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Where Legends Gather

A Thing About Knights and Merchants

Preface

I am hoping this is the first of many pieces like this to come, and as such I want to describe my goal in breaking down and deconstructing a game to derive some meaning from it. What I ultimately want is a collection of written works analyzing the design of many games—in particular game mechanics—in order to come to some sort of the following:

  • an interpretation about the game
  • an interpretation about the developer’s world view as expressed through the ruleset of a game
  • intentional or unintentional reflections about human culture
  • intentional of unintentional reflections about the subject matter around which the game constructs its narrative (or gameplay in the absence of (strong) narrative)
  • some other conclusion that emerges from my time spent playing the game
  • These are simply some potential goals I might pursue, but there are many different ways I could go about looking for meaning in a game, such as diving into the history or the music. It is entirely likely that a developer simply wanted to create a game for the sole purpose of creating a game and therefore this entire essay is over-reaching and pretentious; I am entirely open to the possibility of pretentiousness, but overall I am primarily looking to have fun in deconstructing a game to see if there is something more behind the gameplay.

    Also, I am unsure if I like the title “A Thing About [Title]” and I may change it. Suggestions are welcome.


    Knights and Merchants: The Shattered Kingdom (KaM: TSK)
    Year: 1998
    Developer: Joymania Entertainment
    Publisher: Interactive Magic/Topware Interactive
    Wikipedia (English) | Wikipedia (Deutsch) | Knights.de | KaM.net

    Knights and Merchants was the first RTS I ever played and I recently began playing it again since it was on Steam sale. Over the course of replaying it I’ve noticed a number of unique traits about this game that I never really thought of when I first played it all those years ago. In this analysis of Knights and Merchants I will look into the game’s mechanics, paying special attention to economy and military gameplay, to understand what the game—or the developer—may intentionally or unintentionally reflect about human culture. The game’s setting is a fictional war-torn Medieval Europe, and the game was released two years prior to the twenty-first century. This interpretation may have two radically different meanings based on the impact an individual places on these two time periods. One way or another, my interpretation of Knights and Merchants suggests that each individual has an immense amount of value, especially regarding time and space.

    Economy

    A few years ago I mentioned to an acquaintance that I enjoyed KaM but that I never really enjoyed Settlers because the game felt too slow. To rebut he asked “And you didn’t find Knights and Merchants slow?” This question resonated with me when I was replaying the game because I realized how utterly slow and time-consuming the base-building really was. One key conclusion I reached from my time replaying this game is that I have been spoiled by modern RTS, particularly in regards to the amount of control a player has over his or her units. Alongside more control, RTS games released after KaM were more visually and mechanically fluid.

    As I issued orders and waited for my builders to create a functioning economy, I began thinking through a few questions such as “Why does it take so long to build a town?” and “Is there a reason for it?” Frankly, I do not think I would have asked these questions if I weren’t using the game as a procrastination tool for a paper due the following morning. Nonetheless, this game has an economy that is far more complex than the majority of other games in the genre. Not only are there more resources to gather, but there are also more steps (and therefore more time) necessary for raw materials to become usable.

    A look at the Storehouse (which stores goods to be imported/exported) reveals all the possible resources in the game. Every material has a visual and a physical element, and must be transported via roads, and perhaps the most vital resource (food) limits the player’s total population/military count. In most other RTS games a player’s unit limit is either fixed or set by some building, and the resources are far simpler than KaM’s approach.

    Compared to the way the other games handle resources and population limit, KaM’s is a complete disaster. It is extremely indirect and is only informative to those who understand the way the game works. The more modern approach is very basic in comparison, and the information a player needs is readily available at all times. In addition to this, modern RTS games tend to have fewer resources to manage. Other games released prior to 2000 such as Settlers III and the original Command & Conquer also suffered from UI that would not bode well today because resources and unit caps were either hidden or it required the player to understand the language of that specific UI. KaM remains one of the most complex economies in RTS.

    The chart below is a small portion of a chart that demonstrates all possible resource paths available in the game. The most versatile resource, and the one that I still have trouble managing to this day, is corn (produced in a Farm, 25 on the chart).

    A farmer produces a single unit of corn (STR) and this single unit can go to one of three places: the Horse Stables (24), the Swinefarm (18), or the Windmill (26). But organic goods (horses, pigs, trees, grapes) take time to grow before they can be harvested and sent to be refined into other goods (cavalry, leather armor, sausage, lumber, wine). But there is yet another caveat: even before the player can begin producing these goods there are certain things that must be put in place, and we now circle back to the builder who must construct a farm, a windmill, and a bakery (each which costs a certain amount of lumber, stone, and a trained citizen) before a single loaf of bread is ready to eat. And each individual loaf of bread must be transported from the bakery to the storehouse. And this is the case for every single material in the game.


