In the early 9th century, Viking warriors, traders and settlers began exploring the riverways of eastern Europe that connected the frigid Baltic Sea with the Black sea and the city of Constantinople. This brought them into contact with local Slavic tribes that build fortified cities along these rivers. From the fusion of these cultures rose the mighty Rus', a state that dominated the trade routes in Eastern Europe and made the Byzantines tremble. "Princes of Russia" is a campaign tracing the origins of the Rus' and its great Pagan rulers, from Oleg the Wise to Vladimir the Great. It was played on Moderate difficulty.
The campaign is primarily a B&D affair, with some occasional Fixed Force and DTS sections and objectives. It uses a modified version of the Slavs civilization and reflects the changing unit roster as the Varangian Nordic elites get assimilated into the Slavic peoples they rule, and eventually, as the Rus' accepts Christianity. Several problems emerge with the custom civilization, most notably, the inability to construct Monasteries. These are replaced by Shrines that are intended to produce Priests to fulfil the same basic tasks of healing/converting and collecting Relics; however, the unit is available only in Scenario 1 (where he can't drop off Relics at the Shrine), and subsequently, the option to create a Priest is no longer part of the building options. You'd still want to build shrines to research Herbal Medicine, but that's about the extent of its use.
In addition, Scenario 1 starts with an enemy (whom the Scouts tab describes as the strongest in the area) resigning; and the game offers a side objective/note of recruiting Longbowmen at the Archery range, which was not an option for me either. While none of these issues were enough to prevent me form beating the campaign, or caused me to have any major issues, since they involve things that the designer outlined, be it in Hints, Scouts, or Objectives, it's obvious that the scenario isn't working as it was intended, so I must note these issues.
Played on Moderate, several scenarios required a few starts-the DE progression bug is partially to blame here, but that's an aside. A few of the scenarios required early aggression to reduce the number of attacking enemies later on- however, these were typically marked either as there being an easy way to defeat them (sniping Khans in Scenario 4), or by making their bases poorly defended early on (all the enemies in Scen 7 that didn't have walls. A few of the scenarios would start you off with an ally- and while keeping them alive was sometimes one of your objectives, I generally found that any scenario that took some of the pressure off my own base while I was in the "Build Up" phase of a B&D was comparatively easier- I'd say Scenario 4 is actually the hardest despite being rated as lower difficulty than Scenario 7. Overall, I found that each of the "more difficult" scenarios would have a few quirks to work out that may warrant a few restarts, before I figured it out, without ever seeming unrealistic- which to me is a hallmark of an appropriate difficulty. The varying objectives and amount of enemies/their unit composition made each successive scenario feel like a challenge at first, as well, which is another indication of good balance overall.
Aside from Scenario 4 allowing you to capture settlements by eliminating the associated hero (Khan) units, most of the campaigns were pretty typical B&D where the objectives were usually "defeat every enemy" (when counting the side objectives). Few scenarios offered options such as "defeat X out of Y" enemy factions", but overall, the objectives were fairly typical. Several side objectives would reward you with a unit spawn or unlocked tech boni, and a few times there'd be diplomacy tricks involved, but overall, this was a solid B&D template without any variations that really stood out.
Map Design: 5
The maps were varied and functional first and foremost. The designer went on record as not liking maps with few resources, so there were ample resources scattered throughout the maps, facilitating both exploration and prolonged B&D matches against entrenched AI positions. Both the City of Constantinople in Scenario 2 and the Volga-Don steppes in scenario 4 were memorable to me with their mix of different areas corresponding to each faction's locations. While I can't speak as much about technical proficiency, the maps were made functionally fun to explore and never looked off-putting to me. Only real issue I had was in scenario 6, where the player based in Novgorod is supposed to assault Kyiv, which is south to Novgorod IRL. Due to the way the way AoK maps work, the scenario was tilted 90 degrees so that Novgorod was in the East portion of the map, Polotsk in the the North-East, and Kyiv in the center, to the West( south). However, the river that was bisecting the city was still flowing north to south, so in effect, it was perpendicular to how it actually flows. Minor nitpick, but that's what jumped out at me.
While the translation is greatly improved from the author's earlier attempts, some grammatical issues and awkward sentences still mar the presentation somewhat. The Scouts section was always incredibly useful in informing me as to the unit composition I might expect from multiple varying enemy factions, and though I feel there are some liberties with historical interpretation of some of the Princes portrayed in the campaign, overall it was a solid presentation. The slideshow was from a Byzantine PoV, reminiscent of the intro to the original Honfoglalas scenario in the The Forgotten. As such, the rise of the rival to the Byzantine power in the East was describes with cautionary admiration, but little of that humane empire-building was actually conveyed in the scenarios, which were basically about aggressive warts of expansion- the early Rus' Princes still being very much Vikings, after all. This tonal disconnect, as well as the ongoing awkwardness with some of the translation undermine the overall presentation a bit.
While there are several other work in the Blacksmith addressing the early days of the Rus and the expansionist wars of its early princes, "Princes of Russia" deserves to be considered a the most epic undertaking on the topic. While it does suffer a few shortcomings, the it offers multiple hours of traditional B&D experience, and the custom civilization modification allow the player to experience the best of Slavs and Vikings in a single package.