You might notice from the rather snappy title that we are indeed looking at the fourteenth incarnation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchise. Your first question might be: "well, where were the other thirteen?", and truth be told, while some have made it to Europe and North America, most have stayed in Japan.
In that sense, it's a bit like the way Final Fantasy VII made an impact in the west and inspired people to ask the same question about the six games that had preceded it. However, the comparisons with FF7 stop there, as we're looking at a historical strategy game here, and boy do we love our strategy.
There's a lot going on and the tutorial unloads a lot of information onto you, so go in with a clear mind. There's a lot of reading and learning, however, the in-depth nature of the tutorial really prepared us for the main game, even if it did feel like studying for the final exam at university.
There are three narrators who guide you through everything. Soon you'll learn all the basics for the main campaign, and you're spat out to enjoy the various missions you must undertake as you attempt to unite China under your banner. Fundamentally what you're looking at here is a fast-paced top-down strategy game where the aim of the game is conquest - it's a little bit like Risk in that sense, and it's all set in a feudal middle-ages China.
The first thing that really caught our eye is the world map. This beautiful top-down map is filled with territories and little hexagons and it's a delight to behold. We felt right at home from the off. You move your forces around, discovering and conquering new regions to build your power. One thing that we really liked was that you are able to plot your troops' course, allowing you to move exactly where you want. This adds a great strategical element to the game, enabling you to cut off supply routes and effectively divide and conquer your opponents.
The basic idea is that you must allocate governors and select your focus for each province under your control: for example getting more troops. Then, allocate other characters to act as trainers and recruiters. All of your characters have numbers (a bit like Top Trumps) that will show you how good they are at the job you've assigned. Then, when you're happy: send a general out with some troops, choose a formation, and then off you go to conquer new territory. This is a basic overview of what you do, but the real fun comes from plotting the course of your forces, deciding when and where to attack. Building up and managing your armies, while not in-depth, is still enjoyable and becomes a balancing act between power and finances.
The whole narrative is based on a very famous Chinese story and the characters are famous in China. Sadly, this might be a bit lost on certain quarters of the game's western audience, but it did give the game an element of gravitas that we enjoyed.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV does not have the in-depth city or region management akin to something like the Civilization series. It's more superficial than that. Nor does it have the grand elaborate battles of something like the Total War series, which recently explored the exact same period of history to excellent effect. In fact, as we wrote before, it reminded us more of Risk.
The board game is one of our childhood favourites because while it offered deep strategy it doesn't take forever to play; the thing we love about Romance is its fast-paced nature. Because it never gets too deep or involved, it's got real snappy pacing. The provinces are easy to set up and manage, the battles don't take ages, and for all intents and purposes, it makes the experience fun. In stark contrast to the tutorial, the game feels quite light and free and easy to play. The ability to move around and conquer made the game inviting and fun, in the same way that Risk looks complicated on the surface but is much simpler when you get down to it.
The navigation around the menus and options seems pretty intuitive, and there's not an overwhelming amount of things to do either. The Romance series has carved a niche between the likes of Civ and Total War, and for those of you looking for something that will make you think but that offers a bit more zip, it should prove a welcome change.
That's not to say the game is easy or mindless. You still need to think about many things. For example, when moving your troops you may want to send them into battle from different directions so you can also cut off supply lines, rendering their forces weaker. You can also issue commands while your troops are fighting, ordering fire attacks and the like. Sadly, in our opinion, the combat was a little superficial, more a case of drag and drop, with the occasional interjection to hopefully affect the outcome. It felt a little too disconnected, however.
Then, there are the generals themselves. We've mentioned their stats, but some of the characters have special traits due to their personalities. For example, the alcoholic general might not have restraint and not be willing to retreat. There's still quite a bit to think about. This is a large-scale strategy game after all. The various stats of the generals can affect the abilities of their troops, including their numbers and attack ability - they also have their formations that affect the way the troops are deployed.
All in all, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV will appeal to the gamer who likes fast-paced tactics games, and we can see it appealing to Risk lovers too. In our opinion, while it is an improvement over the last one, it doesn't have the same depth as other strategy games like Civ. That said, we did enjoy our time here and we will revisit in the future - not straight away, but not too long or we might need to do that tutorial again.