The Lich of Palemoor surveyed the plains before him. He and his host had been awakened from their catacombs below the Totem of the Wolf. Now the poor approaching Vessoi had no idea what awaited them. Two years before, Palemoor had annexed the landmark and its surrounding lands fair and square, turning its magic towards his own foul purposes. Now, the Vessoi wanted it back.
The wall of skeletons and zombies reached the Vessoi front lines, rising up to meet their former brothers in a field of death. The shambling masses began to fall, but it was no matter – they were but a distraction. Dark, darting shapes emerged from nowhere to drag away unwary infantry before the humans could do more than swing at them. The Lich got a small surprise of his own when one of his ghouls exploded at the hands of the Vessoi’s adorable pet werewolf. Very well. He motioned towards the newcomer, and a Nightmare alighted to do its grisly work. The Death Knights would be making their way toward the humans’ left flank. With a stretch and a crunch of his ancient limbs, the Lich roused himself to take up his position to begin raining a little bit of death himself…
The preceding scenario is just one of any number of possible encounters in Sovereignty: Crown of Kings. Sovereignty is a fantasy turn-based grand strategy and tactics game developed by The Lordz Games Studio (Panzer Corps, Warhammer 40,000: Armageddon) and published by Slitherine. There are 35 wildly different factions to choose from, all set in a bespoke fantasy world. Each faction offers unique victory conditions and its own style of play. A new player can learn the game by playing a dominant world power, while a seasoned veteran has their pick of tiny states surrounded by enemies – but with a few tricks up their sleeves.
Now let’s explore all that Sovereignty has to offer.
Sovereignty bears more resemblance to Paradox Grand Strategy Games (ala Crusader Kings 2) than it does to a typical 4X game. The map is fully revealed from the beginning, so no true eXploration occurs after you press “Play.” Even the positions of armies, and estimates of their strength are known, along with province details and political situations.
Nevertheless, there is eXploration to be done in Sovereignty, starting with the New Game screen. The multitude of starting factions each has their own geography, lore, personality, alignment and victory conditions. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in this screen, reading background information and soaking in the history and relations among the factions.
The Boruvian Empire, for example, is a large, crumbling Human power being nipped at from every side. Numerous knightly human kingdoms vie for supremacy in this emerging order. The Elves, on the other hand, have been split into good, evil and neutral camps. The two displaced Dwarven empires came to very different conclusions on how to deal with the Humans around them, which is evident in their wildly disparate victory conditions – one kingdom seeks to live in peace with Humans, while the other aims to drive Humans into the sea. Orcs inhabit the central highlands and eastern reaches, while Human raiders build their forces in the north. Meanwhile, small but very defensible magical realms bide their time, awaiting weakness in their neighbors, while the giants of the eastern mountains dare you to wake them from their slumber.
After starting a game, there are landmarks and strategic resources to be encountered and captured and unique troop types to be evaluated. Unfortunately, one cannot see other factions’ troop loadouts, so in order to get a full idea of the armies the various factions have at their disposal, one must use scout units to gather intelligence on foreign armies. We will, of course discuss armies in the eXterminate section.
While we are talking about game setup, we should mention victory types. In Sovereignty: Crown of Kings, you choose your victory type before you start the game. Every faction has access to three standard victories: Conquest (get a really big empire), Last Man Standing (kill everyone else), and Power (be the best at everything). These are pretty self-explanatory. But there are also two additional custom paths to victory for each faction. One is Rivalry, in which the game tasks you with eliminating a particularly irksome faction from your own people’s history and lore. This faction may be nearby, or it may be halfway across the map, requiring you to crush numerous opponents along the way.
The premier victory condition (the second faction-specific victory condition) varies wildly by faction, and it’s my favorite way to play Sovereignty. The game requires you to complete some deed – forge alliances, raid your neighbors, capture key landmarks or some combination of these – befitting your place in the world. Success unlocks new (usually pretty cool) troop types, and when all the initial objectives are completed, a final objective – usually knocking out some old rival – is presented, completion of which brings victory. This victory condition requires the player to explore a variety of ways to approach the game that goes beyond simple conquest. For instance, the Boruvian Empire must ally with an old outpost kingdom, maintain good relations with the religious authorities, and be the world’s Number One power, before being given the task of finally eliminating the orcish interlopers. This variety in motivation, flavor, and means to achieve victory is what helps keep the game interesting. It makes the world feel lived in and adds personality to your foes, friends, and other neighbors.
