Master of Magic left a great impression on many people, not least of whom are/were game-makers. That IP inspired other IPs like the (now not exactly lauded) Heroes of Might & Magic and (much better received but not super-profitable) Age of Wonders. Yet another IP is Stardock’s Elemental series, which debuted with a buggy disaster despite Stardock’s previously shiny portfolio.
After some dogged determination to make that IP work, they have streamlined their entries in that IP to Sorcerer Kings, a peculiar turn-based strategy that has the player striving against a doomsday counter to complete a playthrough before a game-over.
The story of the game takes place long after the events in Elemental: War of Magic, though the Fallen Enchantress has a stronger mention in the backstory. Before describing the new crisis facing the world of the Elemental series, the world has to be described first; after all, its make-up is actually relevant to the gameplay.
Anyway, the fantastical world of this series has a mishmash of terrain and climes, due to the saturation of magic. The saturation of magic is in turn due to the presence of mana shards, which are considerable sources of power. As the saying goes, “power corrupts”, so incidentally there is always at least one incredible expert of magic around that tries to control and harness them for typically megalomaniacal schemes.
However, the latest and greatest magical nut-job – who is the titular Sorcerer King - decides to do things a bit differently. Of course, “differently” means that if it is not world-domination, it is the destruction of the world. This is the narrative excuse that is used to implement the main gimmick of this entry of the Elemental series.
(By the way, the Sorcerer King is said to be someone that had been acting behind the scenes in the previous Elemental games, especially Fallen Enchantress.)
Fortunately, there are lesser magical nut-jobs that are not going to take this lying down. They are not as powerful and had been subservient to the top magic dog for a while, but they had survived thus far by being cunning and patient. They just need to be much more cunning now, but a lot less patient, because the crazy big boss is very busy hurrying the end of the world.
As of version 2.3 of the game (now updated to the status of Rivals, the previously standalone expansion), there are two main campaigns in the game. One is the original campaign, a massive map that was used to showcase almost the entirety of the content that is in the base game and which promises a long playthrough. On the other hand, if the player has finished it, there is little reason to start one of the custom games (which will be described shortly).
The other campaign is for the Rivals, which will be described in another review article.
Anyway, the campaign in the base game has a lot of content: plenty of side quests, many varied interactions with the Sorcerer King and plenty of climes and critters to encounter. However, for all its variety, the campaign map is fixed in design. The player should not expect any procedural generation or other means of randomizing the next playthrough with the campaign.
There is a game mode called “New Game”, which is a tad misleading at times. This is technically a smaller version of the campaign experience. To be specific, “New Game” lets the player choose the map that he/she wants to play. These maps are categorized according to their sizes and player density, though these are variables that are assigned by whoever designed the map.
This mode also allows the player to play any custom-made map that the player has downloaded – something that became possible in the update that implemented Rivals.
CHOOSE YOUR SOVEREIGN:
In the world of Elemental, those who can wield the magics of the world often occupy positions of power. Such is the case with the player character, whom the player chooses from among a handful of magically-inclined individuals (or individuals who know how to use technology to harness magic).
Each of these individuals – called “Sovereigns” in-game – has a special spell that is unique to only him/her/it. The spell costs a lot of mana to cast (more on mana later), but it is unmistakably the Sovereign’s trump card.
Each Sovereign also has a unique chart of skills, though the charts share some similar nodes, such as a node that improves the experience gain rate of units. Each Sovereign also has his/her own set of units.
The other gameplay-affecting things about the Sovereign are up to the player to customize. These include the factors that decide the probability of a spell becoming available for research (more on this later) and the starting champion that the Sovereign has, as well as his/her/its entourage. They are not a lot to work with, but then, Sorcerer King is not exactly a full-blown 4X game, despite what Stardock or Brad Wardell says.
The Elemental Shards are the eponymous mainstay of the Elemental series. Shards appear all over any map, usually far from each other. However, at least one Shard is next to the player’s first city – if the map designer deems it so.
The player’s objective is to locate these shards and secure them. This is crucial to the gameplay of any playthrough, because the titular villain of the series will try to destroy the shards wherever possible. Doing so brings him closer to his goals. That said, he does not need them at all despite being a magic-user himself; the reasons are explained as the player plays the campaign and discovers clues about his source of power.
To control a shard, the player needs to bring it into his/her territory. This is usually done by building an outpost close to it; outposts are described later. This also links the shard to the nearest city via a stretch of road; roads are described later too. Afterwards, the player needs to construct a structure over the shard to fully secure it. Once that is done, the Shard then provides its magic to the player.
Any secured Shard is still vulnerable, however. The Sorcerer King’s minions can still thrash the structure that secures it, and then destroy the Shard if the player could not rescue it in time.
It should also be mentioned here that any Elemental Shard, when it is secured, will be connected to a city permanently. This is a factor that should be kept in mind when certain facilities are built in the city; these facilities have benefits that are proportional to the number of shards that are connected to a city.
Magic is the main resource in the gameplay. The player gains it by controlling Elemental Shards, as mentioned earlier. A secured Shard gives a few points of Magic, though they can be upgraded to give more, if the player is willing to spend the considerable amounts of Mana that is needed for this.
Any collected Magic goes straight to the Sovereign, i.e. the player, for harnessing. The player has to divvy up the collected Magic into three fields: Skill, Mana, and Lore.
Skill is practically experience points for the Sovereign. After the player has obtained enough of them, the Sovereign gains a point to spend on his/her skill tree. Any node in the tree is unlocked with just one point, but the next point is, understandably, costlier to get.
Lore is the points that go into unlocking spells for use – not unlike what has been in Master of Magic (and Age of Wonders). Different spells have different lore costs.
Mana is magic condensed into a resource that can be hoarded. It is in the player’s interest to use mana as wisely as possible, especially where it is needed to conserve something of more value. Healing spells on champions are a particular example. (There will be more on champions later.)
Skill and/or Lore points are sometimes granted as rewards for certain decisions, usually those that are inclined towards being studious or earnest; there will be more elaboration on the themes of decisions later. These are often more substantial than the amounts that the player can get each turn, so the player might want to consider opting for these decisions over the others.
GOLD IS NOT AN ISSUE:
Incidentally, money is not an important resource. There are some rare occasions in the storytelling that suggest that coinage is still exchanging hands, but the player character has a line that says that coinage is no longer of any significance, due to the influence of magic on the world.
In fact, a barter system seems to have been developed in place of currencies, in which usable goods are exchanged for crafting ingredients. This can be seen in the dialogue system that pops up when the player has units visiting bazaars and markets.
MANA IS AN ISSUE:
Mana, on the other hand, is an important resource. There are a lot of uses for it – so many that the player is unlikely to ever have enough.
The most obvious use of mana is for casting spells. The most significant of these spells are those that that player casts during or outside of battle.
Not all spells require mana of course; the default ranged attacks of magical units do not consume any. However, some special abilities of certain units do require mana. This requirement is shown to the player, albeit with just a number in small font and a small pink icon that represents mana.
These special abilities consume small amounts, so it can be easy for a player that is not keeping track of expenditure to blow a lot of mana on using them. On the other hand, the special abilities are so tactically valuable that it would be difficult for the player to scrimp on using them.
Some crafting recipes also consume mana, especially those that produce spell-releasing scrolls. Indeed, it may be more prudent to cast spells with scrolls instead of casting them directly.
In fact, having done a few playthroughs, there is very little incentive to use mana on spells that are not city-enhancing ones. Although the Sovereign’s spells are potent, they consume a tad too much in return for not enough benefits or power. The other uses for mana are much more valuable in the short-term and mid-term.
RESEARCHING SPELLS & SPELLBOOKS:
As mentioned earlier, Lore is needed to unlock spells for use. However, the player only gets several choices for the next spell to unlock. This is not unlike what has been done in Age of Wonders. The choices depend on the mix of spellbooks that the player has selected before the start of a playthrough – again, this is not unlike Age of Wonders.
GAINING SPELLS AS REWARDS:
Some side quests (more on this later) can yield spells as rewards. If the spell coincidentally happens to be the one that the player has been researching, the player is refunded the Lore that has been spent; the Lore, however, has to be immediately spent on unlocking another spell. There will be no hoarding.
