effective, it rarely allows you to see the large set piece battles that play out in the multiplayer historical games. Additionally, the computer rarely uses the units to full advantage, often squandering them in pointless attacks. Likewise it may leave them idle in overwhelming force when you are raiding their lands, as it is easy for you to learn the locations of the ranges that they will pursue, and as a result remain just outside of these areas. Using these tactics, provided one maintains a strong defense at home, it is possible to set up advance base camps close to the enemy towns and minimize the amount of time it takes to bring your forces to bear, just as the armies of old did prior to actually laying siege to a town. To preclude this against a savvy human opponent, keep cavalry and other mobile reserves stationed in pickets across the countryside to meet the enemy before he can mass.
Another flaw of the random map games is that the computer opponents are not really in opposition to one another in addition to you, they frequently come after your holdings collectively. This artificiality leaves a bad taste in most player’s mouths, and relegates what should have been a boon to the replay value of the game to the bin, instead. Cossacks is a difficult game, even at the easier setting, because of these play balance issues, and most players will appreciate it far more in multiplayer mode than as a stand alone game. It is a title with merit, but one that did not reach its full potential. One can only hope that these inadequacies are addressed by Strategy First in a follow up patch.
Original date of publish: 12.05.2001