Expansion is one of two ways to increase your economic base (the other is eXploit, as you’ll see below).Since all provinces in the game are owned by someone at the beginning, eXpansion occurs exclusively through conquest. During wartime, moving an army into an enemy province (occupying it) begins a countdown to annexation. This countdown scales to the province’s development level and how many forts it has. Once it is annexed, that shiny province next door is well and truly yours. Of course, “yours” is a relative term, since it will take several turns before you begin receiving full provincial income, and you’ll want to keep a garrison there to keep the fractious rebels at bay.
Now, be careful about annexing your neighbor’s capital province – doing so will result in the destruction of that country, (and, likewise, if your capital gets annexed, it’s Game Over, Man), resulting in a fairly serious global diplomatic penalty. Your enemies will use that as an excuse to declare war on you. Jumping to the exterminate phase too early is not for the faint of heart.
It must be noted that expansion comes with diminishing returns. As the manual states (by the way, the game has a manual. Read it!), this is a time of horses and buggies – and brigands – and not every tax shipment makes it to your coffers. Outside of a two-province radius from your capital, provincial income begins to fall off. Some factions have access to buildings to mitigate this, but that advantage comes with the risk of popular insurrection. Further, as your frontier grows larger and more unwieldy, your capacity to field an army to defend your borders doesn’t grow nearly as quickly. Snowballing is not as easy as one might imagine in Sovereignty.
Once you’ve annexed your neighbor’s juicy, juicy provinces, you’ll want to exploit them. All provinces have a development value and a terrain type. Many also contain landmarks – an ancient Dwarven mine or an evil forest that resists invaders – and/or strategic resources, such as horses, wine, alchemy, etc. Development value determines the base income rate and the number of slots available for buildings and is, with extraordinarily rare exceptions, fixed. Terrain type affects combat and in many cases the availability of buildings. Landmarks are fixed provincial features that provide a benefit to the owner – though that benefit may be restricted to certain factions, races, or alignments. Most landmarks provide some magic, and many small factions begin with very powerful magical and/or defensive landmarks.
Strategic resources are scattered unevenly around the map and are required to purchase most buildings and train any troops worth their salt. (Yes, salt is a resource necessary to train some troops.) Every faction begins with at least one resource and usually at least one decent front-line troop type and/or a very useful early building. Usually. For anything more interesting, you’ll have to trade with other factions – or steal provinces. Luckily, however, even if you’re a coven of undead bog zombies, someone somewhere will be willing to trade their gems for your alchemy. Also, there is a marketplace that can be useful for acquiring more common commodities once you enter the mid-game. However, I strongly recommend never ever selling your goods there – the sale prices are abysmal!
The primary means of improving a province is to construct buildings, which will vary significantly from faction to faction, terrain to terrain, and province to province. For instance, the Boruvian Empire is an ancient agrarian society, so they make plains and hillsides more valuable by building farms and vineyards. Meanwhile, Dwarves are adept stonecutters and miners, so hills and mountains can be made to provide income, magic, and additional strategic resources. My favorite building set belongs to the undead faction, who have no buildings to improve income – seriously, who’s ever heard of a bog ghoul architect? Instead, they build catacombs and barrows which allow their undead forces to rest without maintenance until needed – a welcome assist to the bottom line. Additionally, some buildings can only be built in a capital province, providing powerful empire-wide bonuses. Of course, all the really interesting buildings require multiple copies of far-flung strategic resources, so most of your diplomatic capital will be spent wheeling and dealing for lumber, stone, gems or finance in order to make your corner of the continent flourish.