Some spells can only be cast in the strategic view, i.e. the view of the world map that is being played. These are “strategic spells”, which are meant to be cast on cities, terrain and armies. Some of these contribute to the economy of the player’s empire, such as a direct buff of a city’s output, or indirectly, such as roads that make it easier for Pioneers (more on these later) to get to where the player wants them to.
The player can cast as many spells in the strategic view as he/she likes, as long as he/she has the mana for that.
Spells that are cast in combat are limited not only by availability of mana, but also a deliberate limitation on the number of spells that can be cast in a battle. There is no clear narrative explanation for this difference from strategic spells.
Anyway, combat spells either hurt enemies, or buff the player’s own units. They can also mess up the terrain of the battlefield, which is a useful tactic since the battlefield is not a very large place, as will be described later.
Combat spells can only be cast during the turn of any unit under the player’s control. It looks like the unit itself is casting the spell, but this is not the case. The unit’s turn is not used up in any way.
One of the most important traits of combat spells is that their potency improves as the player secures more shards; some strategic spells have similar benefits, but almost all direct-damage combat spells do, as do healing ones. Therefore, even lower-tier combat spells retain their competitiveness throughout a playthrough.
COMBAT SPELL SCROLLS:
It has been mentioned earlier that it may be more prudent to cast combat spells through the consumption of scrolls rather than direct casting. Indeed, the spell that is cast from the scroll is just as potent as that cast directly; it even gains bonuses from shards.
However, this does consume the turn of the unit that used the scroll. Nonetheless, this might be desirable, especially if the unit cannot do much of anything during its turn. There are also no limits to the use of combat spell scrolls. Most importantly, any unit can use any scroll in the player’s treasury.
SOVEREIGN SKILL TREE:
A Sovereign’s skill tree has nodes that, when activated, grant benefits that are interestingly diverse. Some yield spells that could not be obtained in other ways, some extend or remove certain limits and some improve units. However, all of the nodes can be generally categorized into three types: those that contribute to spell-casting, those that contribute to armies and those that contribute to the crafting system. The third type is always available to any kind of Sovereign: this will be described further later.
Logistics is a statistic that represents a dynamic limit on the ability for the player to raise armies as well expand the borders of his/her empire.
There is the emphasis on the word “dynamic”. There is no limit on the number of units that the player can have, and no units – none at all – consume resources on a periodic basis. This means that given enough time, the player could raise an army that can overrun even the Sorcerer King’s forces – time that the player does not have, however.
Returning to the statistic of Logistics, it is a resource that is generated by the player’s cities and certain facilities within those cities. There are also magical means of getting Logistics points, but these come with the opportunity cost of not having used the mana for something else.
When a city produces a unit, it consumes at least one Logistics point. Therefore, even if the player may have many cities, they cannot contribute to the raising of armies as long as the player does not have enough Logistics points to go around.
Furthermore, each order that the player places for units also consumes Logistics points. To elaborate, each would-be unit in a production queue also consumes at least one point each. Therefore, it is in the player’s interest to have as many cities as possible anyway so that multiple units can be delivered to the army that the player wants to raise. Fortunately, Logistics points are refunded when the cities complete their unit production.
It is in the player’s interest to have a reserve of available Logistics points for the purpose of replenishing armies or for the raising of a new army. It should also be mentioned here that if a unit is already being produced in a city, its production will not stall if the player’s Logistics pool goes into the red.
Outposts also consume Logistics points wherever they are active. However, even if the player’s Logistics pool dips into the negative, they continue to function anyway.
Administrators are special units that are sometimes given as rewards for making certain decisions, usually those that result in the recruitment of individuals with managerial bents.
Administrators grant food or production bonuses to the cities that they are stationed in. This also means that they have to join the garrison of a city that they are in, but they are really terrible at combat.
Getting each Administrator to provide his bonus to a city can be tricky, especially if the player has been moving Administrators in a group. If the player is moving them in a group and moves them into a city, only the Administrator that happens to be the group leader contributes his benefits. To work around this problem, the player has to move each Administrator into the city, one by one.
A city can have more than a dozen units parked in them; this is greater than most army sizes. Any units that are in a city’s garrison will automatically join any battle in defence of the city. This includes units that are not meant for combat, such as Administrators, so the player might want to have such units pull out before an incoming siege.
Anyway, in addition to having the benefit of potentially outnumbering the attackers, the garrison also gains any bonuses from the city to anyone that is defending it (that would be them).
On the other hand, considering that the Sorcerer King is scripted to generate a tide of incoming monsters without any limitation, it would be bad if the Sorcerer King’s forces have managed to reach the player’s territories.
The other CPU-controlled opponents that would attack the player’s cities are the other factions (which would be called “rivals” in the Rivals expansion). However, most of them start neutral (if rather wary) of the player’s own faction in just about any playthrough, so antagonizing them and letting them somehow reach the player’s territory to attack cities is more than likely a mark of the player’s incompetence and/or lack of wisdom.
Pioneers are units that create new cities and, if there are enough Logistics points, outposts. Pioneers are not meant for combat at all, but as long as the player keeps Pioneers away from roving bands of monsters or other threats, they would be fine.
However, the player should keep in mind where Pioneers can create cities and outposts. The game only informs the player which tiles are not suitable when the settler cannot build an outpost or city over a tile.
Cities can only ever be placed on fertile tiles. The player is always shown these wherever they are. Fertile tiles are also the only tiles that produce food. There are several types of tiles that are considered fertile, the most common of which are meadow tiles. There are other types, such as a tile with magical trees (which are the best tiles to make cities on, by the way). Fertile tiles can be created by using the Restore Land spell, which turns almost any tile into a meadow tile.
Cities are the assets that make the player’s other assets work. Indeed, the player starts with a capital, which is the player’s main seat of power. Losing it would be bad for the player.
Just one city is not enough either. It is the player’s interest to have as many cities as possible, because there are no hard limits on the number of cities and none of the cities have any upkeep costs.
Therefore, it is very easy for a player that is skilled in micromanagement to have many cities all undergoing development, eventually becoming sources of units for the player’s armies. On the other hand, this would mean producing many pioneers (to create cities) instead of producing actual combat units, which can set the player back.
Players who have played 4X games with cities in them would find the user interface for developing cities to be rather familiar. Options are shown in a list. The variety of options that is available always begins with the first-tier facilities, which have to be built before the higher-tier ones become available – so far, so familiar.
To complicate things, there are some facilities that when built, improve the quality of the units that are produced in the city. This is not a new game design, but it is an interesting dilemma to have: have regular-ass units produced first to help bolster the player’s efforts early on, or wait until the facilities are out and units with better starting stats can be produced.
(In practice though, having units out earlier is wiser. If those units can be preserved, they are always more potent than even rookies with better starting statistics. Besides, once those later rookie units are out, most enemies that remain on the map are tougher than the ones that their seniors have eliminated.)
CITY GROWTH & TERRITORY:
A city can grow by accumulating food. Food is automatically obtained right from the get-go, mainly because the city has to be placed on a fertile tile. Also, food is practically experience points for a city.
More food can be obtained by building facilities that yield it. There are only a few of these though. After they are built, the player has to find other means of getting food for a city, such as stationing administrators in them, casting food-giving spells on them or expanding the city onto other fertile tiles.
Speaking of which, after a city has gained enough experience points, it grows. “Growth” is performed through having a new district built onto a tile that is adjacent to the tile with the city. Any further level-ups occur on tiles that are adjacent to the original tile and the tiles that have been expanded onto. When a level-up occurs, the player is shown the tiles that are valid for selection. It is in the player’s interest to select a tile that yields the most food and/or production capacity, or better yet, essence points (more on these later).
Subsequent level-ups are more expensive – all the more reason for the player to be careful in his/her choices.
Every city can only grow across a 5-by-5 title area that is centred on it. However, water and mountain tiles are not valid tiles to expand onto, and a city cannot have shipyards as facilities so the player might want to consider carefully where to have cities.
Incidentally, this system is not unlike how city expansions in the Civilizations series is implemented.
A city can only grow so many times, however. When that happens, the player might want to consider directing the city’s development efforts towards improving its production capacity instead.
A city’s ability to develop itself or raise armies depends on its production capacity. Every city has a base amount of production capacity, regardless of the tile that it was founded on, so it can immediately begin doing something. Level-ups, of course, increase their capacity.
To gain more production capacity, the player has to build facilities that yield more production points. This is generally a good choice for the development of a city anyway, as the production capacity would contribute towards any game plan that the player has.
