Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sword of Aragon: Final Rating

Sword of Aragon
United States
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)
Ranking at Game #455: 92% (417/455)

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 performs 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 soldiers 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 no 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 games and 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.

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.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sword of Aragon: Won!

Dad spent his life trying to achieve this dream. I achieved it in eight years.

The final battle in Sword of Aragon was the longest I've ever fought in a game, beating even the endless combats in Knights of Legend. It took four hours, and I fought it three times before I finally won.

When I closed last time, I was trying to figure out how I was going to defeat the vast and combined forces of Tetrada and Estrallah. Your advice was that I needed more high-level mages, so I dumped a bunch of other heroes and hired five mages of Level 5 (the highest anyone would offer), joined them to an army of bowmen who I also wanted to develop, and set about trying to grind their levels. Only I got sick if it very quickly. It was hard to find random encounters, and battles for cities took forever and didn't often level my characters. Finally, I decided screw it, I'd take Tetrada with the units I had.

I conquered Pudwala at one point, but the game made me feel so bad about it that I reloaded. I don't think I've ever reloaded because of a victory before.

I developed a ton of new bowmen to assist in my endeavor and brought armies from all over the continent. I attacked with over 2000 men.

The armies converge on Tetrada.

I lost the first battle--it timed out again while I was dithering around in the background, over-relying on my bows. The second time I took a more aggressive approach and used my heroes, infantry, and cavalry as shields so that the bows could get closer. I had four priests and I had them all cast "Bless" at the beginning of each round, which provides a defensive bonus and greatly minimized my losses to enemy arrows. (In fact, I'd say my victory was due almost entirely to "Bless.") The infantry units remained curiously reluctant to attack. I tried to pick off the smaller groups with my own melee fighters while concentrating my bow attacks on the enemy stacks in the city itself.

My army begins to surround the city.

Eventually, I got to the point where I had driven all enemy units into the city. I got my bowmen right outside the walls, formed a ring around the city, and just spent turn after turn mowing them down. My mages stood in the background and cast "fear" and "confuse" on any enemies that left the city, and my cavalry and heroes rode them down. My foes eventually surrendered when they had about 25% of their forces left and I still had 66%.

There was much jubilation at this screen.

The battle gave me both Tetrada and Estrallah, but I didn't immediately get a winning screen and I started to rage at the game, thinking that I'd have to go and conquer all the other cities. But then it occurred to me to just end the turn for the month, and fortunately at that point I got the winning screen.

Great. NOW everyone gains levels.

I won with 490 out of 500 points, which I think is pretty good for a first time, blind play. The game lets you keep playing if you want to continue administering your lands, fighting random battles, and conquering the other cities. I was happy to retire while I was ahead.

I'm sorry I never got to experience the higher-level mage spells in the game, but damn do I feel like I earned my victory.

Short posting, I know, but it'll take me a few days to put together the GIMLET and I didn't want to delay the good news.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sword of Aragon: A Conqueror's Mentality

My vast (and, unfortunately, not very profitable) holdings.

My path to global conquest has progressed largely unimpeded. Since the last posting, I accomplished the following:

1. Defeated a dragon on the way up to Gernok, the city of goblins. It was easier than I expected: it fell in a couple of rounds in which I took virtually no damage. For my four-minute combat, I received 72,000 gold pieces and 50 points.

At least, unlike most RPGs, it seems to be the right scale.

2. Attacked and conquered Gernok itself. There were a lot of goblins there with many monster allies, but like most besieged armies, they were loathe to leave their fortifications and were easy fodder for my bowmen. When I won, I not only got the city but the Crown of the Westrealm.

Who is actually saying that I'm the "rightful ruler of Aragon"? Not that I mind.

3. Conquered and occupied Char, the city of giants, for which I found the Wand of the Lake Goddess. It supposedly caused some improvements to the area around Tentula, but I didn't really notice them. A couple turns later, I had to defend Marinia, my vassal, from another group of giants. I didn't have many forces in the area, but sending a single battalion was fortunately enough. Malacon did most of the rest.

My units face off against giants at Char.

4. Had a few skirmishes with Khalikhan horsemen bands who were angry that I'd sided with Jantri Khali. (From what language or mythology did both this game and George R. R. Martin draw the syllable "Khal" as relates to horsemen?) But after an episode where I saved them from some trolls, they agreed to lay down their arms and join Jantri. For this, the overjoyed Jantri gave me 5,000 gold pieces. I never heard about horsemen again after that.

Jantri Khali will now marry and beget the Stallion Who Mounts the World.

5. Conquered Zarnix from the orcs. This involved two huge battles, one in front of the city and one at the city itself. This was necessary to open the southern pass to the east coast.

6. North of Zarnix, my hero found a clearing with a large stone tablet that called me the "True Heir." The ghost of an old emperor (my ancestor) appeared and told me I was destined to unite the land and become emperor, but I need the Crown and the Sceptre. I'd already found the Crown, and I got the Sceptre in Dersh. He also gave me the Amulet of Aladda and 50 points. I was told that I was compelled by magic to "wear the amulet for as long as [I] shall live."