    Source/Full Chart: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_and_Merchants#Wirtschaftssystem

    The next key point to take from the economy is that the player has absolutely no control over the serfs who transport these materials. Serfs are coded in such a way that the instant a building produces a material the next available serf will take the shortest possible road to that building. Once he has procured the resource, he again takes the shortest possible road to the next building in need of that resource. Therefore the player cannot command serfs to take the next 100 units of corn to the windmill instead of the stables, but what the player can do instead is deny the delivery of wares to the stables. If the player wishes to micromanage his/her resources he must do so in an indirect manner. In conjunction with this inability to micromanage serfs the fact that every unit can collide with any other unit opens up many opportunities for gridlock especially in high-traffic areas (like storehouses), or areas near newly planned constructions. Furthermore, every citizen and military unit requires food from time to time, which adds another layer of complication to unit collision within towns. I cannot recall the amount of times I built a poorly laid out town, or forgot to build additional Storehouses only to have my entire town come to a complete stop because of severe gridlock, to which the only solution is wait for the frozen serfs to starve to death. I say this is the only solution but the other solution is last resort: destroying the Storehouse with all your goods in it. Unfortunately not only will it get rid of the gridlock, but it will also take everything inside, and all the goods currently being carried to the Storehouse. Either way the significance of collision will come up again later as I begin to conclude the section on Military.

    To conclude this section, the player cannot control the majority of the town. But a few of the things he/she can control include the production of citizens, military personnel, and war materials. These three images below are the overview of the Swinefarm, Sawmill, and Bakery. The only options a player has for these buildings are to cease providing needs, which halts production, and to allow reconstruction if damaged by the enemy. This is the case for the majority of the buildings in the game.

    These images below are the overview of the Weapons Workshop, Schoolhouse, and Armory Workshop, and this is where options really open up. In this case the player has far more control over how much these buildings consume and how much they create. Here the player has direct output (and can manipulate the input to some degree). The way the game stands: military goods are much more valuable because it requires the player's attention beyond the point of simply constructing the building. The player gets to choose the weapons he/she wants to produce as well as the quantity. Non-military buildings in comparison are just automated and binary: either they are producing goods or they are not, and for the most part the player can forget about these non-military buildings without having to constantly check to see if the Baker is still producing bread, or if the farmer is still harvesting corn. This particular idea of automation makes perfect sense regarding the way the rest of the game is constructed and it perhaps it also says something more considering the game was released prior to 2000. In 2015 this idea of automation might say even more.

    Although there are many more nuances I could cover regarding the game’s economy, I think this “succinct” version provides enough for the time being.

    Military

    Before I begin this section I must reiterate that I have become spoiled by modern RTS, and this repetition is necessary because by today’s standards the combat in KaM is very clunky and unresponsive and weak, yet I think there is some significance I can draw from it. Building a strong military takes a while because it requires the collection of various materials, which must then be refined in order to make the weapons and armor. And course all of these materials must also be transported around across town next to all other goods, and it is likely that gridlock can form outside the Barracks, especially when troops collide with serfs.

    Clunky is the word I chose to describe combat because there are numerous bizarre instances in which two melee units on opposing sides are standing adjacent to one another but they do not attack. There are also times when an enemy unit is attacking a player’s units, but the player’s unit remains idle—sometimes until it dies, without retaliating—and through all this the player cannot issue any further commands. Once a melee troop is in combat that group’s command bar grays out and no more orders can be issued, which means the only real way to circumvent this problem is to have multiple squads of military units. The problem with this “solution” is that there is no way to select multiple groups at the same time (no click+drag, no assigning hotkeys, no lassoing troops, et cetera). The only exception to this lack of control is when dealing with ranged units; the player always has control over archers even if they are under attack, which I suppose makes sense since they are not attacking enemy units adjacent to them, but this inconsistency seems odd to me.


    Click for full image and melee/ranged comparison.

    Even when I first played the game I wondered why units were locked into combat and why the player lost control of his/her military. Military units are the only kind that the player has direct control over. The player can issue an attack, a complete stop, formations, and so on, so why does the player lose complete control once in the heat of combat?

    In spite of how much time I’ve pondered this question I have only recently been able to come to an answer unrelated to the game’s programming: whether or not Joymania intended for this interpretation I can make the case that in warfare there is only so much control a general has over his/her troops—this idea works far better when considering this is medieval warfare. Eventually there is enough chaos on a battlefield that the general’s orders are drowned out by the sounds of warfare, and KaM seems to reflect that in some sense. There is also sufficient reason behind the immunity archers have to being locked in combat, which comes from the game’s manual:

    What is most striking is that the manual specifically regard Bowmen and Crossbowmen the most important tactical element. This is no secret to anyone who has studied military history or has played similar games, but in this case Joymania themselves suggested ranged units should be protected and stay further from the combat, and although the harsh sounds of warfare still reach the backline it is likely a general’s orders are more easily understood and retain control of his/her archers. This distance from direct combat, coupled with complete control is an idea that lines up perfectly with the developer’s view that archers are the most vital component of a strong army.

