Thursday, November 15, 2012

Elemental - Fallen Enchantress: Review

Version Reviewed: 1.01
What I like: Exploration, city management, research, diplomacy and magic add up to a very satisfying package. Very replayable.
Not So Much: Tactical AI could be better; city improvements could be more varied. I want to see how many turns it takes my unit to reach its destination!
Other stuff you may like: Seems to have good modding support, but you’ll need to do some research to find out.
The Verdict: B+

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Stardock Entertainment.

Elemental: Fallen Enchantress (FE) is the new turn-based 4x fantasy strategy game by Stardock Entertainment. From the sound of it I am fortunate to have skipped its predecessor Elemental: War of Magic, released in 2010. I feel compelled to mention that Stardock is offering Fallen Enchantress for free to anyone who purchased War of Magic before a particular date due to the original’s inadequacies. While it would have been preferable to release a high quality game, this level of customer support is almost unheard of when a company releases a flop and I applaud the step Stardock has taken to right a wrong.

Fallen Enchantress has often been compared to Master of Magic and Age of Wonders. Luckily my memory is so bad that even though I played those games a long time ago I can’t remember them well enough to make such comparisons. Instead I’ll compare it to Civilization IV! Well, even though it shares some similarities with my favorite 4X game let’s see how FE stands on its own.

Fallen Enchantress is set in a land of magic and monsters after a cataclysm has wiped out much of its populace. As each faction tries to rebuild to reunite or crush its fellow inhabitants, the wild creatures that have proliferated after the cataclysm will be a major obstacle. Whether you focus on demonstrating your power through magic or more traditional might is up to you and the strength of the faction you play.

FE is purely a single-player experience without any form of multiplayer game. Since I am a hermit in a cave, I am fine with this limitation but those looking for a game against human opponents will have to look elsewhere.

Getting Started
Sometimes jumping into a new 4x game can be a tad intimidating since there tends to be many choices to make. My approach was to play the tutorial and then start a game on normal difficulty. The game also provides popup tutorial messages when you encounter a new game element, provided you turn the option on. Why they weren’t on by default I’m not sure, but they are helpful for your first game. The tooltips during the game are usually helpful communicating some of the details.

Even though I made many bad choices during my first game, I was able to win a conquest victory without too much trouble. The manual is worth a read but I had to fill in a couple details by visiting the forum. I did find some features that were not covered at all, such as economic treaties.

The sandbox game, initiated by selecting ‘New Game’ from the main menu provides the primary way to play FE. The player can select 1 of 8 sovereigns to play or create a custom sovereign. There is plenty of variety between the sovereigns and provide different play experiences.  In my opinion there is a much greater difference between sovereigns than there are between civilizations in Civilization. Custom sovereigns grant an enormous amount of customization. There are a wide variety of skills and abilities to groom your sovereign as you see fit – definitely a strong point of the game. Below is Queen Procipinee, a sovereign heavily favoring magic. She belongs to the Pariden faction which provides the Decalon and Enchanters faction traits. The Paridens belong to the Amarian race which provides the Amarian Blood trait. Her profession is a summoner, granting improved summoning ability. Sovereigns can also have magical abilities, talents and equipment assigned further defining how they play. Tooltips explain the effects of all these traits. Once you delve into the character creation tool it becomes a little less confusing where all these traits come from.

 The player can also tailor the game by modifying many game settings: using a randomly generated map vs. 1 of the 6 designed maps, frequency of resources and monsters, research speed and more.

FE also ships with a scenario, telling the story of how the cataclysm came about. The back story is interesting enough, but I have to say I wish I could get hours of my life back by not completing this scenario. The focus of the scenario is on storytelling, which has your champion running around performing quests – kill this, get that, etc… City improvement and research take a huge back seat to the tactical battles. While I do enjoy the tactical battles in the sandbox game, the ones in the scenario were generally so easy and frequent that they were boring. I recommend trying the scenario for an hour or two, but if you find yourself bored do yourself a favor and stop. Don’t be a martyr.

Game Play
The sandbox game has 4 paths to victory: conquest – eliminate everyone else, diplomatic – have alliances with all remaining players, Master Quest – complete the special epic quest hidden on the map, and Spell of Making – research a technology that unlocks 4 special city improvements which when built allow the player to cast a spell and win the game. So far, I have been able to achieve conquest, spell of making, and diplomatic victories. The spell of making victory seems too easy to get and I may consider disabling it in the future.

Lead Me To The Promised Land

At the start of the game you have your single sovereign, the leader of your faction.  The first choice in leading your faction to greatness is deciding where to place your initial city. Cities can only be placed on tiles that yield the standard resources – marked with the tile yield display on the map. I display them all of the time since they help plan where to expand next, but they can be set to only display when settling a new city if you prefer a less cluttered look. The 3 standard resources provided by a city tile are grain - which is a major factor for how large a population the city can support, materials - which define how fast the city can produce improvements and units, and essence - which determines how many city buffing enchantments can be cast on it along with the effectiveness of some city improvements. These tile yields are not the only consideration for city placement. Cities on a river can build the pier improvement, which helps support a larger population and economy while bordering a forest allows the lumber camp which boosts production. In addition there are special resources dotting the landscape that can improve the city they are attached to and provide the resources needed to build equipment for your troops.

Cities and the Economy

As you can see from the city details screen below, a city produces 5 different types of outputs. These outputs are heavily influenced by the resources on the city tile, but are affected by city improvements, spells, technologies, and special resources located outside the city that can be developed – such as a grain field or clay pit. The benefit to this approach as opposed to the Civilization method (using workers to improve the land) is that the end game doesn’t bog down when there are a number of cities to manage. Since there are not multiple ways to improve a specific terrain tile, the player doesn’t have as much flexibility to alter how the land is worked. Unfortunately most of the improvements aren’t very interesting – they are simple economic buffs. City development choices tend to be to decide what area of production to improve next. There are a handful of city improvements and buff spells that require a tradeoff of some sort which makes the choice a bit more interesting. Some of the military improvements found in specialized fortress cities have a bit more diversity. There are only a handful of ‘wonder’ improvements – improvements granted to only the first faction to build it. These are one of my favorite parts of games like Civilization and they are lacking in FE. There are very few unique faction improvements which could add a bit more flavor to city development. It may seem I’m being fairly negative about this aspect of the game, but it isn’t bad. The player has to prioritize how each city will be improved to meet their empire’s needs.  It just could have been raised from good to great.

Gildar (money) is used to pay for troop maintenance, recruit champions, buy equipment and can be used in trade. Research determines how fast new technologies are known. Mana is the currency of spell casting, both as a cost when a spell is cast and maintenance for city and unit buffs. Food determines the maximum population of the city and production how fast improvements and units are produced. Balancing the generation of these resources to support your strategy is an important aspect to FE.

