This is a proposition of a redesign of Slavs as a playable civ. Slavs were a solid addition to the game, as they represent one of the largest groups of peoples omitted from the original AoE/Conquerors. However, I have an impression that many are unsatisfied with their current in-game depiction: this civ has been described as being uninteresting to play as it is too generic and lacking flavor, or that it should be re-conceptualized as Rus since Rus is the archetypal medieval Slavic state which devs had in mind. My proposition of re-design aimed mainly to make Slavs feel more historically accurate. The recent addition of Savars to the game shows that devs do correct already present civilizations towards historicity since Persians were primarily known as the heavy cavalry (cataphracts). That leaves some hope that Slavs could also receive a re-work eventually, and come closer to what Slav armies actually were like. I apologize in advance for this giant of a text, this is just some summary of thoughts I have been having on the topic, honestly I couldn’t make it any shorter. The links I use are mostly from Wikipedia, and I don’t have any deep knowledge on the topic, but I feel that my general claim about ahistoricity of AoE2 Slavs is correct, even if I might be wrong with concrete historical facts here and there.
I don’t think that Slav civilization per se has any conceptual flaws, which would justify their renaming or even adding some further Slav civs. I can see where the devs were going – Slavs are meant to represent Kyivan Rus principalities from Kyiv to Novgorod, but equally Duchy of Moldavia in the Dracula campaign. Depicting Moldavians as Slavs make sense, as the territory of Moldova was inhabited by Tivertsi, the east Slavic tribe, and made a part of Kyivan Rus up until Mongol invasion of the XIII century; Late Middle Age Moldova retained much of its Slavic roots link. I think that making Slavs stand for Slavic people overall is a fair decision.
What doesn’t make sense at all to me is Boyar as a unique heavy cavalry unit of Slavs. Slav armies never featured heavy cavalry to a significant extent, instead relying on competent infantry link. Full plate armor typical of European knights was unseen in Rus, popular were cheaper chain mail and lamellar armor, later mail and plate link. Yet in-game boyars are tankier than paladins and possibly the heaviest cavalry in the game! From a historical point of view, this is quite absurd. Yes, the retinues of Slav feudals did feature armored cavalry, but firstly, its role was nothing close to knights which were dominating medieval Western European battlefields, and secondly, they often fought dismounted, as specifically mentioned here.
The name ‘boyars’ for the unique unit, again, makes sense in the devs universalist depiction of Slavs – ‘boyar’ as a title for Slavic high nobility was used vastly from Novgorod to Moldavia and even Serbia link. However, real-life boyars’ numbers were quite limited, as ‘boyar’ signifies a feudal of high ranking (or possibly a courtier). Mass boyars representing a main power fist of the Slavic army in-game thus feels very off, comparable perhaps only to mass Roman centurions (which really should be renamed as equites imo).
I’d say that a new unique unit as a replacement for Boyar has to be the priority if Slavs civ will ever receive a remake. With regard to civ bonuses, I think Slavs are alright. Farming bonus reflects the importance of agriculture for Slavs, Detinets shows the fact that Slavs did not build many stone castles, opting for wood fortifications instead, and Druzhina is brilliant in making Slavs infantry particularly fearsome. The boyar unit itself is cool and can be kept as exclusive for campaigns like Teutonic Mounted Knight.
The new Slav unique unit most probably should also be infantry, since - again - heavy cavalry was a rarity in Slav armies, and they did not feature notable squads of archers or some outstanding siege designs. It can be called ‘bogatyr’ or ‘vityaz’ (semi-legendary warriors in Rus, frequent title of folk tales’ heroes, similar to Viking ‘berserker’). ‘Druzhinnik’ as a member of the chieftain’s retinue (‘druzhina’) is another option, even if it might be a hard word to digest for Western players. I personally would opt for ‘varangian’; varangians are a nickname for Norse warriors who conquered East Slavic tribes and basically established Kyivan Rus as a state, serving in Norse-Rus feudal personal retinues, and eventually - making the famous Varangian guard of Byzantine emperor. Including varangians in the game would be a nod to the Viking influence on East Slav culture – in Rus, Norse conquerors ruled over native population much like in England or Sicily.
