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Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance (PC) artwork

Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance (PC) review


"When D&D (and later AD&D) was invented, in the 70's, it was a game made for and by wargame enthusiasts. The 'father' of RPGs placed much importance on numbers and tables. This is probably one of the reasons that the first D&D forays into the PC were made a wargame company, Strategy Simulations Inc. (SSI). "



When D&D (and later AD&D) was invented, in the 70's, it was a game made for and by wargame enthusiasts. The 'father' of RPGs placed much importance on numbers and tables. This is probably one of the reasons that the first D&D forays into the PC were made a wargame company, Strategy Simulations Inc. (SSI).

Ever played a (A)D&D game by SSI? Well, here's a quick guide to win any (A)D&D SSI game. (Well, at least 2 of them: Warriors of the Eternal Sun for the Genesis and Menzoberranzan for the PC):

1- Clear the immediate area of nearby monsters.
2- Area cleared? Then use the 'rest party' command.
3- Your guys will sleep, and wake up with 100% HP and magic. On to the next foe!

In Menzoberranzan, you could even shoot an arrow at a distracted monster, pick it up, then fire it at him again! The above strategy only doesn't work on Eye of the Beholder because there characters need food.

Anyway, I find it a bit surprising that, as far as I know, SSI never made an STRATEGY game of AD&D. This task was accomplished by Synergistic and released by Sierra. Their product: 'Birthright, the Gorgon's Alliance'.

TSR released for their AD&D game several game settings, like 'Forgotten Realms', 'Ravenloft' and 'Planescape'. 'Birthright' was one of them, and its premise was quite interesting: instead of working for kings and princes of some place in perilous adventures, Player of this setting were Regents and Warlords descended from royalty and their bloodlines carried magical powers that allowed them to rule more effectively. The setting also devised rules for Army Battles and Realm-Ruling.

'Gorgon's Alliance' is pretty much, as far as I can tell, a pretty faithful PC conversion of the pen-&-paper 'Birthright' setting's rules for ruling and army battles. It is a (turn-based) Strategy Game in its core. And no, it's not a 'RPG-Strategy game' like Shining Force or Langrisser (Warsong). These games had strategic battles mounted on character development and a typical RPG plot. 'Gorgon's Alliance' has a background and several sides duking it out, without a set plot to follow. If you are looking for a RPG to play, 'Birthright' is probably not for you.

The game has only one scenario, a map of the country of 'Anuire' divided into a lot of provinces and realms. Each realm controls some provinces (kinda like the territories of 'Risk') and some holdings (business establishments that compose their economy). There are some 20+ realms in the board and you can choose one out of 12 of these to rule. The realms that you can choose are all very different from each other and are not balanced: some are stronger than others, and their strengths are not always obvious. Endier, for example, seems like a pathetic realm with a single province, but it has a lot of holdings in Anuire and is, in fact, one of the easiest sides to play and win the game.

The large choice of realms make this game very replayable, and to add to that you can select a different regent to impersonate (he's you alter-ego, the guy you must keep alive always) in each playthrough and 3 different complexity levels for the game: basic, advanced and expert. Basic complexity has you dealing only with armies and diplomacy, Advanced makes you also responsible for the economy of the realm, and Expert adds magic, espionage and civil agitation to the mix. It may seem that Basic and Advanced levels are essentially just 'tutorials' for newbies, but that's not so: playing these different complexity levels makes you game very different and forces you to use some strategies over others.

Overall, you have a game that has A LOT of options for you and that, even though it has only one scenario, can be very replayable for any gamer. And, to top it off, it's a FUN game: it's a thrilling thing to see your armies covering the land of Anuire with your royal banner, slowly making way for you to be emperor of it all and ascend to the Iron Throne of Anuire. What's more, each time you play you must do things differently, because each realm and regent has strengths and weaknesses to be taken into account. Additionaly, victory is achieved by amassing 'Victory Points', a measure of how much power you hold in the land. You must gather 300-500 of these, depending on the overall difficulty level, to win the game. And you gain these in many ways: conquering enemy provinces is the most obvious way to gain them, but diplomacy, alliances, turning other realms into serfs and gathering relics of power are other ways to rack up the points you need. You can even win owning but a single province in the land, provided you are cunning enough!

