Friday, July 28, 2017

Revisiting: Wizard's Crown (1985)

The title screen establishes Wizard's Crown as a game oriented towards numbers, not graphics.
    
Wizard's Crown
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1985 or 1986* for Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit; 1987 for Atari ST and DOS
Date Started:  13 June 2010
Date Ended: 20 July 2017
Total Hours: 51 (includes 10 hours from 2010)
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5), although adjustable on the main screen.
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
*The copyright on the game is 1985 but the earliest ads I can find are from very early in 1986. MobyGames says 1986; Wikipedia says 1985. It seems likely it was released very close to the turn of the year. It's remaining on my list as a 1985 game until I find something conclusive.

By 1986, Strategic Simulations had already made a splash in the RPG market by publishing Charles Dougherty's Questron (1984) and Winston Wood's Phantasie (1985), but the company was far better known for its detailed wargames, some based on historical battles (e.g., The Battle of Shiloh, The Battle of the Bulge), some fantastical (e.g., The Warp Factor, The Cosmic Balance). Wizard's Crown was the first major effort to unite the two genres; "a role-playing game with tactical combat," as promised by the box.
     
       
(1983's Galactic Adventures technically precedes Wizard's Crown in offering detailed tactical combat in an RPG, but it was only published, not developed, by SSI.)

And, boy, was the combat tactical. RPG players used to Ultima or even Wizardry must have been a little baffled. "Enough options to give a migraine to Sun Tzu" is how one reviewer described it. With battles taking up to an hour--and, of course, no guarantee of victory for all that time--I suspect most players used "quick combat" most of the time. Eventually, SSI realized that while RPG players may want tactical combat, they probably don't want to micro-manage which parts of their bodies their shields are covering, and thus adopted a much simpler system for Shard of Spring (1986). It was this less complicated approach that, coupled with Dungeons & Dragons rules, gave us the superb combat systems in more than a dozen Gold Box titles. Wizard's Crown also directly influenced the excellent tactical combat of Disciples of Steel (1991).

Such an important step in RPG evolution deserved more attention than the three short posts I wrote on the game in 2010 (starting here) before giving up because it was too hard. (Honestly, how did I keep any readers back then?) I tried to revisit it last year but got frustrated when Blogger ate my draft. But I always knew I'd give it another shot before attempting its sequel, The Eternal Dagger (1987). This time, I played it on the Apple II, since Dagger was only published for that platform and the Commodore 64.

Wizard's Crown is far more attuned to its strategy/simulation sources than its RPG sources. (I gather from interviews that lead designers Keith Brors and Paul Murray--both of whom went on to Pool of Radiance--both loved tabletop RPGs but came from more of a wargame programming background.) It is minimalist in graphics and sound and heavy on logistics and numbers. Even the title screen is text-only. Success is heavily dependent on developing a couple dozen magic, combat, and adventuring skills, on which you directly spend experience. Instead of just a pool of hit points, there's an injury system and a bleeding system. There's a morale system, an encumbrance system, an ambush system that is influenced by which character you have "on point." Armor doesn't just have an "armor class"; it has separate defensive ratings against each type of attack. This is, in short, a hard-statistics RPG.
     
The ability to spend experience directly on skills distinguishes Wizard's Crown from typical "level-based" games.
     
The backstory concerns the Crown of the Emperor, which grants power and wisdom to whoever wears it. For centuries, the Fellowship of Wizards governed the land of Arghan by passing the crown from wizard to wizard every so often--until Tarmon, Wizard of Thunder, refused to give it up. The resulting civil war left the land leaderless, the wizards exiled, and monsters roaming the land. Tarmon locked himself and the crown in his laboratories and was never seen again. Now, one of the old wizards, Kaitar, has convened a group of adventurers to recover the crown and return peace to the land. [Edit: as Tristan Gall points out below, the story owes a lot to Steve Jackson's Sorcery! gamebooks (1983-1985), where the goal is also to retrieve a crown that bestows leadership abilities.]
     
Later in the game, you find that Tarmon has a different take on the backstory.
     
The party consists of 8 members drawn from 5 classes: fighter, ranger, thief, mage, and cleric. Each class requires a minimum intelligence between 3 (ranger and thief) and 11 (sorcerer). You can multi-class, but to do so, the character has to have the combined minimum intelligence for both classes; for instance, a sorcerer-thief would require 14. The manual suggests having a character of each class, that only 1 or 2 characters should be non-fighters (I assume it includes multi-class fighters, too), that you should have 2 priests, and that one of them should be a ranger-priest. I'm not sure what the rationale is for that last bit.
     
Allocating attributes during character creation.
     
I dumped the default party (I guess a lot of people loot them for their weapons first) and created a new one, using the long names the game allows to remind myself of the character's profession and chosen weapon:

  • 2 fighters: Marek the Slicer and Axe Thaxler
  • 2 fighter-priests: Lyria the Blunt and Florian the Flailer
  • 1 fighter-sorcerer: Paengo Closecutter
  • 1 ranger-priest: Talonias the Thrower
  • 1 thief: Laeu the Lifter
  • 1 sorcerer: Drachmar the Dark

You start with 20 experience points to spend on skills. At the outset, knowing which skills to prize and which are completely useless is difficult. Since there are separate skills for each weapon type, it makes sense to have each character specialize in only one weapon, or perhaps two if you want to fight a lot of tactical combat and switch between melee and missile weapons. (I basically ignored missile weapons for my playthrough.) The game is frank that "Hunt" isn't used in Wizard's Crown, but it doesn't bother to tell you that neither is "Track" or "Treat Disease." I don't think I ever found more than two traps for "Disarm Trap." I was never quite sure what "Combat Awareness" was doing for me. "Shield" seems like an important skill, but later you find that the best weapons are two-handed. And while I understood the uses of "Scan," "Stealth," and "Alchemy" in tactical combat, I was never sure if they made a difference in quick combat.
      
