In Russia, the games play you
Top tier games today have a particular design goal that’s really messing up games: remove the parts of a game that are not fun. It seems like a good idea, but often designers forget that challenge, even if not fun, still can improve the game. There are many examples, but a recent one most readers would know concerns Diablo III. Building a perfectly made character was a challenge in Diablo II — one wrong skill point can never be fixed. Since messing up a character isn’t fun, Diablo III lets you completely rebuild your character at will… and now I have no reason to play the game more than one time with each character class. More fun? Maybe, but I was done with the game much more quickly than I would have been otherwise.
When the first Civilization came out, it didn’t have a “save game” feature. Yes, it could have had it, but brilliant game designer Sid Meier felt that the game was better if it wasn’t so easy to just “save and reload” all the time. They don’t make games like that anymore, not in the mainstream, where challenging stuff gets snipped out of the final design, every time.
“…independent games still think struggle is a good thing, which is why I’ve played a ridiculous amount of time in Eador: Genesis.”
While mainstream games turned away from challenge, independent games still think struggle is a good thing, which is why I’ve played a ridiculous amount of time in Eador: Genesis. As a “one man show,” the game suffers from basic graphics and barely adequate sound, but it benefits instead from a design free of the Care Bear principles of games from big publishers.
Eador is a turn-based strategy game, something of a cross between Might and Magic, Master of Magic, and Civilization. There’s no save feature, of course. If you want to go back a turn, you can, but you pay for it. Once is a big hit to your score, and half a dozen times will annihilate any hope of a decent score; you’d be better off just losing the game. When you lose, you lose permanent things, too. Is permanent loss fun? Is not being able to reload a stupid mistake fun? Nope, but boy does it add to the intensity of the game.
The storyline to the game is amazing in originality. You play a godlike wizard (or wizardly god, it’s not exactly clear which), going from world (called a “shard”) to world, gaining knowledge. As you conquer a world, it adds to your demesne, giving you more abilities. You often play against other wizards, and if you lose, well, kiss that shard and all its knowledge goodbye.
The AI is good, and merciless, and doesn’t seem to be playing with the insane advantages that are common to other turn-based strategy games. Even on “beginner” it gives me a run for my money, and I’m no slouch when it comes to these games. You make a mistake, it’ll be there to grind you down. I suspect “beginner” will be a challenge to many players, and there’s nothing lower, with difficulty ramping up quickly.
There’s definitely a grindiness to the campaign game, however. Each world you begin with a castle, gold, and crystals (used for spells and magic-related stuff), assuming you don’t pay extra to give yourself an advantage, and you have to expand outward each time. Your castle, assuming you know how, can be expanded into a sacred city filled with pegasi and healers, or a miserable camp of barbarians and thugs. Similarly, the kinds of spells you learn depend on what you build. You recruit heroes from four different classes, once again equipping them depending on what’s available in your castle. As you conquer territories, you can build there as well, from pubs and mills (for income and a compliant population) to one-time “wonders” that give special bonuses.
Heroes can go on quests and gain levels, picking skills that affect how they play, and finding awesome magic items that can turn a hero into a one-man army. Eventually you come up against another wizard, or perhaps a local lord, and then the fight’s on. Combat is heavy, excessive, even, although a “quick combat” option can speed things up (although it’s generally not recommended, as even when the computer says “the enemy doesn’t stand a chance,” you can find your army wiped out, or taking unacceptably heavy casualties).
It’s really fun putting together a kingdom, and there are many dozens of random events to play out throughout the game, making each world a mini-adventure. The only real problem is by the time you get everything built up the way you want, the game is just about over, giving you little time to enjoy your efforts before moving on to the astral plane, where you can chat with other wizards (and an amusing gremlin) before deciding if it’s time to destroy another wizard or just go after another shard.
The non-campaign (or multiplayer) games play a bit better, and last long enough to even put together set items (the treasure system isn’t as involved as an “A title,” but there’s enough possible loot to keep you occupied), or even build workshops to just make your items.
As an indie game, it didn’t get much press, which is why I find myself looking at a game that’s years old. For all that, I’ve easily gotten my $5’s worth, getting stuck in “one more turn” mode well into the night, trying to conquer one more shard. Check it out on gog.com, which has a bunch of old (sometimes questionable, sometimes awesome) games for cheap, as well as some new stuff.
The sequel, Eador: Masters of the Broken World, is coming in early 2013. I hope it won’t suffer from sequel-itis and be even more grindy and difficult… even as a part of me hopes to be able to rise to the challenge.