The growth rate determines how fast people are flocking to your city. Unrest is a form of waste which leeches production and research away from your city. Both of these items can also be managed using improvements and spells.

One of the primary tasks for any sovereign is managing each city’s economy to support their immediate goals - such as researching a spell useful for clearing out some monsters blocking expansion, and the long term goal of pursuing a victory condition.

When the population reaches a particular amount, the city gets to level up and become a town, fortress or conclave. Each specializes in a different area. Towns improve the economy the most. Fortresses produce better units, have quicker unit production and are easier to defend. Conclaves boost the research provided by the city. Subsequent level ups provide a choice of special upgrades related to the type of city specialization. These are permanent choices so the player needs to decide what is best for their faction long term.  I love these types of choices to shape my experience.

The tax rate is another tool a ruler has to manage their economy. A higher tax rate brings in more money, but at the cost of higher unrest. A city’s unrest reduces its production and research, but if you quickly need some coin it may be the only option. In general I almost always find it beneficial to keep the tax rate low because it has the biggest overall benefit. It only makes sense to increase the tax rate when you are willing to sacrifice overall production and research to generate some money needed to rush production in a particular city or for use in a trade agreement.

All of these aspects to city management combine into a satisfying, but unspectacular package.

The Rest of the Resources

In addition to money, research, and mana there are some more important resources to collect. Prestige makes your faction more attractive to the people living out in the uncivilized world (these are abstracted and not visible anywhere). Prestige can be gained by researching various technologies, building world improvements (think wonder from Civ) and developing prestigious locations on the map. Prestige increases the growth rate of your cities and has an effect on diplomatic relations.

Crystal is mainly used to produce magical equipment and is mined from crystal deposits. Metal is used to create the more mundane equipment for your troops and is mined from iron deposits. Horses and wargs can be gathered to provide mounts for your troops. When designing troops, any can be put on a mount to give the associated benefits. All of these resources are stockpiled, meaning each turn you have one of these resource locations developed within your borders, the resource is collected and added to your pool. When you use the resource it is subtracted from your pool. This is a more natural mechanic then the way Civ handles strategic resources. I think a potential improvement to this mechanic would be to add a scavenger trait which allows the winning side of a battle to scavenge a portion of the materials from units lost in combat after the battle.

Shards are locations on the map that can be developed to provide mana and boost the power of certain spells. For example, some spells may provide extra damage if you have shards from the corresponding school – a fire shard can increase the power of some fire magic spells. These shards provide incentive to get out and explore to claim them before other factions do. This is a nice touch and I don’t recall a similar feature in other 4x games.


So your cities are producing research, what does it get you? Research is split into 3 different paths: civilization, warfare, and magic. Basically the civilization path improves the economy, warfare improves your ability to wage war by unlocking different equipment and boosting army size, and magic unlocks spells, magical equipment, and other aspects related to the arcane. With 3 separate paths research can proceed down one while neglecting another. This is an improvement over the 1 tech tree approach as it allows the player to specialize more. In other games you can only proceed so far down one path before hitting a requirements roadblock. In reality, neglecting the civilization path long term will cause your faction to fall behind but increased flexibility is certainly there. Unless you start with another faction in your lap, starting with the civilization path seems like it would always be the correct choice. The decision is at what point research should cut away from this path.


Some spells are unlocked via research, while others are only available to those skilled in a particular school of magic. There are 6 schools of magic, each with 5 levels. Sovereigns and champions can improve their spell abilities if the perk is offered when they level up, unlocking more powerful magic. It is nice to have some magic available to all while other magic requires specialization in that field. Everyone gets to play with some magic. I’m also impressed with the variety of spells – unit buffs, city buffs, healing, damage in tactical combat and more.  One spell can give a champion a level boost at the cost of some of your sovereign’s hit points. One faction has a spell that sacrifices a unit to gain some mana while another can use magic to bring an enemy city under their control. Magic is a powerful force in FE.

Is Anybody Out There?

The early game is all about exploration and collecting loot from loot drops on the map. Loot drops are marked with a green chest if that option is turned on.  At the start of the game your sovereign is the only unit you have. They can handle some of the easier encounters on their own, but will eventually need some help. Only sovereigns and champions can collect the loot drops. These can provide a variety of rewards – books that grant experience, weapons and armor, money, and more.

In addition to loot drops, many monster lairs dot the landscape. All monster lairs use the purple dragon icon. Lairs periodically produce units that can wander around their area and attack your troops and cities. In fact, if your borders grow to encompass a lair, the lair is destroyed and the monster will start to roam. If the creature is powerful, you may want to take care not to release it in this way. One of the factions actually has a trait so monsters don’t attack them. It makes exploring significantly less dangerous. These monsters provide much of the combat opportunities in the game and can be quite deadly. They feel similar to the wondering monsters in Warlock: Master of the Arcane and Conquest of Elysium 3. These creatures are not just thrown in to let the player get some early experience points and provide a mild distraction like the barbarians in Civilization, although early encounters tend to be easier. They must be actively managed like a serious enemy. I don’t fully understand how they decide when they will roam and what they decide to attack though. It seems rather hit or miss.
Procipanee eyes the loot drop and timber warg to the north.

All units level up when they acquire enough experience, usually through combat but also gained through other means such as books or quests. Trained units (built in cities) get stat bonuses, but sovereigns and champions also get to select a trait. These traits give the player a mechanism to tailor their champions’ strengths. At level 4 the sovereign or champion can be specialized into 1 of 5 fields, emphasizing different aspects of combat, magic, or city governorship. Hey, you got your RPG in my strategy game. Sovereign and champion leveling up are another strong point to the game.
See how Procipinee’s hit points have gone up due to a level bonus. She also gets a choice of 5 traits.
Unit Stats and Abilities

Since we are getting ready to take on the Timber Warg it is time to look at how units are modeled. The Timber Warg is just 1 of over 100 types of monsters roaming the land. Some of these are just variations of each other so it may not be as diverse as it seems, but the unit stats and abilities make fighting them interesting and varied. Take note that some people have been complaining that they wished for a more fantastical assortment as there are many based on more mundane creatures – bears, wolves, spiders, etc… Also the factions are essentially humanoid based with human based-units so those looking for bit more diversification may be disappointed. Most of the differences between the factions come from the faction traits themselves, not the individual units. Some factions can equip their units with variations of the standard equipment, making them improved in a particular area.

The unit stats and abilities are fairly detailed for this type of game. There are 3 physical attack types (bash, pierce, and cut). Some armor is better at protecting against certain attack types and various creatures resist particular kinds of damage too. You want match ups that favor your troops. Bash attacks can have a chance to knock someone down, unless of course they are so large or strong to have a perk that negates this effect. A pierce attack is good at penetrating armor. Cutting weapons tend to give the bearer a chance to counter attack when they are the target of an attack. Missed on your first swing with that axe? Don’t worry, you may catch them with the backswing. The cool thing is that technologies unlock equipment and you can design your own troops using a mix and match of things.

