Monday, July 15, 2013

Game 107: Sword of Aragon (1989)

Sword of Aragon
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for DOS, 1990 for Amiga
Date Started: 15 July 2013
I've noticed that in life, almost all my success derives from exceeding in the moment rather than the long-term. I give very good presentations, but I don't plan very good presentations. I teach good classes but I don't design good curriculums. I'll write a six-page article with a few hours' notice, but I've had books languish for years. I deal with acute crises better than chronic problems. I'm great at poker and pool, horrible at bridge and chess. I aced all my week-to-week assignments in graduate school, but I was terribly late with my class projects, and I can't even make a dent in my dissertation. In military terms, I'm a good tactician but a horrible strategist.

I think this is why I don't like strategy games much even though I like the logistics of combat RPGs. I like battles, not campaigns. CRPGs are rarely about long-term strategy; you mostly have to worry about the foe in front of you right now, whom you can almost always defeat with the resources in your backpack. With strategy games, it's not enough to win the battle. You have to be conserving units, developing resources in your bases, plotting four or five moves ahead. You have a human or computer enemy who constantly tries to defeat you, so you can't do what you'd do in a CRPG by taking time out, resting and healing, and grinding to develop characters.

The opening screens.

The fusion of strategy games and CRPGs was inevitable, and thus inevitable that I would have to play them. I managed to get out of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Bandit Kings of Ancient China by complaining that they weren't "RPG enough," but I can't make that same claim about Sword of Aragon, which has leveling for both heroes and units, equipment, and a main quest. I have no excuse for skipping this one.

I was at least happy to see that Sword of Aragon is not about the Lord of the Rings character but a kingdom of that name (though not the region of Spain). The story is unusually detailed and personal for a strategy game: the player has just inherited the throne of Aladda, former capital of the western realm of the Aragonian Empire. The former king, the player's father, was a famous knight who reclaimed Aladda from monsters but tragically fell to a band of orcs. Now, the orcs are threatening the land, and it's up to the player, newly crowned, to repel them. After that, his goal is to realize his father's dream of re-uniting the kingdoms of Aragon into a vast empire.

The young king starts at Level 4.

The only choices at the outset are the character's name and class: warrior, knight, ranger, priest, or mage. I followed PetrusOctavianus's advice and decided to try a ranger. The game then asks whether you want to go with the "standard units"; if you do, it assigns you a few NPCs and battalions. If not, you start with more gold but have to purchase your allies. I went with the standard units for my first game. I was assigned a warrior, another ranger, a priest, a mage, a company of 30 spearmen, a company of 40 javelin warriors, and a company of 30 bowmen. Each has their own allotment of equipment, hit points, armor class, movement speed, and attack ratings. The hero characters all have names beginning with the letter of their class, which makes it easy to tell who's who.

My initial army.

Like most advanced strategy games, there are enough statistics and options to confound Napoleon. In addition to all the stats for each army, we have a host of stats for each city (fortunately, I only have one to start with), including the morale, loyalty, health, tax rate, trade surplus or deficit, and weather. There are separate production, tax, and resource figures for all kinds of natural resources, like agriculture, lumber, mining, manufacturing, and commerce--all of which can be "developed" for a fee. You can conscript civilians from each city into an army, which I suppose affects the morale and loyalty, and you can levy higher taxes to raise money in a pinch.

Some of the city statistics and options.

For each of the units, you have the option to reinforce them with more personnel (lowering their level if the personnel are new), buy them better equipment, spend money to train them, and even give them more unique names.

The game starts with a combat after the first turn.

The orcs were waiting just outside the city when the game began, and when they attacked, I got a more tactical map of the area. I figured it would make sense to just entrench myself in the city to face them rather than go charging out into the countryside (among other things, they vastly outnumbered me).

The orcs come charging in.

Combat takes place in a zoomed-in area of the larger game map. Each square has its own defensive rating in terms of both missile weapons and hand-to-hand combat, as well as a visibility and elevation rating. Some of these can be affected by various spells that grow or destroy foliage, dry mud, and so on. Each "unit" (including individual heroes) have various options during combat, including moving, attacking, entrenching in place, re-supplying (for a fee), casting, and forcing a longer march with a consequent drain on stamina and morale.