Alternatively, the player could pick tiles that yield production points when a city levels up. Forests are particularly good choices for this, but a resource node that produces minerals is an even better choice.
EXCHANGING FOOD FOR LOGISTICS:
The main way to gain more Logistics points is to build administration centres. Somehow, these convert food into logistics; presumably, the food is being diverted towards the training of military units.
Anyway, there can only be so many of these facilities in a city, so to get more Logistics points, the player has to build other cities and repeat the process of building these facilities with them.
Of course, the player only ever needs one point of Logistics for each city, if it is producing units. However, the player will want more anyway, for the purpose of maintaining outposts.
The main purpose of outposts is to generate zones of control and place resource nodes into these zones. Afterwards, the resource nodes can be developed in order to reap their benefits.
Outposts do not gain experience and cannot extend their zones of control. To improve them, the player has to send Pioneers over to them and upgrade them. Of course, this means that cities have to spend their production points on making pioneers to send over to them.
Outposts cannot have garrisons, unfortunately. However, an army can still occupy their tile. If an enemy group attacks the outpost that has one of the player’s army on it, the battle occurs on a type of battlefield that is unique to outposts.
By default, a city and its expansions extend a zone of one tile distance from the tiles that they are on; this can be upgraded with some facilities. Outposts also extend such zones, albeit with a fixed radii of two tiles away.
Zones of controls are mainly there for defensive purposes; any enemy that moves into a zone of control is attacked by the city or outpost – or both, if they happen to move into overlapped regions.
The damage that the attack inflicts depends on the level of the city or outpost. Higher-level ones inflict exponentially more damage than lower-level ones, so higher-level cities are not just soft high-value targets for enemies. Outposts inflict damage according to their upgrade levels.
ATTACKS FROM OUTPOSTS & CITIES:
The attacks that outposts and cities inflict on enemies are enacted at the start of every turn. These attacks are intended to soften them up for the player’s own armies. They are not likely to be able to finish off enemies on their own, but given enough time, they will – assuming that said enemies just linger in their zone of control.
Strangely though, some of them would do exactly that. This is the case for any group of hostiles that are not the Sorcerer King’s minions or the soldiers of the other factions. If they stray into one of the player’s zones of control, they somehow become stuck in it and would not move out, even if they are getting savaged. The outpost or the city would continue attacking them until they are dead. On the other hand, the player would have to endure notifications about enemies within the player’s borders as long as they are still alive and around.
There are resource nodes throughout a map. The player needs these resources in order to be able to train units that are more advanced than the basic first-tier ones.
In the campaign maps, resource nodes are often located far away from the player’s starting city. In the maps that are intended for custom game sessions, resource nodes may be next to the locations of the player’s starting cities, which is convenient.
Like Mana Shards, resource nodes have to be developed before they become available for exploitation. However, building them requires Logistics points, so the player would have to carefully time the acquisition of resource nodes. (This is also required for the securing of Mana Shards, by the way.)
TYPES OF RESOURCES:
The types of resources that can be had from resource nodes are minerals, useful animals like horses and crops of particular value. Crops generally provide significant amounts of food. Quarries provide additional production points. They are always good to have, but they are not as coveted as the others.
The other resources are what the player would want. Horses are needed for mounted units. Crystals (presumably magic-sensitive ones) are needed for magic-users. Pieces of iron are needed for armored units. In order for the player’s army to maintain competitiveness, they will need to be composed of these more advanced units – if the player has not been getting units from other sources, of course.
Secured resource nodes yield their resources over every turn. Therefore, the player will still need to plan for the accumulation of these resources in anticipation of being able to train units that need them.
INADEQUATE INFORMATION ABOUT A CERTAIN SOVEREIGN SKILL:
One of the skills in the Sovereign skill trees describes a buff to certain types of resource nodes: this is “Resource Harvesting”. Specifically, with this skill, “Iron Mines, Crystal Mines, and other tapped resources will spawn crates each filled with loot for crafting”, to use its exact statement.
This phrasing is incomplete and ambiguous. The most important requirement that it left out is that the resource nodes only produce crates if they are within the 5-by-5-tiles territory of a city, and within a zone of control. Otherwise, they do not spawn crates. Secondly, it is not clear which “other tapped resources” are which; they do not include Clay Quarries, for one, after having tested the first requirement.
Outposts generate roads to the nearest city whenever they are made. This is important to keep in mind, because roads are the primary means of getting armies where they are needed.
Whenever the player builds a new Outpost, the game reviews the road network that the player has made. This review is compared against a list of circumstances, such as a stretch of road being separated from another in just a distance of one tile. If the circumstances are fulfilled, new roads are created in order to link up stretches of roads. These new roads are often of the shortest possible distances.
It should be mentioned here that previous entries in the Elemental series have the player building roads wherever he/she wanted. Its replacement with the automatic system in Sorcerer King might not be worth the loss of control over the construction of roads.
Roads allow the player’s armies (and those of other factions) to move at a greatly increased rate. Without roads, armies move across one tile for each movement point by default. With roads, armies move across one tile with a road for one-eighth of a movement point. That said, the game does track the amount of movement points remaining, including even the fractions. This benefit is not imparted when an army moves onto or off a tile with a road.
HOSTILE OCCUPATION OF ROADS:
Roads that are within the control zones of hostiles stop providing their benefits to any army that is travelling on them until the control zones have been removed – typically by removing their sources. The sources can include monster dens and lairs (more on these later).
There are some spells that can only be cast on the world map. These can target cities, armies or the terrains of tiles. Those that target armies either bolster them, in the case of player-owned armies, or damage them, in the case of hostile armies. Spells that alter terrain include the spell that makes roads; there are also spells that can turn terrain into difficult terrain or vice versa.
Those that target cities usually increase their productivity, or grant some benefits to the units that are garrisoning the city or that the city produces. There is a limit to these spells that can be cast on a city, however. The city must have Essence points, usually from taking a tile with Essence points. Each Essence point allows the sustenance of a city-affecting spell.
MOVEMENT OF UNITS AND ARMIES:
Every unit has a rating of movement points that determine how far it can move in a turn. As mentioned earlier, one movement point lets a unit move one tile across the world map, at least by default. The effect of roads on movement has been described earlier. If the unit has to move through difficult terrain such as forests, the unit takes twice as many movement points. However, if a tile with difficult terrain happens to be part of a road, the benefits of the road supersede everything else.
As long as an army has any amount of points left, it can make a move onto any tile, including a tile with difficult terrain. This can be useful to keep in mind if the player is trying to squeeze the most out of any army that the player has raised.
The player’s armies cannot move through hostile enemies, and vice versa. This is generally more of a problem to the player than it is to his/her enemies, because the CPU-controlled adversaries are not very good at mobilizing their military assets.
ARMIES OF UNITS WITH DIFFERENT MOVEMENT POINTS:
When a group of units move together, they move at the speed of the slowest unit. However, the units who happen to be faster do retain whatever points that they have remaining when the slowest unit has spent all of its. These faster units can be split off to do other things, if they happen to be in range. Of course, the player risks having them picked off piece-meal, but CPU-controlled enemies rarely if not never notice this opportunity. (There is no multiplayer, by the way.)
Groups of units are formed into armies by having units or groups of units move onto tiles with other units or groups of units. As long as the total number of units does not exceed the maximum number of units that can be had in an army, they will merge into a bigger army. It is generally in the player’s interest to form an army that is as big as possible before initiating a battle, due to certain benefits in experience gains that will be described later.
However, this appears to be the only way to merge armies. This becomes a problem in a scenario that will be described shortly.
ATTACKING ENEMIES BUT STAYING IN PLACE AFTERWARDS:
When a unit or an army attacks an enemy, a battle ensues; battles will be described later. Doing this requires one movement point. Yet, even if the unit or army wins, it remains in place and does not move onto the tile that the defeated enemy occupied. This prevents the player from having a powerful army or unit steamroll a chain of adjacent enemy armies. This is perhaps the reason for this limitation in the first place.
CANNOT MERGE ARMIES ON THE SPOT:
The abovementioned balancing measure reveals a problem in the merging system. The player might have used some units that were in an army to attack enemies because they are the only ones who still have movement points. However, from then on, these units count as a separate army that occupies the same tile as another army, which is composed of the units that were not used for the battle.