Once of my favorite aspects of the unit model is the initiative system. High initiative units attack first and attack more frequently. In many games initiative seems to only define the order units get to take action, but they each get one attack per turn. In FE, that lumbering ogre may be powerful but your faster units may get to take almost 2 actions to his one.

A creature’s chance to hit is their accuracy minus the target’s dodge. The creatures could use more variety in this area. While playing I noticed that creatures tend to hit more often than not and a quick perusal of the in-game help revealed why. It seems most creatures’ accuracy is in the 75-90% range, with more powerful creatures having a greater accuracy. Having some low accuracy / high damage creatures would have added a nice change of pace and some tension to their attacks.  Spells have an equivalent mechanic – a resistible spell’s chance to hit is the attacker’s spell mastery minus the target’s spell resistance. On top of that some creatures are better at reducing the elemental damage caused by spells and some weapons. That fire elemental probably won’t be afraid when he sees your sorcerer cast a fireball spell.

In addition to these stats a unit may have special abilities. One of my favorites is the maul ability possessed by a variety of creatures, such as the bear. A creature that can maul gets additional attacks as long as the prior attack hits. This can chain quite a few hits in a row on one attack. Each successive attack gets a reduced chance to hit. These abilities help give creatures their own personality. The timber warg has the counter attack ability and will respond to the first attack on him in kind between each one of his turns.

Tactical Combat

Combat can be resolved manually in tactical combat or the player can let the game autoresolve it. If you have overwhelming odds in your favor it is pretty safe to autoresolve the combat, but the player can make much better use of his unit’s special abilities than the AI can. I have autoresolved some battles and wondered why my troops took so much damage, even if none died. The icons along the left side depict the combat order. During their turn a unit can move and take an action such as attack, cast a spell or use an item. If they pass on their action they get a defense boost. The tactical battles are simpler than I would like. There aren’t any flanking bonuses or terrain effects during the battles. The battles simply involve managing your unit’s movement and ability usage. Units do exert zone of control around their position so there is some strategy regarding unit movement. Adding terrain effects would make the battles more interesting – either an effect based on the strategic map tile type or better yet, the individual tiles on the tactical map. Because the battles are pretty basic, I’m a little surprised at how much I enjoy them after getting so sick of the battles in the scenario.

The AI seems adequate in the tactical battles. The AI is good at managing the troops’ movement, keeping them out of harm’s way until they are ready to strike themselves. On the downside, it doesn’t always select the best target for its spells and abilities. For example, spiders have cast their web on mages and ranged units who probably weren’t going to move anyway. Why not take out a melee fighter? AI melee fighters cast berserk when they are several turns away from entering combat; raising their attack before it is necessary and taking 1 point of damage per turn for it. In another battle the AI blinded one of my champions and then slowed him. It would have been more effective to slow the other champion who had a much greater chance to hit them.
My sovereign summoned a shadow warg to aid her in battle.
A sovereign doesn’t permanently die in combat, but needs to recover before up to fighting strength. If a champion dies in combat they receive a wound which reduces their attributes in some way. Sometimes the penalty is pretty minor. Regular units trained in cities suffer permanent death. Sometimes death seems a little too forgiving for champions.


Champions are units that behave similarly to sovereigns. They can collect loot, use equipment, gain abilities when they level up, etc… They do cost money to recruit. Champions are allied to either the Kingdom or the Empire so a faction can only hire those who share the same loyalty, unless your faction processes the betrayer ability which allows champions to be hired regardless of loyalties. Game play changes like this keep the factions interesting. Nothing says you can’t kill the champions you find in the wild who are not loyal to your cause. If you can’t have them nobody can! Fatal Attraction?

Champions can make use of equipment, but the weight capacity must be managed. A champion that equips too much weight becomes encumbered. This reduces his initiative so the less frequent attacks must be balanced with the benefits of the equipment. The strength perk sometimes available when leveling up can increase the amount of weight a champion can equip without encumbrance.
Procipanee gave some armor to her champion, which slowed down his initiative.


After exploring the surrounding terrain, a suitable location for a second city should be discovered. In one game I was quite isolated and it took some time while in some cases I found one rather quickly. Founding new cities is handled by the pioneer unit. It should also be noted that resource deposits can be found in areas where it isn’t suitable to build a city. This is where outposts come in – structures used to bring resources into your borders so they can be exploited. These can also be targets of opportunity if you don’t protect them. I have had the AI destroy my resource harvesting improvements when they were not protected. Outposts have their own upgrades to improve the combat effectiveness of friendly troops protecting them in addition to other benefits.
With its high materials this new location may be a nice spot for a Fortress so it can pump out units if need be.

At some point along the way your champions will find quests to fulfill. These are optional affairs that involve traveling to some location to kill a creature for a reward. I haven’t encountered any that were particularly interesting, but are just another way to get some loot and experience.

The Wildlands is a special area of the map that contains tough creatures and vast treasure. They are also supposed to contain some of the best city locations on the map. I’ve managed to conquer 1. In my other games I never really needed to explore them to achieve victory.


Chances are you’ll eventually find another faction and you’ll need to decide if you want to befriend them or steal their lunch money. Unfortunately the diplomatic model is the most poorly documented area of the game. On one hand the relationship model is pretty transparent; the foreign relations tab of the ledger displays all of the factors affecting their opinion of you. This is good. I really dislike it when games hide the factors driving the AI’s opinion of you. Unfortunately the possible factors are not listed anywhere, but at least some of them are self explanatory. The numbers associated with a factor aren’t static either. Originally ‘You are weak’ was a -1, but now it decreased to -2. Looks like I’ll have to divert some of my production to military assets. I usually delay this as long as possible to build up the economy as much as I can.  

It is easy to see how your faction compares to another faction. When speaking with them it is easy to compare many of your faction’s vitals to theirs. There are a variety of treaties to enter too. There are non aggression pacts, two varieties of economic treaties and technology treaties, and alliances if their faction likes you enough. For most of these options the effect is clearly displayed during negotiations. The economic treaty isn’t mentioned anywhere, but some helpful forum members explained the effects to me. Usually I have to sweeten the deal to get the other side to make such agreements with me. I don’t think I have ever concentrated on generating much influence.

When another faction is against the ropes, they sometimes spam you with requests for peace. There should be a limit to the frequency they can make such requests. It is FE’s version of ‘Are we there yet’?
Time for a chat.

The User Interface

In general the user interface supplies all of the necessary information one needs to manage their empire and locate their various assets. A ledger exists to get an at a glance look at your kingdom’s economy and various enchantments in affect – allowing the player to dispel unneeded enchantments or jump to a city. Toolstips abound to provide details of most elements. Units and cities are easy to navigate to using the list of icons on the left side.

