Sunday, July 11, 2021

Game 420: Warlords (1990)

 
The title screen guy doesn't make me think "warlord."
     
Warlords
Australia
Strategic Studies Group (developer and publisher)
Released in 1990 for DOS and Amiga, 1992 for Macintosh
Date Started: 7 July 2021
Date Ended: 10 July 2021
Total Hours: 11
Difficulty: User-definable
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)  
       
[This entry is a special bonus posting suggested by one of my Patreon subscribers. I found myself with some spare time and asked my subscribers how they would like to see me spend it. You'll continue to see these in between regular entries throughout the summer and early fall. I had originally skipped Warlords in 1990 because I thought it didn't meet my definition of an RPG, but as discussed here, it technically does.]

Warlords was one of several games I copied off my university's Macintosh in early 1993. I had my own Mac (it was a very brief phase), and I was poor but desperate for games. I remember that the others were Spaceward Ho! and Darkwood. None of them delivered what I really wanted, which of course was an RPG, but Warlords came close. I remember exploring its ruins with my hero character and wishing that it would transition to a first-person dungeon like Ultima
   
Warlords was my first exposure to what would be called "4X" strategy games: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. I remember that I enjoyed it, but I got bored swiftly with the single map. I had a lot more fun with Warlords II and III, which had more RPG elements and RPG-like campaigns. But as I discovered replaying the original, not all of the RPG elements were saved for the sequels. From a certain perspective, Warlords is an RPG.
        
Setting up the factions. The easiest option would be to set them all as "human" and then have seven of them do nothing.
   
The game takes place on a large map representing the Kingdom of Illuria. It is home to eight factions, all of whom participate in each game: The Sirians, the Storm Giants, the Gray Dwarves, the Orcs of Kor, Elvallie, the Selentines, the Horse Lords, and Lord Bane. At the outset of gameplay, you can assign any of the factions to human control or computer control. Computer control comes in four levels: knight, baron, lord, warlord. As the game begins, each faction has one city, one hero, and a couple of default units.
    
A hero emerges!
      
There are 80 cities on the map, most "neutral" at the outset. The factions fan out, sending their heroes and armies to take over neutral cities and eventually the cities of other factions. You win when you eliminate all other factions or when you get so powerful that it's clear that will happen eventually, and the rest of them surrender.
     
"Do you want to win now or play another 8 hours just for the satisfaction of seeing your faction's symbol on all of the cities?"
     
Each city is capable of producing between one and four unit types. Oddly, these are dependent not on who controls the city but where it is geographically. If you start out playing the Sirians (the default), your capital city and those around it are capable of producing only light and heavy infantry, cavalry, and pegasus units. But take over some cities in Orcs of Kor territory and you can produce wolfriders. Capture some Storm Giant cities, and you can produce giant warriors. Each unit costs money and a certain number of rounds to produce. You get income from the cities that you control, but every active unit has an "upkeep" charge; you naturally want to make sure your income exceeds your expenses. If you can make enough money, additional heroes offer to join your faction.
      
This city can make either light or heavy infantry in two turns or griffons in six turns.
     
Combat is resolved partly through intrinsic statistics, partly through luck. There are a lot of variables, including unit strength, terrain, flight modifiers, and defense bonuses for cities. But dice also come into play. While your army with a combined might of 40 will usually beat an army with a combined might of 20, the outcome is by no means certain. Sometimes weak unit stacks pull off incredibly lucky victories. 
     
Attacking some archers with my hero and two dragons. It is unlikely but not impossible that one of them will kill a dragon.
     
As an early game in the genre, Warlords lacks a lot of the complexities of later strategy games. There are no resources to manage, for instance, or anything to build other than each city's defenses and towers of dubious value. You can't form alliances; all you can do is forestall open war. There are no choices in combat. There's no morale system. Still, despite its simplicity, the game requires a lot of tactical and strategic decision-making. Do I quickly build fast units or take the time to build more powerful ones? Which units should I put in a stack to maximize movement across the terrain? What cities serve as the best vector points (thankfully, you can automatically send unit production to distant cities)? I see a powerful enemy army coming--should I try to defend the city or raze it? Do I risk my hero and the items he carries against this enemy?
   
It's the "hero" units that make Warlords technically an RPG by my definitions. Heroes can't level up like they can in later Warlords games, but they can amass inventories and improve their strength. The landscape is dotted with ruins that both you and enemy heroes (except on the lowest difficulty setting) can search. In them, you might find various artifacts that improve the strength of the hero or the units he commands, special allies like dragons and wizards, or special encounters, such as priests who provide blessings and thrones that raise your strength. How best to use the hero--and how much to risk him--is another major strategic consideration. Should he be conquering cities or searching ruins?
       
My hero finds an artifact in the ruins.
      
The developers deserve a lot of credit for what they accomplished, but Warlords is nearly unplayable after you've experienced the far-more-polished sequels. Movement through some terrain is punishingly slow; there's no good way to see all your production and vectoring routes, or to easily change vectoring from one city to another, or even to cycle through your cities so that you can systematically review what's being produced and where it's going. Later games in the series would let you specify a destination for each unit stack and then automatically move in that direction each turn; here, you have to manually move them every turn.
      
I assemble armies at a port to send them to distant islands. It's going to take a long time to get there.
        
These interface deficiencies contribute to an exceptionally long length for the original game. Playing with the other factions on relatively easy difficulty (mostly knights, with a couple of barons), it took me about eight hours to force a surrender. If I'd insisted on dominating the map, it would have taken at least that much time more. There is some replayability in choosing to control different factions, but in general I can't imagine why you'd replay Warlords once Warlords II was available.
      
Could I have rejected the surrender without being so brutal?
     
While Warlords may technically meet my definition of an RPG, the difference between a strategy game (or, at least, a 4X strategy game) and an RPG should perhaps be stated explicitly: you can lose a strategy game. Some RPGs can put you in a situation where you can't win, but that's not quite the same thing as losing (i.e., someone else winning). The prospect of losing most strategy games shouldn't bother players any more than the prospect of losing a game of chess or gin rummy; indeed, such games aren't very much fun if you always win. You're looking for a challenge. If you always win against the computer, you've set the challenge too low. If you always win against a human opponent, you're playing in the wrong class.
   
But one's tolerance for loss decreases with the amount of time invested, and eight hours is a long time. I actually have a theory about this. It needs a name. The theory is that there are two types of games that you can lose. The first type involves a lot of luck, which can cause fortunes to turn around quickly. Gin rummy is such a game. No matter how far behind you are, you can always get a lucky series of hands. Most sports are of the first type. No matter how far ahead one team is, there's always a chance that the other team will mount a roaring comeback in the final quarter or inning or whatever. That's what makes the best stories.
     
Attacking a city.
       
The second type of game starts the players in stasis, but very early there's a tipping point in which it's clear that one player is ahead. Once one player is ahead, it's virtually impossible for the opponent to turn things around. Arm-wrestling is that sort of game; the further you force your opponent's arm towards the table, the better leverage you have and the more difficult it becomes for him to ever get back to the stasis point. Anyway, my theory is that players will tolerate very long games of the first type (e.g., Uno, baseball, Trivial Pursuit) because there's always hope. They'll tolerate short games of the second type (e.g., arm-wrestling, chess) because they don't last long. But they get extremely frustrated with long games of the second type because they spend most of the time playing them under a cloud of despair. You don't just "lose" such games; you spend most of the time playing them "losing." This is why people get so frustrated with Monopoly and why they invent so many crazy house rules. Only by allowing players who land on "Free Parking" to collect a sudden windfall can you provide any hope during the last three-quarters of the game.
   
I think the makers of Warlords understood this, and the ruins are the equivalent of that "Free Parking" space. No matter how badly you seem to be doing with your armies and cities, there's always a chance  that your hero will enlist four dragons or find an artifact that makes him exponentially more powerful. This only helps, however, to the extent that your opponent doesn't have access to the same ruins. They also made some of them a bit too far out-of-the-way, so that even with a flying mount, the hero has to spend so many turns getting there that he can easily lose the kingdom in the meantime.
       
To enhance your stress, the game offers a frank assessment of who's winning and by how much.
      