Can I at least take it off when I shower?

7. Invaded and conquered Dersh from the titans. It was the toughest battle of the game so far: the titans are capable of devastating missile damage at long ranges, and they had a horde of demon allies with tough magic. Shooting at them from a distance didn't work because of poor visibility between my units and the city itself. I lost three heroes in the invasion. My reward was the Sceptre of the Eastrealm and 60 points.

The bloody battle for Dersh.

8. I next headed for Lucedia. There had been constant rumors of fighting between Lucedia and Dersh, and I'd hoped my recent victory would create an ally. Instead, a group of Lucedians met me on the road and demanded the Sceptre. After I slaughtered them for their impertinence, the city offered itself to me without a struggle, and I got 20 more points.

I'd just defeated hundreds of titans and demons. Why they thought 200 cavalry would intimidate me is anyone's guess.

Throughout these activities, I got continued intelligence about Lucinian and Tetrada. I learned that he has been greatly expanding his military, that he installed his uncle as Earl of Estrallah (another city on the east coast) after the previous ruler was assassinated, and that he invaded and captured Sothold.

Well played, Lucinian.

When I'd finished conquering the north, west, and south, I turned my attention to these cities in the east, of which Tetrada would be the culmination. I started by conquering Sothold with the help of the exiled armies of the former leader, Baron Strumberg. North of Sothold, I met a force from Estallah, who became my ally in exchange for my agreement to attack Lucinian.

With the potential end of the game in sight, I moved my armies up the coast and pounced on Tetrada, but just before I did, I got word from a random wanderer that I'd been betrayed by Estallah; that the leader was none other than Pitlag, who I'd sent packing from Paritan, and that the Estallans actually planned to join the battle against me.

He was "true to his word" that he SENT the troops; they just joined the enemy instead of me.

After defeating an advance guard outside the walls of Tetrada, I attacked the city itself and got my butt handed to me hard. My forces were no match for the thousands of combined Tetradans and Estallans. Their infantry and cavalry units were capable of absorbing ridiculous hit points in damage. Heroes and units that had effortlessly breezed over stacks of titans were dispersed or eliminated by single companies of Tetradan infantry--and there were dozens of them.

Part of the massive defense force at Tetrada.

I had some success hanging back and using bows--my default strategy--but there were too many enemy units, and they were too well-defended. The game automatically stops combat at 24 turns (the attacker "loses" at this point), and I'd only brought the enemy down to 70% by then and had lost more than half my own forces.

I assume taking Tetrada will end the game, but I haven't conquered everything else on the map. I skipped Xafanta, the city of dwarves, hoping they'd eventually offer some kind of alliance, since we had a mutual enemy in the orcs. There's also an elven city off in the woods that I'm not sure if I need to deal with. Finally, I haven't done anything with Pudawala, another city on the coast. I honestly don't know why. It just hasn't been a bother yet.

You'd think Xafanta would be grateful that I conquered Zarnix.

More on Tetrada at the end, but let's talk about a few other things that have been happening.

The conquered monsters don't let me rest easy.

While I was conquering the land and finding treasures: monsters began attacking my cities almost every turn, desperately trying to reclaim them. I had to fight off goblins in Gernak, orcs in Zarnix, titans in Dersh, and giants at Char. They attacked in the thousands, throwing wave after wave at my entrenched defenders, pillaging and slaughtering townsfolk when they could. Since recruitment in these cities was so pathetic (2 or 3 recruits a turn), I had to form units of conscripted infantry (damaging morale) and bring in defenders from other cities. I lost a lot of units and heroes.

Hordes of goblins breach the walls of Gernok.
Late in the process, I began to wonder why I was spending so much time defending the conquered cities of monsters. Why did I even care if they took their cities back? I'd already looted them for tens of thousands of gold pieces, their magic items, and the associated points. Continuing to occupy them was costing as much as I'd won--in poor commerce in trade and in dead soldiers. I'd been assuming that winning the game would involve holding--as a conquest, vassal, or ally--every city on the map, but nothing in the documentation said that, and even if it turned out to be true, it would be easier to re-conquer the cities after dealing with the major foes than to hold on to them for months and months until then.

This made me think of a key paragraph from Stephen Ambrose's D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, which I highly recommend for its prose, even though serious historians tend not to like popular historians like Ambrose.

At the beginning of 1944, Nazi Germany's fundamental problem was that she had conquered more territory than she could defend, but Hitler had a conqueror's mentality and he insisted on defending every inch of occupied soil. To carry out such orders, the Wehrmacht relied on improvisations, of which the most important were conscripted foreign troops, school-age German youths and old men, and fixed defensive positions. It also changed its tactical doctrine and weapons design, transforming itself from the highly mobile blitzkrieg army of 1940-41 that had featured light, fast tanks and hard-marching infantry into the ponderous, all-but-immobile army of 1944 that featured heavy, slow tanks and dug-in infantry.

