Date of publish: 11/10/2020 16:31 CET
Winged Hussars Fly To The Rescue in Cossacks: European Wars
Cossacks is not quite the gunpowder-era sequel to Age of Empires it wants to be, but it comes very close. This has to be said right up front. Everything about this game, from last autumn’s demos to the current advertisements virtually scream at the gaming public the designers’ and producers’ apparent aspirations to make people believe they have stolen a march on Ensemble Studios and Microsoft, the makers of the popular, award-winning and excellent Age of Empires series.
Have they leaped ahead and overtaken the team that gave us the world’s most popular historical real-time strategy war game series? Almost. The East European designers at CDV and their Canadian production partners at Strategy First have built and marketed an excellent game that looks, feels and plays like a 16th-18th century pike and shot era addition to Age of Empires, whose Conquerors expansion pack has brought that series only up to the early 1500s. While Age of Empires fans will be able to jump into this game very quickly and will find much of what they would expect from an Ensemble/Microsoft expansion, there are a few glaring omissions, especially for solitaire gamers, that will probably leave players disappointed, or at least unsatisfied. On the other hand, there are some wonderful concepts, especially for the on-line players, that will open up new opportunities not yet seen in an Age of Empires product. There are also a few subtle differences between the game engines that will force players to at least skim through the rules, and there they will find some real treasures – the kind that make Cossacks: European Wars a must for any Age of Empires player, especially one with an interest in the time when the push of pike, the rolling volleys of musketeers and the flashing sabers of the Polish winged hussars dominated the battlefields of Europe.
The winged hussars were the “archangels of the steppes.” Named for the giant wood and feather wings attached to their saddles, these Polish knights were the terror of the East in the 16th and 17th centuries. Best known for their ride to glory to save Vienna from the Turks in 1683, Jan Sobieski’s near-legendary Polish horsemen appear in loving detail in this game. Dressed in half or three-quarter armor, sporting pistols, lance, saber and battle-ax, these elegant and terrifying horsemen literally soar across the map to slice through enemy cavalry, leap over hostile infantry and obliterate unfriendly peasants in a whirl of fire and feathers. Although the most expensive ground unit in the game, and available only to the Poles, watching them in action is alone almost worth the price of the game.
Sixteen Empires To Build
The Poles are only one of 16 empires available in Cossacks. Many of these, especially from Western Europe, are fairly indistinguishable from one another. Most share the same basic mix of priests, pikemen, musketeers, dragoons, heavy cavalry, field artillery and ships. Poles, Russians and Ukrainians, like Turks and Algerians, however, have a more unusual and colorful mix of units. Each empire, including those from the Baltic and the West, does have a few unique units, some of which can be hired as mercenaries by other empires. (The diplomatic center that players can build to hire these soldiers of fortune is one of the key features that make this game far more than just a dressed-up clone of Age of Empires).
There are also several styles of architecture, with each empire having at least one and usually several unique-looking buildings. These are not always just the same old building with a different facade. All churches (and mosques), for example, can produce priests (and mullahs) to heal the wounded, but the religious centers of different faiths and nationalities vary in their cost and time to construct, as well as their ability to withstand attack. This is true for many other buildings, whose subtle differences make each nation different, at least slightly, from its neighbor.
Soldiers and Mercenaries, Officers and Drummers
Cossacks introduces a dizzying array of units to play with. The same battlefield can see units of sword-and-shield infantry clashing with ranks of pikes, masses of musketeers pouring volley after volley into hordes of bowmen and squads of grenadiers hurling, well, grenades, into fortified batteries of artillery – all while chunks of heavy cavalry plow into one another head-on as squadrons of Cossacks, tartar lancers and dragoons sweep past to harry their flanks. Add in gunboats, oared galleys and frigates and the result is a true “battle royale” of that turbulent age.
The masses of soldiers that can be built or hired (if a player builds a diplomatic center) can be hurled quickly into battle – but they will perish even more quickly without proper training and leadership. As players advance, they are given the opportunity to expend resources to upgrade not just the armor and accuracy of equipment, but also the physical stamina, speed and morale of their soldiers. Officers can be recruited (built) to lead the units, and drummers can be built to allow the officers to give commands to form their soldiers into formations – line, column and square. Units that have been trained and which are led by officers and drummers last longer and fight better than mobs – or mercenaries.
Mercenaries are cheaper and faster to build than national units, and offer players types of soldiers they may not be able to build with their national restrictions or because they have not made sufficient technological advancements. Although the mercenaries do not fight as well and do not have as much stamina as national troops, building a diplomatic center to recruit these soldiers of fortune is often critical. They can be created quickly to stem an enemy raid, or can be raised and sent off to raid enemy cities while national troops are raised, trained and upgraded at leisure. Players will also learn that seemingly archaic units of bowmen that shoot flaming arrows may not be worth much on the battlefield, but they prove their value as they will quickly burn down an enemy town. Heavy cavalry may be powerful, but their lack of speed and long build time will force a player to expend at least some of his resources to buy the dragoons and other cheaper, lighter cavalry that can move rapidly to react to enemy attacks, provide information through scouting or protect the flanks of the heavies.