I must say that those allies you can collect from ruins--dragons, ghosts, demons, wizards--are a bit overpowered. When an enemy has one in his castle, I often have to sacrifice entire armies with the maximum of eight units just to kill one of his units. Obviously, you mind much less when such overpowered allies are on your side. I remember that back in the 1990s, I would sometimes play Warlords like an RPG by assembling a "party" of such powerful allies, along with my hero, and not focus on any other unit production--or maybe just enough for garrisons for my few cities. I'd just take that one, ultra-powerful party across the map, conquering and razing. There was a lot of risk to such an approach, but in some ways it made for a faster game. 
      
Here, I've risked an entire stack of cavalry and infantry hoping to kill just one of the enemy's devils.
      
The sequels to Warlords would increase the RPG elements, offering hero characters of different classes and abilities (including spells), experience points and leveling for those characters, a wider variety of inventory items, and side quests to complete for additional rewards. They also offered "main quests" in the form of various campaign scenarios that take the player across multiple maps, all of which are smaller than the Warlords map, or at least faster. Such campaigns take the sting off the prospect of losing, as you generally don't lose the entire campaign, just the current map. It's hard not to regard those campaigns as proper RPGs, much like SSI's Sword of Aragon (1989) or the Synergistic "World Builder" titles like War in Middle Earth (1988) or the Excalibur series.
   
I suppose my question for those of you who know strategy games better than I do is this: If I allow my definition of "RPG" to encompass strategy games with hero units that gain levels, am I adding a huge number of games to my list? If we're only talking about a dozen or so, I'm inclined to play one every once in a while, and I'll look forward to Warlords II while I'm in 1993. Otherwise, I can add a simple fourth element to exclude them if the number gets out of hand.
    
Fortunately, Bane surrendered before I had to take this citadel of his. He was pretty entrenched.
    
Getting back to Warlords: As I played, I was surprised at how much imagination it calls into play. It helps that the game takes itself seriously. It doesn't offer a lot of background on Illuria, but some characteristics are ascribed to the various factions. Sirians are classic lawful-good knights; Orcs of Kor are barely civilized; Selentines are an oppressive human empire; Storm Giants are what they sound like. Lord Bane is basically Sauron, and the Horse Lords are the Rohirrim, but the authors differ a bit from Tolkien when it comes to elves and dwarves, neither of which are as powerful here as in Middle Earth, and both of which have a desire for conquest and extermination of humans not seen in Tolkien. The armies that each faction commands make thematic sense, and their cities have evocative names: Argenthorn, Gildenhome, Deephallow, Derridon, Dhar-Khosis. While waiting for Warlords II, you could make up a history for your own "campaign," inventing rivalries and alliances and histories for your heroes.
    
In a GIMLET--which I again emphasize was designed around traditional RPGs--the game earns:
   
  • 2 points for the game world. It holds together quite well thematically, but it could have used a little more detail.
       
Factions "declare war" when another encroaches on their territory.
      
  • 1 point for character creation and development, both still quite nascent in this game. All you can do with your hero is name him, and the only development is when a special encounter at a ruin causes his strength to go up.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. I'll allow that for the allies you can enlist and the inhabitants of ruins who occasionally give you clues.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The types of enemies you face are derivative, and they don't so much have strengths and weaknesses as power levels. Ruin "encounters" are rewarding but don't allow any input. I'm giving a couple of points for the strong AI, however. Computer-controlled enemies make intelligent, often unpredictable choices. I don't have the history or background to discuss strategy game AI in detail, but I didn't see any obvious, repetitive mistakes that I could exploit.
        
And then she married him!
         
  • 4 points for magic and combat. There's no magic in this one. The literal mechanics of combat have only two variables--strength and a die roll--and no choices, but there's a lot of strategy that goes into building armies and prioritizing targets.
  • 2 points for equipment. You can find a bunch of weapons, armor, and other items at ruins, but they're not really a standard RPG "inventory," particularly since one hero can apparently wield multiple items. I don't know; maybe the idea is that he passes them around to the rest of the army.
  • 4 points for economy. Money is important for maintaining units and building defenses, and if you amass enough, more heroes offer to join your side, sometimes bringing powerful allies. Later games in the series will offer more earning and spending options.
  • 2 points for a main quest to conquer the world.
    
Which I have done!
    
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics aren't lovely, but they depict things clearly. There are some scattered sound effects. The interface really needed more work. It requires far too much from the mouse. There are keyboard commands for a lot of actions, but most of them require you to take to the mouse eventually (for instance, to acknowledge an action by clicking "yes"), which eliminates the benefit of having a keyboard shortcut in the first place. I covered above how some operations, including vectoring and movement, are just cumbersome.
  • 6 points for gameplay. There's a lot to like here. It's hard to complain about the challenge when it's all user-defined. The various factions and various directions you could take with each faction impart both nonlinearity and replayability. I think the game is too big and too long, mostly because of the interface issues, but at least enemies surrender when it's clear they've lost.
     
That gives a final score of 28, which I would consider not bad for a strategy game being rated on an RPG scale. Computer Gaming World and Dragon magazine both absolutely gushed about it, mentioning virtually no flaws. CGW named it "wargame of the year" in 1991. Reviewers with more of a wargaming background tended to rate it a bit lower, complaining about the simplicity of combat, the length, and the lack of logistics, all of which the developers would fix (or at least mitigate) in the sequels.
     
     
I was surprised to learn that the series comes from an Australian developer. The mastermind behind the series is Steve Fawkner, who started his career with a lost adventure game called Quest for the Holy Grail in 1983. He was 22 when he finished Warlords, inspired by the strategy game Empire (1983) and a TSR tabletop game called Dragons of Glory (1985). Sydney-based Strategic Studies Group (SSG) was like an Australian SSI, specializing in war games, but they agreed to publish Warlords, and it was a hit. On the strength of its sales, Fawkner got a full-time job with the company and oversaw sequels all the way through 2004, when he left SSG to form Infinite Interactive and create the Puzzle Quest series. In some distant day, I'm going to have to decide if I really consider puzzle/RPG hybrids "RPGs" the same way I'm doing with strategy games here. [Ed. A frequent commenter, Laszlo, alerted me to an excellent article he wrote about Fawkner and the Warlords series. Here is a link to a Google translated version from the original Hungarian. I'll discuss Laszlo's material more when I cover Warlords II.]
      
I want to say thanks to the patron who suggested this. Replaying Warlords has given me both an appetite for its sequel and a better basis of comparison. Hopefully, I'll get to Warlords II soon.

191 comments:

  1. I can't think of all that many games where hero units alone would push it to RPG from strategy. Not that hero units in games are super rare, but most of the ones I can think of would be borderline already without the heroes.

    If you're familiar with the game Master Of Magic, knowing how you rate it would help answer the question.

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    1. I came here to post something similar. I'm surprised Warlords beat out Master of Magic here. That definitely has RPG elements, though the EXP progression is unusual.

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    2. I'm not familiar with Master of Magic, but my understanding is that it's a 1994 game, so even if I thought it was an RPG, I wouldn't have reached it yet.

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    3. Master of Magic is one of my all-time favorites (see avatar for proof) but it's going to struggle with the GIMLET. Doesn't help that its story is even more a nonentity than Warlords's.

      I concur that if Chet just sticks to strategy games with hero units that can both level up and equip items (i.e. the traits already sought after to qualify as a CRPG) it's not going to overwhelm the master list. Maybe once we get to the Age of Wonders time period, but it'll be manageable within the '90s. (I'd be just as curious to find out how many obscure strategy games are like Warlords, HoMM, and MoM though.)

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    4. I think, along with the Warlords series, at least the Heroes of Might & Magic series and the Disciples series would meet your condition of having units that gain levels with experience. There are likely others, too.

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    5. The King's Bounty series (inspired by the original King's Bounty, which was a precursor to HOMM) are very much in the semi-RPG vein. You have just one hero who does quests and hires troops, has skill trees and finds artefacts, and fights a lot of battles that are similar to HOMM. There's no city-building or similar strategic layer, so they are more CRPG and less strategy compared to HOMM etc.

      There are four in the King's Bounty series, with a fifth due out shortly. The first is called King's Bounty: The Legend. I think they must be the closest to CRPGs in this line - but the HOMM-like line itself has to have several dozens of games at a minimum.

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    6. To add to the foregoing: in the King's Bounty games, the hero has a 'Leadership' stat that determines how many creatures he can control. E.g. if your stat is 2000 and guardsmen have 40 leadership, you can field a stack of 50 guardsmen max. So a giant army can't carry a weak hero like in HOMM.