One of about 5 places were "Read Ancient Writings" is important.
      
The game starts off easy enough as you try to clear the town itself. There is one side-quest involving rescuing a maiden from some brigands, after which you can visit her family mansion and get some gold and a broadsword +2. Wandering around the town at night continues to provide battles against brigands and thieves for a while, but eventually you clear all of them and get a gold reward from the mayor. From then on, the town is safe to wander around in, and you only have to enter the small wilderness north of town or the ruins south of town to find enemies to fight.
     
The town offers a temple, an inn, a tavern, and various shops.
     
From my experience 7 years ago with the DOS version, I remember an extremely sharp difficulty curve once the characters leave town and start exploring the ruins. It was so hard, in fact, that I stopped playing. I was sick of having to reload after 5 out of 6 combats. I didn't encounter that at all with the Apple II version, making me wonder what the difference is.

The game is quite small geographically. The ruins south of town (about 60 x 90 squares) hold exactly three "dungeons": the old thieves' guild, Gozaroth's Mansion, and Tarmon's castle, which are two, three, and six levels respectively. There's also a "dungeon" of sorts inside the city--the Rusty Nail tavern--but there isn't much to do there unless you want to attack people for no reason. If you just explored the dungeons and hit the quest points, you could complete the game in only a few hours.
     
Approaching Tarmon's Palace in the outdoor ruins.
    
But the dungeons--particularly the final one--hold nigh-impossible combats that you have to prepare for, which means a lot of grinding. I'd say that at least 80% of the game is grinding. You spend it running back and forth within the ruins, fighting monsters, gaining experience, collecting gold and items, and returning to town to sell your loot and improve your characters. I spread this process out over several months or I would have gone crazy. Every time I thought my characters were pretty damned powerful, I'd head into the ruins, which get more difficult the further south you travel, and get slaughtered by half a dozen gargoyles or a couple of ancient vampires, and realize I still had a long way to go.
      
My party, who I thought was powerful, meets a group of dragons who show them what "powerful" is.
    
Given that grinding is so vital to the game, at least it grinds very well. Character development is constant and rewarding. Every battle imparts a dozen or so experience points that you spend directly on your skills--no need to wait for "leveling" as in most RPGs. If you can save 100 of them, you can increase strength, dexterity, or life points by 1. When I first started the game, I thought I'd never even get my primary skills to their maximums, let alone save enough experience to increase attributes. I was wrong about that. By the end of the game, everyone had hit 250 in their primary weapons, 250 in their spellcasting abilities, even 250 in tertiary skills like "luck," and a couple of them hit the dexterity maximum of 30.
      
Looting items after a battle. A strong "Evaluate Magic" skill helps identify the important stuff.
     
The equipment and economy systems also play a vital role in character development. You can't buy most of the best equipment: you have to loot it from slain high-level enemies. Magic armor starts at +1 and goes to +5 and occasionally comes in rare "elven," "dwarven," or "reinforcing" varieties. There are also necklaces, bracelets, crowns, rings, and cloaks at various "+" levels that impart various types of protection. Magic weapons come in three varieties: those that have a "+" (up to +5), those that do extra magic damage (proceeding in order through magic, frost, flaming, lightning, and storm), and those with a draining effect (dark, doom, soul, demon, and death). There's even a rank of non-magic but still-cool weapons that goes fine, very fine, sharp, very sharp. And any item can have some extra random enchantment on it that raises a skill or offers special protection. Almost every expedition brought me a new and useful piece of equipment.
      
A "flaming" weapon does a lot of magic damage in addition to its normal thrusting damage.
      
Meanwhile, the economy remains relevant throughout the game for two reasons. (Most of your money comes from sale of looted magic items, and the "Haggling" skill is vital.) First, you can spend money on training skills, up to 100. It's a good way to build lesser-used skills to a minimum baseline. More important, a series of mages' shops will increase the level of your magic gear for 50 gold pieces. This will, for example, take your +3 mace to a +4, or increase your flaming sword to a lightning sword. 50 gold pieces is about as much as you can raise in one day of fighting and looting from random enemies, and with so many inventory slots for 8 characters, you really never run out of things to improve.
    
50 gold pieces turns a +1 great axe into a +2 great axe.
      
Still, it gets pretty boring after a while, and I'm glad I spread out the gameplay. If I had played this in my normal sequence, instead of over a few months getting ready for this entry, you would have had a succession of about 14 entries describing how I had done a bunch of grinding, improved my characters a little more, and found a chain mail +3. Most of the 40 hours it took me to win the game involved the same sequence of activity: leave the inn for the ruins; wander around fighting random combats and picking up treasures until my priests' karma was all gone or until my inventory slots were full; return to town and visit the temple to restore karma and get everyone healed; visit the tavern to restore morale; equip new items and sell excess items in the market; visit the magic shop and increase the "+" of one or two items; return to the inn, spend my experience, and rest.

The tactical combat system is both a highlight and key problem with Wizard's Crown. Given all the fighting that you have to do, only an utter lunatic would fight every combat on the tactical screen. Even fairly ordinary battles against half a dozen enemies can easily take 20-30 minutes. I would say that a true master of the tactical combat system is more likely to succeed in a given combat than someone using "quick combat"; among other things, you have to use tactical combat if you want to cast particular spells, use potions, swap weapons, or change fighting styles.

However, the edge offered by tactical combat isn't that high. In the time it takes to fight one battle, you could reload and try "quick combat" about 20 times. Given that, it's hard to justify spending the time on tactical combat unless you just really like it. These same considerations govern Roadwar 2000, released the following year.
      
Tactical combat outdoors. It's tough to keep all the icons straight.
       