Cossacks does a good job of teaching players that the battlefields of the 16th and 17th centuries were complex laboratories where ancient and modern technologies and tactics met, blended and reacted with one another in a furious dance of death. Every unit has its strengths and weaknesses, and no unit can be supreme without some other type of unit to support it – and that even goes for the winged hussars.
Upgrades and Logistics – The Real Difference Between Age of Empires and Cossacks
Players used to hurling hordes of units in Age of Empires into battle learned the value of formations in the later expansion packs. Cossacks reinforces that issue, ups it another level with training (which goes far beyond mere upgrades of arms and armor) and then takes it two steps farther with technology and logistics.
Cossacks boasts of having over 300 technological levels. This is true. Most are niggling little upgrades hardly worth the exorbitant prices in materials. Some, however, are precursors without which certain weapons, units and levels of training are unavailable. The technology tree has many branches – probably far too many – and should have been trimmed (or at least bundled better), but this game’s designers appear to like to have as many variables as possible for the players to tinker with. Thus two armies or even two units that face each other may appear to be equal in arms, armor and numbers – but they can be worlds apart in value, because one player poured treasure into training and upgrading while the other did not.
The game also introduces a quicker, easier to manipulate type of farming that goes one step beyond even the latest Age of Empires change. Players build a mill, which then automatically seeds an area of farmland around it. The player can click on the mill (and the blacksmith shop) for upgrades, but all he has to do is send farmers to farm the big field area once and they will stay there for the rest of the game.
Line of sight has more nuances as well, with units standing on hills being able to see more of the map than units on flat ground.
Unlike Age of Empires and many other games of that type, the people (peasants and soldiers) in Cossacks are not just built and sent on their merry way to be forgotten – they keep demanding to be fed and paid. Food is required not just to build a unit, but to keep it alive. Run low or out of food, and soldiers and then peasants will literally topple over and expire. Run low or out of gold, and soldiers will desert – or in the case of mercenaries, they will turn into bandits and take their pay by attacking and burning the buildings of their former employer. Muskets and cannon require iron and coal to build, and to shoot. Run out of iron and coal and instead of going “boom, boom” the firepower units just stand around going “click, click.”
This logistic aspect is perhaps the most difficult concept for Age of Empires and other real time strategy players to get used to when playing Cossacks. It is easy to become caught up in the heat of action and forget that just because there are 1,000 units of iron in the storehouses that doesn’t mean the player can keep building cannons. Players have to watch their stores and make sure they have enough supplies to keep their soldiers alive and fighting – and fighting for them.
Prisoners of War: Not Converts
As this game is set in an era of religious wars, conversions à la Age of Empires are non-existent. Instead, some units (those armed purely with shock weapons) can capture some other units (peasants) and buildings (some, not all) and turn them to the player’s side. Unlike many games of Age of Empires, where players either send out hordes of missionaries (or build conversion-resistant units to hunt the holy men), here the priests are marginalized into figures that aid morale and heal the wounded. Medical advancements and training, moreover, can actually do away with the need for priests. (After all, this game begins in the era of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War).
War SHIPS, Not Battle Barges
Warships in Cossacks are more like real warships, not merely one-weapon battle barges, as are found in Age of Empires. There are a lot of different ships, and the larger ones can take a tremendous amount of pounding. When this game says the line of battle ship was the ultimate weapon of its age (no pun intended) it means it. Initially slow to fire and inaccurate, the warships improve with technological advances to become devastating, mobile artillery platforms.
The Scenarios: Something Familiar, Something New
Cossacks has a strong tutorial system to get players used to the new units, formations and economic models introduced in the rules. A number of stand-alone scenarios that are of the type familiar to most Age of Empires and other real time strategy game players are also included. Players can choose the number and nationality of countries in the scenario, choose from a variety of terrain types and levels of available resources and then begin the rather standard sequence of build, explore, develop resources, recruit soldiers, upgrade and go to war. There are many types of minerals (gold, coal, iron) and other resources (fish, wood, grain) that have to be gathered if a player’s civilization is to grow and advance. Many buildings are only available when sufficient amounts of the materials needed to build them have been collected – these will be shaded gray in the build menu. That can be a little confusing at first. It is not that the player can’t build them, it just means that he can not build them now, with the resources in hand. This fluctuates as supplies rise and fall. It takes a little getting used to, but actually saves players from collecting peasants to build something only to be told that a particular item is lacking. The player can see at a glance what he can build.
There are also a number of missions and campaigns, most of them either historical or of an historical type. Some are spelled out rather clearly, such as the one with a neutral but guarded monastery in the center of the map which the other players are all racing to seize. Others are ambush puzzles, where a player has to find the right path through the map to his objective without being overwhelmed by enemy units the designers have cleverly set to surprise him. Some of these, including the first missions of the historical multi-scenario campaigns, involve only military units – no peasants are available and the only units the player has are those he starts with or which join him during play as he reaches what amount to the “check points” of an arcade racing game.