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    7. I covered King's Bounty in 2014:

      http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2014/06/game-149-kings-bounty-1990.html

      Mostly for it's Might and Magic connections. I didn't think it was an RPG.

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    8. I wouldn't think of Warlords, HoMM, Master of Magic or King's Bounty as RPGs. They are definitely strategy games first. But they are kind of... RPG-adjacent in a way, and as such probably interesting to cover in the scope of this blog. There is definitely some cross-pollination here. Maybe they don't warrant extensive covering, but more a case-by-case-basis thing?

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    9. Master of Magic is Civilization mashed together with Magic: the Gathering. A successful hybrid. Definitely 4X, but you could play it like an RPG if you wanted. There is a phase of the game where you adventure around with a hero stack exploring ruins, but the purpose of that phase is to get to the next phase of the game, when your hero is powerful and goes to war, taking city after city and banishing enemy wizards.

      Eh, play it, says I. Fantasy wargames are few and far between, and it fills in a gap where other games were influenced.

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    10. I think that if we're talking about games from the eighties and nineties, there are few enough that it would be interesting to see most of them added to the list (especially since a lot of them are also very good). Later on, maybe not. I mean, these days there are RPG-inspired stats in pretty much everything.

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    11. Chet, King's Bounty from 1990 has almost nothing to do, maybe except the name and some inspiration, with the games about what was talking Gerry Quinn. He was talking about modern King's Bounty games, which could be considered RPGs.

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    12. King's Bounty had a more modern remake series that is definitely more RPG'ish.
      Heroes of Might and Magic, Disciples, Master of Magic, Fallen Enchantress, Endless Legend, and the Sorceror Kings series all feature that type of rpg-strategy hybrid gameplay to some degree

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    13. The only game I'm not seeing getting mentioned here in this comment thread is Fallen Enchantress from Stardock. That game features hero characters that earn experience and levels, you can assign skills and if recruited early enough character classes, and you can purchase baseline equipment in your cities, or find more unique or specialized equipment through exploration. On the surface it's a 4X strategy game, but there's an RPG under the surface that is somewhat engaging, I think.

      What sets it apart from your typical 4X, though, is that you get quests which hero characters have to go out and complete to get rewards, and some of those quests can lead to winning the game, as opposed to the usual 4X winning conditions of killing off all of your rival civilizations.

      Fallen Enchantress would be a very, very long way off, though, so you'd have a long time to consider it. Just thought I should mention it, though... and now that I'm looking up at the very last comment in this thread, there it is listed right there. Oh well...

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    14. I mentioned it before, but War Of The Lance might be worth a look, both as an 80s predecessor for strategy games with heroes and for its connection to the Gold Box games and SSI. Though the hero gameplay is more basic and ancillary than Warlords.

      Going forward I thought of games like X-Com but I saw that's already on your list anyway. I figure that at some point there will be lots of turn-based or real-time strategy games with units that have stats and equipment. (Just like there will be with action games.)

      I think you should be more permissive with earlier games, especially when the genres are less defined and still forming in the 80s, and more selective as distinct genres solidify and break off in the 90s (Adventure, Strategy-RPG, Action-RPG, etc.). Even if you cover some not-really-RPG games from the 80s and early 90s, I think it's still valuable as history and context, and that will be less true in later eras.

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    15. "Lords of Magic" (Impressions Games, 1997) is another one. It certainly has more RPG credentials than Warlords.

      It may not seem that much right now, but who knows how many obscure games people will drag up over time? I don't see why you don't just play these games as exceptions, rather than the rule. If too many turn up, or if you just don't have fun playing and blogging about them, skip them as you like.

      I think if no heroes need to be alive to technically win the game, you can safely eliminate the game from the "required" list. That's just for the "heroes with items" games.

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    16. Ooh, I like that. I was looking for a simple way to do it, and that fits perfectly: the game must feature one or more named heroes whose survival is necessary to win the game.

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    17. "I don't see why you don't just play these games as exceptions, rather than the rule." I might, but I still need to find the thing that makes them "exceptions."

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    18. Like Jay, I think of all these games as "RPG-adjacent strategy games". They are certainly not pure RPGs in any sense. I do think the modern Kings Bounty series is more leaning towards RPG than most of the others. You are riding around, accepting quests from NPCs, wearing the best armour and learning the best spells (according to your judgement and combat strategy). You have a skill tree that you can expand with runes you find, or acquire as you level. Most of your play time is spent in combat.

      However, as with HOMM, the hero does not appear on the battlefield, except to cast spells. [HOMM4 is an odd exception - the hero does appear on the battlefield, and you can even have more than one in an army... personally I don't think that changes the fundamental nature of the game, but YMMV.]

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    19. >>The game must feature one or more named heroes whose survival is necessary to win the game.<<

      Aren't there quite a few 'Ship of Theseus' RPGs? Goldbox for example?

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    20. "the game must feature one or more named heroes whose survival is necessary to win the game."

      Wouldn't this disqualify most rougelikes?

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    21. In Ultima V you play as 'The Avatar'
      In Eye of the Beholder you play as 'The Heroes of Waterdeep'
      In Pool of Radiance you play as an invisible bus driver.
      In Wizardry you play as an immortal, invisible, bus driver.

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    22. the game must feature one or more named heroes whose survival is necessary to win the game.

      This is reminiscent of, but distinct from, Kurisu's two rules about what differentiates SRPGs from non-RPG strategy games -- namely, a narrative, and individually-named characters who can be developed.

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    23. I don't know what the confusion is. If you create a new party member because someone dies mid-game, that's still a hero surviving to win the game. I don't see how it would disqualify roguelikes at all.

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    24. Ok,I didnt realize rougelikes had named characters. My fault. I Guess I wasnt including names that exist mostly for high scores, since your name doesnt exactly matter in those games.

      But still something feels off...a lot of games feature named characters who need to survive to win the game. Would the original Mario Bros. count under this rule? Or am I Just completley misunderstanding it?

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    25. "A named hero who must survive" would not exclude Castlevania games from being RPGs. Also, I can think of several strategy games where you'll lose the game if your hero dies. Still, it eliminates some of them.

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    26. Just want to say that I appreciate all of the games being mentioned. I really love Heroes of Might and Magic. Also, while I know you can play Master of Magic a lot of ways, what I tended to do was just give my best hero a really powerful army and have them go around conquering towns. That is the sort of gameplay that I'd like to encounter more of.

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    27. Guys, the "named hero who must survive" rule is only an addition to the existing definition Chet has for RPGs. If a strategy game technically hits all the criteria, but all your dudes are expendable soldiers and none of them need to survive as long as you can keep producing more, then it doesn't really feel like an RPG.

      At least that's how I interpret it. Correct me if I'm wrong, Chet.

      That said, Tristan is right: some full-fledged RPGs allow you to completely swap out your party halfway through, creating a "party of Theseus". Let's say the original party is made up of John, Jill and Jake.

      Jake dies in an attempt to disarm a trap. Back in town, the party recruits a new thief named Hubert. Later, Jill dies in combat. Back in town, the party recruits Margarete. Finally, John succumbs to poison in the swamps. Back in town, he is replaced by Barney.

      Now the player party is made up of Hubert, Margarete, and Barney. None of the original characters are left. But it's still the same party - they have the same questlog and NPCs act like they've met the people in the party before. Even if a questgiver has given his quest to John, Jill and Jake, he will recognize Hubert, Margarete and Barney as being the same party.

      I think Chet encountered that issue when he attempted to replace his party with fresh recruits in Darkside of Xeen. Every NPC/vendor who encountered the player party before acted like it was still the same party.

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    28. Yes, you have it, Jarl. That was a fourth rule that would go with my existing three--character development, inventory, stats-based combat. And as long as SOME hero has to be alive for the ending, I don't care if it's a mid-game replacement.

      I guess the "named" part would have to go. There are a few unquestionable RPGs in which there is no name for the protagonist.

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    29. Matt, I didn't realize you were objecting to the "named" part and not the "must survive" part. Most roguelikes that I've played allow you to assign a name, but I agree it's not universal. I guess I could replace "named hero" with "identifiable single protagonist or party."

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    30. Nobody's mentioned the Jagged Alliance series, where you hire named mercenaries to fight for you in turn-based combat on a grid. They level up, have inventories, and have personalities in the form of dialogue and likes/dislikes.