Everything about this--the mentality, the conscriptions, the change in unit design, the loss of momentum--rang true in my present scenario. No one wants to find out he's been role-playing Hitler. Thus, towards the end of these events, I began to withdraw troops from the monster cities, leaving only a few token forces, with the idea that they could retake them if they wanted.

Although it sounds like the game has been encouraging me to think strategically, the analogy doesn't hold up beyond what I've already described. If the allied invasion on D-Day had failed, it would have been devastating to the war effort, and Germany might have held France permanently. (Or, more likely, two million Berliners would have died on a single day in 1945.) In Sword of Aragon, goblins, orcs, giants, trolls, and titans are free to send thousands of soldiers against my cities every few rounds; no number of defeats will deter them, and they never run out.

Aragon thus really isn't much of a strategy game, despite my misgivings in my first posting. I'm not a strategy game addict, so I don't feel qualified developing a list of "core criteria" for strategy games the way I did for RPGs--but if I did feel qualified, I'm sure that one of the criteria would be that every player, human and machine, plays by the same rules. Every player in Warlords has to spend money and time developing units, has the same considerations in their finances, and--most importantly--has to actually move units across the map to make attacks. This isn't the case here, where enemy attacks and defenses are scripted. (There's some randomness to when they appear, but the events themselves are still scripted.) That means that Tetrada can maintain thousands of soldiers in its single city without going bankrupt from the costs. They can send units down the coast to conquer Sothold without encountering any of my units along the road. Hordes of goblins can attack my cities in between turns, but I can't raise some companies of cavalry and go rout them in the foothills before they attack, because until they launch their attacks, they don't really "exist." This is par-for-the-course for RPGs, but it breaks the basic rules of pure strategy games, and it's yet another reason that I'm not sure strategy game lovers would love Aragon.

A few other notes on the game:

  • As my units increase in levels, it's fun to see what additional equipment options become available to them. Most important are the compound bows which become available to archers at Level 5 and have a very long range and enormous firepower. I have six units of 50 with them and have been trying to develop more. 

Somewhere along the way, Wiggins got the ability to use a two-handed sword, as long as I don't assign him a shield.

  • NOTHING in this game is more annoying than repeated messages that the line of fire for my archers is blocked. I can't seem to reconcile such messages with information about the height of the hexes or the number of obstacles in between. Sometimes, they just appear for seemingly no reason.


  • I'm not sure I made this clear earlier, but even when you lose a combat, you don't necessarily lose all the soldiers in the units. Units "eliminated" during combat are simply rendered unable to continue in that battle; they might still have as much as half their strength when you regroup after battle.
  • Unlike some strategy games, there's no way to "vector" forces from one city to another; you have to physically move them. Taking advantage of the plentiful recruits in some of the earlier cities means spending half a year moving them across the continent later.

My main army retreats from Tetrada to lick its wounds.
Okay, so I definitely need to build up my armies to a much stronger position before I attack Tetrada again. I'm going to spend about a year developing cavalry, bowmen, and mounted bowmen in the various cities, training them as much as possible before sending them to join the forces in front of Tetrada. I understand that magic can make all the difference in the final battle, and I only have one mage left, and he's only Level 6, so perhaps I need to hire some more and spend more time developing their levels.

I'm next going to find out what happens if I conquer the traitorous Estallans before attacking Tetrada. I'll also probably conquer Pudawala just because it's there. My next posting will either be a "won!" or a (temporarily) different game.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sword of Aragon: A Chronicle of Deeds

My chronicle of deeds grows ever longer.

In my last posting, I noted that "strategy game lovers might actually dislike" Sword of Aragon, a position that I hold more firmly now that I've had a chance to experience far more involved battles. The problem is that the enemy AI is rather awful. Enemy units dither around when they should attack, hole up when they should enter the field, and retreat when they should charge. They send bowmen, who could be devastating otherwise, out into the field in small, easily-destructible units. They surrender with 75% of their force still strong. I've won several combats against cities with tactics no more intense than simply hovering my archers just far enough from a city to hit it with their bows, and raining volley after volley on the stubbornly-entrenched defenders until they surrendered.

Unfortunately, these same AI problems often beset your allies as well. In both my fight against Paritan and my attack on Brocada, many of my allied units just hung around their starting locations instead of engaging.

My units do all the work scouring the city while my "allies" hang around to the southwest.

This is on "average" difficulty, though. I don't know if the AI might be stronger on "hard"; you have the option to change it every time you start the game, and I haven't experimented much yet.

