Is it the month of March yet? Check. Jam-packed Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco? Check. Watching an updated demonstration for the upcoming fantasy strategy game Elemental: War of Magic with Stardock frontman Brad Wardell? Check. It must be GDC 2010. And it must be time to get a progress report on this ambitious strategy game from the creator of the Galactic Civilizations series. And here's the first update: The first phase of the game's community beta, which takes place entirely using the game's fully zoomed-out "cloth map" view, may be drawing to a close soon. And pending the community's approval, the second phase of beta may be starting soon.
For those of us not lucky enough to be in beta, here's a quick catch-up: Elemental is intended to be Stardock's answer to Microprose's cult classic Master of Magic, a game that challenged you to conquer an ancient fantasy world as the sorcerer leader of a specific nation, spreading your influence through military might or wizardly research. But the studio is definitely making the game its own by introducing numerous key differences. To name just a few: Unlike Master of Magic, which had elves and dwarves, Elemental's base game will have six human factions and six "fallen" factions (though if the industrious fan community happens to use Elemental's powerful toolset to make elf and dwarf factions, Stardock won't object). And while Master of Magic took place in a lush world where each wizard started his career with a castle, holdings, and a basic army, in Elemental, you begin your adventure as a lone immortal wizard on a devastated landscape starting from scratch...no armies, no castle, no nothing.
A standard session of Elemental begins much like any other world-conquering strategy game of this sort (such as Civilization or GalCiv), in that you can choose specific parameters that define the world (the world size, victory conditions, and so on). Once you've generated a new world to conquer, you can move on to creating your sorcerous sovereign using a variety of customization options, including gender, skin tone, different faces, different hairstyles, and different apparel. You can also choose different ability scores (such as strength and intelligence), as well as specific exceptional advantages and mitigating weaknesses. You then create a "card" for your sovereign, reminiscent of a collectible card from Magic: The Gathering, which displays the character's statistics and portrait. You can even choose a dramatic pose for the character and enter a custom flavor text quote at the bottom. (And as it turns out, you'll create custom cards for any army units you end up designing, too.)
When you have a sovereign created, you'll then be able to explore the barren, largely uncivilized world. While the key to exploring the world and discovering key resources and the holdings of other nations is to walk across as many tiles as possible, your sovereign can also perform "subtile" movements within a single tile to explore that tile's contents, which will come into play with the game's various quests. But your first order of business will be to expend part of your character's wizardly essence to create your first home city. Home cities can have up to five levels of development and will grow in size depending on each city's current population and available food. Elemental will have a built-in modifier that will multiply the benefits of any improvements you build in your city by your city's level. So, if you've built a library in your town that increases the amount of magical research the burg can provide by a single research point and the town is at level five, the library will actually produce five times as many research points (five total, in this case). And since it turns out that every Elemental map will have a limited amount of food supplies (such as grain patches and fruit orchards that must be discovered by exploration), the limited food and high-level bonuses of developed cities mean that you'll be better served by having fewer, more well-tended cities rather than a whole bunch of low-level villages.
Wardell explains that in addition to offering strategic depth with Elemental, Stardock is also pushing harder for more transparency and more straightforward statistics that are easier to understand (rather than using black-box formulas under the hood). For instance, while each town can research one of five different fields (civilization, warfare, magic, adventure, and diplomacy), research bonuses will be clearly displayed at the town view menu. In addition, while diplomacy will be an important part of the game specifically for the purpose of not only forming trade treaties, but also for marrying off your sovereign to a neighboring nation's potentate to sire several generations of children, bartering will be much more transparent with a "scoring" system that shows exactly how interested another nation is in whatever olive branch (or pile of gold, or unwed child) you're offering.
Diplomacy will be an important part of most any Elemental session for the purposes of both trade and marrying into other nations. For instance, along with trading for goods, you can form research pacts with other nations that are mutually beneficial to each partner, granting a continuous research bonus. This pact is completely free of charge, but one nation might have considerable bonuses along that particular research line and may not receive as much of a benefit as the offering nation. If that's the case, the deal may not be worth taking. Wardell suggests that without forming these pacts, research will be slow going indeed, and that the intention is to encourage players to sign such treaties frequently. More importantly, diplomacy will pave the way for your sovereign and your sovereign's children to marry into other nations. Elemental will have a somewhat randomized genetics system that will spawn children that tend to resemble one parent more than another--but when a child is born, he or she will take many turns to mature enough to adulthood and manifest his or her statistics. So, whether or not your kid ends up having his or her father's swordarm or mother's wits won't be clear for many turns (this is to discourage players from constantly reloading a saved game to get the best possible set of statistics for their offspring). However, when a child is born, he or she must choose to join the nation of either his or her mother or father. In order to increase the odds that your grandchild will join your nation, you'll need to release control of your sovereign's offspring (who gave rise to the grandchild) to that other nation, losing that offspring in the process.
While diplomacy is all well and good, there are those of us out there who feel that crushing our enemies, seeing them driven before us, and hearing the lamentations of their women are the best in life. Those players will make extensive use of Elemental's unit designer, which, at first, will let you start with little other than a peasant with some kind of stick (pointy or otherwise), though with enough research and resources, can eventually become a swordsman in plate armor. However, Wardell points out that metal will be an actual resource in the game, and without it, you won't be able to forge metal weapons or armor--which, again, underscores the importance of aggressive exploration. Military units will yield the best results when combined by placing them on the same tile, turning them into an army. Since armies will eventually square off against each other, you'll do well to have well-rounded armies with archers, swordsmen, catapults, and halberdiers (rather than 50 archers who will be pounded to paste by a strong melee army).
Elemental has been more intriguing each time we've seen it, and now that we've taken a closer look at some of its newly implemented strategic elements, we're more excited than ever to finally play it. The game is currently scheduled for a summer release, but Wardell suggests that the game is so important to get right that if the beta testers don't feel the game is up to snuff..."who knows."
[Editor's Note 3/12/10: This preview originally stated that Elemental will have only six human factions and did not include mention of the six "fallen" factions. This has since been addressed in the preview; GameSpot regrets the error.