I'm quite curious what's happening behind that "quick combat" screen. I assume it's not simulating the terrain on the tactical map. I have no idea if it really simulates casting spells or just uses your magic ability as a force multiplier. Similarly, I have no idea if it ever simulates actions like "Fall Prone" or "Shield Bash" or sneaking. It does seem to make effective use of skills like "Turn Undead," but it never has priests heal injured characters. As noted before, it never changes weapons or attack styles even if the defaults are ineffective.
     
"Quick combat" gives you the results much faster.
     
It would have been nice to have more defaults and quick-key options. Every time you leave camp, for instance (which includes after every battle), you have to specify who takes point and how far away from the party he'll scout. It's almost enraging that you can't just set this as a default. Post-combat healing could also have really benefited from a Gold Box-style "Fix" command.
        
Post-combat healing. The game uses a complex system of basic and severe bleeding and injuries, in addition to hit points, with a variety of priest "prayers" that cure different conditions.
      
I never got used to the movement system, which has you press "1" to go north, "2" for northeast, "3" for east, and so on. I realize the Apple II didn't have a keypad or a full set of arrow keys, so there weren't necessarily any better options. It still sucks.

The movement system becomes more of a problem when characters enter dungeons and become individual icons. You can set each character to act independently or to follow a lead character. But "follow" means "crowd around" more than literally "follow," and I found when I tried to move the party en masse, the active character would routinely get blocked and everyone got hopelessly hung up on corners and in narrow corridors.
      
Half my party failed to round the corner and ended up getting stuck in the water. Meanwhile, when my thief wants to turn around and head back, he's going to have to get those two fighters out of the way first.
      
The temptation, then, is to leave everyone behind and just roam around with a single active character. But I found that no one character had all the skills I needed. My thief, with his "search" capabilities, was the obvious choice, but inevitably he'd run into a lock he couldn't pick, and I'd have to call up a sorcerer to cast "Unlock" or to make sense of some ancient writing.

Keeping the party split also makes tactical combat nearly impossible, since everyone starts at his or her actual position in the dungeon level. "Quick combat" seems to assume the party is all together when combat begins, although I was never 100% sure about that.
     
Tactical combat is tough in a dungeon if one character has been doing all the scouting. Most of my party is trapped in an earlier hallway.
      
One interesting thing about dungeon exploration is that it all occurs on Disk 2, and the game saves your progress there, yet you can only save the party on Disk 1. The odd result is that you might trigger an encounter on Disk 2, lose, reload from Disk 1, and find the encounter not present when you return to the same area. This is positive if the encounter was a difficult battle you didn't want to fight, but it's negative if you were supposed to get an item or a piece of intelligence. Fortunately, the game's main screen allows you to "reset" a dungeon level. This could be abused to reclaim a nice piece of treasure again and again, except that I never found treasure in dungeons that was notably better than the random stuff I got outside.

The dungeon levels tend to be small and easy to explore without mapping. They have frequent textual descriptions of rooms and textual encounters, possibly inspired by SSI's own experiences with Phantasie.
       
The game mimics a tabletop session with detailed room descriptions as you enter.
     
A variety of hints, including some ramblings of an old man in a party and/or an encounter with the thieves' guild master, leads the party first to the old thieves' guild. The dungeon is two levels--you have to use a rope to climb from one to the other--and there isn't much to do there except to find an Emerald Key that you need for the rest of the game. You also find a clue where to find a secret area in the next dungeon.
      
This thief searches a lot more thoroughly than I would.
     
Gozaroth's Mansion is opened with the Emerald Key and consists of two regular levels and one small one. You follow clues overheard from ghosts to find the three pieces of the Golem Staff, which I carried for the rest of the game but never found out what it did. Ultimately you find the undead Gozaroth, who tells you the password needed to enter Tarmon's Palace (ROBIN) in exchange for one of your priests praying to release his soul.
     
Meeting Gozaroth in his library.
      
Tarmon's Palace is six levels and extraordinarily difficult. I kept thinking I was strong enough to make it this time, only to die repeatedly at one of the mandatory combats with various types of demons. It has one type of enemy--"wardpact demons"--who are immune to all but one attack type (bash, cut, and thrust), determined at random for each group. "Quick combat" doesn't cycle these options, so you have to fight them in tactical combat to survive them.
     
A typical message in Tarmon's fortress.
       
Level 3 of the palace has a maze of invisible walls and traps, but you can find a map to navigate it on Level 1.
    
A map helps you figure out where it's safe to walk on an otherwise-blank screen.
     
Level 4 has a central room with doors in each cardinal direction. Various combinations of opening and closing these doors allow you to progress through the level; fortunately, there's a code key on a pillar on the previous level, but it takes a while to interpret what it's telling you.

The level also has a key textual encounter with the mummy of Melos the Seer, who magically recorded his voice as he died, to be replayed when someone opened the door. He warned me that attacking Tarmon with any magical weapon would result in that weapon being destroyed, and he suggested that I find non-magic versions of my favorite weapons to use against him. (Fortunately, regular weapons drop frequently from most combats.) He also gave me the password (DORVAL) to the demon who guards the Wizard's Crown, and he told me that I could find it in a secret compartment on the floor of Tarmon's laboratory.
    
The game doesn't have a lot of text, but it occasionally goes overboard.
      
Level 5 looks like a maze, and I spent an embarrassingly long time running into dead ends before I realized that you can just walk over the ruined walls. It culminates in a huge battle against demons that I kept failing, resulting in yet another few hours spent on grinding.
    
Ugh.
     
Level 6 starts with another huge demon battle, followed by a stream that fully heals the party, followed by a block-and-tackle puzzle where you need at least 150 feet of rope (three individual items) to open a secret door. I must have traipsed back and forth between the entrance to the palace and this level 15 times, at first because I couldn't defeat the demons and needed to go back and grind, and then because I had to get more rope.
     
At least Tarmon doesn't pretend that we "fell into his trap" or something.
      