Yes, 'Birthright' is fun and replayable...
... but it is also so damn EASY!!!

It's not easy because the AI is an idiot. True, it's not the most intelligent ever, but it's no slouch either. The thing about it is that it just wasn't programmed to fight against those which shall probably be your 3 main weapons of conquest: Archers, Magic-Users, and the most powerful of all, the fear-mongering DIPLOMATS!

You see, in 'Birhtright', whenever two enemy armies meet, and one of them is your army, you get the chance to either let the computer decide the battle outcome or fight it yourself. The battle system is very nice, based on real-time, and is easy to learn how to use. It's quite a gem, and since each battle takes only 1 minute or so, you can fight endlessly in every front without losing much time from your life.

The thing is, you pretty soon will find out that all the infantry, elite infantry, and knights of the game will fall easily to the arrows of the dreaded and cheap ARCHER, or any other of the game's ranged attackers. They ready their bows and then fire at your command. Giving such a command is, mind you, fast and easy. Very soon you will rain death upon the AI's poor armies, and even though it too has Archers at his side, it just wasn't programmed to be as VICIOUS as you, a human, can be.

You don't care about humiliating the AI further, you can give your archers some meth and replace them with MAGIC-USERS. These are hired via the 'Hire Lieutenant' turn command or, sometimes, via diplomacy. Placed in battle, these guys will dispense magic spells much faster than your archers dispense arrows. And by 'spells', I mean 'fireballs' and 'disintegrations'. Much more fearsome than 'arrows', eh? What's more: the priestly magic-users of this game have a special spell called 'Turn Undead' which they can use a lot of times. Normally, it's cheapness to use would be balanced by the fact that it should only work on undead (which are strong in battle BTW). But the programmers forgot to write the code that made this spell work only on the undead, so it will kill the living too. Bottom line: Priests PWN the opposition. And unlike archers, the AI doesn't hire many magic-users to its cause. This leave the pool of spellcasters wide open for you.

But who needs swords and sorcery when you have A PEN?!
Diplomacy on a game like 'Civilization' or 'Master of Orion' was quite the work of brinkmanship. You could make peace or war with foes in return for tributes or alliances in many ways, but the enemy would NEVER give you via diplomacy the technology or money that he felt would utterly make you win the game. Everyone knew in these games that, in the end, there could be only one winner.

In Birthright, there can also be only one winner. But diplomacy here can make conversations like the following one a bit more common that I, as a would-be-cunning-strategist, would like:

PLAYER: Evil Ruobhe Manslayer, Elf AI Lord who has a big army and needs just 15 more Victory Points to win, give me the lands of your capital (and single) province RIGHT NOW!
RUOBHE: Never, PLAYER! I shall fight you to the end!
PLAYER: ... I will give you 20 Gold Bars in return!
RUOBHE: It's a deal!
(Game Message): RUOBHE MANSLAYER has lost all his provinces and is now eliminated from the game.

... and obviously Ruobhe cannot use its 20 Gold Bars for anything anymore!

Diplomacy in Birthright follows a mathematical system where you need to reach a set number of 'reaction %' with a enemy Lord to make him do what you want from him, be it forging an alliance of making him swear fealty to you. You increase 'reaction %' by offering gold, provinces and holdings to the Lord you are courting.

So far, so good. But a mindful player can easily make the 'reaction %' of any other AI Lord get so high that he will happily give you ALL his holdings & provinces and commit suicide in the game without questioning his actions. Therefore, diplomacy features itself as the beast weapon and easiest way to win this game. Get enough gold flowing to the enemy's pockets and you won't need archers and Magic-Users for anything, they will kill themselves for you!

~//~

Reader: “Hold one second, Zanzard! This is an AD&D game, right?! But thus far you only talked about a STRATEGY game, and AD&D is a RPG! Where is the RPG in this game?!”