For the first battle, I mostly entrenched in place. I tried out a couple of spells ("vigor") and had my bowmen shoot enemies at a range. As enemies engage each other, you get quick messages about what's happening, and I haven't fully been able to interpret them yet (e.g., when it says "infantry dispersed!," I don't know if it's talking about mine or theirs).

Eventually, when things get bad enough for one of you, you get a message showing you the current status and allowing you to quit or fight on.

The orcs broke themselves on the walls of Aladda, but I chose to keep fighting and eliminate as many of them as I could. I sent several of my units outside the walls to engage the fleeing enemies, but some of them ultimately got away. I received 283 gold pieces from the battle and ultimately lost only 8 men. Obviously, I'll talk more about combat when I understand it better.

A good start.

After the battle, I got a message that "your good showing has attracted a character who will serve you"--specifically, a Level 2 knight. I also got a message that I recovered my father's stolen Bow of Accurate Archery (I suspect this weapon changes depending on what class you choose).

Not sure what the "5 points" is about.

Finally, I immediately got a bead on another quest: an escaped slave is apparently reporting a monster, near a river to the southwest, who has hundreds of captives. I also (in the next month) received a report of goblins holding a young boy captive on the road between Marinia and Brocada, with a 5000 gold piece reward for his return.

Already, the way that this game fuses role-playing games and strategy games is clear and intriguing. A basic hybrid might have introduced named heroes, units that level, and a master campaign, and not much else, but this game seems to be organized in a series of quests. The goal doesn't seem to be to raise armies and immediately go conquering your neighbors, but rather to use strategy-game-like units and tactics to solve traditional RPG-style quests.

Unfortunately, I'm having problems with my subsequent battles. I keep ending up on battle maps where I can't see the enemy at all, and they seem mysteriously adept at hitting my units from afar. My units keep getting the morale knocked out of them, which means they flee around randomly when I try to move, and I don't know how to recover from that yet. I have lots of practice and manual-reading to do.

And yes, I know the Lord of the Rings character has an extra "r." Chill.


  1. Sounds like an intriguing game concept. I hope it clicks for you eventually.

  2. A Ranger? He only gets a discount on horsebows, doesn't he? The Warrior is better for a first-time player, he gets 50% discount on infantry. And infantry are good. The Knight gets 25% discount on cavalry, which is fun but not decisive. The mage and priest characters are for advanced players, they don't get any discounts.

    5 points means there's 500 points in the game. Influenced by King's Quest, I'm sure.

    Hmm, if you can't see the enemy then he must have cover. He's either in the trees or up on a higher elevation where you can't see him. Send a low-level hero on horseback out scouting. You can equip heroes just like a military unit, so give them a horse and leather and send them out. You have a limit on how many heroes you can have at any time, so keep it filled. In the western realm, heroes are many, and their lives are cheap.

    If your units are low on morale then just don't select them. When a unit is eliminated or dispersed, it's bad news but doesn't mean it's 100% dead.

    I should talk here about the game's wargame conventions. I never really figured out what "Hand", "Charge", "Overrun" mean specifically. I know that Hand is regular attack, Charge is...more? A stronger attack somehow, affecting enemy morale? Overrun is to be used when facing a significantly inferior opponent. It was a wargame rule invented to allow armored units to defeat small units and keep moving. Usually combat requires stopping movement - this opens the game to abuse by enabling lines of weak units, forcing the attacking player to delay because he has to stop and attack them. Overrun fixes this problem. So, to use a fresh full-strength unit to stomp those last few orcs flat, attack with overrun. I like bringing in the heavy cavalry for finishing moves. SQUISH!

    Don't worry too much about the city development strategy aspect, just do what seems to need to be done. After a while the improvements get too expensive so stop building them. Your income will change with the seasons, especially agriculture, so watch your tax rate. Gold is the most important resource, and managing that in fantasy games should be second nature.

    You get to name your units, they don't have to be called "1st Javelins" or anything. Give them names with character, they're basically your party members. But keep something in their names so you can tell them apart at a glance, because name is all you get on the tactical view.