The Big Battles: But Only On-Line (Sigh) — AND NO SCENARIO EDITOR! (Yet)
Cossacks also boasts a number of huge historic battles of the period. Battles of Frederick the Great of Prussia, England’s Duke of Marlborough and other famous generals of the 16th, 17th and even early to mid-18th centuries are also included – but only on-line. In the estimation of this reviewer, that is a major failing. One of the biggest draws in the game, and one of its most touted selling points in the ads, is the ability to fight tremendous historical battles with up to 8,000 units! Not only are these accessible ONLY on-line, but ONLY if you can find someone who wants to play THAT PARTICULAR BATTLE with you. You can not even look at, let alone toy around with, any of the big battles that are teasingly included in the game unless those preconditions are met. To make this even worse, there is no scenario editor! (At least not yet – although Strategy First’s product manager, Adam Phillips, says “one is in the works,” but adds “I do not have an estimated release date yet, but one is coming.”
Until such an editor is built, tested and made available (again, no word on when or how it will be distributed) players cannot create their own scenarios. There is not even an editor to play with to set up scenes where a player could look at let alone experiment with styles of buildings and units of particular or multiple empires. Such editors are standard in many other real time strategy games, notably the Warcraft and Age of Empires series, with which this game must compete head to head for player’s dollars. It is more than just a major omission; it is a major marketing error that could cost Cossacks the kind of following that has popularized and given extended life to Warcraft and Age of Empires, while so many other real time strategy games have come, gone and disappeared from shelves and hard drives.
It is an omission that begs correction, and at least Strategy First is working on it. They have also suggested to the developers to build a patch that would allow some way for solitaire gamers to access and play the big historical battles. Again, Adam Phillips has no solid word on when, let alone if, that patch will be forthcoming. In their defense, the game’s developers and creators are in Eastern Europe, and Strategy First has to work with a number of other people in other countries– it does not appear to have the final word on the product.
Very Few Cheats
There are very, very few cheats available to help players defeat the computer, which at the middle and upper levels is playing at such a lighting speed as to wear out the wrist and mouse-fingers of even the most nimble 12-year-old clickfester. For those gamers who prefer more time to think more and click less, the game can be slowed down a little, and the field can be leveled by using one or more of the following cheats. (To enable a cheat just press enter, and then type one of the following in the box that appears, and hit enter again):
Supervizor – clears up the fog of war and reveals the whole map and all of the units on it. As many of the maps are large and filled with hundreds of figures, this can be very helpful.
Money – gives the player more resources.
Multivar – allows the player to tell all of his units on the map to go to the same place by pressing the “p” key. Useful only when running away from the enemy or in missions where military units are racing for an objective.
Izmena – allows a player to switch positions with a computer player (i.e. press 2 on the number pad and the player takes over the number 2 player’s units while that computer opponent gets stuck with the player’s former command)
www – enables all of the above cheats
At the lower and middle levels of play, most veteran real time strategy players will have little trouble beating the computer in the standard, generic missions. In the campaigns, however, or when playing at the more advanced levels or against more than two computer opponents, players may find they need a little “cheating” help to even the playing field.
In Summary: With Fire And Sword — Homage to Sienkiewicz
Cossacks has some drawbacks, but overall it is a fine product, a good addition to the genre, and, most important, a game that is soundly based in history and which can educate and entertain at the same time. In many ways it appears to draw its inspiration and its feel from the works of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Poland’s greatest literary figure. At the end of the 19th century and early into the 20th century he wrote some of the world’s greatest and most sweeping historical novels. Most English-speaking people know of him for Quo Vadis? – a novel of Romans, Christians, lions and persecution in the time of Nero. Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905 for that novel, which has been made into movies by Hollywood at least three times. His greatest work, however, is The Trilogy, a set of three weighty but fast-moving historical novels set in Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries. With Fire and Sword, The Deluge and Fire in the Steppes tell the story of the rise of Poland from an embattled feudal state to a European empire. The novels and their colorful, often larger-than-life characters take the readers through epic cavalry battles, sieges, duels and ambushes as Polish knights, nobles and common people fend off Cossack raiders, Tartar invaders, Swedish intruders and Russian imperialists. This magnificent set of novels, recently translated into English again by W.S. Kuniczak (another award-winning Polish-born author who fled to America to escape the Nazis), makes tremendous companion reading for Cossacks. By the way, the heroes of Sienkiewicz’s epic, just like the best units in Cossacks, are the winged hussars.
Ratings: (On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high)
Mental Challenge: 3.5
AI Ability: 3.5
Replayability: 3 for solitaire, 4 for on-line gamers (harmed by lack of a scenario editor – although one is due out later – and inability to access big, historical battles except on-line, for which a patch has been proposed)
Artistic Appeal: 4
Overall Bang for the Buck: 3.5 (would be higher with a scenario editor or a way for solitaire players to toy with the big battles)
by Mark G. McLaughlin
Original date of publish: 2001* (exact date not known)