    I mentioned in the section regarding economy that collision was an element of the game, and the same is true of military units. To recap, all units collide with each other and this is especially problematic in high-traffic areas because it delays the delivery of goods and can sometimes even bring a city to a complete stop. The collision element is much more problematic because the player cannot take control of a serf to order him to go around the traffic jam, and every serf/hungry citizen on his way to the inn only makes the problem worse. The idea of collision, joined with the amount of maintenance and upkeep necessary for every individual leads me to my ultimate conclusion of this interpretation.

    One of the things that helped me reach this conclusion was to think of what it takes to keep one person alive. In Age of Empires II all that is necessary is a house, which increases the player’s maximum population an additional 5 people. Construction of a house requires 30 wood, so each villager “costs” a one-time payment of 6 wood in addition to the 50 food necessary to actually train the villager. After that the villager does not consume any further resources. Furthermore in AoEII villagers can carry multiple units of wood/food/et cetera, and they do not require roads that were laid out by a builder in order to travel from one place to another, thereby making them far more efficient than the serfs of KaM.

    In KaM, a serf must be trained in a Schoolhouse (I will avoid the cost of the Schoolhouse as I did with the Town Center of AoEII). Each civilian trained at the school house costs 1 Gold, which is produced at a Metallurgist’s (which costs 4 wood, 3 stone). To make Gold the Metallurgist requires Coal and Gold Ore (Coal Mine costs 4 wood, 5 stone to construct; Gold Mine costs 3 wood, 2 stone to construct). I will avoid the costs of Woodcutter, the Sawmill, and the Quarry for the sake of sanity, but these 6 buildings together cost a total of 21 wood, 17 stone, not including the stone necessary for each unit of road leading to each of these resources and the Storehouse. These are simply the construction costs, the amount of time that passes while all of these buildings are built and all the resources are gather should be about 10 to 15 minutes at this point. That is what it takes to create a serf. To keep him alive, the player must construct an inn (6W, 5S plus the stone for roads), and the inn must be stocked with food for the serf, the miners, the metallurgist and all the other tradesmen mentioned so far, in addition to the upcoming tradesmen who produce the food. The simplest food resource of Wine requires a Vineyard (4W, 3S plus stone for roads, plus wood for the actual vineyard, plus the time waiting for the grapes to grow, plus the time it takes for a serf to take the wine to the inn). Add to this entire equation unit collision transporting the wood/stone to the construction site, idle time between producing goods, and the player has spent about 30 minutes trying to create a very basic economy for a single serf.

    What would be crazier is to look at all the resources and time necessary to keep the most expensive military unit alive, including costs of mines, blacksmiths, stables, keeping all of these people fed and finally keeping the knight alive with food. And now having this understanding of the game, and using this mindset of costs/upkeep/maintenance is where my interpretation of the game finally comes to fruition.

    Conclusion/Interpretation

    Knights and Merchants is a game that highly values the individual, and embraces the idea of the individual. It takes a lot to keep a person alive, that includes an occupation, food, attention, and the amount of time someone spent to set that up for this person is invaluable. Collision is a fundamental, albeit often times undesirable thing; people will get in one another’s way from time to time and there will also be instances when it seems everyone just stops and we aren’t going anywhere because no one’s willing to budge an inch. We unintentionally run into one another and get in each other’s way because we’re all doing our own thing, and even though we may be on the same side we have these moments of gridlock when we freeze up and cease to do any good until we sacrifice something, even if it’s extremely valuable.

    It’s very easy to get lost in the chaos, amid all of the constantly moving pieces, and it’s also very easy to lose control. In spite of these difficulties it is crucial to have the most amount of control when it comes to choosing the next course of action and making a stand. There are so many resources and so much time and energy invested into every individual, but it’s very easy to forget. Stepping back and taking a good look at things is vital because it might provide more insight and lead to better “tactical” decisions.

    Lastly, I don’t know what to say about automation/the robots taking our jobs.


    Notes:These are the main things I wanted to cover on this game, but I could have also discussed other elements of the game such as KaM’s interpretation of Fog of War, try to feed troops on the move, et cetera.

    The Knights and Merchants Remake includes many awesome features making it more suitable for modern playing such as more Fast Forward options, zooming in/out of the map, and combat notifications on the minimap. It is totally worth taking a look at.


    Ludography

    Blizzard Entertainment. Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm. Blizzard Entertainment, 2013. PC. OSX.

    Blue Byte Software. Die Siedler III. Blue Byte Software, 1998. PC.

    Electronic Arts Los Angeles. The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth. EA Games/New Line Cinema, 2004. PC.

    Ensemble Studios/Hidden Path Entertainment. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (HD). Microsoft/Microsoft Game Studios, 1999/2013. PC, MacOS.

    Joymania Entertainment. Knights and Merchants: The Shattered Kingdom. Interactive Magic/Topware Interactive, 1998. PC, MacOS, MorphOS.

    Westwood Studios. Command & Conquer. Electronic Arts/Virgin Interactive, 1995. PC, MacOS, various.