When the player zooms out, the strategic map changes into a ‘cloth style’ map giving a better overview of the entire area or world. The entire game can be played from this view as all important information is communicated here. Cities, outposts, resources, monster lairs and units are all displayed. On the regular strategic map I sometimes had trouble picking out monsters and enemy units from the terrain. When I zoom out to the cloth map, units are more clearly displayed in a miniature board game style.

There are some aspects of the UI that lack polish or exhibit odd behavior. One of my biggest gripes is that when ordering your units on a multi-turn trip, the number of turns needed to reach the destination isn’t displayed. I can’t believe such a basic feature is missing. The escape key doesn’t open up the option menu. I can’t remember playing a game lately where this didn’t occur.

An indication is displayed on the left side of the screen when a city is idle, but I find myself not noticing it right away sometimes. An audible cue would be appreciated to draw more attention to it, or have an option to get a popup message when a turn is ending with an idle city. It would need to be an option since sometimes cities are left idle intentionally. The best case would be to have a global option for a popup message that can be set to ignore in individual cities.

The hiergameon is an online manual of sorts that has information about the different elements of the game, but falls short in several areas. The details about city improvements are only displayed in a tooltip instead of the item’s description which leads to unnecessary hovering and waiting. To avoid confusion it would be nice if spells and other items only available to a particular faction were marked as such.

Some of the fonts at 1920x1080 can be a little small. Luckily the text is clearly rendered and the size was never an obstacle for me, but I can see people with less than perfect eyesight having a bit of trouble.

Some abilities or spells have a cool down period, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to see that for your enemies in battle. It would be nice to know how frequently that earth elemental can hurl a bolder at my guys.

According to the tech tree the Destiny’s Guard unit should unlock with Leatherworking, but Training is also needed due to its shield. This caused me to waste a significant period of time while I tried to figure out why I couldn’t train the unit. There are other units that have the same problem.

A couple times during the course of one of my games the unit path finding on the map didn’t work correctly. I had a clear path to an enemy unit and ordered one of mine to move next to it. It high tailed it in the opposite direction – appearing to take an alternate route. When I ordered it to attack the enemy unit it moved as expected.

A combat log exists detailing the different exchanges in battle, but it would be nice if it provided more detailed information, such as the % chance to hit (accuracy and dodge), attack, defense, and spell mastery, etc… of each exchange. This would allow a player to more easily see why their troops performed how they did.

The player is presented with a ranking and score at the end of the game, but there doesn’t seem to be any hall of fame or high score list. These types of games usually have such a feature to mark your accomplishments (time sinks) for posterity.

Difficulty and AI

There are 9 levels of difficulty. The one above normal (called challenging) uses the best AI algorithms while the AI doesn’t receive any bonuses to give it a boost. I easily won my first game at normal and won all of my others at challenging without too much of a problem.  When I focused on building up my economy, the AI did try to take advantage of my weakness. I did find that there was more of a challenge on larger maps. My first games were on a small map, where I could concentrate my power into one army. On a medium map I was forced to have two strong armies to cover multiple fronts. I think you can see the pattern here – larger map requires less reliance on your sovereign.

As I mentioned earlier, the AI has trouble targeting its spells at the best unit to get the most beneficial effect and sometimes uses abilities in non-optimal situations. I’m hoping that Mr. Wardell will continue to work in this area as he has a reputation as a strong AI developer.

With the plethora of difficulty settings players should be able to select one that provides a challenge, but experienced strategy gamers will probably need to play one where the AI does get some bonuses to make it more competitive. In general, this is true for almost any strategy game so this shouldn’t be too surprising.

Modding Tools
Fallen Enchantress ships with modding tools. I’m not a modder and didn’t really take more than a cursory glance at them.  The tools appeared to provide the means to create custom maps, along with the ability to create some new building blocks for those maps. It seemed like it should be intuitive, but at first I couldn’t even place a creature location from the palette onto my custom map. After restarting Fallen Enchantress I was able to.  I’m not sure if it was user error or instability of the modding tools. That being said, there seems to be a lot of support for modding on the forums. A good place to start would be here.

Much or all of the data is in xml files, so it appears users can create new creatures and other aspects of the game.

Graphics and Sound
I can’t say I was either amazed or appalled with the visual appearance of FE. The strategic map has areas of lush greens and drab browns, with terrain features clearly marked. The creature unit models were detailed enough and some had quite a bit of character. Text was crisp and clear, although bordering on slightly small at times. The city graphics as viewed on the strategic map tended to look a bit like a mess until the view was zoomed in fairly close. My biggest issue was that I sometimes had trouble picking out wandering units on the strategic map. They could use one of the hud icons like other elements. Other than that, none of the visual elements hampered my enjoyment of the game.

To be honest I tend to block out the music in games. There are times I notice stand out tunes that get embedded in my brain and I hear them in my sleep, but for the most part they fade into the ether unless they are too loud or obnoxious. FE’s music is somewhere out in the ether for me which is ok by me. I don’t expect to be enthralled with game music. To be honest, I don’t even know if there is in-game music outside of the menu. I know it isn’t there all the time.

Technical Performance
The game performed almost flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups. I did have 1 crash while loading a saved game, but after restarting FE the save loaded without error. I had been tabbing in and out of the game extensively, along with exiting my game to the main menu and starting a new one. Performance was smooth zooming in and out of the strategic map. Late game turn times on a medium map were about 5 seconds.

My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
Fantasy 4x strategy gamers have had a pretty good year between Warlock: Master of the Arcane and now Fallen Enchantress. I prefer the deeper experience of Fallen Enchantress, but I hear Warlock has received a number of updates improving the game play. For Fallen Enchantress exploration, city management, research, magic, foreign relations and tactical battles all add up to a satisfying package. Please, please don’t play the scenario before trying the sandbox game as you may get turned off by it. The ultimately boring scenario focused on easy, repetitive tactical battles instead of the entire feature set of the game.

Huge amounts of customization are available when creating your own sovereigns and factions. Unit customization isn’t nearly as interesting, but still worthwhile with the inclusion of traits in addition to equipment. I’m generally not a big fan of custom unit design, but FE does a good job. City improvements tend to be bland economic buffs, but city specialization and leveling up make up for it. The game could use more faction-specific buildings and ‘wonders’. There are a good variety of resources to manage, each with their own use.

Having 3 separate research trees adds some flexibility to the player’s strategy. Magic is powerful and varied. Discovering shard locations and securing them for your benefit to boost your magical power is a nice touch.

While the tactical combat could be made more interesting with terrain effects and flanking, the detailed unit model with stats, traits, and equipment adds enough variety to combat to keep it interesting. I love the initiative system instead of the ‘I move all my units, now you move your approach’. Fast units get more frequent turns! RPG aspect of your sovereign and champions are fun to manage as they level up. The tactical AI needs a bit of tweaking so it uses spells and abilities more intelligently.