Beyond this door is the big fight with Tarmon and a host of demons. First, Tarmon gives you the opportunity to join him, but if you do, he just immediately poisons you.
     
You know, I think my characters would have been smarter than to drink that wine.
      
I figured I'd need to fight the battle tactically, since I'd want my magic weapons to kill the demons and my non-magic ones to attack Tarmon. But I couldn't do it. I spent over two hours on a couple of tactical battles that ended in full-party death.
       
I aim a "Fireball" at a pack of demons in one of my ill-fated attempts to win the battle tactically.
       
On a lark, I tried "quick combat," and I won on the first try, albeit with 2/3 of my characters' magic weapons destroyed and most of the characters dead. I assume what happened was that my characters broke their weapons against Tarmon and ended up killing him with their fists.

I was able to raise and heal everyone but I hardly had any karma (priest spell points) left when I was finished. I retrieved the Crown from the next room and had my sorcerer wear it (it has some pretty good stats), and began the long process of retracing my steps through the fortress and to the exit.
      
My thief finds the crown.
       
All was fine until I reached the entryway on Level 1, and demons burst out of statues and attacked. Although I was victorious, I didn't have enough karma left to heal everyone. I had to use bandages and my ranger's "First Aid" skill just to stop the bleeding (if you leave camp with characters still bleeding, they automatically die). I hoped my party would be unmolested returning to town.
      
This was not a nice surprise.
     
Ha. In fact, once you have the wizard's crown in your possession, there's about a 50/50 chance of a random combat every step through the ruins. I didn't stand a chance. I ultimately had to adopt the strategy of saving with every step that didn't result in a combat and reloading when it did. I eventually made my way to a temple about 40 steps away. (Resting at temples restores karma points to priests.) There, I was able to get everyone healed and mince my way through vampires, dragons, skeletons, demons, hell hounds, goblins, scorpions, bandits, giant spiders, adventurers, and so forth to the exit.

Upon reaching the end, I got a series of screens imparting the following in text only:
        
As you walk through the gate, Kaitar meets you with a wide smile and watery eyes. He speaks to you with eloquent pride: "You have fared well, mighty adventurers. You have returned with the treasure we have so long awaited."

Kaitar turns and shouts to the air. "Behold! The crown has returned, bought through the skill and courage of these adventurers!" From nowhere, the wizards of the fellowship appear and gather in a circle about Kaitar. The crystal in the crown glows brightly. "These gallant souls have rescued the crown from evil and chaos. Its power will once again guide the fellowship in wisdom and truth. Such a gift cannot be matched, but we must attempt to show our gratitude to these honored friends. Therefore, let us join hands and cast the enchantment of champions!"

With that, the wizards form a circle around your party. As they link hands, they begin to chant. The light from the crown pulses with the rhythm. Almost, you can understand the words. Visions of great deeds fill your mind and you see yourself performing these deeds. A sense of power comes to you. Nothing can stop you! Finally the chant stops and the visions fade...but the sense of power remains.

Kaitar takes the crown from you and gently, slowly places it on his head. As he rejoins the circle, he looks at you and says, "I see many more adventures for you and your companions. For myself and the fellowship, we thank you once more. Now we must begin the rebuilding of Arghan."

Once more, the fellowship begins to chant. Slowly, the circle fades. The last thing seen is the crown of the emperor, then all is gone. You and your friends turn and enter the inn.
       
The "enchantment of champions" raised everyone's strength and dexterity by 6 and life by 30. The game saved the party for use with The Eternal Dagger and allowed me to continue playing. I feel like the party members are so overpowered at this point that I can only expect that the sequel will find a way to take them down a notch.
     
You don't have many screens in the typical RPG where the developers speak directly to the players.
     
In 2010, not having played much beyond the town, I gave it a GIMLET of 32. Let's see how it does today:
      
  • 3 points for the game world. The setup is decent enough and the world, though small, shows an internal consistency. There just isn't much in it.
  • 6 points for character creation and development. This is clearly the high point of the game. The game gives you a lot of leeway with party composition and the way you develop their skills and abilities.
  • 2 points for NPC interaction. There are only a handful of them, and they're more "encounters" than NPCs, but they do tell you important things about the game world. 
             
An old man who tells hint-filled stories in the park sort-of serves as an NPC.
    
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The game's bestiary is just D&D standard, but it still does a good job with their special attacks and defenses. One of my criteria here is "areas respawn," allowing for grinding, and that's certainly true. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of puzzles and no role-playing encounters.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. Wizard's Crown errs on the side of making tactical combat too complicated, while quick combat is mostly just boring. The spell list isn't very long or impressive, with almost nothing except light spells and "Unlock" useful out of combat.
      
Fighting tactical combat as rarely as I did, I didn't really explore the nuances of all these spells.
       
  • 6 points for equipment. With so many characters and so many different options per character (weapons, shields, armor, headgear, bracelets, necklaces, cloaks, potions), you're constantly finding item upgrades. The best stuff is randomly distributed, and you can pay to improve it.
     
My fighter's equipment list towards the end of the game.
     
  • 6 points for economy. It's not very complicated, but there's an extraordinarily useful money sink.
  • 3 points for the quest. There's one main quest and a quasi-side quest early in the game. No options or role-playing choices, though.
      
An early "side quest." It's too bad there aren't more of these.
      
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. Easily the lowest point of the game. They didn't even try on graphics--no title screen graphic, no winning graphic, and bland icons and environments along the way. The Apple II version doesn't even have sound. And I covered issues with the interface above. (The Atari ST version, released in 1987, does have a title graphic, better iconography, and some in-game sound effects and would get another 2 points here.)
  • 2 points for gameplay. Despite its strengths, in the end the game is a bit too long, too linear, and too hard, requiring far too much grinding. I should add, though, that I didn't experiment with the difficulty slider on the main screen. Perhaps "4" or "5" would have produced a shorter, less grindy game.