Despite these concerns, the game continues to delight me with the ways that it breaks common tropes. Other strategy games I've played encourage you to think of some units as essentially cannon fodder. I'm thinking of the infantrymen in Warlords, whom you can create at a rate of 1 per turn, and whom I would gleefully (and somewhat sadistically, in retrospect), send on suicide missions to soften up enemy stacks before attacking with the units I really cared about. You don't want to do that in Sword of Aragon. A unit of 35 mounted infantry costs around 6,000 gold pieces to assemble and equip. No unit is "dispensable."

Creating a new unit costs a quarter of my available wealth.

I had some successes since my last posting, which I will recount anon, but also one big failure. My main army, with almost all my heroes (save my main hero) was moving along a mountain trail when they encountered a "small group" of titans. I expected an easy, quick combat, as random combats usually are, and was careless in my unit deployment and the initial rounds. The titans turned out to be absolutely devastating. I lost five heroes, a unit of cavalry, and two units of bowmen. It was the type of loss from which you seriously think about starting over, but fortunately this game (at least in parts) gives you enough breathing room to recover from such disasters. Particularly notable is that newly-hired heroes don't start at Level 1 but rather about half the level of your main hero. I had lots of recruits waiting to be formed into units in my four cities, and I was able to rebuild my army within about a year.

More on combat tactics at the end, but let me quickly recount what I accomplished since the last posting:

1. Brocada: Joined with the exiled forces and re-took it from Pitlag's army. The old guard took it over, so it's a vassal city rather than a city I control.

2. Pitlag's Army. I heard a rumor that they were camped to the southeast. Took my victorious army from Brocada and found their camp, wiped them out, seized their treasure.

3. Nuralia. I had heard nothing of this city to the east of Paritan, but it was on the dead-end of the road, so I figured I'd have to deal with it at some point, and I might as well do it before I turned my attention south. When I approached it, I had an option I didn't have (or didn't notice) with the other cities: to lay siege to it.

I kept the siege up for several months, but the defenders just "remained firm" each month, so finally I lost patience and just attacked. The battle wasn't too hard. The city had a lot of defenders, but as covered above, they were loathe to leave the safety of their walls. I just shot arrows at them until they surrendered.

4. Horsemen: Around the time I was attacking Brocada, I started to hear about tribes of horsemen in the plains south of Sur Nova. There were apparently several warring tribes, but one leader, Jantri Khali, was said to be uniting them under his banner. (Seven years before the world learned of Khal Drogo!) There were also reports that horsemen--I don't know which ones--were looting merchant caravans. As the months passed, I heard that Jantri Khali had defeated his rivals and was charging tribute to pass through the lands. Eventually, an ambassador from Khali approached me and offered an alliance, which I accepted.

5. Sur Nova. The giants that had given me trouble early in the game, blocking passages south, were a bit easier with my long-range compound bows. I killed them, freed their captives, and gained treasure. The freed captives told me they'd put in a good word at Sur Nova, the next city on the march south. I ended up taking the city without a fight; they simply welcomed me as their new leader. Nice when it's easy.

6. Miscellaneous Monsters. Around Sur Nova, my heroes found some evil cultists and a band of orcs with wizards. In both cases, the heroes had to fight alone, but they were easily victorious. Both produced lots of treasure.

7. Monastery. My court historian told me of a monastery to the east of Sur Nova where the monks apparently know some protective magic. I sent Gideon there alone for some reason, but it turned out okay. He got admitted to the building, donated 1,000 gold pieces, and received some information about an alternate route through the mountains, guarded by a goblin army with a dragon.

8. Tentula. Rumors around the time I was fighting for Nuralia said that this southern city was "once very prosperous" but "has practically withered since the disaster that devastated the world" (interesting hint to a back story not covered in the manual) and would therefore be easy to conquer. Soon, word came of impending collapse and riots in the streets. When I finally arrived, I found it quite well-defended, with 500 soldiers, but I won it with my usual bow strategies. It's a good thing I did: I hadn't been watching the months, and it was December. If I hadn't been able to take the city, my army would have faced a long and deadly march back to the nearest safe city.

9. Trolls. I recount this episode below.

As months go by, in between turns, a lot of random stuff can happen in the cities, some good, some bad, all lending some fun flavor to the game. Hail damages crops and diminishes a city's agriculture. Citizens donate money to help with the upkeep on the garrison. General "unrest" damages production. A "misunderstanding with a powerful merchant group" damages commerce. A prospector finds a new mine and increases mining production, or a bandit raid decreases it. Nice weather improves morale and decreases food use. Food shortages deplete the civilian population. Wandering adventurers give information that helps improve trade. A population surge increase the number of individuals available for recruitment. There are dozens of other possibilities.

Each transition of months brings both random events and intelligence.

All of these events have consequent effects on morale, city production, city population, income, and recruitment. I agree with most commenters that since the overwhelming majority of your income comes from battles, these considerations aren't terrifically important, but it irks me anyway to see cities operating on a net loss.