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    31. Jagged Alliance, in my view, fits the RPG criteria with or without the 4th criteria. There is a storyline, named team members, inventory, an economy, and experience gain. The fact that there are tactics to combat is just a bonus.
      X-COM (the original) also fits the criteria pretty cleanly for the same reasons.
      Master of Magic, however, is dicey. You could win without a hero (in theory) and only using generic troops and your wizard. Of course, I think it should be played as an exception, but I view it as strategy.
      The biggest differentiator to me, for a strategy game, is that its primary objective is beating opponents who move troops around a "board" or "map" of some type and usually includes control of buildings or cities as a significant determinant of your success. Neither Jagged Alliance nor X-COM include control of cities/buildings, although X-COM does have bases and production facilities and you clear sections in Jagged Alliance. But Master of Magic lets you found cities, build buildings, and raise troops (and so do your enemies) - classic components of the 4X genre.

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    32. As I reread this discussion I find myself surprised that "exploration" isn't part of Chet's definition or criteria. I suspect there are strategy games that might meet all of the current criteria (character development, inventory, stats-based combat) and even the new "continuity of an identifiable protagonist" criterion -- I believe some later games in the Koei strategy series have these things, for example. But they don't have exploration: the map (of China, Japan, or wherever Gemfire is) is 100% known from the start.

      I also had thoughts about a 1-to-1 relationship between the protagonist and combat -- in other words, that you play as a character that enters battle either as himself/herself, or as an aggregate representation that's indistinguishable from a character with HP (see the NES RPG Destiny of an Emperor for an example of this, where generals behave like typical console JRPG characters but their hit points are soldier counts) -- but that's more off in the weeds.

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    33. (Meant to say: I struggle to think of an RPG that doesn't involve exploration. As in, I can't think of one, and am not sure such a thing is possible. Is there an example?)

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    34. I think it's a little tough to define, and there are strategy games that start the map "dark," slowly revealing them as you explore, so you'd have to write the definition to somehow exclude those. As for RPGs without exploration, there are a few that organize themselves more in "battle scenarios" or arena-style combats rather than maps that you explore. SSI's Galactic Adventures comes to mind. The two Darkwood games. Nothing whose loss would be tragic, I suppose.

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    35. Eugene: You are wrong, I already mentioned it and I agree with you.

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    36. @PK Thunder, I think you're on to something, and it's some sense of heroes going on an adventure/quest in contrast to troops being deployed. It's why I would argue that X-Com is not an RPG despite having named characters that evolve with stats and inventories. (And part of why something like SC2 is an RPG despite not having characters in any traditional sense.)

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    37. I think Master of Magic is an absolute must-play considering that you included King's Bounty and Warlords. Mento is right in that there is basically no background story, but on the other hand you have character creation and character development as unlike in Warlords you as a ruler have actual properties including Magic that you choose at the start of the game and develop throughout the game.

      It's a lot of fun and afaik an absolute favorite of many who played it in its time. Can't really encourage you enough to check it out.

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    38. That's the point of playing these games as exceptions. There are no "must-plays" just because these games have been played.

      ---

      Jagged Alliance 2 is clearly a strategy game - you're the guy with the laptop who has the view of a general/commander of the campain, but it checks so many RPG boxes - character creation, improvement, items, NPCs, quests, ... - that it will be almost impossible to exclude. It might even do really well on the GIMLET.

      Jagged Alliance (1) is a debatable, and falls more into the XCOM territory. The "you need a hero to finish the game" comment was more geared towards the "strategy game with hero units" genre. XCOM & Co. probably need a different rule.

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    39. You are certainly right. It was mostly meant as a strong way of voicing my encouragement to try the game, especially because Chet has never played it and the experience is definitely worth it and overlaps very strongly with CRPG for a strategy game.

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  2. As far as historical references go, the second type of losing scenario you describe sounds an awful lot like a 'Stalingrad Situation', but that would be a terrible term to refer to.

    Somebody else please come up with a more cheerful moniker...

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    1. I remember an Avalon Hill game called Dnieper River Line that played almost entirely like a losing game of Monopoly. It was a given that you would be defeated. The challenge was, how long could you hold out?

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  3. Also, this was fun as an exception, but please don't start including strategy games with a fantasy paint and hero progression into the playlist. Thanks!

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  4. I think the system of vetoing or making an exception for certain games would be better than totally changing the rules. I have a feeling that blurring the lines too much would end with playing a lot of not-really-RPGs that only very technically make the criteria by the skin of their teeth.

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  5. I don't mind losing in long games, depending on what kind of game they are. I love simulationist (or at least pretend-simulationist) strategy games where you're going through history and your chosen nation will have its ups and downs. Something like the Crusader Kings games, where I get my enjoyment from doing weird things and watching how the world changes through them. I don't mind my great empire falling apart in a civil war after I spent ten hours building it. At least that means the game will stay challenging and interesting instead of being a cakewalk for my undefeatable juggernaut.

    For historical simulationist games I always prefer there to be a possibility of downfall for powerful empires, be they created by the player or the AI.

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    1. To add to that, aren't roguelikes pretty lengthy games too, and you end up losing in most attempts? You can easily lose hours of progress if you die on the last dungeon level. I never finished a roguelike because of that. I played a lot of them, enjoyed some, but have never played one to completion.

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    2. definitely, although they have a different feel from strategy games. In strategy games you lose because another somewhat similar player wins. In roguelikes, losing is like losing a battle in an RPG--getting a total party kill or something--but instead of getting sent back to a save point, you get sent back to the beginning.

      (Though I've only played a little bit of strategy games, and honestly pretty few non-roguelike CRPGs.)

      Usually I find that when I'm effectively walking dead in a roguelike it's because I haven't managed to prepare myself effectively for the next difficulty jump, or I've used too many nonrenewable resources... which is different from a situation where a battle gets out of hand fast which gives a different feeling than "ugh, I'm headed to level 10 with no decent weapons and am probably going to get destroyed by a wraith." So it's not quite Chet's second type because you don't spend most of your time hopeless, and even in the direst situations there may be something the RNG could do to give you a chance.

      The lost time factor is another thing. In a good roguelike it's not wasted because it's a learning experience, and you'll encounter different things the next time you play.

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    3. Roguelikes crossed my mind as potential exception to what I was writing, but Matt's response is perfect. Exactly what I would have said.

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    4. It's funny because for me it's the exact opposite. I enjoy trying to beat the odds when I'm behind in a strategy game like Civilization or Total War, and I enjoy losing to a competent AI or a human opponent who bests me. And if it's clear that I either stand no chance or the enemy stands no chance, I just quit the game and start a new one. Some of my favorite Total War playthroughs are with small underpowered nations.

      But in a roguelike I don't wanna replay the same old dungeon levels over and over just because I keep dying to a boss. It feels way more repetitive than replaying a strategy game, despite the randomly generated levels.

      The difference is that roguelikes are mere PvE games where you fight against a merely reactive environment, while in strategy games the AI nations are active players, leading to a more dynamic game.

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  6. I used to restore old computers (8088-486) and resell them. Warlords was always my "acid test": if a system (>=286) could play a game of Warlords with eight Warlord-AI players without crashing, then I felt comfortable selling it to someone else.

    It's a good game, but the advancement in the 'player experience' between the first, second, and third games are such that there's no reason to return to an older iteration.

    Unless you bought Warlords IV, of course. Then go running back to III.

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  7. I would suggest not including strategy games with light RPG elements be included as CPRGs, there are just too many, everything from MOO2 to virtually any side scrolling action game. Maybe play those as a occasional side post.

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    1. Remember my three criteria. I can't imagine any strategy game that doesn't have attribute-based combat, but it also has to have character development and equipment to find/buy/trade. Are there really that many strategy games that have all three?

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    2. Well, yes. As games become more modern, they tend to become more complex, and more and more games of widely varying genres have leveling and equipment.

      It may take a couple years to get there, but quite a lot of games in the Castlevania or Zelda genre are RPGs under your definition. Many strategy games as well, and I'm sure you can find some beat-em-ups or even racing games that qualify under your definition.

      Given the analysis you write, I personally don't see that as a bad thing; but I wonder if you'd enjoy playing such games. You're not the Platform Game Addict, after all :)

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    3. Master of magic works for this criteria. You could argue Panzer General also fits (each unit has experience which builds up with each battle and you can level them up into more evolved versions of those units). Fantasy General absolutely fits this criteria.

