Everything but refinement
Fantasy turn-based strategy games are decidedly hit and miss. For every Age of Wonders there’s a Disciples, for every Fantasy General there’s a Master of Magic. The Civilization franchise has clearly influenced recent games in the genre, and I doubt they’ll ever make another game like, say, Warlords, that lacks spell research (or tech tree), multiple races, or building up cities.
The latest Civ-influenced attempt is Warlock – Master of the Arcane, and while they certainly didn’t shy away from using other folks’ good ideas, they didn’t go nearly far enough in doing so, and didn’t really think through the game design consequences of the ideas used.
The game begins with the player picking a wizard and a race. He also picks his color, but that’s not so important. Neither is starting race, actually, and this begins the first of the bad design decisions. Although you can start as human or undead or goblin, you can trivially capture cities of other races, and use their troops as readily as those of your starting race. Thus, an initially human player can quickly assemble an army of goblins, vampires and trolls to fight along side his human warriors. It may not be a terrible design flaw, but it does mean that most every game plays about the same; the only penalty is cities of other races grow more slowly, but that’s just not an issue.
Picking a wizard, or more accurately customizing a wizard, is very critical. The player has ten points to assign between starting perks and initial spells, but the decisions are very limited. You absolutely must pick the ability to cast spells quickly; a wizard can only cast a spell or two a turn, and some spells take two turns to cast, a miserably slow pace even with the perk. Because casting is so slow, you’ll often not cast spells, just so you’ll be able to cast a spell when you need to, slowing the process down even further. You’ll quickly amass a huge pile of mana (spell points) of which there’s no way to be rid. Of course, this also means you should avoid all perks that give extra mana.
Similarly, spell research will give you the spells you’ll bother to cast soon enough (and the critical spells can be found through adventuring), so it’s usually not worth it to spend your points on getting spells initially.
“…although wizard customization is a good idea, there aren’t nearly enough choices to make it interesting.”
Gold, on the other hand, is key to the game, and by mid-game you’ll have more things to spend gold on than gold to spend; this makes perks giving you gold the next no-brainer after the perk letting you cast spells quickly. The end result: although wizard customization is a good idea, there aren’t nearly enough choices to make it interesting. You have ten points to spend, four points get you fast spell-casting, another four points get you a 20% bonus to gold income; the other two points go into a variety of worthless things that you can just get during play anyway.
City building is interesting enough. You build a settler, found a city, hopefully near resources (although, truth be told, there are so many neutrals in the game that you’ll mostly capture neutral cities for expansion). As the city grows, you gain the ability to build structures, like farms, barracks, and crypts, in nearby hexes. These structures don’t cost money to build, but also can’t easily be destroyed except by the capture of the city. Special resources are key to the game. Build a special silver mine, and your troops can buy silver weapons, greatly enhancing their power. An iron mine builds better armor, excavations at ruins enhance research, and so on. It works well, and seeking out and capturing key resources is vital to the game.
There are other AI wizards in the game. Killing them all (by capturing their capital cities) is the main way to win. Diplomacy is minimal: You can’t trade resources except gold or mana, and mostly the AI just tries to extort those from you, going to war if you don’t pay. There are also the aforementioned neutral cities and monster spawns. The latter, well, spawn monsters, which can be a real menace to your smaller cities, and give bonus gold (as well as spells and units) for capturing them. You’ll generally want to do so early and as often as possible.
In one of the few innovations, Warlock also has extra worlds in the game, accessible via magic portals. Unfortunately, these extra worlds are stocked and stacked with powerful monsters able to destroy your medium-strength units with one shot (and there are so many monsters that your powerful units will be overwhelmed if sent in alone). The treasures are nice in such worlds, but making a foray, much less colonizing, into these worlds is such a chancy, expensive maneuver that you’re much better off just spending the resources destroying the other wizards. All in all, this idea could have been good but instead is just a nuisance.
The early and middle game play well, but once you put together an army of a few good units, the AI just can’t handle it. If you have ghosts, for example, the computer never figures out that ghosts are immune to melee and missile damage and so will pointlessly attack the ghosts relentlessly. Similarly, it doesn’t understand that holding the capital is everything, and so won’t do much to stop a focused thrust to capture an enemy capital (the rest of the country goes neutral once the capital falls, making for easy mop-up). The end game is just so bland that I’ve only played to the bitter end just one time in a dozen games: there is no Civilization-esque glory board to reward thoroughly defeating the enemy.
Warlock – Master of the Arcane is a bug-free experience that is fun for a little while, but ultimately nothing is done well enough to make this a game I’ll still be playing in a few months.