With some improvements I can see this franchise becoming an ‘A’ level game. As it stands I can easily recommend it for any 4x strategy fan, especially those with a fantasy bent. Fallen Enchantress tempted my to ditch the scores altogether as I waffled between an A- and B+. Grading something with so many subjective factors is too arbitrary.  Just buy it.

Score: B+

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Quick Take: From Dust

Well, I already decided to uninstall From Dust after completing 6 out of 13 chapters from the story and 11 out of 30 challenges. The solutions to the story mode chapters and challenges were usually pretty obvious. The clunky cursor movement was the biggest challenge, specially during the timed challenges.

The color palette was nice and the interplay of the elements had its cool moments. I can't say it was worth the $4 I paid during the Steam Summer sale. I didn't feel any sense of reward or accomplishment completing about 40% of the game. Think of this post more as a public service announcement.

Score: D

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ticket To Ride PC: Review

Ticket To Ride (PC): Review
Version Reviewed: 1.2.1 
What I like: Simple rules but strategic choices, have to adapt to changing conditions, fast play, easy to use multiplayer, no obnoxious opponents so far.
Not So Much: Less than stellar AI, multiplayer lobby could have more features, no hotseat.
Other stuff you may like: The repetitive music????
The Verdict: C+ (solo), B (online)
About my reviews

Official site:
Ticket To Ride

Ticket To Ride is an award-winning board game which I have never played but have seen mentioned many times. It feels similar in spirit to games such as Settlers of Catan – simple rules, but having some strategic depth. As you can guess from the title Ticket To Ride is railroad themed, but it doesn’t really matter if you are interested in trains or railroads. Like any card-based game there is some luck involved, but your actions heavily influence your success. I believe the PC game is a faithful recreation of the boardgame.

2 to 5 players can face off, either as a single player game vs. the AI or online against human opponents (I assume they are human anyway). AI bots can also be added to online games to bolster the number of players. Unfortunately there isn’t any hotseat play for multiple players at a single computer.

Getting Started
There are multiple tracks one can take to learn the game. There is a tutorial video describing the game in about 5 minutes which is probably sufficient, but I prefer reading the short rulebook contained within the game. The tutorial video doesn’t have any type of playback controls, so no pausing, rewinding or skipping ahead. An interactive tutorial can also help guide you through your game. The rules are simple so players shouldn’t have a hard time picking them up.

The game comes with a USA map to play, but Europe and Switzerland maps are available too via DLC. These also incorporate some rule changes, so if you’re enjoying the game and want to add some variety these DLCs may be of interest. For a single player game, choose a map and number of players and you’re ready to depart. Woo – woo!

Game Play
Cities on the map are connected by routes – the colored boxes running between the cities. These are claimed by using the colored cards in your hand - a route made up of 4 red boxes would require the player to play 4 red cards. There are also wild cards that can be used as any color and grey routes that can be claimed by any same-colored set of cards. Points are earned for each route claimed with longer routes earning more points.  One of the frequent decisions a player is confronted with is whether to take a longer route for more points, or to grab a shorter route so their path isn’t cut off, as only one player can claim a route. When playing with 4+ players the double routes come into play – letting 2 players claim a route. As you can see from the board below, the double routes are made up of two different colors, except for the grey ones which can be claimed using any color.

The player also has access to destination cards. These represent cities spanning multiple routes and earn the player more points at the end of the game. The player can see how many destination cards a player has, but not how many they have completed so you never know for sure how other players are progressing with their destinations. The destination points are deducted from your total if the game ends and the destination route hasn’t been completed. Again, longer destinations net the player more points but are more difficult to complete. In the screen shot above I have two destination cards in the lower right corner. Montreal – Atlanta is currently selected resulting in the respective cities highlighted by green circles on the map, making for a helpful visual aid when planning the path you wish to take.

Each player starts with 45 trains to place on the map, which get used every time a route is claimed. Once a player is down to 2 or less trains, there is one more turn for each player before the game ends and the points are tallied. It is at this point the players’ destination cards are revealed. It is rather dramatic watching the points get tallied up, hoping that you netted enough to take the victory. The player with the longest continuous route is awarded 10 bonus points. It would be nice if each player’s longest track length was displayed during the game. During play the tracks must be manually counted to determine who has the longest section of track.

Players can take 1 of 3 actions on their turn. First, the player may draw 2 colored train cards from the visible ones along the right hand side or from the blue draw stack. These are the cards used to claim a route. If a wild card is chosen from the visible cards it counts as 2 choices, forcing the player to decide whether quality or quantity is more helpful in their situation.
The second action is to claim a route using the colored train cards. The last action is to draw more destination cards. This is accomplished by drawing 3 and choosing to keep at least 1. This can be risky later in the game as you don’t want to be stuck with any unfinished destinations.

Difficulty and AI
The AI has been a bit of a pushover in the 12 or so games I played against it. I did lose 2 close games, but there were times I beat the combined score of the 2 AI players. I’m a bit disappointed the solo game isn’t more challenging. I understand making a competitive AI is difficult, but this game seems more suited to the possibility than others. The AI for the Xbox 360 version of Settlers of Catan puts up a good fight and I don’t see Ticket to Ride being much more complicated than that. There is only one difficulty level. The solo game becomes more challenging as more AI players are added.

The lack of a competitive AI forces you to turn to online play for some competition as there isn’t any hotseat play either. Luckily games are easy to get into and there have always been available players. I’m not a big chatterer during games with strangers and so far I have been granted similarly subdued participants.

Each player has two scores. The first is karma – which you gain by completing games and lose by quitting games before they are completed. This can assist players avoid others who are bad sports. The second score is a chess-like rating to get a good idea of a player’s ability. Unfortunately a player’s score isn’t easily viewed when joining a game, so you don’t necessarily know what you are getting yourself into.

The leaderboard features are also sparse. The only way to navigate it is one page at a time. Players can’t jump to their score or to the end to see how many players there are. As of this time there are 12000+ entries and it probably took me 10 minutes to page from the start to the end.

One tactic available in the game is to block other players’ routes with your own trains, even if you don’t need to build a route there for your own destinations. It seems like in general this is frowned upon and I have only done it after the player did it to me. Some games are advertised as ‘non-blocking’, so it is a good idea to respect the game creators wishes.

Graphics and Sound
Ticket to Ride’s graphics definitely reflect its boardgame roots. The route and card colors are easily matched up and the presentation is generally clear. Since the train colors players use match the route colors, the claimed routes don’t always stand out as much as I’d like. It would be nice if the train colors were different from the routes or had some type of pattern to make them jump out more. Not a huge deal but it can be a minor annoyance. The player has the option to go full screen or play the game in a window.

I finally found a game that bothered to turn off the music. I kept it on the first 30 games and then asked myself why. The repetition started to drive me crazy. While the music fits the games atmosphere, the old time hotel piano isn’t really to my tastes.