This gives us a final score of 38, 6 points higher than I rated it in 2010. This feels better. It still ranks lower than Phantasie, which it should, but a notch above The Bard's Tale. It would be a nominee for "Game of the Year," but this was the same year as Ultima IV, so it didn't really stand a chance there. I did, however, correct a longstanding deficiency by adding Wizard's Crown to my "must play" list. You absolutely need to experience this game to understand the SSI games that followed, including the Gold Box series.
     
An early promotion advertises Wizard's Crown next to Rings of Zilfin (1986). The two games couldn't be more different in their approaches to role-playing, character development, and combat.
      
Scorpia's review from the September-October 1986 Computer Gaming World concludes that it is "recommended, although a little less hack and a little more puzzle would have been better." She also notes the lack of meaningful NPC interaction, and she has some of the same comments that I do about tactical combat versus "quick combat." Still, I was surprised that she didn't make more of the sheer complexity of the tactical combat; then again, she does mention the earlier Galactic Adventures (1983), and perhaps she was more versed than I am in the strategy side of SSI's portfolio.

The August 1986 Compute! called Wizard's Crown "the most unusual fantasy game to hit the market in some time," and warned that it was much more difficult than SSI's other offerings, coming "very close in flavor to the actual Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game." You couldn't imagine a better review for SSI to have in hand when, hoping to acquire the license to design D&D games, they pitched themselves to TSR the following year.
      
Resting at the inn, my party prepares to enter the sequel.
     
I'm glad to finally convert this to a "Y" in the "Won?" column, but I mostly did all this to set the stage for the sequel, The Eternal Dagger, which I understand plays mostly the same but keeps the party to one icon, even in dungeons. I was going to jump right to it, but I probably need a few days off from this kind of gameplay, so let's get started on MegaTraveller II first.

****

Further reading: Read about the titles directly influenced by Wizard's Crown, including Shard of Spring (1986), Roadwar 2000 (1986), Pool of Radiance (1988; the first Gold Box game), and Disciples of Steel (1991).


41 comments:

  1. Great entry and great game it seems. It looks very advanced for its time I think.

    Also I like this "twist" in room description that goes "You open the door on a huge room, empty except for a horde of demons". Yeah, the plains were empty except for an emperors army, one million strong.

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  2. The game seems cool, not much to look at graphically, but it´s got the real deal manner of a true rpg.

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  3. IIRC MegaTraveller II is the one where you have to stop alien slime from covering an entire planet or something? Maybe it's better than MegaTraveller I...

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  4. The backstory is cribbed from the 'Steve Jackson's Sorcery' gamebooks, published a couple years prior.

    I think this game demonstrates some of the consequences of placing deep tactical battle systems within the context of an RPGs. Such battles take a long time and are only interesting when there's a reasonable chance that you might win or lose. In a fight you're certain to win, the depth of the combat system is irrelevant. All the added complexity does is slow things down. I think this is part of the reason strategy games and RPGs have remained quite distinct genres. Lengthy tactical combat demands curated encounters, trying to combine it with grinding and/or highly varying party power levels just doesn't really work.

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    1. Lenghty, complex tactical combat doesn´t even go well with a 4X, for that very reason. Most tactical encounters in a 4X will be either too easy or impossible. That´s why early great 4X like Empire Deluxe (New World Computing, 1993) had intentionally very limited tactical complexity.

      A truely tactical game must really be an in-depth treatment of individual engagements -Kampfgruppe (SSI, 1985) and Battles of Napoleon (SSI, 1988) are probably the best examples for the 80s!

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    2. The Wizard's Crown solution was either punishing increases in difficulty, or the standard attrition approach, where individual combats cost resources that make future fights increasingly dangerous. The main mechanism was the wound and bleeding system, which could turn fatal rapidly if your priests ran out of karma.

      In practice, that merely extends the grind.

      The combat system is sufficiently deadly in certain circumstances, though, as a lucky hit can drop even a skilled and well-equipped warrior. Naturally, that's only going to show itself if you're fighting all the combats in the tactical system and not in quick combat.

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    3. "The backstory is cribbed from the 'Steve Jackson's Sorcery' gamebooks, published a couple years prior." Thanks for pointing that out. It's almost pathetic that the developers couldn't come up with something original.

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    4. The backstory as you describe it doesn't sound close enough to Sorcery to be an obvious lift, although there might be aspects you're not covering. For me it called to mind more 1984's Lords of Midnight, although there you're trying to destroy the crown rather than recover it, in an obvious pastiche of Lord of the Rings.

      Speaking of which I'm eternally sad Lords of Midnight fell outside the scope of your project...

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  5. Very interesting read. Seems actually quite involved for a 1985 game; if you're a fan of tactical simulation RPGs I can see this being quite fun.
    Also, there is a typo at the end of paragraph 4 I believe. "attach" instead of attack?

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  6. Congratulations on another notch on your desktop.

    I completed the town part of this game myself, but the rest was just too frustrating.
    Just about every second step in the ruins you face armies of enemies, and with the Atari 8 bit version that I played I couldn't be sure which way enemies were facing, nor keep track of them all.
    The combat system was just too complex for its own good, and it's highly ironic that the "best" way to play the game is to use Quick Combat, which I think is a design flaw.

    To me Nahlakh (1994) was the game that did Wizard's Crown right, and with Disciples of Steel these two low budget/indie games are IMO better than 99% of all AAA CRPGs. But then the last thing I play CRPGs for is "for the story".

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    1. Of COURSE it is not for the story, it is always for gold and glory! :)

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    2. PetrusOctavianusJuly 28, 2017 at 4:23 PM

      Too many gamers these days seem to be people who never read books, but play video games "for the story".
      And the result is too many games that are more like interactive movies than games.