Okay, on to combat. A 25-minute battle I fought against some trolls illustrates the game's approach to both quests and combat. The episode begins some turns earlier, when hundreds of trolls surrounded the city of Sur Nova and demanded 2,000 gold pieces or else they would "kiill aall humann!"

In most games, you might pause to chuckle for a few minutes before attacking (has anyone honestly ever just given "all their gold" to a wandering bandit in Skyrim?), but Sword of Aragon encourages you to think about the situation with a little more strategy. In the city, I had a garrison of about 35 trained and equipped infantry, a new unit of bowmen, plus two heroes. If the trolls killed them all, it would cost well over 2,000 gold to replace them. Plus, there's the population of nearly 5,000 people to think about--no more recruiting in Sur Nova--not to mention the continued economic cost of supporting a devastated city.

In this case, I allowed myself the rare luxury of trying both options and re-loading, just to properly document the role-playing choices. Fighting turned out to be suicide. There were indeed hundreds of trolls, in dozens of units, and they swarmed my hopeless garrison from all sides. I had to watch as the game told me how many civilians they were slaughtering.

When I intend to leave a hero in a city, I lamely name him as the first letter of his class and then the name of the city.

So I reloaded to try the other strategy: agree to pay. They told me to "havve theee goold ready" when they came again.

Little did the trolls know that I'd already discovered their base of operations, called "Trollhome," and I was waiting for reinforcements to attack. The video below picks up as I muster all of my heroes and forces in front of their fortress and launch my assault. The video is unnarrated, but I have highlights below.

  • 00:07: You see my unit names and statuses. Yes, I'm running out of ideas for naming the heroes and units.
  • 00:17: The game gives me a description of what I'm facing and a chance to attack or retreat. Sometimes these screens give you a better sense of the size of the opposing force, but not here.
  • 00:24: I scan the battlefield before placing my units. Though it looks like the bulk of the troll army is up in their village to the northeast, I know from a previous attempt that the biggest danger is a horde of them hiding in the mountains to the south.
  • 00:39: I start positioning the units. Trolls rarely used range attacks, so the key to success in this battle is strong stacks that can repel melee attacks. I have too many units for fewer than three stacks, and I decide to go with exactly three groups of melee units. (When enemies use ranged attacks, you generally want more groups so they take less damage from arrows.) This is enough to create a wall protecting my archers and mage. I distribute the heroes and ground troops relatively evenly throughout the stacks.
  • 01:40: The trolls immediately start pouring out of the mountains and attacking my groups. I'm able to eliminate or repel all of them. The game won't let the round end with opposing units sharing the same square, so one stack is either completely eliminated or dispersed back to another square.
  • 02:22: Notice how many units are just dithering around the village when they could be swarming me. This is what I mean by the bad AI.
  • 02:24: I finally get the ability to act. I take a look at the army list, and we've both lost about 8% of our effectiveness. This doesn't mean that 8% of the units are dead. These percentages are a combination of soldiers' lives and the hit points of the heroes, I think.
  • 02:38: I begin by having my archers decimate the largest stacks of trolls. Each group gets two shots.
  • 03:15: My plan at this point is to basically entrench in place and let them come to me. But the stack to the far left didn't get attacked in the first round, so I have them charge the group of trolls just to their south, eliminate them, then return to where they came.
  • 03:40: I may not have the other groups charge this round, but I don't want to waste their movement when I can do something. I start by having the ranger in this stack fire a volley with his remaining movement.
  • 04:04: The "2nd Javelins" were highly demoralized by the attacks of the first round, so I have a priest cast "rally" to restore some of their confidence (04:11), and Gideon casts "Heal" to restore their health (04:28). Gideon also shoots a bit at one of the stacks.
  • 04:42: Morganna, my mage, casts "Confuse" on one of the stacks, then makes an attack.
  • 05:10: Pasta, a priest, casts "Exhaust" on another stack.
  • 05:31: Everyone else "entrenches," which protects them a bit in the next round.
  • 05:40: Next round begins. Yikes! Look at all those troll units that suddenly appear! And the ones from the village are ominously beginning to come west (05:45). Nonetheless, my stacks of heroes and soldiers do a good job repelling large groups of trolls.
  • 06:36: My actions in the second round begin. I pretty much repeat the last one: target large groups with archers, charge a couple of weak troll stacks, keep most of my fighting units entrenched but take advantage of ranged and spell attacks when I can. I'm a little worried that at the beginning of the round, we're still even in losses (06:39), but by the end of the round, I've clearly dealt with most of the danger from the south.
  • 09:36: At the beginning of the next round, the stacks of trolls either break themselves against my units or flee to the south. I pick off the remainder with archers, rangers, and one cavalry charge during the next couple rounds.
  • 11:41: Gideon is out of arrows. I have to "resupply," which costs a little money.
  • 13:30: Fortunately, the trolls in the village haven't realized that they could easily overwhelm me if they just had attacked at the same times as their friends. I now start positioning units for what I think is the inevitable fight against them. There are a few rounds as I slowly approach close enough to get my archers in range.
  • 16:00: I check the status. I'm only doing slightly better than them. They could still defeat me if they tried.
  • 18:00: Notice how they spend a lot of time just shuffling around instead of charging.
  • 18:15: I have to "resupply" my bowmen.
  • 18:23: I finish killing the one unit they sent gingerly towards me.
  • 21:28: I'm just in the midst of picking off some other forward units when suddenly they surrender--with 68% of their force left! (Compared to my 80%.) Note how much gold they have. I get a percentage of that gold based on the percentage of trolls I've destroyed. If I quit fighting now, I'll get 22,500 * 0.32, or 7,200. Not bad, but I'd like more, and they threatened to destroy my city.
  • 21:57: When you continue to fight in such situations, you get only one more round. I spend it charging down and shooting as many trolls as I can.
  • 23:44: Satisfied I can do no more, I end the round and the combat. A number of my units and heroes gained levels, and fortunately I didn't lose any heroes, but the combat was otherwise fairly tough on me. I lost 10 of 24 javelins, 4 bowmen, 4 of 22 cavalry, and 14 of 22 mounted infantry. It'll be a while before I can replenish these units with fresh recruits. My extra round ensured I got $8,325 instead of $7,200.
  • 24:16: More important, I finished the quest and got 25 points--the highest I've been awarded so far--for doing so.