The player has no means of having them merge on the spot. Instead, the player has to move one of them away, and then move the other into the first one, likely in the next turn. This is tedious.
ARMIES CAN ONLY MOVE THROUGH EACH OTHER IF TOTAL SIZE IS EQUAL OR UNDER LIMIT:
There is another limitation on army movement. The player’s armies can only move through each other’s tiles if their total size, when added together, is equal or under the limit for army sizes. This means that big armies cannot move through each other. This becomes a problem if the player is trying to move big armies along the same stretch of road simultaneously.
On the world map/strategic view, each of the player’s units has a sight range, which is how many tiles ahead that they can see. If they are not scouts, they have by default only a range of one tile ahead.
This can be very limiting, so it is the player’s interest to keep tabs on places in the map through other means. These other means include static methods, such as having outposts and cities keep watch on anything in their control zones, and dynamic methods, which are of course mobile scouts.
Scouts are likely to be any player’s preferred choice of reconnaissance. This is because they have the greatest sight range in the game, and they are very mobile. Moreover, it would seem that enemies of all kinds completely ignore them, even if they end their turn in the way of the enemies.
The Scouts are also the only units with the “Sight” ability; this is what gives them their sight range anyway. There are some items that increase the potency of this ability, meaning that only the Scouts can use these items.
SUB-OPTIMAL PATHFINDING IN STRATEGIC MAP:
The player’s armies generally try to cover the most distance with whatever movement points that they have. Whether this brings them closer to the destination is debatable. Their pathfinding scripts do consider the amount of movement points that they need in the next turn (and the ones after, if they are going across long distances); like the move in their first turn, they will go for the most distance travelled. If the player wants them to do certain things, like ending their turns near possible sources of opportunities, the player will have to hold their hand all the way.
AUTOMATIC MOVEMENT WHEN RELOADING GAME:
When the player reloads a save-game, any army or unit with extant movement orders will immediately make those moves, if they still have movement points. This would not be an issue, if the player has already set a long-distance destination for an army and does not wish to interrupt it at any time before it arrives there. However, if the player prefers to hold their hand every turn, the player might need to cancel whatever move orders that they have. Trying to do so reveals another problem.
TEDIOUS WAY TO CANCEL MOVE ORDERS:
There is no dedicated button for cancelling move orders across the world map. Instead, the player has to select a unit and right-click on it. This is rather clumsy, especially considering that Sorcerer King’s peers, like Age of Wonders III, are more user-friendly.
Most of the player’s progress against the Sorcerer King and other enemies will be achieved through blood, steel and magic. Therefore, the player will be fighting many battles.
Battles are instigated by moving one of the player’s armies onto an enemy’s, or having an enemy group move onto one of the player’s. In the case of the former, the player can choose to belay the order to go to battle; no movement point is lost if the player does this. This is just as well, because the player can see the composition of the opposing group.
Any battle occurs in a grid-like environment. The size of the grid that is used for a battle depends on the tile that it took place on. For example, forest tiles often result in battlefields that are tight.
In addition to the size of its grid, a battlefield is littered with obstacles that complicate movement. The visual appearance of the obstacles depends on the terrain tile that the battle takes place on, but they do not affect their gameplay properties in any way. The terrain type also determines the density of obstacles that the battlefield would have; difficult terrain has a high density of obstacles.
MOVEMENT ACROSS BATTLEFIELD GRID:
Units can make moves across the battlefield along distances that are equal to their movement point ratings – the same statistic that is used for movement over the world map. However, unlike movement over the world map, a unit can only make a single move in its turn, regardless of whether it used all or some of its movement points. At the end of its move, a unit can still make one other type of action, which then ends the unit’s turn. Alternatively, the unit can take a non-move action instead of making any moves, but this ends its turn afterwards. Such a system is not unlike the systems that latter-day turn-based squad strategy games had been using.
OPPOSING UNITS PREVENTING MOVEMENT PAST THEM:
In battle, enemy units prevent the player’s units from moving past them, and vice versa. Units have to take routes at least one tile away from opposing units. This can be used to prevent the enemy from going over to the player’s glass cannons and kill them (and the enemy will try to, by the way).
PLACES THAT A UNIT CAN MOVE TO AND GO THROUGH:
Units on the same side can move through each other’s tiles. This can be used to great tactical advantage, such as choking a single-path path with a tough unit and then sallying forth or flanking with other units.
During a unit’s turn, the player is shown the tiles that the unit can move to. This is a handy visual indicator, but it will not show the path that the unit would take.
Speaking of which, the path that the unit would take to reach its destination is out of the player’s control. This is usually not much of an issue, because there are very few, if any, enemies that can place traps on the battlefield. Rather, the poor pathfinding works against CPU-controlled enemies, because the player certainly can adulterate the battlefield with traps and obstacles. It is comical to watch said enemies walk over these.
CANNOT MANUALLY ARRANGE UNITS BEFORE BATTLE STARTS:
Before battle begins, the game places the units on both sides on their half of the battlefield. There does not seem to be any noticeable correlation between the sequence of units that has joined an army and their placement in battle. Fortunately, the ranged attackers and magic-users are almost always at the rear, which is ideal, since they are typically frail things.
However, the placement of units are not always optimal. For one, the placement does not take into consideration any obstacles that may be seeded onto the battlefield, e.g. a fragile flanker unit might start battle in front of a chokepoint that enemies would use.
The most important statistic in battle is the Initiative rating of each unit. The ratings of all units, both the player’s and the enemy’s, will determine the pacing of the battle and how often the units can move.
Unfortunately, there is no clear documentation on how the system of initiative works, be it in-game, in the official manual or third-party. However, it is very likely based on the “initiative step-down” system, which is a term that followers of present-day table-top RPGs might recognize.
To elaborate, the unit with the highest initiative rating takes its turn first. After it has, its initiative for that round of combat is reduced. (The rounds of combat are called “turns” in-game, but for the sake of differentiation with the turns that units take for themselves, they will be called “rounds” in this article.) Anyway, if battles do indeed use this initiative system, the reduction is not immediately clear. From my observations, it is likely 20 to 25 points.
After the first unit has spent its turn, the next unit, who has the highest current Initiative, takes its turn, and then has its current Initiative reduced. This continues until whichever unit that has the highest current Initiative has less than 20 points. The current round ends, but every unit keeps their remainder Initiative.
Upon the start of the next round, all units are given points, equal to their default Initiative rating (including any bonuses from spells or gear). (There are some cases in which this does not happen, as will be described later.) Any remainder that they had from the previous round are added too. This means that units with Initiative ratings that are lower than 20 do eventually get a turn, barring any de-buff.
Consequently, such a system means that units with high Initiative ratings will move more frequently than those that have low ratings. This is important to keep in mind, because units that can take turns more frequently often contribute more to their side than the others.
The main piece of evidence that this is the most likely system that has been implemented can be seen in battles where the differences in Initiative ratings are steeply lopsided. An example of such a battle is a Champion with souped-up Initiative engaging low-tier enemies; the Champion is more than likely to have a few turns to himself/herself before the enemies can do anything, assuming that they are not outright killed in the first round.
There are some de-buffs that immobilize units; this can be spider-webbing, freezing attacks, attacks that daze, or infliction of fear. Units that are immobilized do not appear to accumulate any remainder Initiative points. Rather, their Initiative counters are reset to the default value at the next turn after the turn that they are immobilized; this continues until the duration of the de-buff runs out.
Some of the immobilizing de-buffs cause victims to simply skip turns, such as Daze or Fear. If this happens to the player’s units, the player loses control of the flow of the battle until one of the player’s units that can act gets its turn. (This means that enemies like the Shadow Commander that can attempt to immobilize all of the player’s units are dangerous.)
Some others prevent victims from moving anywhere, but they can still use their special abilities or attack any adjacent enemy. The most common of these de-buffs is spider webbing.
If the player does not wish to engage in the minutiae of controlling units in battle, the player can risk having the CPU extrapolate the outcome of the battle instead. As with so many games that have implemented such a feature, they are often inefficient and frequently give undesirable outcomes. Even if the player lets the CPU auto-resolve battles in which the player is predicted to have an “overwhelming victory”, there might be at least some units that took too much damage.
