Elemental: War of Magic is the next strategy game in development at Stardock, the studio responsible for the sci-fi Galactic Civilizations series, and it will attempt to be the spiritual successor to the cult classic Master of Magic. The game is currently in an ongoing beta state with a small but devoted community of Stardock fans who are hammering away at the beta while the studio continues to add new features and content. This new stuff includes things like an in-game lore reference that will not only serve as a reference for in-game terms (a la the Civilization games' "civlopedia"), but will also house a rich backstory for the world penned by publisher Random House.
Other additions to the game include the fleshed-out roles of independent hero characters. While you start the game with a single wizard character and can later sire children who can become heroes under your banner, you can also find neutral heroes that wander the world until either you or one of your rival nations hires them, at which point they may bolster your nation as one of your vassals, potentially adding a miscellaneous bonus of some sort--scholar characters, for instance, increase the rate of your technology research, while wizards increase your overall magic spell power. Stardock frontman Brad Wardell was quick to point out that recruiting these heroes will be crucial to victory, particularly in the early game, in which you'll start with nothing more than your wizard hero in a completely barren world.
While your character does have a store of gold coins and magical essence (the latter of which powers your magic spell research and can also be partially sacrificed to create a new town), Wardell pointed out that it may not be to your advantage to immediately build up town after town after town. Apart from the expense of your wizard's essence, and the opportunity cost of spending your turns exploring and meeting new heroes or discovering "resource caches" (Elemental's equivalent of the Civilization "goodie hut," a small stockpile of treasures just waiting to be discovered), towns will not act as revenue generators by default.
Therefore, while you can eventually build out a single town to have an extremely developed economy that produces income and research, the act of building multiple settlements will simply mean expending a great deal of your own resources up front. To combat the grind that tends to happen in exploration/management games such as this in the later stages of play, when all players own numerous towns and must slog through each and every one to micromanage them, Elemental will make all resources communal across each of your settlements, meaning that you won't need to transport goods from city to city. More importantly, the game will have an in-game interface menu that will show each of your towns with an icon along the left side of the screen, and each one that hasn't yet taken an action this turn will be highlighted.
Our brief tour of the game covered several other additions, such as combat balancing, which is currently intended to fairly let players who focus on combat develop a small army of highly trained warriors equipped with pricey weapons, but put them on even ground with players who pursued a different research path, such as civics or questing. All the loyal subjects that populate your kingdom and diligently toil away on your farms providing you with your economy can be converted into a cheap standing army in a pinch, and even a small, highly advanced army equipped with the most expensive weapons and armor around may have trouble defeating a sufficiently large number of peasants with middling armor and weapons.
And as it turns out, diplomacy and arcane studies will also be viable paths to victory. For instance, while you and your rival nations are out trying to conquer the land, neutral, computer-controlled "minor nations" will be quietly unearthing and collecting the most powerful artifacts in the world and will sell them at discount prices to friendly nations. Then again, buying stuff from merchants may not be as exciting as researching powerful magic spells, which must be powered by enchanted "shards" that can be discovered through careful exploration.
Aside from a full-on magic-based victory condition similar to Master of Magic's "spell of mastery" (essentially a high-level magic spell that, when fully researched, automatically wins the game), you can research a great variety of powerful magic spells to not only bomb your enemies back to the Stone Age in battle, but also affect the world around you. We watched a volcano spell in practice, which deforms the world's terrain and raises a giant, exploding mountain in the world, which not only ruins the ground beneath it, but creates an impassable barrier. It's actually possible to wall off your kingdom with a series of volcano spells, since the game has no way for any units to fly, magically or otherwise--the only way to traverse otherwise impassable terrain is with a teleportation spell, which is also an expensive, and sophisticated, spell that will take a great many turns to research.
Elemental continues to look promising and will hopefully offer many smart, streamlined gameplay design decisions once it's released later this year.