      But I would say a lot of strategy games won’t fit.

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    4. Strategy games were/are my second most favourite genre with RPGs and ok, I don´t have so good overview about modern games, but about that older I don´t think there are many strategies that would fit Chet´s criteria. I would say Warlords series, HoMaM series, probably X-COM series somehow, King´s Bounty series, Age of Wonders series, maybe Warcraft III, Disciples series, Heores of Annihilated Empires... maybe few more. With Fantasy General I don´t think so. If I am not wrong, there is not any main hero (I mean present on the screen, he is somehow omnipresent and can cast spells, but doesnĖ‡t have inventory or levels). Ok, units can get levels and find some items.

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    5. If Fantasy General fits, then so does Panzer General because FG is essentially a PG reskin with different unit types. The core gameplay is pretty much the same. PG also has unit experience, unit upgrades, etc.

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    6. When it comes to RTS games, Warcraft 3 popularized the hero units that level up and can pick up items. It became a common feature in the genre afterwards (and then led to the development of the MOBA genre which pretty much replaced RTS in the mainstream and I absolutely despise it).

      One of my favorite RTS with RPG elements is Tzar: Burden of the Crown. Every unit can gather experience and level up, so keeping your army alive instead of using them as cannon fodder is a good idea. In the campaign, your heroes carry over from mission to mission and since there's no level cap, they can become absolutely overpowered after a while. But it's a challenging campaign so that's fine.

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    7. Ah, and now also came in my mind Jagged Alliance game(s) :-)

      JarlFrank: I think in PG there is nothing like "items" which units can pick up? Or am I wrong? In other things it really feels like basically the same or very similar games.

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    8. Well Fantasy General does have items which differentiates it from Panzer General. Units carry over and IIIRC there is a main hero unit. So it’s as much a strategy RPG as Warlords, but it is absolutely using the PG engine and so uses most of the same mechanics.

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    9. Based on his criteria, no Zelda game will ever fit as an RPG. There's simply no stat-based calculations going on in any of them, as far as I know. However, on the Castlevania side, Symphony of the Night and other later games are definitely action-RPGs with all 3 criteria met. Since the preference is for computer games, we probably won't see any Castlevania games here, but that's fine.

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    10. It's about the Zelda GENRE, not the Zelda SERIES.

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    11. Deano: According to for example this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzFFADnFuZs, there is not any main hero unit. Time cca 19:53, deploying units in the first mission. I played FG long time ago, but it corresponds with my memories.

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    12. Yeah, Fantasy General doesn't really qualify as an RPG, I'd say. It's a great Strategy/War game, but it really doesn't satisfy the rules defining RPGs.

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    13. In FG, you choose your avatar from four available characters with various perks. Some have extra unit rosters (next to Mortals which everyone has access to, and Mech which anyone can acquire during the campaign), some can cast damaging, debuffing or summoning spells during battles, some manipulate unit acquisition and experience. Rewards during the campaign can change depending on whom you're playing with.
      Your avatar does not appear on the battlefield. There are hero units (both generic and named uniques) you can recruit in various ways. Technically, they are identical to any other "heroic" (always attacks as if at max unit strength) and "a single entity" (only suffers wounds, not kills) unit. Some of them are (way) worse than top-end regulars.
      Every unit gains experience (0th through 5th level, with very noticeable effects). Some units (those of the Mortal roster) can upgrade to a better-tier unit of their type (tiers also go through 0-5). Every unit, hero or not, can have a single magical item equipped.
      Your avatar gains traits during the campaign depending on your choices and measure of success.

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  8. It has been noted that the "Free Parking jackpot" house rule so widely followed is a major part of why people think Monopoly takes so long to play :)

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    1. It is a testament to how bad a game Monopoly is that making it a better game means making it shorter.

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    2. Well it’s that adding money to free parking increases the money each player has, but in most cases it doesn’t really change who will win, so it all just goes on and on. Or if it end up with as lot of money on there, then it renders all the previous choices and decisions moot. Either way, it breaks the intended gameplay. Though I would say monopoly tends to not have many active choices (especially if people don’t do auctions whenever someone decides not to buy the property they landed on) which makes it a pretty poor game in itself.

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    3. I'd say it's less "Monopoly's so bad that it's better when it's shorter" and more "Monopoly's fine when you don't add house rules that do nothing but prolong the game"

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    4. Monopoly, as I understand it, wasn't originally meant to be a 'good/fun game' so much as it was intended to be an object lesson in the horrors of unfettered capitalism. So really, it fulfilled its original design principles pretty well.

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    5. What Bruce said. Also, Monopoly (and for that matter Risk) are good examples of EARLY board game design, and designers have since learned much about how to design better board games.

      It's almost like how some famous early CRPGs (but by no means all of them) are pretty bad by modern standards - not because of outdated graphics, but because designers have since learned how to write better CRPGs.

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    7. (especially if people don’t do auctions whenever someone decides not to buy the property they landed on)

      Gaah, this is the argument that bugs the crap out of me. "Oh, no wonder you didn't like Monopoly - you were *playing it wrong*. You didn't use the auction rule!" The auction rule adds nothing. The name of the game in Monopoly is to buy every property the moment you land on it. If you're short on cash, mortgage your other properties until you can buy. It's worth it. There may be some corner cases when the auction rule can come into play, but it doesn't substantially change the game.

      It's not Monopoly's fault it's such a terrible game, it was designed 80 years ago. It should have been put to bed as a historical curiosity long ago except for the fact that the company that makes it made a bajillion versions for different tiny audiences, and these are primarily intended to be bought as gifts. They are played once or not at all.

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    8. Indeed. If Ultima I or Wizardry sold in massive numbers nowadays, there would be more people complaining about its shortcomings. Monopoly still sells and it isn't exactly cheap either. Even I have a copy - though to be fair, it's about as old as I am.

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    9. Monopoly is popular because it has dice, a board, simple rules, pretend money, kids can beat their parents, and its been around forever. After all, boardgames only started getting 'good' around 25 years ago. I think a lot of kids these days are growing up with Carcassonne, Settlers, and Ticket to Ride, rather than Monopoly.

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    10. Hi Harland,

      I disagree--I think the auction rule adds a lot. There are several expensive properties later on the board that might be worth allowing to go to auction. It gives you the chance to buy it cheap, if your other players are light on cash, or you can get one of them to overpay for it. It also means that board spaces fill up faster.

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    11. Sure. Monopoly is also IMpopular because it causes lots of arguments, including in this blog.

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    14. The auction rule is critical as it adds an actual decision point to the game. If you only buy property when you land on it then basically you’re making it where the only choices you really make are:
      * Do I buy the property I’ve landed on?
      * If it’s my own property, do I build a house/hotel there?

      And that’s pretty much it. Everything else is random. The auction rule complicates the choice of whether you buy the property you’ve landed on as you need to consider whether it would benefit anyone else. If so you may have to buy defensively.

      If the property does go to auction then each player needs to decide whether they want to buy it, and if they do, what price it’s worth to them. Again this is littered with decisions that are impactful.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not particularly keen on Monopoly - it’s too long even without free parking house rules, and there’s too much randomness. But things like the auctions are critical to the gameplay.

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    15. Yes it adds a decision point, but it's a pretty obvious one. Pretty much always, if you land on an unowned property and can afford it, you want to buy it.

      Fair point that most of the game is run on autopilot. At least Snakes&Ladders is *fast*...

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  9. The kind of strategy game with heroes in the way you're describing aren't too many in number, at least to my knowledge and for the next ten years. Oh, certainly, there are plenty of strategy games with RPG elements, and plenty with heroes, some even with both. But most of them fail your rule system. For instance, in Civilization IV, you get units, and you can attach heroes to them, but they don't get better equipment, not unless you decide upgrading a unit qualifies...which I would hope doesn't. In Age of Empires III, you have RPG elements, and you have heroes, but the heroes are static and the RPG part is your home country getting better.
    I don't think there are too many of them, at this point in time, 1 per year. Admittedly, I haven't checked thoroughly, but I'd wager even if its more like 3 a year, it'd still be better reading (and playing) than some action game that becomes a RPG through a technicality.

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    1. That's what I was hoping that the consensus was. Others seem to think we're talking about a lot of games, though.