    I think the secret is to think of the game as a big-table version of Pool of Radiance. A fun excuse to have some set-piece battles with a party of your construction. Not so many paragraphs, but you're more in control of the direction.

    So great to see this from fresh eyes. Hopefully this was not spoilery, just some stuff that should have been in the manual. I hate when people spoil the game.

    1. I'd say that hand, overrun and charge are 'cautious/defensive posture' for hand, 'fight head to head/neutral defense' for charge and overrun could only mean 'reckless/offensive assault'. Or that'd just be my vague wargaming history saying that 'hand' would mean a small number of troops being actively used against the enemy.

      That said, this opening paragraph precisely detailed my problems with Heroes of Might and Magic. I was always good at Kings Bounty as a kid but could never successfully tackle HOMM (except for 4 which I played almost exclusively with overpowered hero units, essentially changing the game into an rpg.) Great to see someone else has the same deficiency, in a kind of strange way!

    2. If anyone is curious the manual is available online.

      Looks like you need some scouts, adding some light mounted units should fix that, the "light" spell can also help spot hidden badguys.
      Level 6 Bowmen can equip the compound bow, a stack of 100 is deadly and the ranger get's a discount.
      Two or three knight heroes and 20-30 heavy cavalry will roll over almost anything.

      I've been playing it as well, and it does fit the criteria for a crpg, It's going to be interesting to see the gimlit.


    3. How on EARTH did you find the manual for that game in the midst of that Japanese-only, advertisement riddled, no html-links anywhere, midi playing Tripod site? Oy vey, gevalt ish MIR!

    4. If you ever need an old computer game manual, hit either or Both are decent sources for it.

  3. Chet, a small technical issue, but when I click on the link you have created in this article for "PetrusOctavanius's Advice" it takes me straight to his comment, but if I ever click any of the "Top Comments" on the sidebar it only ever takes me to the top of the article. Would it be possible to get these "Top Comments" to behave the same as the link in this article i.e. take you to the exact comment instead of the top of the article?

    1. Yeah, that is annoying. The links are just formated wrongly, and you have to delete the "comment-" part after the "#" in the link.

      Chet, one thing to keep in mind, which may take time getting used to, is that you can't really campaign in the winter months, due to heavy attrition. So your armies need to spend several times in a row in a friendly city and wait for spring.

    2. Unfortunately, the "top comments" section is a pre-built widget, and I don't have the access to modify the code, nor the ability to write the necessary code from scratch. When I get a chance, I'll see if there's something else out there.

  4. This is the oldest game that I still replay today. I love the RPG + Wargame combination, I wish there were more games like it. Playing it on ironman (no saves) on the first attempt is ambitious though. Like Harland says those invisible units are out of line of sight. At the start of a battle you need to put the game in "observe" mode, and then scroll around the map and look at the height stat of each area of the map. This allows you to create a mental map of the Hills and Valleys. Once you do that, combat starts making alot more sense. Make sure you recruit some more Mages, they end up very powerful. And mount + equip all your heroes asap, plus check up on them every couple of levels as new equipment options are unlocked (especially in the early levels).

    1. I totally agree. This is my favorite overall game of all time and the CRPG addict review I have been waiting for. I replay this at least once a year and I am 38 years old. A modern version keeping the mechanics and story is my dream game. Cheers!

  5. This seems like a very interesting game. I have played Medieval Lords and have seen Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but this is new to me. Thank you for bringing another artifact from the past! As a player of wargames, I can appreciate the strategy in the game.

    This reminds me of an older computer game called "Excalibur" where you play Arthur and try to rule Britain. You lead knights into battle to aid vassals and your rating rises and falls depending on how well you keep your vassals safe. You used a joystick to move and make decisions, like banishing a bad knight. I think it was designed by Chris Crawford of "Eastern Front" fame.

  6. As others have stated above, elevation is the one reason why you might not see the enemy units. You can see the differing elevations of terrain whilst in combat mode by using the (H)ex key.

    A couple of quick tips.