A few things that are raised by the video and combat discussions in general:

1. I see the wisdom of spreading out your units in most fights, so you don't lose too many soldiers to arrows and spell attacks that target an entire stack. But so far, I don't see any reason not to start everyone very close together. I wonder if later enemies will be capable of hitting multiple stacks at a time.

2. Spells so far have been under-whelming. "Rally" and "Heal" help a lot to counteract damage from enemies, but it's hard to palpably sense the effects of "Confuse," "Fear," and "Exhaust." I'm hoping some actual damage spells are coming along soon.

3. At the end of each combat, you get a battle summary that shows your "battle score," which I gather is the equivalent of experience points in a traditional RPG. Everyone who participated gets a share, regardless of what they did, and everyone has a chance of gaining levels or (for heroes) spells.

4. I really don't like some of the controls in the game. Consider moving a stack in combat: you hit ENTER to activate the stack, select the one you want to move, or "All" for all of them, hit "N" for normal movement, go where you want to go, hit ENTER to stop, and hit ESC to leave the stack. It doesn't sound too hard, but I find it easy to skip a step and find myself targeting when I want to be moving or (worse) moving when I want to be targeting. It's also not possible (at least as far as I can tell) to select multiple units without selecting all of them. If you want to move just 4 out of 5 units in a stack, you have to either first move the unwanted one out of the stack or painstakingly move the other 4 forward one-by-one, and then join them again.

5. Freeing captives from various monsters increases the number of people you can recruit in nearby cities. This is good, because the number of recruits otherwise grows slowly--maybe 5 or 6 a month--and if you need a unit faster, you have to resort to conscription, which damages morale and costs extra.

6. Garrisons. As I found out the hard way, if you don't leave a big enough garrison in a city, wandering monsters will attack it. I've taken to forming infantry companies out of local recruits and stationing them there. They're the cheapest units (since they don't have horses) and taking them on the road is difficult anyway because of their low movement speed.

Forming an infantry company to protect Sur Nova.

As I close this posting, I have a few options for my next move: 

1. Gernak. A city of goblins in the middle of the map. I can either approach from the direction that has the dragon or go around.

2. Zarnix. The next city on the southern coast. I know nothing about it.

3. Xafanta. This dwarven city lies to the east of Sur Nova, in the mountains. It's very close to my cities and I'd like to count it as an ally, but I've had no emissaries from them yet, just word that they're at war with the orcs. It seems wrong to just attack dwarves, but my ultimate goal is to unite the land...

4. Tetrada. This city is in the far northwest and, judging by the map of highways, probably the last that I'll approach. Word came that the "emperor," Lucinian III, had died, and his son, Lucinian IV, was promising to restore the city's position "as the center of the known world." At first, I thought he might be an ally, but then I got information that he's "ruthlessly suppressing opposition" and has appointed loyal army officers to political positions.

Looks like we'll be facing each other across a battlefield, Lucinian.

I only have 130 out of 500 points, so either I've missed a lot, or we still have 3/4 of the game to go, or the point rewards get bigger from now on (something my battle with the trolls seems to suggest). I wouldn't mind if there was a lot more left to play. This is a very fun game, and I'm glad my coverage has brought so many fans out of hiding to comment on it. A week ago, it was an annoying obstacle between me and the end of 1989; now, it's a reminder of why I started this project in the first place.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sword of Aragon: The Empire Grows

One city has joined my side. I prepare to attack another.

Sword of Aragon presents an odd but not-unlikable fusion of strategy game, RPG, and adventure game. It has defied the expectations that led me to start my last posting with an explanation about how I don't enjoy strategy games. Now that I've played a bit of Aragon, I suspect strategy-game lovers might actually dislike it.