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    2. There's a lot of RTS games with heroes that level up from the early 00s onwards. Same with turn based strategy games. But it doesn't really become a big genre until the 00s, which is still quite a way off.

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    3. Endless Legend is a fantasy 4x with leveling heroes who gain loot and game- issued quests. But I doubt we'll live long enough to see it covered here. It's worth a look for anyone who is interested though. Great graphics.

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    4. I think where a lot of these Warlord/HoMM/Master of Magic games are going to get tripped up is the lack of buy/trade/selling equipment. Your fully equipped (no details) hero may go into a ruin and find a Thingie of Flambulation, but aside from an ability to give it to a lesser hero on the same side, there’s no economy in magic items. No shops, etc.

      As far as your squad based strategy shooters go, I think that if Fallout or Wasteland is an RPG, then so is X-COM. The only thing that X-COM or Men At War lacks is an explorable overworld.

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    5. You're buying and selling gear at market locations by HoMM 3. MoM doesn't have RPG-style stores but you 'create' and 'disenchant' magic items, and get the occasional purchase offer from wandering merchant events.

      Unlike Wasteland/Fallout, X-com also lacks NPC interactions, RPG-style quests, and a set of characters whose death(s) ends the game.

      While I wouldn't call any of HoMM, MoM, or X-Com RPGs - they're strategy games which happen to fulfil Chet's minimum RPG criteria, I think they're sufficiently relevant to the genre that it's appropriate they appear on this blog at some point.

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  10. Well, after reading this i think it's pretty clear the Heroes of Might and Magic games will get covered.

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    1. Indeed. And none of them are CRPGs, as I define the genre. But I'm not the one writing about them, and I do have fond memories of HoMM3.

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    2. Even if we weren't planning on side-quest to StrategyLand I'd still want the Heroes of Might & Magic games covered, just because they actually do tie into the plot of the main games, at least up until the third HOMM, I think.

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    3. The fourth game also ties into the main plot, along with M&M 9. They're both set on the same planet and take place after the events of HoMM3.

      Ubisoft rebooted the series and created a new fantasy world, but iirc all Ubisoft M&M titles also share the same setting. HoMM 5, 6 and 7, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, M&M 10 are all set in the same world.

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  11. I have fond memories of this game because it was on a school computer and our science teacher got hooked on it to the point he would just neglect the class.

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  12. I think there's a third type of game, one that can involve very little or no luck, but where the outcome of the player's positions/strategies often isn't obvious until the game-ending sequence is triggered -- either because there's too much information, or because some of it is kept secret until the end.

    German board games specialize in this; in many of them that I've played, no one is sure who won until the final tally is made, and it can be a runaway victory or a narrow squeak.

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    1. Fair enough. Do those tend to be short or quite long?

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    2. They tend to be longer. Since some/all the victory conditions are secret, hope can remain. Even if you are failing your personal objectives, you can hope that everyone else is failing theirs too. It can still be obvious you can't win, but those times, its about not getting last place.

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    3. Assuming everyone at the table knows the rules, I'd say a typical euro game takes 90-150 mins.

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    4. Compared to Monopoly, Risk, and heavyweights like Twilight Imperium, Euro/German style board games tend to be short. I'd say most fall into the 45-90 minute category, only a few take much longer. Euros tend to have mechanics that lead to a rather constant playing time - like a fixed number of rounds, limitied resources that eventually run out, or a fixed number of points for victory (with few ways to lose points).

      Counting the victory points might take another 5-10 minutes in some games ;)

      Keeping things close until the end is anther common feature of many modern Euros. Some Euros have explicit mechanics that give a player who falls behind a small advantage, like moving him ahead in the turn order, in order to keep things close.

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    5. That describes my experience too. Once everyone understands the rules (which can be no small feat), even the more complex Euro/German-style games tend to take less time than Monopoly or Risk, and they don't usually elicit that awful, miserable, draggy feeling you sometimes get from the above. Their popularity is well-earned.

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    6. To be fair, a game of monopoly only takes about 90-120 minutes if you play by the real rules and have players who know how to play.

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    7. *a four player game of monopoly. I haven't played it with any other number

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    8. That’s still quite long, especially considering the park the choices each player makes. Euro games tend to be relatively decision heavy in comparison. Their main issue tends to be that they’re low conflict or the theme is just pasted on, but generally modern Euros are so so so much better than the old games that everyone knows.

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  13. If you have all this extra time, why not just make more progress on your main list? Why look for extra things to write about?

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    1. He wanted to give back to patrons. Some of us asked for prioritization of specific games from the main list, so you can rest assured it's not all side quests.

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    2. Sure, I could devote more time to the main list, but that would mean that I would have to either:

      a) Summarize more content in my entries, which I think would hurt their quality.

      b) Post more often. Some of my readers might like that, but I'm already asking people to read an average of 1,000 - 1,500 words per day. There's a limit to what readers can consume. I love the New Yorker, but I don't want it to come twice a month.

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  14. Heh. I only played Warlords 2 and 3 (mostly 2), but I always preferred to play for all factions - I hate losing, but I'm very used to playing by myself, because I was the only child with just a few friends (and during summer months, often with no friends at all). Of course, I told myself stories - including diplomacy between factions, their reasons for conquest etc., and I don't think I "rooted" for a single faction and made it win - I usually just let the random nature of ruins decide who wins (I had very limited understanding of the game at the time - I was maybe 12 then, and knew only a little English).

    I think you should be very careful with expanding your list using strategy-with-RPG-elements games. Playing through the whole of Heroes of Might & Magic, for example, is no short endeavour (especially if you include numerous expansions to HoMM3, or delve into fan-made extended mod which brings so much new to the game it might as well be a sequel). And just a short entry on each major game in the series might feel unsatisfying for both you, and some readers. And supposing we all get uploaded to computers and you live to play 2010's games, ALL of them begin to get RPG elements...

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    1. Since you mention fan-made mods, if Chet decides to look at mods he'll never be finished in this lifetime... FRUA has dozens of modules, so do Blades of Exile and Blades of Avernum. Neverwinter Nights has hundreds. Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim have a ton of mods that add more content, and a couple of total conversions (I think Nehrim and Enderal deserve to go on the list because they received standalone Steam releases, but they should be exceptions).

      User-made mods are a difficult topic. There are SO MANY of them, but some of them are better than any commercial game release out there, so skipping them would feel wrong. Neverwinter Nights is a game I really dislike, one of the worst RPGs ever made, but I still bought it because some of the user made modules are absolutely worth it. They're the only reason to buy the game imo.

      And then there are those fan-made Fallout total conversions which run as standalone games, too.

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    2. Chet was already planning on Sword of Xeen...which is technically a mod for World of Xeen (or Darkside...I forget). But I agree...I would stay away from Fan made mods...

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    3. My understanding was that Sword of Xeen started as just a fan mod, but it was officially released by New World as part of the World of Xeen package. Otherwise, it wouldn't be on my list unless I really wanted to make an exception.

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    4. Your understanding is correct.

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  15. I find it amazing how similar this game is to Lords of Midnight (from the ZX Spectrum, 1984).
    Heroes, allies, items to be found in ruins, option to take an open warfare approach, or a single party of heroes approach... Human, elves, dragons, and a dark lord...

    Even the graphics, in some cases, are uncanny similar.
    Observe this screenshot here: https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-cxnJfScOGls/YOtvNZe5hdI/AAAAAAAA0D0/p-XlkJhJRi4_o3AsaHUUeMM_mQg_TBlKwCLcBGAsYHQ/w400-h250/warlords_040.png
    and compare it with this from Lords of Midnight: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/ilDgNSIhW5M/hqdefault.jpg
    Same fortress, same armies with banners...

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    1. Did Chet played Lords of Midnight? I would be corous what he thinks of it. Also with the remaster it's easy to run on a modern computer (or Ipad...)
      As far as I can remember the heroes don't level up?

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    2. I rejected it as an RPG, but one of my Patreon requests is to play it, so it's on my list to check out.

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    3. Yeah it's very light in the RGP Side, some categorize it as adventure-wargame Hybrid. Somehow I think you gonna Like it but it wouldn't score high on the gimlet. I would Not Take ans shame playing the Remake, it's very true to the Original

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    4. And it's free in GOG

      https://www.gog.com/game/the_lords_of_midnight

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    5. PetrusOctavianusJuly 13, 2021 at 2:28 PM

      I had the same reaction as David E.
      But I think LoM was more innovative with the use of a first person view, instead of the traditional top down.