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    3. For facing, you needed to cursor over the enemy in question and see which numbers on the compass were highlighted (visible in the outdoor combat picture above, with the highlights indicating a South facing for the character). Both graphics and interfaces would soon get much better, though.

      It is remarkable that Wizard's Crown managed complex combats with only 48K of memory to work with.

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    4. I don't know why it has to be either/or. We have plenty of examples of games that offer great stories AND great gameplay.

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    5. It sounds like: "If more people had similar preferences to mine, more products would be targeted at people like me". Which is certainly a true statement.

      I don't think that video game production is zero sum though - The fact that Telltale games do well doesn't mean there will be less tactics-heavy RPGs or strategy games.

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    6. PetrusOctavianusJuly 29, 2017 at 5:01 AM

      "We have plenty of examples of games that offer great stories AND great gameplay."

      Which ones?
      The only one I can think of is Betrayal at Krondor and Planescape: Torment.
      Mostly the "stories" in games are cringeworthy, and if you want a good story your time can be better spent watching a movie or (heaven forbid) read a book.

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    7. For the sake of pointless argument: Fallout, Mass Effect, Baldur's Gate, Army of Two TFD, Spec Ops: The Line, Morrowind, KOTOR, and probably others.

      I agree that lots games these days, and days before, aren't targeted at me, nor are most written with great stories, or even stories that work as well within a game as they could. Though you couldn't argue most novels or films (old or new) are masterpieces either.

      It sounds like another case of "most games don't exist as an intersection between two of my personal tastes, therefore they are invalid due to my personal taste or lack of exposure to many games." It's like a variant of the No True Scottsman, IMO.

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    8. If the story for Betrayal at Krondor was the same as the novelization I would not include that as a good let alone great story.

      As far as stories in games just off the top for non-RPG's I can think of the Bioshock games and Red Dead Redemption as having very good and immersive main stories and decent game play. As far as RPG's, again off the top of my head, The Witcher series and Undertale both have very good stories and gameplay.

      There are so many games being made, AAA and indie, with so much focus on story that there is no way that stories in games were better 30 years ago. Planescape Torment was great, no doubt, but without rose colored glasses the entire games landscape is much better today when it comes to quality stories and gameplay coming together.

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    9. Prior to playing BaK I read the four Riftwar books by Raymond Feist and found them to be juvenile/entry level fantasy. I liked the first book - Magician - as a kid but 20 years later I found it rather trite. I was very pleasantly surprised by the game, though. I found the writing by Neal Halford to be more mature and superior to that of Feist, and it integrated very well with the game, a game that even managed to have excellent game mechanics and a semi-open world. Truly a unique game. Feist did the novelization of the game, BTW.

      And as you say the stories of todays games are better than of those 30 years ago. But that's because the focus is too much on story IMO. But a good movie or book is still far superior to your average game story IMO, and better mediums and sources for good stories than games are.

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    10. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesJuly 29, 2017 at 8:40 PM

      It has been a long time since I played Betrayal at Krondor, but I found the story dull, mediocre and generic, the gameplay tedious and repetitive and the puzzles nonsensical on the level of Castlevania 2.

      There are some games with great stories: Metal gear Solid, Hotline Miami, Tex Murphy, Little King's Story, Zeno Clash, Xenoblade Chronicles, Wing Commander.

      Mass Effect is a blatant almost ripoff of Babylon 5, but Fallout has great stories and characters. Spec Ops's story was overrated and a really simplistic look at human nature. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance did far better in one scene than the whole of that game: About 10 minutes into video *https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=metal+gear+rising+revengeance+raiden+hearing+thought&&view=detail&mid=BFDCD7CC9D9626749C21BFDCD7CC9D9626749C21&FORM=VRDGAR*

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    11. Video games simply tell stories in a way that's different than in a book or movie. Doesn't make them better or worse. Fallout is a great game because of the unique way it tells its story- if you took a transcript of it and compared it to Stephen King it obviously wouldn't hold up. And when people try to translate Stephen King novels into movies, more often than not they don't work very well, because part of what makes his books so entertaining is his style of writing. It's not Books>Movies>Games. The best video game story is going to be better than the worst story in a novel- the medium doesn't affect the quality, it's the people writing it, and video games are doing pretty well considering they've only been around for about 50 years, and are much more technically complicated and difficult to produce than a novel or even a film.

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    12. Although I don't know how interested y'all are in games outside the RPG genre, I was blown away by the storytelling and characters in The Last of Us. I'm personally more interested in RPG's b/c they play less like movies, are a little more unique of an experience, but Last of Us is just really engaging. Fun too!

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    13. Story has always been a critical aspect of my enjoyment of video games, but by "story" I don't mean "fully-fledged narrative", I mean "consistent narrative context in which I can inhabit a role I like."

      Sid Meier's Pirates! (Mac version, 1987) is still one of the best examples for me of a "role-playing game" that allowed me to play a role in an imaginatively fulfilling way and in a manner that would have been nigh impossible without a computer. And there's hardly any "story" at all.

      But some games have done a fantastic job for me of telling a compelling story through the medium of compelling gameplay.

      Bungie's pre-cursor to Halo, Marathon (Mac original, 1994) blew my mind in how it told the story. You're a lone security officer whose station has been overrun by aliens, and your only source of information is computer terminals at which you periodically receive updates and instructions from the station's (competing) AIs. Fragging aliens in an FPS was new and mesmerizing, but those terminals are what made the game amazing and forever ruined for me less articulate shooters like Castle Wolfenstein and Doom.

      Fallout 3 is the best Bethesda game in my opinion in that regard. The loneliness of the FPS gameplay makes sense in that context. In the Elder Scrolls series, I've always been disappointed by the emptiness of the towns and cities. I want the interactions of the Elder Scrolls with the quantity and urban character of Assassin's Creed II. Fallout 4 just had me asking, "If I can build these cool bases, why isn't the world fixed already? It's been 200 years since the war."

