Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sword of Aragon: Final Rating

Sword of Aragon
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Bret Berry (developer)
Released 1989 for DOS, 1990 for Amiga
Date Started: 15 July 2013
Date Ended: 24 July 2013
Total Hours: 25
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 48
Ranking at Time of Posting: 85% (88/104)

It might be fun if I started every first posting with a paragraph outlining exactly what I expect from the game, based on the box art, the name, the developer, things readers have said in the comments, and whatever brief information I picked up from wherever I downloaded it. Then, I could contrast that description with how I feel at the end of the game. If I did that for Sword of Aragon, that paragraph would look something like this:

A strategy game with horrible graphics, Sword of Aragon only barely qualifies as an RPG thanks to an over-arching campaign. The interface is annoying, the logistics are confusing, and the only reason I'm even playing the game is a bunch of you popped up at the last second to bathe the game in superlatives--proving the adage that every game, no matter how dumb, is someone's favorite.

This is honestly how I was feeling less that two weeks ago. I didn't want to play it so bad that I actually went back and won Moebius. In such cases, I have to remember the paraphrased words of Stephen King: "A game is like a pump. It gives nothing unless you first give to it. You prime a pump with your own water, you work the handle with your own strength. You do this because you expect to get back more than you give...eventually." When I'd finally taken the time to invest a few hours, I realized how good, how genre-breaking, Sword of Aragon is. Remind me of this the next time I seem reluctant to get started with a game.

Despite appearances, Sword of Aragon is less a strategy game than an RPG in which an army is your "party." The differences are important. In strategy games, it makes sense to have scout units that explore the map and note locations of enemy forces; in Aragon, that's suicide: a single unit has little chance against any random encounter. In strategy games, you see enemies moving around the map; in Aragon, they don't, because they don't exist until you occupy their square. In most strategy games, it makes sense to divide your forces into multiple armies and think in campaign terms, taking cities with important resources, defending passes, and wiping out encroaching enemy units; in Aragon, except for the garrisons you leave in the cities, it makes the most sense to move your entire army as one unit and concentrate on one goal at a time.

Units not only increase in levels but in available equipment. You name them and imbue them with personality. There are special encounters with role-playing choices in which you never have to fight a combat. The combats themselves are scripted in terms of the enemy's readiness and available forces. Finally, the game gives you points for resolving conflicts and making alliances in the most honorable way. All of these elements point to a stronger RPG focus than a strategy focus. I thus expect Sword of Aragon to do well in the GIMLET:

1. Game World. The game offers generic Tokienesque high fantasy with elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins, but it still tells a good story. The manual gives an impressive amount of detail on the history of Aragon, the various cities and factions, and the player's quest. As the game progresses and the player captures or makes alliances with cities, aspects of the world change, including the frequency of random encounters with various monsters. I like all the random changes that can happen to population, commerce, weather, and other factors in between turns. Score: 6.

A bad month. And someone in Paritan is going to pay.

2. Character Creation and Development. The game perform as well as most RPGs of this era, and better (in a non-strategy game lover's view) than most strategy games. Both heroes and units increase in levels, with consequent benefits to their combat prowess, equipment options, and (for some heroes) spells. The choice of character class for both your main hero and secondary heroes has significant implications for later gameplay, and the choice of the main hero affects the cost of purchasing various units. On the minus side, I was never very clear about the leveling process; the game doesn't actually show your experience points, and I'm not entirely sure how they're apportioned post-battle. The ability to name units as well as heroes was a fun addition, though not one I really took advantage of. Score: 5.

My final character.

3. NPC Interaction. Unfortunately, giving the game any score in this category would involve stretching the term "NPC." You meet a few characters in encounters (below) and you have an "advisor" who tells you things from month to month, but I can't really regard either as NPCs. Score: 0.

4. Encounters and Foes. The encounters were surprisingly good, and most belie any categorization of Aragon as a "strategy game." As you move across the map, you have various options to establish alliances or not, make vassals of cities or just conquer them, and a few other role-playing options. I almost wish the game had not featured the point system, which encourages you to approach most of these encounters the same way, but if you ignore the points, the encounters are fun if a bit basic in their options.

The foes are interesting although not extremely well-distinguished. All groups seem to have some version of footsoldiers, cavalry, mages, priests, and archers, and I didn't find myself adjusting tactics too often in most battles, but especially early in the game, there are a lot of fun encounters with special monsters, like the minotaur, the cyclops, and the dragon. Giant classes also act differently than standard enemies and require a change in tactics. There's a good balance of scripted and random encounters, and until the end of the game, plenty of opportunities for grinding. Score: 5.

One of the game's many encounters and role-playing choices.

5. Magic and Combat. The game shows its strategy game influence in general, and its SSI lineage in particular, through the complexity of its combat. There are dozens of considerations: unit levels, health, equipment, movement speed, strength, range, and morale; the defensive and offensive advantages to certain hexes; line of sight; offensive and defensive magic; unit stacking; costs associated with re-supply, and many others that I'm forgetting. Unlike the typical RPG, you don't just want to win the battle: you want to come out with as many units intact as possible. So even "easy" combats require some tactics to effectively navigate and minimize losses.