To enjoy Aragon, I've had to shake off the template created by my previous exposure to strategy games, where you start the game with a general campaign goal (usually to conquer the realm) and choose the specific ways that you achieve it. This game gives you a standard campaign map but requires--or at least strongly suggests--that you approach "conquest" in a specific order, and not always (in fact, so far, hardly ever) in ways that involve laying siege to other cities.

A typical RPG quest amidst strategy-game-style logistics.

Instead, I've received a selection of standard RPG-style quests--kill a monster, rescue a child, find some treasure--but instead of setting out to complete them as a lone hero, I have a company of cavalry and a battalion of bowmen at my back. One frankly wonders why more RPG protagonists don't try this route. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar--Accompanied by the 9th Mounted Legion and Space Rogue and His Fleet of Mercenary Ships would sure play a lot faster, although I recognize they would lose some of the challenge.

When I last wrote, I had finished the first quest (defend the city from orcs) and was trying to finish the second, to slay a monster holding captives to the southwest of the city. I spent a fair amount of time futilely trying to win combat against some giants before I realized I was in the wrong place, and the "monster" was actually a cyclops a lot closer to the city than I had been searching. He was pretty easy--just one creature with no allies. I overran him with my main hero, my mage, some javelins, and some bowmen. The cash reward, 3,500 gold pieces, was far more than I had when I started the game. As I'm only making about 100 gold pieces per month in city income, I can see why my commenters have said that most of the cash in the game comes from combat.

The land that I must unite into an empire. All action has been taking place in the northwest quadrant so far.
While I was still in the midst of the cyclops quest, I got a suggestion as to another one: a young boy kidnapped by a horde of goblins somewhere between Marinia and Brocada (not too far to the north of my city).  His merchant father was offering a 5,000 gold piece reward for his return. I returned to Aladda, swapped out some units, and rode north to find the goblins.

But even as I was hunting them, I got yet another quest, from yet another local merchant, who reported that a "hideous monster" had kidnapped his daughter and taken her to his lair northwest of Aladda.

A less benevolent ruler wouldn't put up with this.

Clearing these two quests involved a couple of different approaches to combat. The minotaur was just one creature, but all of my regular soldiers were too afraid to fight him, so I stacked my heroes, attacked, and wiped him out with one charge. It took but a few moments.

The heroes against the minotaur.

The goblins were arranged in various battalions of archers and infantrymen and took a little more strategy, and my success wasn't nearly so clear-cut. I've found that enemy archers seem to have a better range, and do more damage, than my own archers, and it seems almost inevitable that my heroes and soldiers will take some damage as they approach enemy positions. Sometimes, the damage is enough that the hero's or unit's morale plummets and I can't do anything with them for the rest of the battle. In this battle, I had my ground soldiers attack in two groups while my archers supported from the rear. I lost one of my priests in the battle but only five regular soldiers.

The neat thing is that the enemy will declare defeat when its loss percentage gets to a certain level, and that number isn't necessarily very high. The goblins surrendered when I'd defeated only 40% of their army. This, it must be said, is more realistic than the typical strategy game, where units will bravely fight until utterly obliterated.

The post-goblin battle summary.

Unfortunately, when the battle was over, I didn't find the merchant's kidnapped son--only a pile of charred bones. I don't know if there was anything I could have done differently to save him (get there faster?) but I declined to reload and kept playing. When you successfully complete a quest, you get a certain number of points (one of the adventure game elements), but I didn't get any for this one. I don't know if this will have a long-term effect on my success or not.

By the time these battles were over, winter was almost upon me and I had almost 10,000 gold pieces to spend. I had no more quests for the time being, and both commenters and experience taught me that marching around in winter is a very bad idea, risking death and desertion for everyone. Hence, I decided to hole up in Aladda during the winter to form some new units, develop the city, and train everyone. Among the new recruits (morale was high in the city, supplying me with lots of bodies), I made a new company of bowmen, made a company of cavalry, and hired a knight. I trained both companies of bowmen up to Level 3. I ensured everyone was equipped with the best weapons and armor and developed the city's agricultural, lumber, and mining resources.

Forming and equipping a new unit can get expensive.

A couple of things happened during the winter that were worth noting:

  • I got some intelligence that Brocada--a city directly to the north--was perturbed at my growing might and that of Paritan. There were rumblings of war between Brocada and Paritan, but then later some intel that they were thinking about an "economic and military alliance." I'm not sure if I should have done anything with this.
  • In a neat interlude, the people of Aladda approached me with a petition to pardon Olaf, a young man accused of robbing and murdering another man whose body was reportedly dumped in the river and never found. Though there were two witnesses implicating Olaf, he had so many character references--including some from extremely prominent citizens--that I decided to pardon him. Everyone was happy with this decision, and it turned out to be the right one, because a month later the "victim" showed up alive and well, saying he was robbed by the two "witnesses" who had accused Olaf.