    1) Hire as many heroes as you can as soon as you can. There's a limit to how many you can hire based on your own character's level. The game does limit you to a maximum of 20 heroes at one time (including yourself).

    You want as many heroes as you can get leveling up as quickly as you possible. Not going to spoil it by telling you why. :p

    Another tip on this, as your character's level rises, the level of new heroes you can hire also can go up. I.e. if you're level 6, when recruiting heroes, you can get a level 3 or 4 (or thereabouts - also depends on the class of hero you're hiring).

    One way you can take advantage of this situation, if you're able to hire a level 4 warrior and you already have a level 2 warrior. You can dismiss your level 2 and replace him with a level 4. This is especially useful for classes that are slower to level (priests/mages)

    Always, always strip your heroes of their equipment before you dismiss them. This gives you a refund in gold which at least defrays your cost of hiring the new one.

    2) Make sure your heroes are involved in combat. You don't need them to whack at opponents, but as long as they're part of your battle group, they still gain experience after combat. Experience of course leads to leveling up.

    At higher levels, your heroes are fearsome.

    3) Ensure that you at least have a couple of priests (the cure spell is more useful than heal, cure restores the health/life of all units in the same stack as the priest, heal only heals one particular unit in that stack). This will save you a lot of gold in replacement costs for lost soldiers.

    Mages are the most awesome heroes you can get. Not going to elaborate too much since it's a bit of a spoiler but will let you find out when you get them up in levels. :p

    1. 4) Levels for your soldiers are a dicey thing. IIRC there's no real level cap (99 maybe?) for them, but you should never train/level them up past 10-12 (I can't recall which one it is). Past 10-12, their damage output/health/other stats don't increase. The only thing that increases is your monthly maintenance cost.

      One way to bring a unit down in levels, is simply to reinforce it with 1 soldier. Then dismiss 1 soldier. Check your unit's level. Rinse and repeat until you get it back down to the level that you want.

      5) Equipment - Always check your heroes are using the best equipment possible and are mounted (level 1 mages IIRC don't come with mounts equipped). Also double check their equipment (for warriors/knights/rangers) at levels 3 and 5. I.e. rangers can use short bows at 3 and compound bows at 5. Knights can use plate mail at 5.

      Do the same for your soldier units too. Especially your bowmen. No point having a level 10 force of archers still using short bows when they could be using compound bows instead.

      If you want to see what equipment a unit/hero can use. Strip them of everything, then equip them, but select nothing at each option. This shows you what equipment may conflict with certain choices. I.e. a bow/ranger unit cannot use long/compound bows if they're equipped with any form of shields.

      6) Don't move your troops during winter (December-February) or when the weather is bad. Attrition can wipe you out. Try as much as possible to make sure that they're in your cities during this period. Whilst camping does help, it mitigates, not prevents the loss of life.

      In the same sense, plan your campaign expeditions after winter but before the end of autumn.

      7) During combat, if your bowmen can't seem to shoot any more arrows, your infantry can't throw missiles or your spellcasters can't seem to cast their full repertoire of spells, that's when the (S)upply option comes into play. This replenishes their ammo/(and I presume reagents for casters). Try not to (S)upply if you're close to the end of the battle unless absolutely necessary since it costs gold to do so.

      Always try to obliterate your enemy (aim for a total victory, i.e. enemy down to 0%). More experience and also gold.

      When in battle you can do (L)ist to show you the strengths of all forces in the field. At the same time it also shows you the amount of gold each force has. Later on you'll find some forces can have significant amounts of gold. If you win the battle, the amount of gold you get from them is equivalent to the percentage of the enemy you have obliterated.

      I.e. Enemy Force A has 10,000 gold. You win the battle when they are down 12%. You win 8,800 gold from them.

      Going to avoid giving too many more spoilers here. It's fun to find them out on your own.

      The one thing I will state though is about a fairly irritating bug that exists in some version of SoA. At the beginning of every month, before you do anything, scroll your cursor to the top left most corner of the map.

      For some reason sometimes you'll have newly spawned heroes who are part of your army in that corner of the map. The heroes IIRC can only move one hex and then they're stuck (they start in a water hex, and once they move into the land hex, there's no other way they can move).