Well, my friendly reader, as it just so happens there is an AD&D RPG element in this game! It is featured in a game-inside-the-game called 'Adventure Mode'!

Every turn, you can spend 1 of your 3 turn actions to go on an adventure. The purpose of this is to get from said 'adventure' a magic relic of power that gives you perks to use in the strategy game. Some give you regency points, which are basically points used to make economic and unrest actions in enemy territories succeed. Other offer you the chance to do extra turn actions, and some even bless your land with special effects.

To get said relics, you must make a party of up to 4 of your lieutenants, your regent being able to take one of the spots. The lieutenants all have the attributes of typical AD&D characters like class, alignment, level, strength, intelligence, constitution, etc. In the turn-based strategy game section, few of these elements make the difference, only the character's magic abilities (or lack thereof) impact gameplay really. In Adventure Mode, however, all AD&D game mechanics come into play: the game stops being “Medieval Risk” and becomes “DOOM meets a primitive version of Baldur's Gate”!

If you want to play an good AD&D RPG game, then seriously consider playing the aforementioned 'Baldur's Gate', not this one. You see, in a normal RPG game, part (or most) of the fun lies in the ability to shape your character, equip him different weapons and armour, and see him level up from a worm to a mighty demigod.

In 'Birhtright's Adventure Mode', you can only play with pre-generated characters. This is not so bad, as there are a multitude of these to choose, from beginner level 3 mage Clumine Dhoesone to experienced level 10 paladin Assan Ibn Daouta. What is less good is the fact that they have pre-determined weapons & armour: Assan will never part with his scimitar and scale mail, even if happen to find an +4 Axe and +2 Plate Mail lying around (even though you won't).

Besides being unable to customize you character, the action you will find in adventure mode will sometimes be awkward and often hilarious. You will be treated to a 1st person view like that of Doom or Duke Nukem 3D (with pixellated graphical quality akin to these titles). You can walk around, look down, look up, jump or crouch. The characters will move in a line and the footsteps of the 1st character shall be in the same spots of the 2nd one. It didn't look so silly in Phantasy Star, but it does here.

Then, of course, you'll meet monsters to kill. When battle commences, you'll see the baddies and the heroes running toward each other and then swinging madly their weapons in the air (not necessarily connecting visually their blows to the foe). You'll lose control over character movement, commanding only his attack stance. AD&D stat-based hit-and-defend battle will ensue, and you will watch. Or not, because the camera angle can be off from the action and you'll just hear the sounds of battle, the screaming, and the heroes' HP bar lowering sometimes. You can use spells or magic items to influence the results, if you have any available. When battle is over and the enemy dies, the game goes back to those gorgeous DOOM navigation graphics. If the heroes were the dead ones, then it's back to Anuire, 4 troops short. If the regent was among the dead, then back to the main menu with ye!

Items, magical and common, will litter the dungeons of the adventure mode. Any character can pick them up, not worrying with weight. There is a limit to the item types a character can carry at the same time, but it's mostly lenient. 'Lenient' is how to best describe the 'item-pick-up' mechanics as well: You can see the item? It is not 'too far away' (IE, less than 1 KM away)? Then you can pick it up! Don't mind the metal bars between your character and the item, you can pick it up just fine!

~//~

Overall, 'Birthright, the Gorgon's Crown' is a game that has several big flaws that can lead to hilarious situations and an easy game. However, it has a very nice premise and it's always a lot of fun to conquer the land of Anuire whilst gleefully rubbing your hands together and laughing mischievously as you conquer another province. I play this game a lot even today, even thought it is already quite old! Strategy Gamers would be VERY rewarded for picking this game up, specially if for a low price: many of the ideas present here could inspire some very fine future games.

Besides, we turn-based strategists must have something to do as we await the return and glorious resurrection of X-COM!
(Ah, X-COM...)

Rating: 7/10

zanzard's avatar
Community review by zanzard (January 05, 2008)

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