Technical Performance
For the most part there was not any performance issues. Clicks were sometimes sluggish to register, along with dragging cards to the board to claim a route. Online there were occasional pauses where the game seemed to hang up. Since this isn’t a first person shooter these pauses didn’t seriously affect the games but they were a nuisance.
Edit: See first comment.

My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
Ticket To Ride is a very simple game to learn, but is a challenge against the online players. Like any card-based game, luck is involved but the better player will win the majority of the Ticket To Ride games. It would be nice if the AI players were more competent to provide a stiffer challenge when playing solo, like the Xbox Live version of Settlers of Catan. Increasing the number of AI players in a solo game makes the game more challenging to win. A more feature laden online lobby, with skill-based match making and friendlier leaderboard would improve the online experience. As it stands the solo game is decent filler if you don’t have time for something with more meet on it and the online game provides a challenge in an easy to digest package.

Score: C+ (solo), B (online)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Warlock: Master of the Arcane Contest!!

Everyone knows 12 o'clock is the witching hour. The first 5 prospective Warlocks who leave a comment the closest to 12 noon CDT (GMT - 5:00) on June 8th 2012 at will receive a free Warlock: Master of the Arcane code from me, courtesy of the generous folks at Paradox Interactive. Then you too can join in the magical fun.

Please either post your comment from an account you can be contacted at or include a way to contact you in your contest submission.

Edit: 9:56 AM -- 
I will be away from the computer for a bit at an appointment, so I will announce the winners as soon after noon as I can. I don't expect to be gone too much past noon. Please remember to include contact info with your submission. I forgot to mention the code is a Steam code.

For more information on this game please visit the official site

Friday, May 25, 2012

Warlock-Master of the Arcane: Review

Version Reviewed:
What I like: Unit perks and leveling, numerous special resources and spells, combat, multiple races.
Not So Much: City management a little too streamlined, some minor UI quirks, a bit easy, end game slog.
Other stuff you may like: Multiplayer in future patch?
The Verdict: B (Good)
About my reviews

Official site:
Warlock: Master of the Arcane

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Paradox Interactive

If you’ve played any turn-based 4x strategy game, the following scene will be very familiar. One city, accompanied by a unit or two surrounded by blanket covering the unknown. These are the starting conditions of most games in this genre. For those unfamiliar with 4x strategy games, the game play consists of exploring the unknown to expand your holdings by building cities. Your cities exploit the resources of the land to fuel your war machine so you can exterminate your rivals. Comparisons are unavoidable, especially when looking for material to fill an introduction. Visually, Warlock shares much with Civilization V, but instead of a world filled with people - vampires, dragons, trolls and other mystical creatures share the landscape with humans. Much of the usual management that comprises a typical 4x game has been trimmed or eliminated from Warlock making for a much faster-paced game. Combat is always a major part of 4x games, but Warlock’s focus on battle is even sharper.

Currently the game is single-player only, but I believe multiplayer is planned for a future update. The lack of multiplayer is not a big deal for me, but I’m sure others will be disappointed.

Getting Started
The manual for Warlock is sorely lacking much of the information I expect to be included for a strategy game. There must be some agreement, because the developer also published a beginner’s guide after release. This fills in many of the holes, but there are still some explanations lacking, such as the mechanics of non-aggression pacts. There are also in-game hints that cover some basics which can be turned off once the player is comfortable. Since this is a familiar genre much can be gleaned from the tooltips and some experimentation, but I would have liked to see more comprehensive documentation.

Warlock provides randomly generated worlds to conquer. There isn’t any story-based campaign or handcrafted scenarios to provide specific challenges. While I do enjoy story-based campaigns, this is a $20 game, so labor-intensive extras can’t necessarily be expected. My favorite aspect of 4x games is to start with nothing and make my own way, so Warlock has me covered.

There are 5 different difficulty levels, but anyone with experience in the genre could probably start out at ‘challenging’ - the second hardest level. ‘Normal’ was too easy from the get go. The player can also control how much water and land they want in their world by choosing 1 of 4 world types. I would suggest going with the more land-based options since the AI isn’t always careful enough with their troops when deciding where to invade. There are 4 world sizes available. In general, the larger the world the more time it will take the player to conquer it. In turn, this leads to more time to research spells and get access to upper tier troops. The downside is that the end game can turn into a bit of a slog while working your way to the last enemy’s capital. Up to 8 enemy mages can populate the world, depending on the map size. There are a few other options to help tweak the experience.

Premade mages are available for your in-game persona, each specializing in a different aspect of the game. One mage may excel at providing food, while another can cast spells more rapidly than normal. Mages may also start with some spells in their spell book. The player can create custom mages by using a point-based system to select the desired perks and spells. This is a nice touch to tailor play for your particular style. I suppose the player could also select perks that don’t enhance their style of play for a self inflicted penalty too. There is enough variety in the mage perks and spells to create mages with varied abilities.

Game Play
Warlock is geared for a quicker pace than most 4x games due to streamlined play and rapid build times. In a game such as Civilization, it may take 20+ turns to build a building or recruit a unit. In Warlock these actions typically take between 2 and 5 turns. Whether this is a good thing depends on your preferences. I will highlight some of these aspects later in the review.

Some say love makes the world go round, but others argue it is the economy. Warlock employs a simple system. If your empire produces enough food, your cities grow at the normal rate. If not, a starvation penalty is applied. As your cities grow in size they consume more food. Food is also used for some units’ upkeep. Any food above and beyond what is needed is sold for cold hard cash. Undead cities don’t require food and aren’t affected by starvation penalties. Flesh to eat is easy to find if you don’t mind feasting on people.

Gold is used to purchase units and pay for some units’ upkeep. Unlike food, you can accumulate gold if more is produced than spent. Mana can be accumulated like gold, and is used to cast spells. More powerful spells typically require more mana. Again, some creatures’ upkeep is paid with mana. The last resource is research, which is used to unlock spells.

The above resources are gained by developing your cities with buildings. One of the simplifications of the Warlock economy is that for the most part it really doesn’t matter where you develop your buildings. A farm built on desert is just as productive as one built on plains. There aren’t any terrain improvements either, such as irrigating a farm. There are features on some hexes that enable a special building to be erected on them. This can add strategic choices to the game because some resources have multiple buildings to develop them. There are other considerations too, such as what hexes should be reserved for defensive towers, and travel is faster on developed hexes within your lands, but the system is simplified. I prefer a little more depth to the economic portion of 4x titles. Buildings can’t be destroyed even though there is reference to such a feature in the manual, so make sure you are happy with your choices. The buildings can be disabled, so the upkeep doesn’t have to be paid for unnecessary buildings.

