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Cossacks! What an odd choice of infantry unit to build a game around. A very specific, Eastern European, mounted, sort of cross-era renaissance man of a soldier, at once barbaric and civilised, ordered and chaotic.
I love Cossacks - specifically Cossacks: European Wars, because it's the only one I played - for that very reason. My gateway drug to the RTS, only the drug is LSD. Cossacks, as I remember it, had no limit on unit numbers, which was a pretty big deal for the age of Age of Empires. And yet it had the most sublime means of organising them. Sublime.
Indulge me for a moment here, but there is a divine pleasure to be had in organising RTS units. Cossacks was unique in the sheer extent of ridiculously, ludicrously impractical formations you could put this infinite swathe of little men into. These ones are going in a square. These ones are in a triangle. This one's a circle. They should have called it Geometry Wars. Hours and hours I spent, plugging in cheat codes - do not judge me, I was nine - so I could churn out endless waves of pointy little automatons and lay them out in different shapes.
The genius of Cossacks, to me, was its ability to completely transcend all that normal stuff you're supposed to do in RTS games. Whisper it, but I think rushes are rubbish. Sending a wave of villagers to go attack someone else's villagers to knock them off production targets by seven seconds or something. It's rubbish. The fun of these games and the point of them is teching. It's organising, farming, researching, producing.
This is a game set in the early 1700s! At the latest! This is the age of modes and monads and cutting people up to find out where God put the soul. It is not about hard science, like your Starcrafts and you what-have-you, because we'd barely got to that yet. It's about the spirit of the age: blasting a musket! Spending several minutes stuffing it with gunpowder in the middle of a battle! Standing in a square for no reason!
This is a game about the joy of discovering, by miraculous inception, that giving people different tasks to specialise in is better than just having everyone do everything. You are Adam Smith just before there was Adam Smith, dividing labour, hurling coal on the fires of early, Polish industry. A thousand Winged Hussars are bearing down on your beautifully, ridiculously organised little farmers. Your silly little pellet-chucking mortars have been captured. That pointy-hatted turret is doing nothing. What are you gonna do about it?
Cossacks was pure RTS. Fantastical, logistical, enormous battles on land and sea, in that beautiful isometric 2D that makes it look like you've cut out every little man on the battlefield and painted him yourself. Set up a scenario, plug in some cheats and live out the biggest Helms Deep siege you'll ever play in a game, over and over again. Or do it the proper way and campaign across Europe, playing out the War of Austrian Succession. Play as Piedmont and Hungary and Bavaria. To a kid dipping toes into the world of strategy - the world of history, too - it was wild. I haven't played Cossacks for a long, long time, but I'd like to think it still is.
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