When you first open this game, there are no intro videos to suffer thru. Instead you go to a menu page where a scroll on the left lists all initial options. An exhausted Boyer from Kiev dominates the screen, breathing heavily, his two hands resting on a sword plunged into God knows what. Or who. All around him are dead bodies and blood, lots of blood. Many of the slain are propped up, impaled on a lance, and the warrior turns his head only to see a crow picking flesh off a corpse’s face.

I’m talking about some of the software best titles you’ve never played, a series of three games from Russian sim house 1C Company designed in 2007 as an historical reality check to Sega’s Medieval (II) Total War (MTW). This means hardcore. It works like the Sega game, looks like the Sega game (actually better), but this is not strategy gaming. Its legitimate wargaming, and serious wargaming at that. It’s RTT as in Real Time Tactical because there is no resource management  to speak of. However, I like RTS, as in Real Time Simulation, better, so welcome to XIII Century Gold, Real Warfare 1242 and Real Warfare Northern Crusades, down and dirty combat Medieval Muscovite style. We’re mainly focusing on 2009’s XIII CG, but they’re all good war games.

God wills it!

Each game includes faux campaigns (Northern Crusades has a minimal campaign system) used as a platform for tactical battles. In XIII Century Gold, there are seven of these generic campaigns, a Tutorial, an English, a French, a German (Holy Roman Empire), a Russian, a Mongol and a Bonus campaign. The Tutorial has two battles, a victory in one needed to gain access to the other campaigns. These each have five historic battles played in non-temporal sequence. Simply win the first battle, then immediately go to the second. For example, the English campaign starts with the battle of Evesham (1265) with game five Lewes (1264). The Bonus campaign awards additional battles for finishing all other campaigns. XIII CG also has a separate, major campaign called Blood of Europe covering Saint Dovmont, Knyaz (Duke) of Pskov and his wars against the Livonians. Unlike the generics, military forces and experience points gained do carry over from one battle to another.

Yet the Custom Battles tool is the primary scenario generator. Similar to MTW, the player can pick from 24 factions, Denmark to Brabant, to recruit opposing armies, up to three factions per side in each game. The player is funded at various levels to recruit for small, medium or large battles, and unlike MTW, there is an Autobuy function. Likewise, the player can choose the type of terrain, time of day, length of game time and so on. Then click a mouse, you are on the battlefield and if this is a Custom Battle, you can deploy your army before starting. This option is not available, however, in Campaign battles where you could well be marching into the area not deployed at all.

The solution is another nifty option not included in MTW, the Army Deployment function. Here you can choose a portion of or your entire army, then pick one of several army deployment schemes, right click (the manual is in error) and a grid will appear showing your units deployed. You can then face the grid, expand or contract it and drop it where you want. In Custom Battles your army immediately snaps to the grid and the game starts. However, in Campaign battles your army’s units literally leave their current location and march into the new deployment. Given the game has already begun, and your AI opponent is bearing down on you for what is likely not high tea, this can be tricky. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to observe a Medieval army move from march to battle realistically (Hollywood take note).

Otherwise the game functions pretty close to how MTW plays. By clicking units or groups of units you can move to a certain point at the walk or run, have them loose arrows at will or on command, give orders, compress or expand formations, change formations, charge into combat, group units and, in another XIII CG exclusive, have the army commander blow on a thundering horn to pump up the morale of those around him. The interface controlling this is located bottom left and is far more compact than found in MTW, yet very easy to read and understand. Likewise the small, obligatory unit icons are much more petite yet display more information. All in all, a good start.

Let loose the dogs of war (or, Realism R Us)

Admittedly getting Medieval warfare right in gaming is tough, as no one really knows what happened or how it looked. There were professionally trained soldiers, but unit drill was unknown as outside the Byzantines, there was no permanent organization and no formal tactical doctrine. Medieval armies at most relied on a handbook called De re militari by Roman Publius Vegetius Renatus (he’s the si vis pacem, para bellum guy), but only starting in the 12th Century as few royalty or nobility could read prior. Instead one waged war by making it up as you went along to conform to the battlefield situation.

Here is where the game really becomes legitimate wargaming. From movement to casualty counts, this game is about as realistic as you can get based on my own research which does include reading Vegetius (seriously, I don’t have a life).The game places a big premium on initial deployment, because while units might initially move in, ragged to be sure, formation, once contact is made all control is lost and the battle dissolves into a huge brawl. Thus it is imperative a player form groups of units, place missile troops where they are protected, and insure lanes of retreat or advance are maintained at the beginning of play. An uncommitted reserve is crucial because pulling a formation from combat to go elsewhere is not easy. The game also seems to place a premium on using terrain as both cover and especially concealment to disguise movement, and this game does reward maneuver vice a frontal attack.

In other words, you will win or lose the game at start based on your initial deployment and battleplan, because changing things on the fly is nigh near impossible. Once swords are crossed, expect the hacking to continue until one side breaks, which is when casualties start to escalate. Overall, my impression is that formations in XIII CG will break a little faster and casualties will be a little less than in MTW, but losses will still be heavy. This is historical. At Evesham, Baron Simon de Montfort started the battle with 5000 men and lost 80 %, to include himself, his body mutilated and hacked to pieces.