A design of such a unit would feature a chain mail, possibly with embedded plates like this or this. It would be a neat possibility to make a unit with a kite shield, popularized in Europe as well as in Rus by Normans. A longsword can be a weapon of choice, uncommon but used in semi-elite units, however a pernach would be perhaps a more authentic weapon. Lastly, a helmet of conic shape is a must; it is very typical for East Slavic warriors, borrowed from steppe nomadic tribes – another important influence on East Slavs. This helmet might also have mail cover for the face and neck like this. From the stats point of view, it would be good to have a decent pierce armor to offset the weakness vs archers in the absence of powerful cavalry. I would also propose to grant a trample damage to this unit from the start. Druzhina tech would then multiply the damage for the unique unit alongside with extending trample damage to all infantry. Modern-day Slavs frequent the list of strongest people in the world (e.g. Virastiuk, Pudzianowski), so it makes sense for their units to have high attack to the point of inflicting trample damage to adjacent units. Some Slavic weapon designs also specialize in destroying enemy armor, but that niche is already occupied by the Polish Obuch.
Taking away perhaps the main cavalry unit will undoubtedly affect Slavs from the game balance perspective. It is possible that boyars (alongside of course a strong farming bonus) play a key role in Slavs’ current win rate. As the general meta of the game is cavalry/archers, removing boyars can have devastating consequences for Slavs army strength. A couple of balance tweaks then could be made to help a civ still be viable to play:
Add Steppe Lancers to stable. Now this might seem absurd on first glance, as Slavs are barely nomadic horsemen. However, Tatars and Cumans were constant adversaries of Rus, and the latter borrowed extensively from nomads. Tatar horsemen served in Rus’ armies as mercenaries, and the squads of mounted archers were formed to imitate and counter Tatar tactics link. Slavs did even use face masks similar to the steppe lancer design in a game. Also, the steppe constitutes about a half of Kyivan Rus territory, so I see no reason why Slavs shouldn’t have a steppe lancer from the geographical perspective as well. It would undermine devs conception of Slavs as a term that encompasses West and South Slavs, however, as those were not influenced by Tatar tactics as much as Rus. Steppe Lancer is not a particularly strong unit, so it’s barely a replacement for Boyars, but it would add further option to stable which is not heavy cavalry.
Buff archers. Slav archers do not currently have a specific bonus, but making their archers stronger might compensate for weakening their cavalry. Also, it would make sense to allow hand cannoneers, since arquebuses were used by later Slavs, notably in Muscovite armies. The absence of arbalesters tech is fair, as crossbow wasn’t very popular in Rus. Maybe allowing Thumb Ring can do the trick for Slavs.
Buff siege. It shouldn’t be a problem as Slavs are already described as a siege civ. Apart from price discount, siege units might receive some combat bonus - like firing with a faster rate, having straight-up higher damage, or something else. The unavailability of bombard cannon probably makes sense, since Slavs were never particularly a hi-tech faction.
Add Longboats. This of course does not resolve the absence of strong cavalry in the slightest, but it would be a fitting addition for (East) Slavs. Those were the longboats with oars that were used by Rus armies during the sieges of Constantinople. Rus attacked Constantinople from the sea multiple times under Oleg, Igor, and earlier chieftains, which suggests that Slavs fleet was formidable in the early period. Longboat thus would become a unit available to several civilizations like Steppe Lancer or Camel. This would add some flavor to Slavs dock, which at the moment appears quite bleak. But, as with Steppe Lancer, this would not really be fitting for other than East Slavs.
The civilization re-design can be accompanied by a brand new Slavs campaign. I think the story of a warrior king Sviatoslav would be excellent. His life was a constant rush for new conquests, fighting at different points with other Slavs, Tatars, Cumans, Bulgarians (settled and nomadic Volga Bulgars) and Byzantians. The variety of civs in the campaign is an important thing gameplay-wise, thus Sviatoslav conquests would be a fitting choice.