UNIT HIT POINTS:
Every unit has a hit point meter that determines how close it is to being dead. There are very few resurrection spells in the game, so it is in the player’s interest to keep units alive for as long as possible. However, units have the same performance regardless of their level of health.
Units that have lost health do not regain health automatically. Units that can heal themselves often have clear regenerative abilities. Other units have to depend on other means to heal.
There are some units that can heal other units (and themselves) over every turn in the world map. These are typically healer units, but there are some units that have abilities like Cooking that help their army replenish hit points. Units that are in the garrison of a city also regain health over every turn.
Healing can also be done in battle, namely through the Heal spell. Of course, this consumes precious mana that the player might want to use for other purposes.
There are also healer units that can heal during battles, but their healing abilities are not as useful as one would think. For example, the most common healer unit, the Cleric, has a seemingly useful area-effect healing spell – which is centred around her. Having units spend their turns just to be adjacent to the Cleric is often a waste of their potential in combat.
The most reliable method of healing – and one that is well within the player’s control – is the consumption of healing potions. The player can craft them at any time outside of battle, as long as he/she has the ingredients. They can be used outside of battle, as well as during battle, though the latter method consumes their turns.
UNIT TRAITS AND PERKS:
Units have capabilities that are ever available to them, either because they are innate or due to their training. These capabilities can never be disabled in any way.
The most common of these are the ability to use specific types of weapons; this is of considerable importance to the system of individual unit equipment, which will be described later. Some other abilities are the ability to counterattack after being attacked, knock back enemies and resistances to specific kinds of harm. These are only a few examples; there are plenty of them. Each type of unit has a combination of these, and this combination is unique to itself.
Many units have special abilities that they can use during battle to give them a tactical advantage. The game refers to these special abilities as “spells”, even if some special abilities do not seem to be spells.
Some of these abilities merely inflict extra damage on a target, though of course there are factors to consider such as the type of damage inflicted and any resistances that the target might have. Some other abilities allow a unit to hit more than one target, such as through an area-effect attack. Like the other special abilities, limitations balance their potency. For example, units with some area-effect attacks can hurt units on their own side too, if they are caught within range.
Some particularly effective special abilities consume Mana. For example, the Charge attacks of some mounted units cost a small handful of Mana to use; this is just as well, because Charging lets a mounted unit damage multiple enemies at once while also covering distance. (Charge also happens to ignore any solid obstacles in the way, for whatever reason.) Therefore, the player will have to consider balancing the consumption of Mana between these special abilities and other things that use Mana.
The most important factor about special abilities are their cooldown timers. Conveniently, the player is always shown the cooldown times of any special ability before they are used, as well as how many turns are left on their timers after they have been used.
SOME BUGS WITH SPECIAL ABILITIES WHEN USED BY CPU ENEMIES:
The limitations that the player’s units have with their special abilities are spelled out to the player and have to be strictly followed, if the player does not intend to cheat.
However, the CPU-controlled opposition does not always have to, which results in some problems. The worst of these are glitches that cause the game to freeze. One case that I have experienced is that the CPU-controlled opponent may have one of its mounted units attempt to use a Charge attack against any target, even if the mounted unit has no viable tile to end its displacement due to the Charge. When this happens, the game freezes.
Another design oversight is that certain limitations of a special ability is not applied on a CPU-controlled unit when it uses this ability. A case that I have found is with units with the Devour special ability. Units with this on the player’s side have to use them within its short stipulated range, but those that the CPU opponent controls can use it across longer ranges.
ACCURACY, DODGE AND CRITICAL HITS:
For better or worse, whether an attack from a unit hits another unit is a matter of an RNG roll. The RNG roll has two main factors: Accuracy and Dodge.
Every unit has an innate Accuracy rating and Dodge rating. It may have more of either, usually from buffs or gear. There may also be bonuses to Accuracy or Dodge that are only provided under specific conditions, such as a Dodge bonus against ranged attacks when a wind-causing spell is used.
The exact equation on how Accuracy and Dodge are used is not entirely clear. However, generally, a significant difference between the Accuracy of the attacker and the Dodge rating of the defender gives an advantage to whichever unit that has the higher of either rating. However, there appears to be always a very small chance of missing, regardless of how high a unit’s Accuracy rating, i.e. there can never be guaranteed hits. Likewise, there is always a small chance of hitting a target, regardless of how high the defender’s Dodge rating is. Either can be infuriating to players who despise the factor of luck.
If the attacker’s Accuracy is significantly higher, the attacker has a chance to inflict critical hits. According to the manual of the game (there is one), Champions can do this, but I have observed non-Champion units doing this too. Critical hits, of course, inflict much more damage than non-critical ones.
DEFENCE & RESISTANCES:
When a hit lands, damage is, of course, inflicted, and, again predictably, is reduced by statistics that diminish the effectiveness of the hit. One of these statistics is the ages-old reduction of damage from physical attacks, which is called “defence” in this game. Likewise, damage from magical attacks is reduced by a statistic that specifically does that, which is called “arcane resistance” in this game. The player should not expect any more complexity than this, with regard to types of damage.
There is another statistic for the purpose of resisting the secondary effects of hits. This is “spell resistance”. It is mainly used against magical de-buffs, such as resisting attempts to inflict stunning.
UNDODGEABLE/IRRESISTABLE SPECIAL ATTACKS:
Some special abilities circumvent the RNG roll for landing a hit. It would appear that this is because the RNG roll for chance-to-hit is used for determining whether the target can resist the secondary effects of these special abilities, i.e. spell resistance.
Yet, likely due to some programming oversight, some special abilities like Smite and Cleave are implemented in the same way, but they have no secondary effects that can be resisted. Therefore, attacks using these abilities always lands, regardless of the defender’s Dodge rating. This is particularly useful against enemies with very high Dodge ratings, such as the Shadow Commander.
Conversely, there are some special abilities that always inflict their secondary effects, regardless of the target’s spell resistance. However, these special abilities are subjected to the RNG roll for chance-to-hit instead. Incidentally, many of these special abilities happen to be ranged attacks.
If a unit has been targeted for a melee attack, any other enemy unit that is adjacent to this unit makes a free melee attack against this unit too. The melee attacks from these other units are less powerful than their regular attacks. The targeted unit’s defence also reduces their damage. However, the damage from their attacks can accumulate to considerable levels, enough to overwhelm any target. It is in the player’s interest to gang-up on enemies whenever he/she can; the CPU-controlled opponent will certainly try to do so.
EXPERIENCE GAIN FROM BATTLES:
Units that survive battles gain experience points (called “XP” in this game). Like the usual implementation of experience points in games, XPs fill meters that when full, means a level-up. The meters get denser after each level-up, naturally requiring more XPs to be filled.
EXTRA TOTAL EXPERIENCE FOR AN ARMY OF UNITS:
If the player won a battle with an army of units, each surviving unit in that army gains experience points, depending on their contribution to the battle. The total number of experience points that they all gain is actually higher than the total would have been if there were fewer numbers of units that won the same battle. In other words, going into battle with more units is actually desirable since the player earns more experience points for his/her assets.
When a unit gains a level-up, it gains increments to its statistics. Every type of unit has its own set of increments, which appear to be consistent from level to level. These understandably make them tougher and more powerful. However, unless they are Champions, units do not gain additional special abilities. Champions will be described later.
LOSS OF MOVEMENT POINTS IN THE WORLD MAP DUE TO CERTAIN DE-BUFFS:
There are certain kinds of de-buffs that immobilize their targets during battle, if the latter fail to resist them. These include the Webbing of spiders and freeze spells. During battle, these de-buffs, when inflicted, prevent victims from making any moves for a number of turns.
The problem is that the player is not informed about their effect on movement points in the world map. The victims outright lose all of these, thus preventing them from following the rest of the army (if the player chooses to peel them away). This can be unpleasant to learn first-hand.
RETREATING FROM BATTLE:
By default, there is no way for the player’s army to retreat from battle; the enemy certainly would not, because their scripting does not have anything like this.
However, there is the Escape scroll, which can be crafted with a rather simple recipe. Any unit can use it at any time to simply end the battle, albeit it will be declared a defeat for the player’s army. The player’s army does not appear to suffer any long-term setback, however.
Perhaps the most interesting and satisfactorily sophisticated system in Sorcerer King is the equipment system for units. Where most other Masters of Magic-inspired titles give the privilege of having gear and equipment exclusive only to “hero” units, Sorcerer King lets every unit have gear.
