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Decade Feature – 2001: Kohan Immortal Sovereigns

November 19th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 13 Comments · Feature:Decade

What this is about.

One of the great things about these feature series is that they give me license to reinstall games I hadn’t touched in a long time. I had to do some compatibility/patching nonsense to get Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns working (not quite perfectly, but functionally) and I’m glad that I did. But immediately after starting it, I realized just how isolated the Kohan series is.

See, in the intervening years I had forgotten how to play the game almost entirely. Told that a gold mine was out of my supply range, it took me a while to figure out what was going on. And which units are connected to which buildings? And why can’t I build a settlement there? A game that I truly loved and appreciated had wiped itself from my memory.


This is a testament to two things. First, it revealed the originality of Timegate’s design. I could not necessarily fall back on old habits to figure out just how everything fit together. Second, and more depressingly, it revealed that Kohan has had next to no influence on the direction of real time strategy games even as that genre changed dramatically over the decade.

This does not mean that features you find in Kohan don’t pop-up in other titles. It was one of the first in a wave of Hero Centered RTS designs, games that encouraged you to organize your armies around super units that gained experience as they fought. It was not only hero based, but squad based since each group of units could reinforce and repair itself if it was in supply range.

This latter feature is one reason why Kohan remains one of the most remarkable examples of how tactics and strategy work together in a traditional real time strategy game. Strategically, you were always much stronger closer to your own towns than you were to the enemy’s; given a breathing space, you could heal and reinforce damaged units. And you could only draw resources from mines and forests you were close enough to protect (none of this running to a distant gold mine and mining the hell out of it before the enemy notices like in Age of Empires.) So every battle became a matter of razing rival economic buildings to prevent new units from entering the field while also preventing the retreat of wounded enemy armies. You would want to target commanders and sometimes build squads that had ranged units to support front line infantry.


All this melded nearly perfectly into how the terrain of the maps matter. Yes, it had chokepoints – most RTSes do. But the forests also mattered for defensive purposes. If you could force a battle between squads on land that favored you, then you had a great chance of winning. Forced marches were commonplace, since they gave your foot soldiers a huge advantage in mobility with an equally huge penalty in combat. Even building upgrades had a crucial strategic and tactical component since you had choices of upgrades, each of which would emphasize a single aspect of your war effort.

And many of these great design aspects went nowhere beyond the 2004 Kohan sequel.

I totally understand why Kohan was a commercial bust, even though it was a critical success. It was a medieval fantasy RTS with no recognizable brand and no hook for gamers. Age of Kings had history, Battle for Middle Earth had Middle Earth. The name was actually quite descriptive but it describes things that mean nothing to you until you’ve initiated yourself in the mythology of Kohan and its immortal heroes. And it certainly didn’t help that the first Kohan was published by Strategy First in the middle of its “we’ll publish anything” meltdown.


But one hopes that commercial failures can still have legacies in other games. Game design is clearly weird, though. As Bruce noted in his essay on Combat Mission, even a brilliant and successful design can have a hard time breaking through a genre’s orthodoxy. Kohan‘s design would have probably have had a greater impact on RTSes if it had come five or six years later, in the heydey of Relic rewriting the rules or Ironclad expanding the scope of the traditional RTS.

It might have made no difference at all. The genre has, for the most part, moved to quicker and tighter experiences than Kohan provided, and that’s perfectly understandable. And though I’d love to return to Kohan‘s gameplay ethos, I can’t say I have any fondness for the world of Kohan. And maybe that was part of the problem with the game’s popularity – the campaign doesn’t give you any reason to feel connected to the magical world it creates – admittedly something that few strategy games have managed with original worlds. So you are left with a brilliant design document, and even if that’s probably enough for a lot of critics, it’s certainly not enough for a universe of gamers out there.

But now that this essay is done, I will go back to Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns. At least now that I remember how to play it.

Next up, Bruce Geryk reminisces about Rails Across America.


13 Comments so far ↓

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  • Angry Gamer

    Man I had forgotten all about this game thanks!

  • Ian Bowes (spelk)

    Kohan still lingers in my memory for the very reasons you highlight Troy, and I hold it up as a shining beacon which I wish other RTS’es would take note of. But as you say, its a great design document, but had little in the way of a hook to get people into it.

    I still hold a candle for the series and after being impressed with their first person shooter attempts to bring new strategic influences into that genre, I have an amazing amount of respect for Timegate. Its just that all their innovations seem to be lost for want of a decent attractive IP to pull in the paying majority.

    I still can’t think of any RTS game that does supply, digging in, and self contained customised battle units. I wish I could.

    I have my fingers crossed that Timegate may step into the RTS arena once again, but this time not only bring their valiant Kohan efforts with them, but bring something that sparks the strategy community’s imagination to at least check their product out. Because one thing you can be certain of, is that they’ll be stepping out of the genres comfort zone in whatever they do.

  • boyhowdy

    The problem with this series is that it makes we want to play the games (many of which, like Kohan, I missed completely the first time around) but I detest the “compatibility/patching nonsense.” Maybe we’ll get lucky and see a goodoldgames.com version sometime.

    Also wanted to say how much I’m enjoying the feature series, Troy. Keep up the good work!

  • James Allen

    Favorite strategy game of all time. I used to kick major butt in Kohan 2.

  • Rob Zacny

    I love the notion that supply and logistics matter in this game, and it sounds like this game had a much better model for such things than CoH’s crude “supply line” approach.

    One thing that has always annoyed me about RTSs is that the battles tend to rambling, with very little sense of terrain or location. Fighting in the middle of nowhere or on the doorstep of an enemy base, it’s much the same. But this game seems to have really found a way to differentiate between “meeting engagements”, assaults, and defensive stands.

    An RTS for the grognard, perhaps?

  • Scott R. Krol

    “An RTS for the grognard, perhaps?”

    Indeed. http://tinyurl.com/yzvl85o

  • Chris Nahr

    Possibly there was never an audience for grognard RTS games but I can say that a combination of weird setting, baroque UI, and pedestrian visuals killed the game for me. Kohan 2 shared the same setting but looked much nicer and had more conventional controls, and I loved that game. Yet even Kohan 2 didn’t sell well… so I guess that answers the question. :(

  • JonathanStrange

    Kohan 2 was/is a personal favorite of mine though I didn’t care much for the original.

    And I liked that original weird fantasy setting; even played the campaign to the bittersweet end.

  • RandomRTSer

    Enjoyed Kohan: IS and its focus on strategy rather than micro and APM.

    Sadly never had time to get into Kohan 2 (time to dig up the old disc and reinstall methinks…) but the cartoony Warcraft 3 style it adopted seemed a step in the right direction to try to make it more marketable.

    Kind of strange how they abandoned the RTS genre and jumped into making FPS’s…as long as it pays their bills, I guess.

  • Naum

    Kohan:IS/Kohan:AG is my favorite all-time RTS…

    …I think what handicapped them was release of AG soon after initial Kohan…

    …and Kohan 2 got lost (I admit I never even played, by that time, I had dumped my PCs for Mac platform) in all the WC3 hype. And TimeGate at the time, seemed to pouring all the energy into Axis & Allies (another flop)…

    …reading this makes me want to go home and load it up… …wonder if it will run in a VM…

  • mg

    KAG was and still is awesome but KOW was an epic failure imo. i had hoped to see a K3 but after so long that seems very unlikely at best.