Speaking of diplomatic capital, I’ll take a moment to discuss exploiting your fellow empires. Any given faction has a set number of diplomats – agents who go to other empires to trade resources, negotiate peace deals, improve relations, or propose treaties. These missions take time, and many factions have a limited number of diplomats – often only one – so players must take care to negotiate the right deal at the right time with the right faction with the diplomat(s) they have. Overall, diplomacy is pretty… lacking. Trading strategic resources feels sterile, allies don’t always come to your aid in times of need, and improved relations rarely last beyond the time it takes for your agent to come home (translation: they hate you again by the time you can talk to them again). Generally, the AI will behave as expected given its opinion of you – attacking you if the opinion number is low, not attacking you when opinion is high – but the diplomacy UI is pretty clunky, so tracking such things isn’t always easy.
One resource that can lie on the spectrum between incidental and essential is magic. A faction gains magic research points from landmarks, buildings, and money diverted towards research. These points are eventually spent to unlock magic spells that range from truly unimpressive to frighteningly powerful. The overall effect is that many large conventional empires almost never use magic, while many smaller, magically-inclined factions begin with a defensive spell unlocked and one or more big magical landmarks. This can make attacking these factions early a very dangerous prospect. Of course, magic only gets more powerful, so waiting to attack a magical faction in the late game can be even worse…
Combat is the bread and butter of this game. Every victory condition that I’ve seen involves at least some tail-kicking, and every neighbor will have a hungry eye for what you’re holding. Dealing with these realities on the battlefield is easily half of Sovereignty.
Every faction in Sovereignty has a different troop set available to them, and choosing how many to train – and gaining the resources to do so – is a game unto itself. Military units are distinguished by type (infantry, irregular, archer, cavalry, siege, naval), how “special” they are (i.e. Standard, Elite, or Unique), and whether they’re units composed of multiple individuals or a single, powerful being like a great mage or a monster. Elite units are powerful forces, of which you can have only four in your entire empire, while the game only allows you one copy of a Unique unit (hence the name…) at any time. Use these forces, but guard them wisely. Every faction also has Auxiliary units, which full allies can train, as well. This can increase the breadth of troop types available to you if you play any sort of diplomatic game.
Most factions have access to a few cheap units that require no special resources to field. Some of them are even literally expendable – if you get them killed, you get your money back to hire them again next turn. At the start of a new game you will ordinarily have access to the resources required to train the bread-and-butter unit that is characteristic of your race. More powerful units will typically complement these basic troops. For instance, the Boruvian Empire – and several of its feudal neighbors – begin with horse resources, and they typically focus on cavalry-heavy armies. Meanwhile, the Dwarves of Cor Vilaad use their plentiful iron, and a strong infantry wall will serve you well with the other troops available to you. And the alchemy-fueled Wraiths of undead Palemoor utilize hit-and-run strikes against their enemies, while expendable zombies and skeletons run interference.
So you’ve acquired your resources and trained your armies. Now it’s time to mash them against your neighbors. (And yes, they’re nearly always neighbors – open borders aren’t a thing in Sovereignty.) The first thing to note is that army size is capped at 20 units, and only one army per side is allowed in a battle – don’t expect reinforcements. When you do initiate a battle (or get one initiated upon you), you get to choose between Tactical resolution (if you have a hero) and Auto.
Tactical combat really is what this game seems designed around. It deploys your units across a hex-based battlefield and is fully turn-based. One side takes a turn moving and attacking with their units and then the other side takes a turn. The combat lasts until either a certain number of turns have passed or one side achieves victory. An army achieves victory by eliminating all enemy units, forcing a retreat, or (when attacking) capturing all control points.
On the battlefield is where every unit’s special traits shine. Massed infantry can form a shield wall, increasing their defense. Irregulars strike quickly before retreating, taking little damage. Archers and siege units strike from afar, softening resistance, while cavalry take advantage of a charge mechanic that multiplies their force. Terrain – mountains, hills, forest, rivers, and swamps – help or hinder your warriors, while some units have traits that allow them to ignore certain terrain types entirely. Dwarves are right at home in the mountains, ghouls zip through swamps, and anything that can fly, well, flies over stuff.
Heroes also play a part in tactical combat, resetting actions or increasing damage given. And if you – or your enemy – were smart enough to cast a magic spell on the battlefield before all the fun started, big gains – or losses – can result. Individual units have both hit points and morale, and many units have traits that modify their offensive and defensive morale. Craven or brave troops take more or less morale damage, respectively, while fearsome or terrifying troops dish out extra horror upon their enemies.