      But for me the single greatest example of a CRPG that fused perfect gameplay with a compelling story was the original Deus Ex. Despite the thousands of hours I've sunk into World of Warcraft, Deus Ex remains the best game I've ever played.

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    14. There are certainly differences. Video games (at least CRPGs and adventure games) must, at least to some degree, have a "choose your own adventure" aspect to it lest they be critiqued as too linear. Books do not have this restriction--they can focus on telling one storyline extremely well (other than books like Choose Your Own Adventure, Zork, Lone Wolf, and the Escape series that deliberately have you flipping pages). Movies likewise do not have this restriction (The movie Clue as an exception but that is the exception not the rule).

      So, what makes a story great in a video game? Some depth and multiple paths that affect the outcome? Lots of depth but fairly linear? Lots of depth but multiple paths (and thus a hefty price tag that would leave people screaming it is unreasonable to pay $100 for a game, and a long development)? I suspect if you ask 10 different people, you will get 10 different shades of these dimensions. (The sample here is probably biased toward a balance of gameplay and nonlinearity since that is a lot of how Chet grades...rightfully so in my opinion...and how the articles are written, but if you ask 10 different people in the market to buy video games I suspect some would be fine with a completely linear game with deep story and some would want a completely open game and don't care if it is full of worn tropes with superficial reasons. The hits are when you can go just far enough in both realms to satisfy the widest variety of gamers in the market...or do one of them so exceedingly well as to stand out to that niche.)

      PS: Shout-out for the mention of Tex Murphy, my favorite adventure game series! I wish I could find a good argument for Chet to have to play those, but alas I must admit they are adventure games and not CRPGs under his definition. Tex deserves a shout-out mostly due to story, although there is some flexibility in number of paths. I think Mean Streets/Overseer has the best story, Pandora Directive the best gameplay, although I really enjoy Tesla Effect and Under a Killing Moon as well (the latter for being extremely campy even for a Tex game).

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    15. A Late entry to an interesting discussion. I would agree that "good Story" in a game for me mostly boils down to: does it work within the context? Does it help me to immerse myself in the experience? Or does the nonsene break the immersion? In the 2000s I went into a bit of hiatus regrading gaming. One of the last big games and the last crpg I played until 2014 was Kotor. I really thought it had a rather childish story and that i was becoming too old for this. Of modern crpgs I played the grand total of 2, perhaps 3 if you count nwn 2 bought on gog this year: FNW and witcher 3. witcher is a fun game but both main story and most side quests do not really touch me. Fallout was excellent and there were several moments I was really moved. The end gave me a lot to think about me and my behavior in the world. Good experience. That was exceptional. But mostly I am totally happy if stories just work within their context like e.g. In bg.

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    16. As much as i like Undertale and to risk being spoilery, it's not an RPG if you don't want it to be. And speaking of Stephen King, The Dark Tower series would make a bitchin' RPG.

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  7. I have fond memories of this game from my childhood, but it is definitely one of those games that plays much better when you have plenty of time on your hands. I think I spent between 80 and 100 hours on the game, but I spent a lot more time doing tactical combat than quick combat, especially in the mid-game when some encounters are much easier in tactical combat, especially golems, which can be quickly dispatched by hitting them with the golem staff. Spells are very important in tactical combat, but in the end, I pretty much used the same spell sequence in most combats: countermagic, fireball, and a few more targeted spells if there were a few big monsters or a nasty caster. The Eternal Dagger is more of the same but with an improved magic system and several continents to explore.

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    1. Thanks for clearing up what the golem staff was for! I guess that should have been obvious.

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  8. You mentioned Roadwar 2000. That game had a few things going for it in regards to tactical combat:

    1) There was a reason to use tactical. When you start out I think you could have a maximum of 3 to 5 cars (can't recall). You would get access to an additional car slot for each tactical combat you completed.
    2) It had three levels of comabt: Tactical, Quick (made some decisions about how to fight, but it wasn't turn based tactical), and abstract (which was a one liner type thing: you won/lost, car damage and soldiers lost.) Tactical is fun a few time through, but then gets old. This happens about the same time you have enough car slots. If you are very impatient you can do Abstract, but you are gonna lose a lot of men and cars. Quick is just about perfect.

    It would have been nice if they had worked in something between the full tactical combat and the quick you describe, and make it more like the 3 choices detailed above from RW2K. Also, have some sort of "reward" for executing tactical, would have been, well rewarding.

    Seems like a interesting game overall though, and fills in how we got to Gold Box.

    -Chris

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    1. Tactical combat could give more XP, so always choosing quick combat in the same time wouldn't yield much better results, as seems to be the case if combats are random, i.e. enemies are different each time.

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    2. Tactical combat could give more XP, so always choosing quick combat in the same time wouldn't yield much better results, as seems to be the case if combats are random, i.e. enemies are different each time.

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    3. If you weren't aware, I covered RW2000 earlier this year:

      http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2017/02/game-242-roadwar-2000-1986.html

      I agree that the game offered more rationale for tactical combat. Truth be told, I think I liked it better in RW2000 than WC.

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  9. Note that The Eternal Dagger was not only released for Atari 8-bit computers, but that both games were originally coded for that system (and IMO have somewhat better graphics).

    As someone who completed the game three times (at age range between 12 and 15), including twice with the same party (as it's possible to reset the final dungeon after winning and therefore both return and keep the Crown), I can say that I mostly played for the tactical combats: "grinding" was the point of the game, the content, and the quest was a way to register your victory in that mid-80s bad design sort of way that screws you over multiple times. First you find out you need lots of different types of weapons, then non-magical ones, then hit the difficulty increase once exiting the dungeon.