This can result in considerable micromanagement, if the player intends to gear up every unit. Fortunately, this is not necessary; perhaps with the exception of playthroughs at higher difficulties, the player can make do with the level-up benefits of units, if he/she is good at keeping them alive. For anal-retentive who wants every imaginable edge, this game is a great opportunity for gratuitous indulgence.
Gear pieces do not have durability ratings and they cannot be forcibly removed in any way during battle. There are no de-buffs that specifically punish units for having gear either. Therefore, it is in the player’s interest to trick out every unit under his/her command with gear – within economically feasible limits of course.
HAND-ME-DOWNS AND SELLING UNWANTED STUFF:
That said, here is a tip: it is good to have a policy of hand-me-downs, i.e. any piece of gear that is obsolete for a high-priority unit can be given to a lesser unit to use.
Eventually though, even the hand-me-downs will become woefully obsolete, and there are enough crafting materials for better gear anyway. When this happens, the player can just “sell” obsolete gear in return for a few points of Mana. That said, it is generally not worthwhile crafting things just to convert them to Mana, unless they are Mana potions. Besides, the player runs the risk of using up materials that could be used for gear that the player wants.
TYPES OF EQUIPMENT:
The types of equipment that any unit can equip are boots, gloves, torso-wear, headwear and miscellaneous accoutrements like jewelry. Even non-humanoid creatures like spiders can wear them, which can seem silly. However, only humanoid units can use weapons and shields.
Boots, gloves, torso-wear and head-wear generally increase defence. They will not be shown on the models of the units, which is perhaps just as well because it would be goofy to watch a spider prance around with a helmet or a pair of boots on two of its eight legs.
Weapons can only be equipped on units if the units have the necessary traits to do so. Weapons generally increase the damage output of units. In the case of Champions, they already have baseline weapons.
Besides, they need to have weapons anyway because they cannot use some of their special abilities otherwise. For example, a bow-using Champion can only use his/her special arrow attacks if he/she is equipped with a bow. However, non-Champion units do not need to be armed with weapons in order to use their special abilities.
CRAFTING & RECIPES:
Some gear are found as loot, but only rarely and only if they had been worked into the map design. In most cases of gear acquisition, gear is crafted instead.
Thanks to the narrative about the player’s Sovereign being the only one that has managed to secure the fabled Forge of the Overworld, the player can craft gear out of many kinds of materials nearly instantly. However, the player has to acquire the recipes first.
Some recipes are already available from the get-go, such as recipes for basic gear and minor healing potions. The other recipes have to be obtained by building certain city facilities; only one city needs to have these for these recipes to become available. Other recipes are only ever yielded as loot.
There are many ingredients. Some, such as leather and metal, are more common than the others and they happen to be the main ingredients in many recipes. Some recipes for particularly powerful gear only ever use rare ingredients, such as platinum and high quality gems.
Ingredients can be found as loot too, including from looting defeated enemy units. In the case of looting defeated enemies, the ingredients that are obtained depend on the types of enemies. For example, defeating mammalian monsters often yield furs. This results in gameplay that would be familiar to people who have played Monster Hunter and its ilk. Ingredients are also given as rewards for pursuing quests and completing dialogue-driven scenarios.
Eventually, which is usually during the mid-game stages of a playthrough, the player would have unlocked the ability to enchant items. This is done through building the facility that unlocks this, or through having the Sovereign learn the skill to enchant items. Doing either gives the player the ability to add one additional property to any item, whereas doing both lets the player add two instead of one. If the player has unlocked the ability to add two enchantments, the player can add one to an item first, and then add the other later. This is convenient.
Enchantment is done by adding certain crafting ingredients to items. These ingredients often have descriptions that mention the bonuses that they give. The addition is permanent though, so the player must be certain of what to add.
The enchanting system does not exactly have the best user interface. To enchant items, the player opens a window that contains a list of all items that are equipped on all units that the player has. To enchant an item, the player has to select the item from the list.
If the player has a lot of units that have gear, this can become troublesome quite quickly. Units can be renamed to have unique names, which help searches through the list, but this is just a work-around. The slider for the list is also difficult to use with mouse-dragging, because the mouse cursor has to be exactly on the slider. (Fortunately, the slider can be controlled with the mouse-wheel.)
The list could have been rendered unnecessary if the developers had reviewed the other things about unit equipment that they have already done. In the unit inventory screen, there is a feature that overlays a button to remove a piece of equipment from a unit on the icon of the equipment itself. The developers had not thought of another button that lets the player open the enchantment tool for a specific item that is equipped on a unit.
Champions are the player’s most powerful units, for good reasons. In addition to the statistical gains that they get from level-ups, they also gain points to spend on their abilities; each ability that is unlocked makes the Champion more powerful and/or versatile. Most Champions also have abilities that make any army that they are in more powerful, which is just as well because most of them function best when they are supported by or are supporting other units.
Each Champion has his/her own chart of abilities, not unlike how Sovereigns have theirs. Speaking of which, each Sovereign starts with a specific type of Champion, but can get more Champions through certain endeavours. In the original campaign map, the player gains them by currying favour with the other factions underneath the Sorcerer King’s thumbs. They will be described later.
Champions that die are resurrected at the capital, but at the cost of somehow advancing the Sorcerer King’s goal of ascension (this will be described further later). Furthermore, the Champions suffer a small but permanent loss in one of their statistics, which is very much undesirable.
UNITS DEVELOPED TO BE OVERPOWERED:
Any competently designed game with a progression system often has hard limitations that prevent characters under the player’s control from becoming too powerful due to the player’s planned micromanagement. Sorcerer King is not such a game.
There are no hard limits to a unit’s statistics, and there does not appear to be a ceiling level of experience. There are also special consumables that can be used on units to improve their statistics.
Therefore, the player could focus his/her attention on a single unit, likely the player’s Champion, and bolster his/her capabilities to superhuman levels. A few screenshots in this article shows a powered-up Tandis the Warrior, taking on powerful creatures on his own (and with some help from a player who knows how to minimize his disadvantage from being outnumbered).
Watching an overpowered unit annihilate a tide of monsters all the way up to the Sorcerer King’s Stronghold can be amusingly gleeful. Yet, it defeats a lot of the purpose of having so many varied unit designs in the game in the first place.
SORCERER KING’S FORCES:
The Sorcerer King’s armies are composed of units that are unique to his faction. As a side note, some of these units, specifically the lower-tier ones, are also available to a certain faction that the player can use for a playthrough.
Anyway, in almost every map, especially on the campaign ones, the Sorcerer King spawns armies from his stronghold. The Sorcerer King does not have the player’s limitations, so they can appear continuously. Initially, these armies merely roam around, but will attack the player’s armies on a whim. The behaviour and numerousness of these armies change as a playthrough progresses, according to factors that will be described later.
Like other armies, these ones move at the movement rate of their slowest member. Even if they could across longer distances, these tend to move just one tile at a time. However, where the player encounters one army, there is likely one more behind them. Therefore, if the player is not careful, the player could lose armies due to attrition from trying to stem a tide of the Sorcerer King’s minions.
The Sorcerer King begins any playthrough completely ignorant of the player character’s plans to overthrow him. As the player secures more Shards, found more cities and destroy his garrisons, the Sorcerer King begins to wise up to the player’s plans; this is represented as the “Threat” rating.
As the rating rises, the Sorcerer King spawns more armies and sends them after the player’s cities. They can wear down any defences eventually, so if the player wants to deal with them, he/she needs an overwhelmingly powerful army (or unit) to smash them without taking any cumulative damage.
This might seem familiar to the A.I. Progress system in the 4X-lite game A.I. War. However, the similarity ends at the density of units that the CPU-controlled enemy spawns. Where the A.I. in Arcen Games’ flagship title is quite adapt in reordering its forces, the Sorcerer King is just terrible at using his armies efficiently.
ARMIES GOING AFTER CRYSTALS:
Even at the highest threat rating, the Sorcerer King will always spawn and assign at least one army of any size to go after each and every Shard on the world map.
When an army does reach a crystal, it begins to toss each of its member at it, killing it but harming the crystal. More powerful units inflicts more damage on the crystal. Damaged crystals can be healed, but only after the player has secured them and cast the appropriate spell on them; the spell does cost a lot of mana, however.