Sviatoslav was also a last pagan ruler of Rus, which could be depicted in cinematics as a part of character romanticization like in epic old-school AoE storytelling. He was always warning his enemy in advance that he was going to attack – hereby he was nicknamed ‘The Brave’. He basically lived his whole life in a campaign, dying in a Pecheneg ambush (orchestrated by Byzantines) while returning from the war. There are even speculations about his sword being found roughly around that place recently. Interesting would be to depict his relationship with his Christian mother Olga, who ruled as a regent when Sviatoslav was young. There is also a cunning antagonist for the story - Byzantine emperor John Tzimiskes. The campaign would also be a chance to feature Byzantine Empire as a medieval superstate close to its peak, and not in the constant crisis as it is typically depicted. Campaign missions might look like this:
- Siege of Korosten. One of the legendary old Slavic battles. Olga went to war with the tribe of Drevlians, who killed her husband Igor. According to the myth, in exchange for uplifting the siege of Korosten she requested 3 pigeons and 3 sparrows from each house. Upon receiving them, she tied burning sulphur to the birds’ legs and released them back to their nests in the city, which resulted in a massive fire burning the whole city to the ground. Sviatoslav was at the time only 4 years old but apparently initiated the battle by throwing the first spear towards the enemy. Also, the player could play as Vikings against Slavic Drevlians to make civilizations distinct.
- Subjugation of Vyatich tribe and Volga Bulgars. At the beginning of Sviatoslav’s Eastern campaign, he defeated Slav tribes who weren’t willing to join the cause, such as Vyatichs. Later, he destroyed the Volga Bulgars state, the nomadic Turkic tribe from which the slavicized Bulgarians originated. Volga Bulgars could be represented as either Tatars or Bulgarians.
- Destruction of a Khazar empire. This was a particularly impressive feat by Sviatoslav since Khazars were a powerhouse of the region, comparable in influence even to Byzantines or Abbasids. The interesting fact was that Khazar elites were Judaists – apparently a political choice made to preserve their independence from either Islamic or Christian foreign powers. It would be great if Khazars receive some representation in AoE2, possibly most fitting as Tatars.
- Invasion of (actual) Bulgaria. Sviatoslav occupied Bulgaria in the course of several wars, acting in the name of the Byzantine Empire. The ruler of Rus even moved his capital to one of the conquered Bulgarian cities. Later, new emperor John Tzimiskes apparently started to fear the growing influence of Rus in the region and incited Pechenegs to attack Kyiv while the army was away. An idea for this scenario would be defending one fortified base (Kyiv) from endless attacks of Pechenegs (Cumans) while conducting the conquest of Bulgaria from the other forward base.
- Battle of Arcadiopolis. As the tensions between Rus and its ex-partner Byzantium have risen, Sviatoslav openly challenged Constantinople. He fought a pitched battle with the Byzantine army, having some Pechenegs, Magyars, and Bulgarian forces fighting at his side, but lost. As a consequence, Sviatoslav renounced his possessions in Bulgaria, which fell to Tzimiskes’ hands.
- Death of Sviatoslav. The Rus’ king made peace with the Byzantines by renouncing his posessions in the Balkans. However, Tzimiskes was not going to simply let his enemy walk away, and bribed Pecheneg khan Kurya to kill Sviatoslav while he was traversing the steppe on his way back to Kyiv. According to the legend, khan made a chalice from Sviatoslav’s skull. This might be a scenario of moving from point A to point B on the map, surviving a trip through the hostile land of Pechenegs.
Another point of concern is Slavs’ wonder, Kizhi Pogost, which is not a building from Middle Ages but from much later. There are some earlier churches as candidates to replace it with, which were inspired by Hagia Sofia in one way or another, most notably St. Sofia church in Kyiv. The Golden Gates is also a viable candidate, of which the devs are surely conscious since it is an available building for Slavs in AoE4.
Speaking of churches, what also disturbs me is the fact that Czechs and Poles have Slav orthodox churches. Czechia is a catholic land with typical Gothic churches (1, 2, 3), so the devs could simply give them a Gothic church, the same as Franks have. Polish churches are commonly built from red brick (1, 2), so the Central European monastery would be fitting like the Teutons have. Meanwhile, Byzantines should receive an East European monastery building, as it is a byzantine style originally (1, 2), instead of the baroque building they are currently having. These changes would not require making any additional designs for the game, just shuffling the architecture sets a bit. Why Czechs or Poles receive Orthodox churches and Byzantines not is simply beyond me.
Thus, this is my proposition of Slavs redesign. I would much like to see any type of change for Slavs which would shift their focus away from heavy cavalry, as it is imo too much of a creative liberty and a far cry from history. But anyways I love AoE2 and all the recent work which they are doing with the new and older civs! Thank you all who managed to get this far in the text, I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on the topic also