Starting out in a new real-time strategy game is always a risky move. I'm not referring here to the personal risk involved such as the damage to your eyesight or the explosive ejection of the computer's CD tray straight into your left shin with painful results, but rather the threat that a well-designed, brilliantly-executed, browser-based strategy game can pose to your free time. In design, Tribal Wars is very similar to your run-of-the-mill real-time strategy game involving taking charge of a small village and building it from the ground up by constructing resource-production buildings, a barracks to raise an army, and a variety of other medieval things such as constructing a statue to worship and building elaborate walls around your village in order to keep intruders out. The intruders in question here aren't simply CPU-based; the threat to your village comes from actual, real-life players of the game, which is where the game steps out from the crowd chanting "I'm the real Tribal Wars". A delicate balance of resource management, stats-based battles and tactical alliance building, Tribal Wars is likely to tickle the fancy of most real-time-strategy game fans.
Building a Foundation
At the outset of Tribal Wars you are asked to choose a world and a location on the map where your village is to be placed. After you've settled in and had a little chat with the neighbours (you can literally speak to surrounding tribes and forge relationships with them; more on this below), you must focus on one of the most important aspects of the game, which is to build up your village. The initial stages of the game are extremely important since you are allowed time to construct resource-production buildings in order to begin producing a steady supply of clay, iron, and timber which are required in steadily increasing quantities to build and upgrade all aspects of your village.
Everything is controlled through the village headquarters which itself can be upgraded; the higher the level of your headquarters, the faster the construction of each building becomes. Upgrading your farm also allows you to increase population levels in order to supply the labour for further production. It's basically all about becoming self-sufficient, and in terms of real-time strategy games in general, the resource-management side of Tribal Wars is par for the course, with the game barely trying to distinguish itself or provide anything that hasn't been offered a hundred times before.
(Resources are produced in order to fuel the growth of your village)
You call that a knife?
Key to your success in the dog-eat-dog world of Tribal Wars is the raising of a well-trained, well-prepared and well-rounded army, and since the word 'wars' makes an appearance in the title, you can pretty much expect to be entering into battles on a frequent basis if you want to expand your tribe and collect additional resources that your village alone cannot produce in sufficient quantity. The expansion of your village headquarters eventually allows you to create an army barracks in which you are able to train various kinds of troops depending on the level of your barracks and the existence of other related buildings such as a smithy (allows for the production of troops which carry increasingly dangerous weapons such as Axemen) and a stable in order to recruit cavalry. The emphasis here is on the expansion of your village in order to support the training and recruiting of troops whose effectiveness in battle and ability to defend your city increases with the development of your barracks, smithy, stables and the population of your village in general.
The representation of combat in Tribal Wars is an aspect of the experience that serves to highlight the distinct lack of graphics and presence of any real animation within the game. Whilst your village home-screen is represented with a rather quaint, top-down, three-dimensional view of the whole thing, the act of engaging with the enemy feels a lot like opening up a basic maths textbook and turning to the 'skirmish' chapter where a basic table of numbers determines the outcome of each battle. The whole thing is essentially about having built up your army enough to possess greater numbers than the enemy in order to swing the statistics in your favour. I don't know about you, but it disappoints me a little to think that the whole combat aspect of the game might as well consist of two opposing statisticians sitting opposite each other, ticking off various sets of numbers and nodding politely as the gentleman with the slightly higher numerical value emerges victorious; talk about an anti-climax.
(This is as action-packed as the battles get in Tribal Wars)
Tribes and Tribulations
Tribal Wars isn't simply an arbitrary title to denote the general nature of the game's involvement with raising a primal village from its infancy to power, fame and glory; ok, it is kind of a reference to that, but one of the other characteristics that makes the game so unique is the emphasis on building relationships with surrounding villages by quite literally joining their tribes. As you begin the game as a first-time player, you choose the world in which you wish your village to be situated as well as the general area within that world where you wish to be placed. You will find that once the initial 'beginner protection' wears off (which lasts roughly 3 days), you will be at risk of invasion and gratuitous internet-based plunder at the hand of surrounding villages that wish to expand. You will soon come to realise that many of the surrounding villages are a little more developed than you and are capable of breaching the peace by attacking your village and swiping any spare supplies you have laying around.
You have three options to avoid such unbelievable humiliation: firstly, you can hurriedly develop your village and ensure that its defences and army are capable of fending off attacks from surrounding villages, which is easier said than done since upgrading buildings takes quite a long time and uses a fair amount of resources, so gaining momentum is akin to starting your own business, since resources are at a minimum and need to be produced by spending resources to construct buildings which produce these resources (still following?). Secondly, you could simply stop playing the game altogether and go and cry in a corner about how brutal the whole thing is. Thirdly - and this is the most effective, particularly as you are starting off - you can send requests and messages to neighbouring villages asking them if you can join their tribe (pretty please sometimes isn't enough). You will find that forming an alliance with surrounding villages is advantageous since people may be less inclined to attack you if they see that you are part of an extremely powerful alliance consisting of about 30 villages. The ally-or-die attitude may be a little brutal for the casual player, but for the dedicated real-time strategist, this one may very well be the cup of tea with additional digestive biscuits that they were looking for.
Time vs Money
(Upgrading your buildings is restricted to two at a time unless you purchase a premium account)
As with most 'free to play' (read: pay to play) castle games out there, Tribal Wars possesses certain advantages for those who decide to spend a little real-life cash to improve their experience. The most limiting factor when playing is the time that it takes for buildings to be constructed and undergo upgrades, with non-paying players being limited to placing only two buildings in the queue at any one time while premium members can queue up higher numbers of upgrades and train multiple units of their army at once.
While you can most certainly make progress as a free user, those who have paid for premium benefits have a distinct advantage in that they don't need to invest nearly as much time as free users do in order to expand their village at the same rate. I find that the best games out there manage to balance the need for premium users to fund their production efforts whilst not alienating those who do not wish to pay for the experience; unfortunately, the 'premium divide' in Tribal Wars gives paying players quite a substantial advantage over free users in a game that is already difficult enough as it is for beginners. This doesn't make the game less enjoyable or addictive to play, but it results in a considerable amount of frustration for casual players who aren't willing to invest any serious time into the game.
Ok, so Tribal Wars isn't one for pushing the boundaries of the real-time strategy genre or the same level as Forge of Empires or Kingdom Conquest 2, nor is it one for hitting us up with anywhere near the kind of graphical niceties that games such as Innogames' mighty Forge of Empires offers as standard. At the end of the day, Tribal Wars can effectively be reduced to a game that is based on text and numbers, with very little attempt to provide us with anything more than a moderately-pleasant village overview in the graphics department. A little graphical representation would have been nice, and some further control over the movement of troops in battle would have gone down a treat. That said, the game's resource management side is extremely addictive, and I still find myself coming back and upgrading my structures time and time again. This one is for the true real-time strategy enthusiast, and gives casual players a reception that is only a little warmer than icy.