After a crystal is destroyed, the player obviously could not secure it for use anymore. The Sorcerer King also accelerates his rate of Ascension, which will be described later.
The Sorcerer King may be incredibly powerful, but he will not suffer fools who would just attack him at his stronghold whenever they feel bold. Thus, he locks his stronghold against intruders with a pair of keys, each one held by a “lieutenant”. Each lieutenant is a particularly powerful underling.
Gameplay-wise, this underling is there as a measurement of the capability of the player’s forces. If they could not defeat it, there is little chance of defeating the much more powerful Sorcerer King.
That said, there are a few things to note about the lieutenants. Firstly, they appear to be massive creatures that occupy more than one square on the battlefield, although exactly how many is not entirely clear.
Secondly, many of them have high initiative ratings, thus allowing them to move at least twice in a round. This can be devastating, because many of them have special abilities that can hit multiple units. They also have special abilities that can be used but allow them to take another action again, not unlike some Champions. Finally, they also have incredible amounts of statistics.
The Sorcerer King also has numerous garrisons throughout the map. These garrisons spawn armies regularly, in addition to those spawned at his Stronghold. It is in the player’s interest to remove these, but powerful Shadow Commanders guard them. These units are just a step below the lieutenants in their ability to wipe out armies. Nevertheless, defeating them is a good measure of the player’s burgeoning forces, and the garrisons often have good loot too.
ONLY ONE SHOT AT THE SORCERER KING:
The player may have prepared well for the showdown with the Sorcerer King, but he/she is also warned that he/she has only one chance: if the Sorcerer King has been assaulted but he survived, whatever amused arrogance that he has towards the player character is cast aside. He postpones his ritual to godhood and works on another quicker one that guarantees doom for the player character.
That said, the final confrontation with the Sorcerer King has some interesting gameplay designs too. Depending on the player’s choices in the dialogue with the Sorcerer King, his/her forces may begin with additional benefits, which the player would certainly need. Nonetheless, the Sorcerer King casts plenty of area-effect spells and fresh minions continuously appear with every subsequent turn, so the battle will be one that is likely to tear up the player’s chosen army even as they try to kill him.
SORCERER KING’S ASCENSION:
The Sorcerer King is obsessed with a ritual that will let him to ascend to godhood. Every now and then, he would cast a spell that puts him closer to this goal. In version 2.3 of the game, after the Rivals update, his progress is shown as a hollow orb that is being filled with his greyish essence. The rate of filling becomes higher if he is allowed to destroy Shards.
If the orb is completely filled and it is mostly filled with his essence, he wins; the world is doomed. However, there are some ways to reverse this – or accelerate it, if the player so wishes (especially if he/she is playing as the turncoat faction).
Firstly, just, kind and honourable acts reduce some of his points of progress; these acts are performed through the dialogue system, which will be described later. He doesn’t seem to mind either, even if the player has knocked off a chunk of his essence from the orb. Secondly, every city can build one facility that gives a one-time reduction. This one, however, is likely to annoy him.
The Sorcerer King does somehow gain progress if the player has been ruthless, unscrupulous and cruel, though there are other benefits to such acts that will be described later. The Sorcerer King also gains progress if the player’s Champion is defeated in battle, as mentioned earlier.
At low Threat levels, the Sorcerer King occasionally approaches the player character and offers gifts; these gifts do come with a price that he does not mention. The price is, of course, more progress towards his goal. At high Threat levels (specially level 3 and 4), he begins to make demands for sacrifice on the player’s part; if the player refuses and fails to satisfy or ameliorate him in other ways, he spawns a powerful garrison next to the player’s capital. Obviously, this is bad.
The Rivals expansion gives the player character the opportunity to pursue godhood too. This will be described in another review article.
The people of the world are terrified of the Sorcerer King and his power. As the Sorcerer King comes closer to reaching his goal of ascension, the people feel this more and more. Indubitably, some of them decide to join the winning side and become his “thralls”, to use the game’s own words.
This happens inside the player’s cities, which reduce their Logistics output by one point for each point of unrest. Therefore, it is not in the player’s interest to tarry long in a playthrough.
Every unit has a “combat rating” that is a rough determination of its level of power. An army of units combine their combat ratings into one.
Combat rating is an impractical statistic though, because it ignores the tactical value of any unit’s capabilities. It also does not consider the player’s cunning (or lack thereof) in using them, and certainly does not consider battlefield conditions.
However, as useless as combat ratings are, they are used to determine the behaviour of an unaligned faction, which will be described shortly.
RUFFIANS & MONSTERS:
In addition to the Sorcerer King’s forces, there are enemies that are just there to cause trouble. They are simply lumped under the faction of “Ruffians and Monsters”.
These enemies roam around aimlessly, at least until they detect units or armies of other factions in the vicinity. These enemies attack anything that appear weaker than they are, using the aforementioned combat ratings as factors in their decision-making. They do not always do so though; the player could have a pioneer linger next to a group of bandits, and the latter ignore them until a few turns later.
Ruffians and monsters have plenty of dens, lairs and camps throughout the world map. These will periodically spawn new bands of them. They are guarded, but it is in the player’s interest to eliminate them wherever they are found, if only to keep the roads clear of their zones of control.
EXTENSIONS OF THE SOVEREIGN’S WILL:
As mentioned already, the Sovereigns are incredible users of magic – skilled enough to press their will directly into their subjects’ minds. This narrative element can be seen in the conversation system, and also happens to be the excuse for the player being able to make any decision for any unit when the dialogue system is in play.
Speaking of which, the dialogue system appears whenever the player talks to another faction or has a unit or army visit interactive structures (more on these later). In the latter case, someone in the Sovereign’s service is meeting other people, but the Sovereign just outright takes over the will of this person and talks through the person’s mouth.
Anyway, the dialogue system is used for both narration of the situation that the player is encountering and also any dialogue in between the player character and other people. The passage that is above the dialogue options also includes things that are said by the player character (who always seem to have deadpan humour).
There are establishments throughout the world map that can be visited for one-time interactions. Only the player’s armies can interact with them; CPU-controlled armies and units merely go through them. However, they can end their turn on top of the tiles with these structures, their models clipping through them in comical ways.
After completing interactions with them, the structures simply disappear, like they were not there in the first place. This can seem a bit odd for some of them, especially those that should be permanent civilian establishments, like inns.
In addition to the player’s main objective in any playthrough, the player can find other quests to pursue, usually for rewards that bolster the player’s assets.
Most side quests are started through visiting the various inns located throughout the map. Upon visiting them, the player is shown the user interface for conversations. Usually, the innkeeper or some other patron of the inn would be raising something of interest to the player. The player almost always has the choice of simply leaving, but that would just forfeit the opportunity to make some gains.
There are other buildings that can be visited to get side quests. For example, there are alchemist shops that give the player the opportunity to obtain potions, but the owner of the shop might ask the player to go on a quest to find special ingredients for more special potions (which the player might have to buy anyway, typically with Mana).
There is a morality system that not only affects the narrative of a playthrough (or what little narrative there is) and its gameplay. Whenever the player encounters a scenario that is described through the dialogue system, the player is given some choices on how to proceed. These choices almost always have goody two-shoes acts and grubbing-greedy shenanigans, or something in between.
The choices do not have any labels that clearly indicate which is which, and even those that do have labels may not indicate this either. Rather, the player would have to interpret the context of the scenario and the writing for the choices. In other words, the player has to read the text, and read them like novel prose.
After the player has selected an option, the player is informed about the rewards of his/her decision; there are always immediate rewards for any decision.
For example, ruthless and/or greedy decisions usually result in material gains, but incur progress towards the Sorcerer King’s would-be ascension too. The nicer decisions do not yield any short-term rewards, but always reverse the Sorcerer King’s progress (which never seem to annoy him anyway).
In addition to the immediate rewards, the player is given points towards one or two morality alignments, depending on the outcome of the decisions. For example, choosing to kill a dastardly lying-prone criminal increases the player’s “Just” and “Honor” counters, whereas killing a chattily annoying but otherwise harmless person increases the player’s “Ruthless” counter.
Having points for some alignments causes certain previously hidden dialogue options to appear. Each of these options has a label that shows which alignment that it is associated to. However, the number of points of this alignment that is needed to unlock the option is not clear.