Throughout the game, I was constantly assessing various options: should I combine units in case the enemy attacks with melee soldiers, or should I spread them out to minimize the damage they'll take from archers? Should I charge or hang back and let my bows do the work? Should the company of bowmen take two shots from their existing position, or sacrifice one of those shots to get closer? Should I risk this hero on a charge against this enemy? These choices are not completely foreign to the typical RPG player, but they take a different importance in this sort of game, where combats are interrelated rather than stand-alone episodes, and the outcome of one affects success in the next one.

As I indicated in the first posting, I actually prefer the traditional RPG approach to combat, where each fight is a discrete challenge, and you're not trying to juggle the logistics of developing and maintaining large armies in between. But I still admire the tactical challenge offered by strategy game-style combat, even if overall I like it a bit less than a traditional RPG.

The magic system is an extension of combat tactics. Rangers, priests, and mages all have slightly different lists of spells that they acquire one at a time as they level up. You can only cast spells in combat, and for the most part, they tweak the many combat factors: offensive and defensive ratings for units, offensive and defensive ratings for hexes, movement speed, hit points, and morale. There aren't many direct-damage spells the way you'd find in a typical RPG. Although they can make or break a combat--I won because of the "Bless" spell--in general I found magic underwhelming. Score: 7.

The large-scale battles were long but often exhilarating.

6. Equipment. Slightly weak in RPG terms. As you create each unit, you equip its solders with various types of weapons, armor, and mounts (which have their own armor).  There are some interesting logistics to this process; for instance, if you equip a unit with a shield, it can't use a two-handed weapon, pole-arm, or compound bow. As units increase in levels, they're able to use slightly better equipment; for instance, bowmen get the ability to use a long bow at Level 3 and a compound bow at Level 5. Heroes have basically the same equipment choices as the individual units.

The way this game approaches equipment is more akin to character development. Despite a few artifact items that the hero receives as quest rewards, you don't find equipment in the game, and it never feels like you're really outfitting your heroes in regular RPG terms. On the plus side, the manual does a good job of describing the statistics associated with all weapons and armor. Score: 3.

7. Economy. Running an empire takes gold--lots of it--and although there were some times I got some pretty impressive hauls, it never felt like too much. Creating and outfitting a fully armed and armored unit costs thousands of gold pieces, and there are monthly maintenance costs for every living body. The more cities you conquer, the greater the complexity of your finances. Incomes and expenses change with random events, population trends, investments in city development, and even seasons. Fortunately, gold seized at the ends of combats relieves you from having to micromanage your finances, but those logistics are there if you care to engage them.

This kept my inventory running for a long time.

I thought the ratio between combat rewards and monthly incomes and expenses was a little unbalanced, but ultimately the financial system worked out well for me. I never had so little that I felt the game was cheating me, nor did I ever have too much that I felt I could waste money on redundant units. Score: 6.

8. Quests. The single main quest to unite Aragon is somewhat original and told in a well-written back story. But even more fun are the micro-quests along the way to conquer certain cities, slay special enemies, or help allies. I'm slightly torn as to whether I should regard these as side quests or simply steps on the path of the main quest, but either way they're as varied as they can be given the game mechanics, they offer a few (light) role-playing choices, and they provide a sense of accomplishment in measured intervals. I just wish the heroes-only monster-slaying quests hadn't disappeared about mid-game. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Not everything about this game can be good, and this is the category (other than having no NPCs at all) in which it most fails. Even my color-blind eyes can tell that the colors are ugly in just about every stage, especially on combat maps. Too much of the game is in plain text. The sound is bloopish, piercing, and painful (though I hear the Amiga version from a year later is quite good). The interface is generally easy to master--you most often just hit the first letter of each command or option--but until the end, I got confused between when the game wanted me to hit ESC to end an action and when it wanted me to hit ENTER, and I kept doing things I didn't mean to do. I'd end up moving a unit when I was trying to move the cursor across the map to select the next unit and so on.

I didn't cover this in any of my postings, mostly because I didn't understand it until I took the time to investigate, but the maps are actually composed of hexagons rather than squares. There's no indication of this when you're looking at the map, but you cannot move directly east and west. Instead, if you hit the east arrow, you'll alternate movement northeast and southeast. Although I supposed it should have been easy enough just to use the keys corresponding to northeast and southeast on the number pad, I still found it confusing and ended up moving into mountains or forest when I wanted to stay on the road. Even if you've mastered the movement, when you're on a straight east-west road, it's hard to tell which way to move to avoid blundering off into the wilderness. I realize that hex maps are staples of wargames, SSI's traditional specialty, but I still found this mechanic very annoying.

In general, a disappointing throwback in all of the elements of this category. Score: 2.