A neat role-playing option in a strategy game.

  • The Duke of Marinia (a city to the northwest) died of a pox and the city descended into civil war.
  • I received an emissary from the Tranavan Elves claiming to want relations with my people, but upset at all the lumber development I had initiated. At his request, I agreed to reduce our lumbering. The ambassador later told me that the elves hate King Pitlag of Paritan.

Every month brings new intrigue.

Just as winter ended, I received news that Malacon, leader of the Marinian cavalry, had been exiled from the city on "patrol" to keep him from leading the peasants against the corrupt army junta that had taken over after the duke's death. I took this as a sign to gather some forces and head up the road to Marinia. I met Malacon on the way and agreed to support him in his coup against the city in exchange for his vassalship.

This is one way to conquer a city, I guess.

The fight against the "rabble" was a little harder than I expected, though perhaps I didn't bring enough with me (three heroes, one company of bowmen, one company of cavalry). The defenders clustered in the city in a single knot, making it difficult to pick off one group at a time. I tried to weaken them with my bowmen and then charge with my heroes, but the heroes ended up getting largely dispersed and demoralized, as did the units from Malacon's army. Fortunately, the enemy didn't seem to be interested in leaving the city, so for the last three or four rounds of the combat, I just shot them with arrows until they surrendered.

Approaching the city of Marinia.

Malacon took over Marinia, and Marinia became a "vassal" city to me, which means I can't control anything about its development but I get gold from them now and then.

After that, some time passed in which the game didn't give me any hints as to what to do next. There are only a few roads out of Aladda. All northern roads lead to the cities of Brocada and Paritan; the southern routes branch off a bit, but you have to deal with a giant camp no matter what. It felt like I needed to deal with Brocada and Paritan before I continued onward, but every time I approached those cities, I was warned about their military strength, which far exceeded that of Marinia, where I'd already had a difficult combat. I dithered around for a couple months, seeking random combats to build my sense of tactics and to gain levels.

Eventually, I got word that Lord Pitlag of Paritan was sending an Armada to destroy Brocada, leaving his own city undefended. I immediately headed up the road to attack. When I arrived at the city, I was joined by 100 soldiers sent by my allies, the Tranavan Elves (there was a previous rumor that Pitlag had put out a bounty on their ears).

Companies of bowmen lay siege to the city.

The battle was long and devastating for my side. The elves were slow to come out of their starting points, and Pitlag's cavalary was horrifyingly effective in its attacks on my footsoldiers and heroes. I lost two heroes and had most of the rest of my units dispersed in the first three rounds. Oddly, though, Pitlag's forces seemed curiously reluctant to engage archer units, and so my companies of archers and the elves were able to slowly chip away at them. After we took care of the cavalry, we hovered near the city and just fired volley after volley at the entrenched defenders until they surrendered. Unlike Marinia, Paritan became fully mine, with the ability to make units, levy taxes, and develop the city.

I suspect I'll see him again.

As I left the city, I had a weird encounter with an old man (he'd cackled something at my army on the way past him to Paritan). He called me the "rightful ruler of the ancient empire," did a somersault, and vanished, giving me 10 points for virtually no effort.

In the next round, I heard that Pitlag had taken Brocada, so I gathered my forces and headed in that direction. I met with the defeated Brocadan forces south of the city and agreed to help them retake it, but the game warned me that Pitlag has more than 550 fresh soldiers in there, including 100 cavalry, 350 infantry, and 100 bowmen. I think I need to spend some time building units before I can hope to prevail against them.

This is going to be a tough battle.

A few notes:

  • The game really wants you to follow a particular path. If you try to go too far from the Aladda in the opening stages, you get warnings to turn around.

Maybe we'll go south anyway. What is my "trusted advisor" trying to hide?

  • As you explore the wilderness, there are frequent random encounters with monsters. You have the option to "ignore" them--an option I've been mostly taking to avoid depleting my unit strength. Perhaps I should spend more time on random encounters as a way to build my units.

I assume "surprise" means I start combat with an advantage.

  • Each game session starts with a copy protection screen. It asks you to match the icon of a city with the name of the city on a poster, then type the first word in the paragraph description of the city. It's an annoying process, and it might not even be necessary, since I'm pretty sure I've gotten it wrong a few times, to no ill effects.

I'm curious about a couple of things, and perhaps my commenters can contribute here:

1) Despite the game's intentions, could you win by simply ignoring the "quests," building armies, and conquering each city one by one?

2) What happens if my main hero--Gideon, the ranger son of the old king--dies? Is the game over, or can his followers continue his dream?

3) Does the "score" affect your ability to win the game? (I guess that's related to Question 1.)

I'm enjoying it, but have limited time to play this week. I hope to give it a lot more time this weekend and devote the next posting to combat tactics, which I'm finally beginning to understand.