No worries because clicking on any friendly unit exposes what’s going on. Up pops a chart listing 4 Base and 13 Dynamic statuses for the unit showing plus and minus numbers for each, all keyed to its Morale, Melee, Firing and Receiving Fire. Some of the statuses include fatigue, number of wounded (yes, wounded), type of ground occupied, discipline and movement. In fact there are over 80 such characteristics considered, not for each unit, but for each individual soldier in the unit. Thus it is possible to see formations split into groups fighting separately and even solitary warriors doing likewise. Each formation also has different levels of AI Self Control that determines whether it will act on its own depending on the situation around it or require the player’s intervention.

At Evesham I actually saw the numbers of a pike unit fluctuate up and down during a single engagement and it really drove home why this formation cracked, not to mention the realism thereof.

The not so loyal opposition

Also adding to the realism factor is an exceptional AI. Here aggressive is not really the proper word. Instead a better description would be proactive, and then damn smart to boot. There are two play modes in the game, one called Easy (later called Arcade in Northern Crusades) and this is really more MTW style. The other mode is Normal and thankfully, there is no Hard.

This is because all the things mentioned above this AI does and then some. It will evade its missile troops. It will exploit gaps in your battleline. It will use terrain to sneak around your flank and it will withdraw and replace troops (a lot better than I can) troops in an ongoing fight. It forms up perfectly and keeps a reserve. It habitually puts its cavalry into wedge formation, and it uses mounted bowman on your flanks. And it does seem to anticipate your moves before you actually make them.

A couple of examples here. In the Custom Battles the two armies are usually set up some distance apart to encourage maneuver. In one scenario I played, rather than deploy, the AI army advanced towards me in a long march column. Then the head of the column – and everyone behind – made a right turn to move behind some hills across my front to end up on my left flank. It seriously reminded me of Frederick the Great’s Oblique Order at Leuthen (1757). Similarly, when I was using the Army Deployment function to get into position at Evesham, the AI immediately advanced to assault my army in the midst spinning out of march column. But, it also dropped off a couple of pike and one mounted formation to guard a bridge across the River Avon in its rear, assuming I would try a flanking movement there. It was right, but I had yet to make a move I thought would trigger that.

This is the proactive part, and with an equally adept ability to react, all games were very competitive.

Roll of Arms

Finally, a little something about visuals. Its hard to explain but from the opening screen forward, XIII CG just looks more Medieval. Graphics and animation are certainly (no joke, when horse moves thru friendly foot, they knock over soldiers that have to pick themselves up) par with MTW, but the Sega product’s interpretation seems more the 1953 film Knights of the Round Table to me, while XIII CG looks more like the battle of Loudoun Hill from Netflix’s Outlaw King. The final result are battles that look eerily similar to some of the darker Renaissance depictions of same.

Consider, the terrain depicted is colored in soft, muted, almost pastel hues, with the perspective of a very light mist settling in a valley. The terrain is also very anything but flat or barren. The amount of vegetation is quite heavy and even on so called plateaus, the ground is marked with rolling hills and higher. Forests and woods are especially prevalent and given how the game handles the light from the horizon, the effect is very long and dark shadows on everything. There are no totally bright and sunny days in this software, no pieces of turf ready made for battle.

Now combine those shadows, especially up close, with armies that although colorful, have attire where blues and reds are more matte and dull. Also armor, which glistens in sunlight due the way the game handles “bloom,” otherwise looks more dull gunmetal. That is of course, if the units in question have armor. This game seems to use leather and cloth padding far more extensively for uniforms than I have seen elsewhere, and regardless, dispels the notion of 13th Century mobile dry cleaning. Instead the ambience suggests a more somber, ominous tussle, something to complement terms like Dark Ages or Black Death.

And finally, all those bobbing flags that elevate above the heads of troops in all Total War games? Not here, replaced by small colored shields, and you can turn those off. Instead there are actually soldier models in each formation that carry real flags! Brilliant! And those florescent foot circles on the troops to indicate friend or foe? Yes, you can turn those off too, leaving you with a battle that actually looks like one.

OK, admittedly one concession. XIII CG does standardize the colors of the armies so that the French, for example, wear shades of (dull) blue, the English (even duller) red, etc. However, given the English army at Falkirk (1298) had not less than 111 nobles and bannerets present, each with their own shield pattern and clothing colors (red was not exclusive), I can live with that.

Go in peace

My final word. Too often RTS games covering conflict pre-World War II are considered more arcade in nature, or Hollywood History as I often term it. With XIII CG and its two related titles, that mold is broken. Its about as close to the real thing as we know it. The games look the part, are dirt cheap and will run on anything slightly more powerful than an abacus. If you have not given these games a whirls, they are still available, so I urge you to give them a try. This hidden gem could be the historical bling you’re looking for.