Cities are very much a part of the economic model, but I thought they deserve their own mention. Every time a city acquires another 1000 citizens, another building slot becomes available. So while buildings are built rapidly (typically 2-4 turns), there is a limit as to how much can be built. There aren’t ‘productive’ cities that build at faster pace like in Civilization. The build times are standard for each building. City population growth is also standardized and not based on food production. The only way to speed up the population growth is by casting spells on the city

Let’s Get Started
The first 10 turns provide a pretty good opportunity to see many of the mechanics in action. As you can see our starting city (our Capital) is surrounded by unexplored lands. Our first task will be to remove this shroud so we can locate unoccupied land with valuable special resources to exploit. The capital is the most important city because if lost, the game is over for its owner. Once a Warlock is eliminated all of his cities will turn neutral. Once capitals develop they become pretty strong and are not trivial to conquer.

Our units have uncovered some special resources, so I think we have found a good site for our second city. After a city grows it can develop hexes up to 3 hexes away, so these resources are out of reach for our starting city. We have also encountered one of the obstacles to early expansion – monsters that roam the land. Some hexes have lairs - monster generators – that periodically spawn monsters. If a player can move a unit onto the lair they recover some treasure (usually gold or mana) and remove the lair from the map.

Our capital also has an available build slot, so we get to plan how we might develop this city. There is a silver resource north of the city which will provide 1 of 2 benefits depending on which building we choose to build. Currently it is out of our radius, but once our city hits level 5 our radius will expand to 2 hexes in each direction so it doesn’t hurt to consider it for future plans. Many special resources can either provide an economic benefit (generate resources) or provide a perk for our units (such as an improved attack). I selected the Ratsman Guild for my first building since it leads to the tax office which will improve gold generation for my city. Since I have a silver mine by my capital, I may focus it on money generation. The ratsman guild also allows the recruitment of some rat-based units.

We also need to select our first spell to research. Research is handled a little differently in Warlock and is one of the more streamlined elements. 6 spells are randomly selected to occupy our research wheel, each having its own research cost. In general spells get more powerful as spells are researched. Our cities provide research by building particular buildings. As you can see in the above screen shot our capital is generating 5 research points (the books in the top bar).  Once our research is complete, the spell is replaced with another random spell. On the positive side, this randomized spell availability forces the player to adapt while still giving them some control. There isn’t a huge tech tree to memorize because the possibilities are not predictable. I prefer a bit more control and like the typical Civ-style tech tree, but Warlock’s method isn’t without merits. I decided to select the Heal spell to help keep my troops alive. I already have the lesser fireball to inflict damage.

I decided to cast a lesser fireball spell on the spider to weaken it. Each spell has a mana cost and a certain amount of time needed to cast it, expressed in number of turns. Since my mage has the archmage perk he can cast spells 20% faster than other mages. I have the available mana so I hit the spider with 2 lesser fireballs in the same turn. I couldn’t do that without my archmage perk. The spiders don’t have elemental resistance, so my fireball does normal damage.

There are 5 different types of damage and resistances (melee, missile, life, death, spirit and elemental). It pays to try and get favorable match ups where your enemy doesn’t have resistances to your damage type and / or you do have resistances to theirs. Units have several other attributes too; one or more damage types, movement type and speed, hit points, sight range, and upkeep. They may also have special perks or abilities that affect their performance. An important aspect of combat is that a unit’s attack gets scaled by their remaining hit points. A unit at 50% hit points will cause 50% of their normal damage. Also, melee attacks get counter attacked so be prepared to also take some damage on the attack.

Turn 2
My archer finished off the spiders and received 4 experience points for his efforts. Once a unit acquires enough experience, they level up and a perk can be selected. These perks improve some aspect of the unit’s performance, so it pays to keep your units alive. That is why I like to get a healing spell pretty early on if I can. My unit loots the spider hole to eliminate the spider threat and finds some gold for his efforts.

I would really like to build some settlers so I can claim this resource-rich piece of land, but the city needs to grow to size 5 before settlers become available. Requiring a city to be a certain size before producing certain units or buildings is a simple but effective way to throttle back their production in certain areas until they experience enough growth.

After scouting a little bit further south I uncovered a bear. They are susceptible to missile attacks (like all beasts are) so I would like to get my archers in position for attack.

Turn 3
The UI provides some reminders along the lower right side when certain events occur. The top small circle notifies me that my unit recruitment is complete, the 2nd that I can now build settlers since my city grew to level 5, and finally that I have 3 units to move. You can end a turn at any time by pressing the enter key, so you don’t have to address each alert. My settlers are now in the recruitment queue. Normally I would also be able to start creating a new building since the city grew a level, but the city is still finishing the guild. Build times are only based on the building or unit being constructed. One city isn’t more or less productive than any other. This is one illustration of the simplified city management. There are no workers to improve the terrain or to build a road network between your cities.

I’m going to hold off attacking the bears until next turn so I can weaken them with some fireballs, arrows, and then melee since the bears get a defensive bonus for occupying a hill. My units are also on a hill so they will have some protection if the bear attacks.

Turn 4
The bear did attack my ratmen robbers and scored a critical hit. The manuals don’t give any indication how critical hits are calculated or what the effect is. It’s one of the places the documentation is a bit weak. Critical hits cause more damage, but I have no idea how the frequency of critical hits is determined.

Since my building finished, I can now construct the building I’m entitled to when my capital grew from size 4 to size 5. Notice how the city’s radius is now 2 hexes, so the silver mine can now be developed. The radius will eventually increase to 3 hexes after more growth. There are essentially 5 ways I can improve my capital at the moment:
- Increase its protection by building a fort or tower. These provide a ranged attack from the hex they are built in.
- Increase its money production by building a silver mine, tax office, or craftsmen district.
- Increase the food production by building a farm, pub or granary.
- Provide access to unit perks by building a smithy or silverwork brewery.
- Increase mana production by building a mana trap.

Most buildings can only be built once per city, but towers and some economic ones can be built multiple times in a single city.

Even though I would like to develop the silver mine, I decided to build a pub for food production so I don’t slow down my city’s growth. As you can see in the top bar I only have a small positive net amount of food. I will have a tough choice to make when it comes time to develop the silver mine as I will have to choose between a building that provides more money, or one that provides access to a unit perk.

It would be suicide for the ratmen robbers to attack the bears at this point. Since the ratmen retreated they now occupy the plains and receive an additional uphill attack penalty if they attack the bears on the hills. Some fireballs and an archer attack finish off the bears. Since the bears are dead and the ratmen robbers don’t have any adjacent enemies, they can rest to recover some of their hit points. There are 2 lost caravans on the map now, 1 by the bears and the other several hexes to the left. They are the ‘goodie huts’ of Warlock. Looting them will be my next objective.

Turn 5
Yeah, my settler is produced! Boo I now have negative food production so people are starving. This will be quickly remedied when my pub is built and my settler is used to create a new city. The two looted caravans added some gold and mana to my coffers.