10. Gameplay. Generally excellent. The game is brisk and lively, challenging without rising to the level of exasperating. I think the curve turned a little too steeply for the final battle, but other than that one fight, I felt the level of difficulty was just right. Again, except for the final battle--my three attempts at which occupied more than one-third of my total playing time--I felt that the game lasted exactly the right amount of time.

Even more notably, the game has a high degree of replayability--though to fully enjoy this, you have to forget about the points and just go with your role-playing whims. I think this would be a great game to dip into now and then, trying to win by conquering every city, by trying different role-playing options with different allies, by using the hardest difficulty level, or by playing under certain conducts, such as no mages, or all mages, or now bowmen, or only one hero. There are encounters that I didn't get because of the specific choices I made, and it would be fun to try again and see how the game unfolds with different choices. Score: 8.

The final score of 48 doesn't seem very high if you don't understand my GIMLET, but it puts the game in the 85th percentile of games I've played, ranking 18th from the top out of 104 rated games.

It's rare to be surprised this way. Sure, we've had good games recently, but for the most part, I expected them to be good. The last time I remember going into a game with low expectations and having such a good experience was with The Dark Heart of Uukrul last fall.

I was just looking over the history of SSI gamesand realized that I played The Battle of the Bulge (1981) on my C64 in the mid-1980s. I had utterly forgotten about it until now. If you look at their history, it's filled with dozens of strategy games based on real battles and campaigns, such The Battle of Shiloh (1981), Battle for Normandy (1982), War in Russia (1984), and Battles of Napoleon (1988). This strategy game focus is found in almost all of the RPG titles from SSI, including Wizard's Crown, The Eternal Dagger, Shard of Spring, Demon's Winter, and culminating in the Gold Box combat system introduced in Pool of Radiance. (Though it must also be said that they produced the tactically-bereft Questron/Legacy of the Ancients series and Rings of Zilfin during the same period, as well as the Phantasie series, which was tactically good, but not to the level of the others.) Though infused with such tactics, all of its other RPG products are unquestionably RPGs; this appears to be the first time they tried to create a true hybrid of RPG and strategy game, and I think they succeeded very well.

The game got mixed reviews in its own time. Rather than recreate Wikipedia's summary, I'll just link to it. It has some baffling quotes, such as one review's complaint that it requires no strategy (though I suppose from a traditional strategy gamer's view, maybe it doesn't). There were complaints that echo mine about the graphics and sound, and everyone hated the copy protection system, which I didn't have to experience. The basic theme seems to be that RPG players found it too much of a strategy game, and strategy gamers found it not enough of a strategy game, and few appreciated its hybrid nature until much later. Fortunately, it's withstood the test of time and has an active modern fan community and an online remake (be warned: it crashed my browser).

I wish the credits for some games were clearer about whose "vision" the game truly was. In this case, Bret Berry is listed as the developer. It's a name I didn't really know but probably should: he's credited on 118 games between 1989 and 2011. Sword of Aragon is the first CRPG in which he plays a key role, but we'll be seeing a lot of his work in the coming years, including Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (listed as co-project leader), Death Knights of Krynn ("basic concept"), and Dark Suns: Shattered Lands (producer). He was at SSI for 12 years and then spent a few years each at Ubisoft, Vivendi, Sierra, Electronic Arts, and SEGA of America before founding his own company called "Avid Gamers Etc" last year. I'll see if I can track him down to comment.

For me, it's on to Sword of the Samurai, a game I'd like to skip. It looks like it barely qualifies as an RPG, but a bunch of you have shown up to say it's your favorite game. Every damned game is someone's favorite.


Note from 15 August 2013: I originally published this post on 27 July 2013 but yesterday I accidentally deleted it (long story short, I was trying to delete an abandoned draft of this same post and clicked on the real thing instead). I was able to reconstitute it thanks to RSS copies submitted by readers, but I wasn't able to reconstitute the comments. In them, I explained that after investigating Sword of the Samurai, I decided it wasn't really an RPG and moved on to Windwalker. If any of my readers would like to re-post their original comments, you're welcome to do it.


  1. I have records of everyone's posts; I don't know how they were threaded though, so I won't bother to post them myself. Feel free to contact me if you want to repost and need your full comment.

    1. The copy on the Wayback Machine contains 86 threaded comments.

    2. Well if all worked together we could rebuild them all in their original form. ;)

      I always forget about the wayback machine. The internet is truly forever.

    3. Gentlemen, we can rebuild them. We have the technology.

    4. The google cached copy is from the 11th of August, compared to the 8th of the wayback. Well, for a while still.

  2. I'll have most people's comments in my email, as I subscribed to the thread; for example CRPG Addicts comment on crime stats I was going to reply to from the 13th.

  3. Well, the worst categories (NPCs and graphics/sound/interface) are the heritage of the strategy elements, so I guess it's only logical that the score is a little worse because the GIMLET can't quite capture the innovations of hybrids. A modern version of the game would naturally introduce better graphics/sounds. Maybe one could add some NPCs as well... dialogue screens with different leaders...or random encounters that the "you" hero faces on his travels...


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