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No. of Recommendations: 15
In the time when a country's worth was measured by the man who ruled it; when an army's strength came from its general; and when the fate of an empire rested under one crown comes Medieval: Total War. In this game you try to wrest control of as much of Europe and the Mediterranean as you can before the 13th Century. You control and expand your territory with economic might, political maneuvering, and on the field of battle.

It's a fun little game, too.

This game is almost two (yes, two) games in one. About half of the time you spend on a Risk-like board where you move pieces representing armies or spies or even your own daughters. On this board you manage your build queues for the various provinces under your control, set the tax rates, watch your opponent's moves (when you have spies working in their province), and move your armies towards or away from conflict. Everything is turn-based and, when controlling a large number of provinces, a turn might take a half-hour.

The other half is the battle itself; played on a 3-D terrain map with your army broken into units that fight for control of choke-points and high ground to better decimate the opposing army. Here you work in modified real-time (pausing and giving orders is allowed) to vanquish your opponent from the field of battle, and thus from the province. The battles can have time limits, which award victory to the defenders if exceeded, but with the pausing and zooming the camera about the battles take about a half-hour usually.

In a way (probably because I'm insane), this game reminds me of X-COM. Except in X-COM, the strategy/build section was real-time while the battles were turn-based. No matter, a few of my complaints from that old game show up in this one as well.

There are serious interface issues, as is to be expected with such a complicated game. Like X-COM, your "units", in this case your generals and army leaders, gain experience from being in battle and improve if the battle goes well for them. Unfortunately, it is not obvious which general is best at attacking or defending or overall command when you are in the thick of battle. M:TW combats this by having the highest ranked general, rated in stars, command the whole field for you and at the bottom of the combat screen you get some quick numbers about how experienced the individual units are. This is not quite good enough and I had to resort to a "cheat-sheet" of all the different unit types and what each unit is best at. That way I know that my "Ghazi Infantry" should not be used to defend against the "Vikings".

I said this game was complicated and the shear number of units is just one reason. The two units mentioned above cost about the same to build but they have different uses; furthermore, the Ghazi troops can only be trained by some Muslim factions while the Vikings are trainable only by the Danish and Novgorod. With over a dozen different factions, four religions, 100 unit types, and scores of provinces this game gets complicated. And everything matters to some extent, too.

If you control a Catholic empire and take over a traditionally Muslim province, the locals are more likely to rise up against you. You can build churches and farm advancements to improve the local's attitudes; or you can pillage existing improvements and take you army elsewhere, leaving the locals to their own fate.

Each province is unique. Some are very prone to rebellion, some get large incomes when trade routes are set up, some units can only be trained in particular provinces, and some common units are improved when trained in the right place. This information is presented nicely in the turn-based portion of the game but I spent a little bit of time every turn making sure the right province was doing the best thing for my empire.

The other complaint about this game that is similar to X-COM is the game takes forever to play. I've spent more than 20 hours and have yet to finish one campaign. With X-COM, once I finished, I went through once more and was finished with it. Here, once I complete playing as the Danish I might as well give another faction a chance and learn about new units and a different strategy. For instance, the Catholic factions can use their daughters as part spies and part emissaries by marrying different faction leaders. The Muslims factions do not have this ability. And there are many more subtle and not so subtle differences for each faction.

The game screen also gets filled with units in both portions of the game. When on the game board, I will sometimes re-discover a long lost spy hidden by a badly-placed army unit. While in the battle, it is hard to discern one unit from another after the battle is joined. The game has menus to help you cope, but I have taken to "checking off" each unit and making sure I'm aware of where it is and what it is doing. It is also not intuitive to use the various pieces. For instance, an "Emissary" piece will attempt to bribe an opposing army when you place it over an army piece, but when placed over the opposing king's army, it will offer an alliance. I don't like it when the same action does different things. Also, if you want to marry your daughter off to a particular faction you have to move her piece over that of the king's army, if unmarried, or any of the emissaries, or something else that I haven't figured out yet.

Overall, I love playing this game and wish I had more time to spend on it. The strategy elements are deep but you can play without many of them. I manage my provinces very carefully but a friend who also plays this game spent most of his time fighting on the field and only figured out how to manually set the tax rates after I explained it to him. He was still winning and having fun with the computer handling taxation. The computer will even handle battle resolution, to save you from having to control the army on the field, if you so desire.

If you want to play a long game and love complex and deep strategy, this game is right for you. If playing a game for 20 hours and finishing it is your cup o' tea, then stay far away from this time sink.

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