      If you get the bug, reload your save game to the previous month.

      The heroes that spawn there DO count to your 20 hero limit. And it's near impossible to kill them (bad weather works if they're mages I think - move them to the land hex and attrition kills them) and you cannot dismiss them since they're not in your city.

      Nothing is more irritating when you're midway through the game and realize that you've only been able to form a force of 17 heroes and the game tells you you've hit the limit.

    2. Oh yeah, just one more thing. If you still find it difficult to figure out where the enemy is, in a lot of cases they're at the centre of the map.

      In Combat mode, your cursor gives you coordinates (the map is a 24 x 24 grid IIRC) and most times the enemy is about 11,11 (coordinates from 0-23).

      There is an exploit which you can use if you so choose. If you absolutely can't figure out where the enemy is, move your cursor around the screen whilst pressing (S)how. It will display a list of units in that hex even if they aren't visible to you.

    3. I thought I was the only Sword of Aragon fan left in the world. This thread is awesome.

    4. It's an awesome game. I still play it perhaps twice a year.

    5. I love you guys for loving this awesome game. This is my favorite web site before. Sorry to gush, I'm just so jacked to know I am not the only one that worships this game.

    6. Thanks for all the clarifications on things, Aay. I haven't fully taken your advice: I don't think I've had more than 10 heroes at any one time, and I've wasted some guarding cities, but I lost more than half of the ones I had in a single battle, so I need to re-develop my hero list from scratch.

  7. I really appreciate all of the detailed advice, especially from Harland and AAY. It's a little bit distressing that the game is so complicated, though, since I was really looking forward to getting out of 1989. It's sounding like SoA has the potential for bogging me down for a couple months, like Knights of Legend did. I guess I just need to take a deep breath, slow down, and give the game the attention it deserves.

    1. Another hint that may be useful to you in tough combats. I'm about 70% of the way through this game now, and I wouldn't have gone this far without it. Combat was very tough before I used this simple strategy. I'll ROT it just in case

      Rarzl NV vf xvaqn penc. Vs lbh nggnpx n pvgl gur rarzl jvyy trarenyyl fvg ba gur gbja naq yrg lbh pbzr gb vg. Guvf nyybjf lbh gb whfg fgvpx na nepure (rnfvre jura gurl ner yiy 3 be 4 naq pna trg ybat objf) n srj urk'f njnl naq fvzcyl enva qrngu ba gurz juvyr gurl cynl gur cneg bs cva phfuvba. Bayl eneryl qb gurl fraq n pbhcyr fpbhgf bhg nsgre lbh naq gurl ner rnfl rabhtu gb gnxr bhg vs lbh xrrc ng yrnfg 1 ynetr vasnagel havg evtug va sebag bs lbhe nepuref. Nyfb, tvira gur pubvpr bs jrngure gb nggnpx lbhe nepuref be lbhe vasnagel/pninyel, gur NV jvyy nyjnlf tb sbe gur zryrr tebhc svefg, hayrff lbhe nepuref ner pybfre gb gurz guna nalbar ryfr.
      V sbhaq gung na nezl jvgu 5 tebhcf bs 50-60 bs yiy 4-5 nepuref, n pbhcyr fznyy (20-25) pninyel havgf, naq bar guvpx vasnagel havg jvyy qrpvzngr nalguvat lbh pbzr npebff. V thrff gur cbvag vf nepuref, nepuref NEPUREF! :) Gurl ner n yvir fnire, naq lbh fnir zbarl pnhfr gurl qba'g erprvir qnzntr jura gurl nggnpx. Guvf nyfb zrnaf lbh qba'g unir gb jnfgr zbarl ba gurve rdhvczrag. Nyy zl 200+ nepuref ner rdhvccrq bayl jvgu gurve obj fvapr gurl bayl frr zryrr jura fuvg uvgf gur sna naq gura vg'f gvzr gb erybnq naljnl. Guvf fnirf gubhfnaqf bs tbyq.