Some moral alignments are diametrically opposed to each other. Gameplay-wise, their points deduct from each other, resulting in a net score for the purpose of determining which options appear during dialogues. (This can be observed if the player reloads game-saves before having certain dialogue interactions, and then does things that alter diametrically-opposing alignments, before doing those interactions again.)
The player can go down the path of any extremes, and will be rewarded with benefits regardless of the path that is taken. For example, being all kind and nice attracts the attention of similar beings, who reward the player character with stuff. Being cruel and despotic attracts the attention of slavers and enforcers, who join the player’s armies just for the fun.
The player’s Sovereign and his/her faction are not the only ones underneath the Sorcerer King’s thumb. There are other realms in the world (map).
Most of these other factions are not available for the player to use in playthroughs. They also happen to have their own set of units, though an observant player might notice that they are repackaged versions of units that the playable factions have.
Since Sorcerer King is only ever single-player, the CPU controls the other factions. As to be expected, they do not work with the same limitations as the player does, and most of their advantages are little more than crutches to compensate for how seemingly aimless they are.
The most that the player would see them do is to found new cities wherever they find fertile tiles and develop their cities so that they can spawn more types of units, but that is it. The player would find their armies wandering around, doing nothing much. They do not even attack bands of roving bandits, or their lairs, and they also sometimes get in the player’s way.
CURRYING FAVOUR WITH OTHER FACTIONS:
The only reason that the player would want to have anything to do with the other factions is to curry favour with them. To do so, the player needs to come into contact with them; this can be done by having spotted their armies. All the player needs to do after that is to select any of the player’s own units or armies, and right-click on theirs. This initiates the first contact dialogue. Afterwards, the player can just use the “Rivals” tab.
The Sorcerer King has threatened these other factions or had been giving them gifts or making promises (that poison their minds). Therefore, they are initially indifferent or unfriendly to the player’s own faction.
To gain their trust, the player has to offer to help them. They will assign quests for the player to pursue and complete. These quests often take place close to their capital or within their territory. Generally, the player can expect at least one battle out of each quest. After the player completes the quest, the player gains favour with the other faction.
However, after contacting them, the other faction will somehow become too ‘busy’ for any further communication with the player. They will be available after a number of days that is informed to the player. This limitation is probably there to prevent the player from rapidly pursuing their chain of quests to completion.
Completing further quests and gaining further favour gives the player more rewards too. The penultimate reward is a few powerful units that are unique to that faction. The ultimate reward is the service of that faction’s Champion.
OTHER FACTIONS FALLING UNDER THE SORCERER KING’S SWAY:
Alternatively, the player could just antagonize the other factions. There is always one dialogue option that lets the player insult and anger them (some of the insults are hilarious too, such as the one for the dwarves). The player can also just outright declare war on them, just to hurry things along. Furthermore, over time, the Sorcerer King will work to win them over too; this is represented as a meter that fills, similar to the meter for currying favour with them. If that meter fills, they turn hostile to the player.
The break-out of hostilities causes the armies of that faction to go after the player’s assets. Conversely, the player can also go after theirs. Unfortunately, if the player is expecting the kind of sophistication that can be seen in Age of Wonders III regarding the matter of city sieges and capturing, the player would be disappointed. Battles for cities work out much like other battles, and captured cities are simply razed outright.
Therefore, if the player goes to war against other factions, the player would be on a campaign of extermination, not conquest.
Stardock made it very clear that that Chris Bucholz, who wrote for Cracked.com for many years, provided the writing for the conversation system. There is a lot of deadpan humour to be had and plenty of pokes at fantastical tropes, as well as – perhaps most amusingly – fantastical racism.
MAP VISUAL DESIGNS:
Any map that is used in any playthrough is always a grid of squares, and will look like so regardless of any attempt to hide this, like curving the corners of the squares.
The objects on the maps and the terrains for the tiles have simple textures, which is just as well; the game can run on quite a number of machines and save-games are quick to load.
The interactive buildings in a map had not been made to scale, so there is the slightly comical sight of seeing a human towering over a structure. Of course, players who have played plenty of 4X games would be used to this.
The interactive buildings have models that are distinctive and consistent, regardless of circumstances like the terrain and clime that they are on.
There are some particle effects too, usually to denote the presence of particularly important places, like the obstacles that separate regions of the world map from each other.
Alternatively, if the player would rather not be looking at the world map and its textures and models, the player could zoom out the view until the world map is replaced by the “cloth map”. The cloth map shows armies and units as weights that are sliding about, whereas cities, resource nodes, spawn generators and treasure chests as drawings on the cloth map.
Such visual designs can take a while to get used to, especially is used to simplified views that involve icons and colour shading. Nonetheless, the cloth map is smoothly animated and takes little visual computing resources to run.
UNIT VISUAL DESIGNS:
Considering that each type of unit has its own unique combination of capabilities and special abilities, it is important for its visual designs to make it recognizable from just a glance so that the player can know what to do with them. Therefore, it is fortunate that almost every unit has its own model design.
Unfortunately, their animations are not as unique. Many units share animation scripts. For example, the first infantryman of some factions share the same posture and motions as the second higher-tier infantryman of the same faction. Perhaps one could argue that they have similar training and thus move in the same way, but others recognize lazy model-swapping when they see it.
The animations of the units do get old, eventually, and it can be boring to watch them saunter across the world map or the battlefield. Fortunately, the game does have the convenience of allowing the player to accelerate their animations.
The music is the first thing that the player hears from the game, and it is boring to the ears of a jaded follower of games with fantasy settings. There are the usual orchestral epics that are as forgettable as they are cheesy. The tracks that play during gameplay are not any more memorable either; they are more of the usual, such as the more tense tracks that play during battle.
Indeed, if there is any track that is worth remembering, it is the ominous track that abruptly starts playing whenever the Sorcerer King contacts the player character. The sudden playback of that track is quite goofy.
The other thing that is worth remembering about the music is unfortunately not one that is in praise of the game. The track for the main menu crackles frequently, for whatever reason that is not clear to me.
If the player has played any present-day game that Master of Magic has inspired, the player would have heard all the sound effects that there could ever be in any of them. Clashing of metal, crumbling of stone, splitting of wood and such other noises accompany battle. If there are horse-mounted units moving about, the player can expect clip-clopping of horseshoes.
Of course, if magic is involved, the player can expect whooshing, screeching and such other noises that would remind one of fireworks and burning flames in real-life – not unlike what has been done in so many other games with magic in them.
There is not much voice-acting to be heard in this game. There is the narrator, who talks about the premise of the game. He is barely worth remembering, considering that all he does is repeat the marketing spiel about the game that Stardock and Brad Wardell had been talking about prior to the release of the game. He does not become any more memorable at the end of a playthrough either.
The other voice-overs are for the units under the player’s control. None of them are legible words. Most of these can only be heard in battle, however. Even so, in certain noticeable situations, some units share the same voice-overs. For example, the dying screams of human infantryman and the inhuman Trogs are exactly the same audio clip.
The game has already been updated to version 2.3 at this time of writing, but there are still bugs; the legacy of War of Magic is hard to eradicate. Some bugs have already been described already earlier.
Anyway, here is a description of another bug: reloading a game when a game is already running sometimes causes crashing. This has happened in the past for some cases with faulty coding, but it is still happening with the latest build in cases with other kinds of faulty coding.
One would think that Sorcerer King is the culmination of the lessons that Stardock’s developers have learned since the fiasco that was Elemental: War of Magic.
After all, Sorcerer King has gameplay that is quite streamlined and seemingly easy to manage. There are no complications such as unit upkeep and unit limits, and making new cities is very simple, to cite some examples. The system of Logistics is an elegant solution in establishing control on the expansion of the player’s empires and armies.
Its systems for individual unit statistics and equipment allows for many options and customization. On the other hand, these systems have significant balancing issues, especially with regards to Champions.
There had even been some design decisions that seem peculiarly bold in the present-day, such as the game lacking any multiplayer modes.
Yet, in other aspects, Sorcerer King is nowhere near as sophisticated as its peers in the fantasy sub-genre of 4X-lite games. For one, Age of Wonders III has far more complex gameplay and much better balancing. Furthermore, technical issues still plague the game to this day.
(Of course, there is the matter that Triumph Studios has failed to stay independent and was purchased by Paradox Interactive, whereas Stardock is still strong enough to stand on its own – and strong enough to enact lawsuits, by the way.)