Auto resolution operates on its own set of rules that can make it more advantageous than Tactical in a number of situations. Auto resolution begins with a Skirmish round in which your ranged units bombard the oncoming army. This is followed by an Assault round in which your front-line troops go head-to-head, with some ranged support. Finally, the Grand Melee phase is a wild frenzy in which all the remaining troops melee each other to death. The defender can retreat before the battle begins, and either combatant can retreat between any of the combat rounds – he who fights and runs away…
Auto resolution was frequently the more effective course of action while I was playing as the Dwarves of Cor Vilaad. I had very stout front-line soldiers backed by a full row of powerful ranged siege weapons. The enemy’s front line was pulp by the time the Assault stage began, and my iron foot soldiers met little resistance when their turn came to fight. I was confronted with a tactical attack mechanic that favors swift capture of control points – in this case by plodding, short-legged dwarves – so Auto resolution was my go-to strategy.
There’s more to the combat system than could ever be covered in a review, but it certainly is the focus of Sovereignty, and it is the most fleshed-out aspect of the game.
Sovereignty: Crown of Kings is essentially a big, hand-drawn game board with lots of small, hand-drawn pieces. While the combat is nuanced and rich, it lacks the graphical flair of most modern offerings. The UI is clunky, though there have been substantial improvements since it first launched into Early Access. The short soundtrack is just fine – the first four times you hear it. There are some strange graphical bugs on the strategic map. Resource acquisition can be an absolute slog. Diplomacy is barebones at best. Magic can feel tacked-on. The AI sometimes forgets how the map is shaped. And yet…
I am so not done with this game. For all the drawbacks of Sovereignty, there’s enough tactical interest and a certain thereness to the setting that keeps me coming back. The victory missions the game gives you and the background of each faction put you in the place of a great leader of your people, ready to take your rightful place in this gritty little world. There are narrative details that should probably have more impact on game mechanics (I’m looking at you, Magic Papacy Valegorn Palatinate), but said details do a reasonable job of putting you into position to roleplay your chosen faction in interesting ways. As the Boruvian Empire, I finished the game surrounded by loyal, powerful allies – and the ruins of those who dared oppose me. My Dwarves of Cor Vilaad regained their ancestral mines and smashed the Human interlopers who had displaced the hillfolk so long ago. And my zombie hordes of Palemoor feel like a misty tide of death that my neighbors are desperate to push back.
And there are other journeys I’m itching to take. One of the minor neighbor successors to the waning – but still powerful – Boruvian Empire is ready to take its rightful place as the Human hegemon. The Vessoi, the northern tribe that can employ werewolves – werewolves! – shall unite and Call the Hordes to sweep across the “civilized lands.” The giants of Cloudfels are isolated in their mountains and surrounded by orcs, but their time has come. This game offers a myriad of scenarios to keep the player coming back, and the rewards, to this humble reviewer, outweigh the drawbacks.
All-in-all, Sovereignty: Crown of Kings is a solid offering for a certain kind of strategy gamer. Those willing to overlook a few hiccups and dive into the game’s world and extensive combat options will likely find themselves satisfied with what they find there.
TL;DR: Sovereignty: Crown of Kings is a turn-based strategy and tactics game set in its own unique world, with a number of playable factions of varying races, alignments, difficulties, and strategic and tactical concerns. Lore, landmarks, and custom victory conditions for each faction help flesh out the experience, though the effects of in-game world-building often don’t have as much impact on play as one would expect. Tactical combat is reasonably well-developed and varies significantly among factions. Occasional bugs and unclear details detract somewhat from what is otherwise a solid, if graphically sparse, strategic offering.
You might like the game if:
- You like old-school, bare bones, hand-painted graphics
- You’re here for the tactics
- You don’t mind a little strategic micromanagement
- You can live with the occasional hiccup in your experience
You might NOT like the game if:
- You love graphics at least as impressive as sprites
- Multiplayer is mandatory
- Your diplomacy must come fully-baked
- You demand a polished experience
Ben has played for 40+ hours on a 27” iMac running Windows 8.1 with a 3.5 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB DDR3 RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M 2048 MB.
Ben received a game key for Sovereignty: Crown of Kings at no cost for the purposes of review.