      I hope that helps a little. I could say more but I don't wanna spoil anything.
      1 more thought... much of your cash will come from fighting. You will start making $$ from cities eventually, but be prepared to fight an opposing city if you want to get a large amount of cash quickly.

    2. Oh and developing agriculture in cities seems most important as far as development options. They often import a ton of food if you do not, and this is expensive and hurts morale. The other development options are not at lucrative, but as long as they are less than 5 or 6 hundred, get them if you can.
      Also, make sure you always have a few hundred bucks in reserve before entering a big combat. When you need to supply someone in combat, which is often, it will cost a couple hundred. Running out of arrows/reagents sucks.

    3. Right now, I'm trying to get past a combat with giants who are capable of attacking my characters from so far away they're off-screen. I can't get close enough to them to even engage them without suffering so much damage that the armies automatically flee from morale loss. I guess I just need to accept the fact that I need to come back to this one later.

    4. someone said not to train your units. I found it very helpful to train the archers to lvl 3, so they can equip a long bow, with MUCH better reach. Also, after you equip a group with weapons they get at lvl 3 and 5 (mostly) then no matter how many reinforcements you add, no matter how many levels they lose, all reinforcements, rookie troops, will come equipped with that better weapon. so if you have 1 lvl 5 archer with a compound bow, and reinforce him with 49 additional recruits, even though they are all lvl 1, they will equip compound bows. So, I would sometimes train just a single archer a few times, equip a compound, then add reinforcements.. this is the only way I found to OUT reach those giants.. Giants are some of the tougher opponents though, so it's entirely possible your facing them too early.

    5. Yeah, I figured it out. I thought the giants were the "monster" that had been reported southwest of the city, but that was a cyclops and much closer.

  8. I remember playing this game back in the day with a mate on his pc, we never got close to finishing it, but we had loads of fun. Brings back some good memories :)

  9. Europa Universalis 3, a nation builder strategy game spanning about four hundred years of real history starting ca. 1400, has a mission for the country of Aragon to conquer the Ethiopian province of Gonder. It's a funny little nod to LOTR that led to huge amounts of "but there's an extra R!" stuff on the game's forum.

  10. Still playing in 2018.

    In almost 30 years, I've never found the goblin kidnap victims alive, even if I send units between Brocoda and Marinia immediately. It's an early quest that seems to be eternally doomed to fail.

    The key to working your units up is to patrol. If you're not headed off to engage another city or villain, patrol roads. If you encounter enemies, fight them and level your troops up. Just keep an eye on your movement points so you get back to your city. Works great starting off, plus levels up your heroes quickly.

    I've never figured out exactly what "special" attack points mean that you get from spears and pikes. Not sure if that's defensive or offensive.

    Also, there are certain cities not worth holding onto.

  11. This was one of my first SSI games ever played. To this day, I still go to places like Abandonware and download SSI games. I've loved their work since the SOA game.

    If I could I'd buy 'em dinner.

  12. One of my favorite MS-DOS-era games, and quite probably my favorite strategy game ever (unless Warlords II wins by sheer virtue of its soundtrack). I still proudly put my framed copy of the poster up in my office whenever I move. I would say I was a little surprised you seemed to be having trouble getting into it, but quite frankly as someone who usually only loves RPGs, FPSs, or RPG/FPSs, I have no idea why I was so into it, either.

    Probably helped that I discovered the trick where you could recruit negative numbers of soldiers in Sur Nova and, though you would basically destroy the town that way, you would also overall benefit greatly from the new armies.

  13. 'Sword of Aragon' is now available on gog - in early December 2021 it was quietly released there together with 'Questron II' and 'Wizard's Crown':

    Shortly before Christmas, 'Demon's Winter' and 'Shard of Spring' followed:

    Apparently Forthright Entertainment acquired the rights to these SSI games. Haven't seen any 'Phantasie' or 'Rings of Zilfin' yet, though.

    These are all DOS versions which run through DOSbox, so even if the first three are shown as 'Windows only', you can get them working on MacOS, too (and I assume Linux as well?) - just bought SoA (it's at 50% discount currently) and got it running in no time on my Mac.

    'Wizard's Crown' does not appear to come with a manual, though (the others do, according to their description).


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