Review Reprise: XIII Century – Death or Glory

I’ve written hundreds of reviews and previews during my twenty-odd years as a games inspector. As many of these appeared in the British version of PC Gamer magazine and nowhere else, and involve titles largely forgotten today, now and again something from my archive may appear as one of THC’s daily posts. Below the jump you’ll find my take on XIII Century, a solid medieval RTT from 2008 that is currently just 64p on Steam*.

“Knots of stout swordsmen cower under shields as showers of arrows fall like frozen sky elver”

“Tim Ansell, the father of Total War, falls out with Creative Assembly’s new owners SEGA and leaves to form an indie outfit. His studio’s first release is a thrilling Thirteenth Century wargame that runs Cantabrian rings round Medieval 2. Reviewers love it. Punters love it. Even people that don’t like it love it. A fierce and fruitful rivalry is born.

Ah, if only. In truth this doppelgänger was made by a gang of Russians, and, though diverting, isn’t half the game M2TW is.

Well, actually in one sense it is half the game M2TW is. Unicorn Games have basically recreated the real-time battling bit of CA’s latest and greatest. They’d probably claim they left out the map-based grand-strategy so they could focus on the fighting. Personally, I suspect they were planning another layer, but bottled-out on realising how much toil was involved.

So, just the spectacular slaughter then. Just choppy seas of armoured aggro, wedges of galloping lancers plunging into rectangles of spiky spearmen, knots of stout swordsmen cowering under shields as showers of arrows fall like frozen sky elver. Just the stuff we’ve seen and savoured a hundred times before? Yes and no. While XIII’s approach, interface and units are all incredibly familiar, the AI and choice of historical scraps, give the game sufficient personality to survive the inevitable unflattering comparisons.

M2TW didn’t provide much in the way of re-enactments; what were there – half a dozen? Here there’s 25, arranged, rather unimaginatively, in five nation-themed sequences. You don’t need to complete a campaign to unlock a new one, but you do need to win a few fights to access bonus battles like Stirling, Worringen and Campaldino.

To call any of the scenarios simulations would be to misuse the word, but the designers have plainly done some homework. Take the Battle of Falkirk (episode 2, English campaign) for example. While the venue has a slightly stylised RTS feel and the troop numbers are distorted to guarantee challenge, the terrain, army compositions and positions all echo the events of July 22nd, 1298. After using my mounted knights to shred William Wallace’s archer screen, and my bowmen to break-up his four hedgehogs of schiltrom-ing spearmen, I went to Wiki to read about the real engagement. It turns out it developed along with very similar lines.

Wisely perhaps, Unicorn haven’t done versions of any of the MT2W scenarios. If they had, comparing AIs would have been easy. Right now, I’d say the computer commanders in each are of roughly equivalent calibres. The new kid will make you sweat given enough manpower. Sure, his target selection could be better (cavalry should have a healthier fear of spears) as could his pathfinding (occasionally formations don’t bypass obstacles or envelope targets all that well) but usually he’s a credible and interesting adversary, and a reliable lieutenant.

If anything, morale is more important in XIII than it is in That Game I’ll Try Hard Not To Mention Again. While there’s at least eight states of panic men seem brittler. When they run they seldom come back.

On the website feature list there’s mention of “mangonels and trebuchets”. Don’t be taken-in. Siege engines and sieges look to have been cut at the eleventh hour. The few fortresses that did make it in are either decorative or scandalously permeable. Penetrating Lincoln’s lovely battlements involves sauntering in through one of four open and unguarded gates.

Some wheeled/weird weapons would certainly have spiced up the unit selection. At present pikes, spears, swords, bows, axes and lances do all the killing. There’s none of the agricultural implements, skull smashers, or gunpowder gadgetry you’ll find in… in…

The fact that you can’t talk about XIII without mentioning CA’s genre bestriding colossus every third sentence is maddening. If the devs had just picked a different setting they could have avoided a lot of negativity. Thirteenth Century Chinese warfare with its fledgling firearms, landmines, and grenades could have been utterly fascinating. How about a game about the rise of the Khmer Empire in South-East Asia? Elephant-mounted ballistas, ferocious female warriors… Part of me is incensed by the lack of courage and imagination Unicorn have shown. Another part of me has to admit they’ve done a passable job of mimicking a masterpiece.”

* The Steam version includes both XIII Century: Death or Glory, the title reviewed above, and its sequel XIII Century: Blood of Europe.


  1. It’s fascinating how many passable variations on genre heavyweights have emerged and been subsumed by the sands of time.

    I also feel like I’m still waiting for someone to do siege warfare right: with extended timelines, trickery, and engineering struggles rather than a single cataclysmic winner-take-all assault.

    Even after all these years: Total War sieges feel varied at the start of a new game, but repetitive by the time you’re deep in a campaign.

    I do have particularly fond memories of sieges from the venerable Lords of the Realm 2, with its clunky top down view and hilarious “My lord” dialogue.

    I seem to recall funnelling rebelling farmers into a passage and manually deploying boiling oil vats to great effect and uproarious laughter.

    • The one game my younger self fondly replayed over and over was actually called `Siege`. True, that all you did were the aforementioned all-out assaults, but the myriad of different fantasy troop types, deployment constraints, the (for its time) wide variety of siege engines and the small, but meaningful differences between the 4(?) castles you scrapped over, meant that it took a good while to go stale.
      It left room for attrition tactics in a way few other franchises incentivized or rewarded. Every siege was a grinding, prolonged affair, which you had to plan and husband your resources for, even if the non-combat parts were skipped over. It even came with an army editor, but you could change nothing about the castles.

      It never got a true successor. The Strongholds and Total Warses et al, all had other focuses or scopes.

      It might even have been a clone of Lord of the Realms, which I never tried out.

  2. Siege! That’s a game I haven’t thought about in years. I vaguely remembered a sequel, and sure enough after a search I found that there was both an expansion for Siege called Dogs of War and a sequel called Ambush at Sorinor. I remember playing them many years ago on my dad’s PC. I should fire up dosbox and see how they hold up!

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