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    6. Happy to hear LoM is in the running, even though I've always argued against it being an RPG. I think I've mentioned this several times now, but there's a nice Lords of Midnight resource:

      https://www.icemark.com/tower/index.html

      It has a PC version of the game, the map from the back of the box and an HTML manual, and bunch of technical stuff about the game.

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    7. "I find it amazing how similar this game is to Lords of Midnight (from the ZX Spectrum, 1984)."
      "Even the graphics, in some cases, are uncanny similar."

      Steve Fawkner's favourite game is Lords of Midnight, according to Laszlo's article linked above, so the similarity of the two screenshots is no coincidence.

      However, while the list of features is similar, I think Lords of Midnight plays very differently to Warlords, due to LoM's first person perspective and the fact that (IIUC) the player needs to manually keep track of reports of wandering armies in order to understand what is happening on the world map.

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    8. A big difference is that in LOM you can only control units which have a Lord attached to it. A pretty cool idea that reduces the amount of micromanagement. Though it shifts a big amount of the gameplay to the recruitment mechanic.

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  16. There are some games that definitely bend the definitions, but one can still clearly see this is a strategy game.

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  17. "I remember exploring its ruins with my hero character and wishing that it would transition to a first-person dungeon like Ultima."

    There is a few strategy games with some RPG elements doing just that. Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance is on your master list, 1996. Not in first-person, but with dungeon exploration. And there is Rings of Medusa (1989) and The Return of Medusa (1991). With an enhanced remake of the first game from 1994, released only in German, unfortunately.

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    1. P.S.
      My mistake. Rings of Medusa does not has any dungeon exploration. Only the second game, The Return of Medusa, has it.

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    2. I rejected both Medusa games as RPGs a long time ago for not having character development, but I agree the second one's dungeon exploration is close to what I was looking for.

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  18. From top of my head , 4x with leveling heroes : all the Heroes of Might& Magic, all the Warlords, all the Legend of the Three Kingdom, Master of Magic... there must be much more obscure ones. And even if I like them, they arent RPG.
    I'm curious to know the rule you will add to out them (A RPG is a game where you can only lose by dying?)

    Then you have an interesting case study with 1996 Birthright (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birthright:_The_Gorgon%27s_Alliance)
    Which is a 4X.. but with fully leveling D&D-rule party of 2, who can go in full 3D dungeons adventure where they fight with DD ruleset and spell , evade traps and stuff(complete full RPG, except you cant level up inside dungeon)

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    1. You can get 2 party npc's that you can control too. The only D&D game where the best party is 3 mages 1 cleric

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    2. Yeah, i came to said the same. This game it's like a primitive version of Birthright.

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    3. Birthright sounds interesting. Remember, though, to qualify as an RPG, a game needs to have not just "leveling heroes" but inventories, too.

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    4. Birthright also has inventory. It is based on a ADD (or D&D only ?) module where players are lords that go adventuring.

      Delete
    5. The pen and paper Birthright books are basically the answer to the question "what if the player party has gained enough power and influence to move up the social ladder from adventurers to lords?"

      It's D&D, but you're managing a kingdom and commanding armies.

      Delete
    6. Yep, got inventories. Got quests. In general it has as many RPG (AD&D specifically) features as what is unambiguously a strategy game could have.

      Delete
    7. I haven't played Birthright, but I suspect that it IS somewhat ambiguous. My definition of "RPG" allows a game to be another genre, too. That's what we call "hybrids." Quest for Glory is an adventure/RPG hybrid. Sword of Aragon is a strategy/RPG hybrid. I suspect Birthright is, too. MobyGames classifies it as both.

      I don't mind hybrids at all, and I will keep playing them without any changes to the rules, unless there are an overwhelming number of said hybrids. These comment threads have a wide variety of opinions as to how many there actually are.

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    8. IIRC you can play Birthright's "Adventure mode" (as it calls its RPG half) on its own if you wish. If you get around to it, you could BRIEF the strategy half and make your way through all the Adventure campaigns with a persistent party.

      It's built to be a completely separate entity from the rest of the game's wargaming, as opposed to hero units in other RPG-adjacent strategy games which are more integrated (though Birthright lets you use these D&D characters as military units also). These adventures are optional too: only reason to play them is to raise campaign funds and acquire the occasional artifact that enhances your kingdom's standing.

      Delete
    9. Birthright is basically the predecessor to Kingmaker

      Delete
  19. I remember the screen shots on the back of the box showed the other computer players, and one or more of them showed the "Friendly" relationship. Boy, how I tried to get that to happen. I was baffled why they all turned hostile and declared war sooner or later.

    That was before we were all experts at game development. Now it's obvious the screen shots came from a beta, and the friendly relationship was dropped to either simplify the game or make it harder.

    "Do you want to win now or play another 8 hours just for the satisfaction of seeing your faction's symbol on all of the cities?"

    It baffles me there are people out there who do exactly this. I used not to understand, but now I get it. They've got complete control over the game and this is very pleasurable to them. To play the game for the challenge of winning is another reason for playing games, a different reason altogether. One they don't really like as in involves losing (i.e. lack of control).

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    1. When I was young, I was very bad at Civilization - I didn't know enough English to play it, really, and had no idea what to do to win. But I had a save from a friend, where there was only a singly enemy city remaining, and I had great times just playing by myself, exploring the way the game worked and periodically dropping nukes on that little city, to keep it from growing into a danger.

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    2. While there might be some enjoyment from lounging in a no-stress winning position, there is still the logistical challenge of conquering all of the cities, and I could see a player continuing to play just to explore how well he could continue to evolve his war machine to cover the entire map. It takes some planning to efficiently deploy your resources to that task.

      Delete
    3. I guess I can see that. And I do have a memory of beating the enemy down to a single city, surrounding that city with armies so that if he even tried to step out of it, he'd be slaughtered, and just passing dozens of turns prolonging the end that way, so there must have been a time I found it fun.

      Delete
    4. I had a similar experience to Harland about the back of the box showing an impossible situation... with Lands of Lore. Boy this drove me crazy, I tried everything to replicate the screenshoot at the back of the box.

      Delete
  20. Regarding board games, a factor to consider is the "King Maker". That is, a player who is no longer capable of winning himself, but who can nevertheless influence (or even decide) who DOES win.

    This may explain why the game Risk is generally considered more tolerable than Monopoly.

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    1. Or less tolerable, depending on perspective!

      Delete
  21. Fun fact: one Russian Fantasy/Sci-fi author starts his career from book which was heavily influenced by Warlords. You can say it was book adaptation of this game. Heroes were "sucked" from our real world to the game wold, etc.
    It was, to be honest, horrible book, but next novels from same author were Ok. Not bestsellers, but Ok.

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    1. I love to hear these kind of stories from authors.

      It is still rare to hear a writer, sci fi or not, talk about the influences video games had on their writing despite the fact that let's face it unless you're 60-70, you grew up playing some form of video games.

      I know it is getting more common but I will not be satisfied until every author lists their favorite games in their bio.

      Delete
  22. "The difference is: You can lose a strategy game."

    How about an RPG where competing factions are not just player options? E.g. you join one of three kingdoms/noble houses/divine cults, and not only does this lead to some changes in quests and storylines, but the other factions are going for the same objective (Excalibur/the throne/a seat in the heavens) and might actually beat your party if you aren't careful. Is there such a thing? Would it be fun?

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    1. I'm not aware of any such game, but I do think it would be fun. Overall, I think it would be fun if RPG antagonist showed strategy-game-like proactivity throughout the game instead of just sitting in their fortresses, waiting for you to come to them.

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    2. There's a SNES RPG game called The 7th Saga where the player chooses one of seven characters to control. But the computer controls the other six unchosen characters and they all compete towards the same objective to collect the seven runes hidden around the world.

      Delete
    3. stepped pyramidsJuly 12, 2021 at 7:34 PM

      7th Saga doesn't really simulate that competition, though, it just does a pretty decent job of making it feel like it's happening by having the other characters wander between locations, occasionally challenge you to fights, etc. They can never actually beat you to the ending or anything like that.

      Delete
    4. It's not really an RPG and you don't get to choose your faction, but in the original Wing Commander, if you consistently don't do well in your missions, the humans eventually lose to the Kilrathi and are forced to retreat from the sector.