    Wizard's Crown was definitely aimed at players who learned RPGs from the oldest of old-school, the ones which had too many weapons, too many modifiers, too many combat rules and often took a whole session to play out a single fight. Anyone familiar with MERPS, Runequest or even AD&D would probably see the tactical combat as the point: for other RPG elements you couldn't turn to computers at all in that era. From the perspective of these systems, the tactical fights aren't that complex. And those who played lots of SSI wargames would have already been forced to get used to the 1-8 cursor movement as that was standard in their games.

    I rarely used quick combat unless a fight was dead easy, because I couldn't tolerate the level of wounds produced through doing that. I admit to doing most of my actual grinding on the second screen below the gate to the ruins, near the temple there: at night, you typically encounter tough undead groups but with several good priests you can destroy the majority of enemies via turning. A short run to the temple to restore and you're ready to fight again until daylight and you can return to cash out your loot.

    Because tactical combat is the point of the game, slow and careful positioning was key, especially in dungeon exploration (which typically meant moving each member of the party individually a few squares at a time: not fun). Setting up a front line with spear-users or missile weapons backing them up mattered; being able to deal with shield users was often key. Bows and crossbows allowed you to weaken or even kill enemies on the approach; your front line then switched to weapons while the rear continued missile weapons. IIRC, sharp weapons and the various life drainers or element weapons were best for the missile attacks, as even a parried bolt from such a weapon would still apply its drain or element damage and weakened enemies would often get cut down by a guarding front-line fighter before getting to attack.

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    1. I believe it was possible to drastically reduce the encounter frequency on a given screen by having lots of battles there: by endgame, the first screen of the ruins typically entailed no encounters at all for my groups. As you found, the later screens are too dangerous to be practically cleared before you win.

      Post-game content included fights outside the walls of the ruins (one screen left or right from the entrance and then outside the outer ruin wall) against other high-powered adventuring bands as tough or tougher than your characters. Fighting adventurers earlier (easiest found on the road north of town at night) was often the best way to get really good equipment.

      Perhaps because (understandably) you skipped much of the tactical combats, you missed some of the depths of the items and spells. Priest spells in-combat aren't very significant beyond Turn Undead, but IIRC you could substantially improve survival by Blessing the characters multiple times. Sorcerers and items able to case sorcerer spells were vitally important, allowing you to see enemies at night, revealing invisible foes, creating protections, anchoring your battle line with created terrain and blasting foes with lightning and life drain as well as fireballs. Life drain, especially late game, was amazing as the sorcerer would gain life from casting it and could sometimes solo a fight after draining enough.

      Definitely a game of its time and best aimed at either younger min/maxers or grognards. Today, I can still enjoy a game of Phantasie or Ultima IV but almost certainly wouldn't be willing to assay Wizard's Crown again.

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    2. Thanks, David, for a fantastic pair of comments that offers a supplementary take on the game. I admit that I'm liable to miss a lot of nuances in doing things "the long way" when a game offers shortcuts; it's an unavoidable byproduct of this project and its long, long list.

      Still, even if WC was my only game, I'm not sure I'd spend that much time on tactical combat--which leads me to reevaluate my overall preferences. I've been saying that I like tactical combat for 7 years, but in reality I guess I don't like it much more complicated than the Gold Box games.

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    3. @David: True, MERPs was hardcore and we could spent whole evenings just with one or tavern brawl. But wasn't it already a dumbed down version of an even more complex system. Overall games like wc really try to simulate a pen & paper session of that era....

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  10. Re: 1985 or 1986. The evidence is stronger for the latter.
    The Wikipedia entry uses Matt Barton's article as a source, but after checking it I can't see why this should be more credible than Jimmy Maher's, the source that is cited for the precise sales figure (47,676. Maher gives February 1986 as a date and has access to internal SSI documents.

    1986 is consistent with the game scans you find over at mocagh.org - the Apple II disk has a 1986 copyright, the spring 1986 SSI catalog lists the game as "available now" and announces the C64 version for April.

    Finally, here's a quote from the Computer Entertainer newsletter, March 1986 issue:
    "Strategic Simulations, long known for excellent wargames, is out to make a name for itself in fantasy gaming, too. Brand-new
    titles for 1986 include WIZARD'S CROWN, RINGS OF
    ZILFIN, and PHANTASIE II (all for Apple and C64)".

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  11. Another great review inspires my own toe-dip in the water. I chose the Atari ST version, which seems very similar but with one very nice exception: the numeric keypad directions really work as expected!

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  12. I think you want a handful of important decisions per combat, and a minimum of unimportant decisions. For instance, if correct combat 'facing' is obvious 95 times out of 100, then it doesn't warrant inclusion in a system, given the extra clicks required.

    Most rogue likes do this well. Mostly, all you do is move in one of 9 directions, but each move is very important against dangerous things, and combat is over very quickly against irrelevant things.

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  13. I am trying to play through but the emerald key is missing from every copy I have found. Does anyone have a complete copy?

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  14. The game commingles items which are worn or wielded, and items which are otherwise carried. Even the marketplace makes no distinction, beyond a label, for worn or wielded items. This is important because you won't succeed in this game unless you sell scavenged items. This must happen hundreds or thousands of times in a game, which "programs" you into a kind of mind-numbed autopilot mode in the marketplace.

    One slip of the keys and you've accidentally sold a unique and very precious piece of kit, which you were wearing.

    It sure would have been nice if the designers had foreseen this and thrown in a last-ditch "Do you really want to take that item off of your body and sell it?" only for those items that are currently worn.

    As you noted in The Eternal Dagger, it sure would be nice to have a "heal all" option. Similarly, in the marketplace, it would have been nice if each character had a special sack or container to store all items they wished to sell, then have a "sell all" option in the marketplace.

    Some complexity is interesting, but extensive repetition is just boring. After you've accidentally sold that irreplaceable heirloom, you try to muster up the strength to pay more attention through the mind-numbing parts.

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