I don’t have as much room to expand as I would like as I found another great mage to the south. I did add one more AI opponent then the default amount for my normal map size, so things are a little more cramped than usual. We start off at peace, but if this is like my other games it won’t be long before he demands resources. I could comply to maintain peace, but I typically opt to destroy him. I could initiate some diplomacy on my own too. The diplomacy options are fairly limited. By fairly, I mean very. On the peaceful side I could gift some mana or gold, or propose a trade if I am short on one. I could also propose a non-aggression pact, but I would have to part with some resources to do so. Mouse over the blue bar to see what is affecting your relationship with the other mage. Relations and diplomacy are only briefly covered in the manual. This area could use much more explanation. From what I have observed, diplomacy is only really used to try and delay the inevitable, war.

Turn 6 & 7
My pub is complete so food production is back to normal. My new friend is sending out a settler, which is definitely going to put a damper on our relations because I feel I have to kill it. My healing spell is also researched and my new option is wind walking, which provides travel benefits. Instead I select the lesser shadow bolt in case my neighbor has units with elemental resistance for my fireball. What is the Boy Scout saying? Be prepared to kill your enemy in as many ways as possible? War is declared and the settler is eliminated. My units back off because I’m not ready to take his capital, which now has 250 hit points. I need more firepower for that, something which gets a bonus to city attacks would help.

Turn 8
My spot for a new city is even better than originally thought. In addition to the magic field and magic nodes, pigs and donkeys will also be in range once the city expands. Resources such as these are always fun to find and develop.

Turn 9 & 10
Finished my research and now lesser heal is available even though I have already researched the more powerful heal spell. I wish the random spells came up in a more logical order sometimes. The less powerful spell uses less mana and heals less, so it can have its uses, but seems backwards to learn after heal. I decide to learn summon imp so I can whip up a unit in a hurry if need be. It’s getting a little crowded with these neutral cities, so I think the one closest to my capital will be the next target. At 50 hit points it shouldn’t be too difficult with the addition of the archers I just produced.

And Now For Something Completely Different…
Well not different at all really. Time to touch on some of the game play not covered above.

Each mage leads one of the 3 races – human, undead, or monster - which determine the available buildings and units in their starting city. Many buildings are common between the races, but each has their own unique ones. The unique buildings allow each race to raise an army different from the others, providing a somewhat different play experience. You can take over other races’ cities by force giving access to those buildings and troops, but resource production will receive a penalty due to the racial tensions. I would have preferred some type of troop penalty too for mixing the races to keep each player more distinct. By the end of the game a player can probably field troops from any of the races which eliminate some of the uniqueness of your starting race.  

Other Worlds
In concept a cool idea - provide portals to other worlds which have powerful creatures and untold riches. The other worlds can provide unique resources to exploit providing some worthwhile benefits. There are some issues with the implementation. First, I haven’t ever felt I needed these resources to defeat my foes. Second, the other worlds have so many strong units inside them that I would need to divert my forces away from the enemy to gain a foothold. So far focusing on the enemy has been a good strategy. Third, I haven’t seen the AI take advantage of the other worlds.

The game throws frequent quests at the player. Some don’t inflict a penalty for failure, but some do. If the gods offer a quest and you don’t comply, your relation with them suffers. Make them happy and you may receive rewards. The quests are not interesting in and of themselves – kill monster A, build building B, settle a city. The quest system also has some quirks. I received a quest to kill a monster and never did so. I’m assuming an AI player killed it because I eventually got credit for the task.

I’ve talked about spells and their research, but haven’t covered the variety of spells available. Spells are a nice mixture of direct attack, unit buffs and curses, city buffs and curses, etc. There are over 50 spells to research and have a significant effect on the game. Spell cast times keep magic from getting too crazy.

Victory Conditons
There are several ways a warlock can defeat his rivals. Probably the most common method is to kill them all! So far all of my victories have been acquired with this method. The second way is called domination and involves seizing the majority of the holy grounds – a special resource where a temple can be built. The third involves researching the Unity spell and casting it. Researching the Unity spell can be started only after researching the other 50+ spells and then takes another 10-20 turns to cast. During this time the casting can be interrupted if a rival mage casts a relatively cheap counter spell. This makes it a tough way to win, but I did lose this way for my first loss. I never researched the counter spell and couldn’t conquer his capital fast enough. The last way is to anger a god enough so he sends down his avatar to squash your mortal being. If you can defeat this avatar, you win. I haven’t ever angered a god enough to see what this is like.

The AI & Difficulty
I found the difficulty setting needs to be set to at least challenging (second hardest) to well, get a challenge. I may need to try the hardest setting. I haven’t seen a lot of absolutely dumb moves by the AI, so I’m not sure where the problem lies. The AI pulls back units to heal, blasts you with appropriate spells and can protect his cities well with towers. The biggest failure I have seen is when the AI relentlessly makes aquatic assaults into areas protected with towers. It occasionally passes up on a target of opportunity too.

Graphics and Sound
I find the game to be attractive, but readers can decide for themselves with all of the screenshots. It can be difficult to distinguish similar looking units when zoomed out, but tooltips help in that regard. The terrain is attractive and identifiable. Music and effects are appropriate.

Technical Performance
I didn’t have any performance issues, but experienced some minor bugs. The mini map sometimes remains black, but other times it works. You can see this in my screen shots. The early ones are black, but start working towards the bottom. I don’t recall if they started working when I restarted Warlock. There were times the interface didn’t properly reflect the correct information. During setup, I had the AI opponents set to 4, but the text still stated 3. When I disabled building within my city, the display of the amount of resources produced got out of sync and didn’t reflect the proper values.

My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a wordy title to a worthwhile game. Those looking for a more combat oriented 4x title will appreciate the streamlined city management and research while those looking for something a bit more meaty may find Warlock a bit light. I tend to like a bit meaty, but still found Warlock fun. Magic has a significant impact on play and gives the game much of its flavor. The variety of unit perks, both from leveling up and special buildings lets the player have a significant effect on how his units perform. In my opinion, combat is more enjoyable in Warlock than in Civilization 5, but I do enjoy the greater number of options in Civ when it comes to managing my empire. Warlock also does a better job at managing its troops.

All isn’t rosey. So far the game is a little easy. Some units and skills seem over powered - the vampire ability (absorb health with attack) let me create a killing machine. The other worlds don’t have the impact they should for reasons I mention elsewhere. As I mentioned, the documentation can still be improved, even after adding the beginners guide. A strategy game should really take the time to explain the mechanics.  The player can reduce the end game slog by choosing a smaller map, but this is at the cost of researching less and getting less access to higher tier units.

The developer has shown an interest in improving the title with several patches, so I am hopeful it will continue to be improved. The recent DLC shows work is still being done on the product. For $20 you get quite a bit of game even if it doesn’t have the legs of some other 4x titles. Hopefully some expansions will take the game to the next level.

Score: B (Good)