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    5. The original version of Fallout 1 does have the time clock where if you take too long to beat the final enemy eventually they overrun the world. But it's not done in a dynamic way and was pretty unpopular (so much so that they patched it out)

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    6. It would be fun to see something like that dynamically - you could see the big bad’s influence slowly spread over the map, and do quests that impact that progression.

      Certainly better than just hearing at the end of the game: ‘You took too long and The Hub was overrun’. ‘What? I was just there!’

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  23. >>You don't just "lose" such games; you spend most of the time playing them "losing."<<

    I played board games with my friends every friday night for years before we all moved and married, and we consciously avoided those games. There's little fun in being held hostage by a leisure activity. Also frustrating is when a player with no chance of coming first is given the ability to arbitrarily determine who wins.

    Of course, if it's a two-player game, the loser can simply concede!

    >>If I allow my definition of "RPG" to encompass strategy games with hero units that gain levels, am I adding a huge number of games to my list?<<

    I think the line between the two genres sufficiently blurs that you're probably going to have to do it by 'feel' anyway. I'd only add strategy titles to the main list if someone makes a compelling case for their RPG credentials. Titles that sound RPG-adjacent, or that you are simply curious about, probably fit better in your 'lucky dip' pot.

    To answer your actual question though: I think RPG mechanics in strategy games only start to proliferate post-90s, so whatever you choose to do, you're pretty safe.

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  24. There's a city in the west of the central mountain range with unusually potent light infantry I think. There's a shrine to the north where they can be further enhanced. As kids we imagined them some sort of Shaolin monks. I think there are a few fun worldbuilding touches like that.

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  25. I still think that you should consider instating a "rule zero" and maybe only try to use the three criteria if the developers wanted to make an RPG or the publisher marketed the game as an RPG. Especially on Japanese platforms, but to a lesser extent on western computers too, RPG elements will appear in an ever-increasing number. Driving games, strategy games, action games, simulation games, dating games, even puzzle games will soon have at least one or two CRPGA criteria fulfilled, and thus technically compatible with the blog.

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    1. I mean, no, they're only compatible with the blog if they have all three criteria fulfilled, at which point it's hard to argue that it's NOT an RPG. The question is whether there's a proliferation of games with ALL THREE criteria in those other genres.

      Delete
    2. Hey Laszlo, while I have you: Remember that really long list of typos that you sent me in 2018? I just finally got finished fixing all of them. I should have done them as they came in rather than putting them on a list to do "when I felt like it." Some of them were pretty egregious, so thanks for helping improve the quality of those entries.

      Delete
    3. You're absolutely welcome.

      As for the proliferation of RPG elements: in Japan, absolutely, it happened fast and deep. Dragon Quest completely transformed game design there, and from Japanese computers to handhelds, from arcade machines to consoles, tons of games had (limited) character development and inventories. Character attributes are often hidden, but they are many times part of character development.

      This process, I feel, was much slower in "the west", especially in Europe. This type of Japanese game design only blown up here after Final Fantasy VII. You too play on modern consoles, and these days from Assassin's Creed to God of War, from Forza to Call of Duty tons of games that I wouldn't consider RPGs have all three criteria.

      I have no problem with you writing about any and all fantasy games, I just personally don't consider Warlords or Warcraft III or Heroes "true" RPGs. But this could be seen as gatekeeping which I'm not a fan of, so I won't mention it again.

      Delete
    4. It's pretty easy for me to imagine grafting those 3 RPG elements onto almost anything. Evolving characters is just a cool idea that works in a lot of places.

      For instance, you could hack Super Mario Bros. to have an inventory for fire flowers (like SMB3), and then add an accuracy stat that would cause some fireballs to miss, and that could increase through the game.

      But would that make in an RPG? Maybe that's all it takes for some, but to me the core gameplay would still clearly be platforming. This is still a game you recommend to people who like Platformers and not necessarily RPGs.

      Or any sports game could easily adopt those mechanics, yet it's still clear (to me) that the game is about simulating a sport, and not being an RPG.

      So I don't think it's enough to just identify that a game has certain elements present, but you also need to consider how core/essential they are to the experience. A good question would be: if you stripped out the RPG elements would you still have much of a game left?

      For a lot of these Action RPGs, Strategy RPGs, Sports games, and other hyrbrids I think the answer is 'yes'. They may feel more one dimensional, but you still have the dexterity or strategic challenges to grapple with. But true RPGs are more likely to feel mostly or completely gutted.

      Anyway, just thinking out loud. The current system works well enough, and I'm not trying to start an annoying campaign to change everything.

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    5. It's a fair point. My question--the one that got us into this discussion in the first place--remains: does it happen often enough that it's a problem? I was asking in the context of strategy games, but we could apply it to other genres, too. If I find myself playing a lot of games that technically meet my rules but don't fundamentally feel like RPGs, then I need to add some new rules. The entire hydlike genre feels like they're barely RPGs to me, for instance, and if a lot of those games came up on my list, I'd be looking to add some restrictions. But as yet, no one has made a compelling case that my rules are too inclusive.

      Delete
    6. They won't be too inclusive for at least a couple more years.

      Delete
    7. Yeah, I agree it's a future problem. You are occasionally covering merely RPG-adjacent games now, but I think it's seldom enough that it's still a good thing to provide context. As you get later into the 90s you may need to get more strict.

      Delete
    8. I'll be looking forward to the issue of Metroidvanias. They're not really RPGs but share several features (inventory, increasing your character's skills) and scratch the same itch, but they're also clearly action platformers.

      Generally though, we're not going to have too much of a problem with RPG elements in other genres until the late 00s and especially the 10s, which is far far into the future. Nowadays developers are obsessed with stuffing leveling mechanics into almost every game.

      Technically, the latest Far Cry games would qualify as RPGs (gaining XP, leveling up, unlocking new abilities with levelup points, buying new weapons and equipping them) but they're clearly not RPGs. Modern action games are more likely to have levelup mechanics than not.

      But when it comes to early FPS-RPG hybrids, I think those are really worth checking out for historical reasons. (and some of them are good, too!)

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    9. I just thought of Castle Crashers (2008), which is clearly a Beat 'Em Up game, yet has all those RPG features. I guess River City Ransom (1989) was pretty close too. But it's clear the RPG mechanics are in service of a different genre.

      Delete
    10. asimpkins, Super Paper Mario for the wii is exactly the game you describe. You jump on goombas and do damage based on your level, you have an inventory with items that heal you or deal damage or increase your stats, you use dexterity to jump on platforms. However, it's really an easy puzzle game for kids that uses platforming or the simple combat to break up the puzzles. It also has a goofy jrpg style story. It's kind of a hybrid of the Mario RPG for SNES, which is more like Final Fantasy, and a traditional Mario game. It's definitely an rpg, but I don't think it would appeal to the the audience here.

      Delete
  26. <>

    I prefer a difficulty in strategy games that gives me a challenge - as in I have to pay attention not to make too many mistakes - but which I usually win. One aspect is the length of the game - I don't play most 4x games more than once every few years. But a higher difficulty rating can also severly limit the viable strategies. I know I can win Civ at the highest difficulty setting by smallpoxing. But smallpoxing is not the way I want to play a Civ game.

    It's different for games which are mission based (like Dune), where you just replay a single mission if you fail, or for games where "losing" is fun.

    (I think I prefer simulations anyway - I've played countless Red Baron careers until I finally survived the war.)

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  27. There really isn't a lot of games that fulfill your criteria - even modern games, although genres-mixing does become more and more commonplace.

    It's easy to find heroes that level up OR heroes with inventories in strategy games, but it's hard to find both. I'm thinking it's perhaps 2-3 games a year from now until 2000 at most.

    Once MOBAs hit you're gonna have an issue, but change the rules then. I find a small side-trek like this quite interesting, and it's not like a single 8-16 hour game or even two a year will change much.

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    1. Aren't MOBAS multiplayer only? Those would be disqualified for not having a single player mode anyway.

      Delete
  28. I loved this game as a kid. Nowadays I sometimes turn it on with all computer players and leave it running while I work, occasionally checking to see how the fantasy epic is unfolding. Surprisingly fun.

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  29. Puzzle Quest 2 is definitely an RPG - it just substitutes dice rolls and the typical minigames you have in an RPG (trap disarming, lockpicking, combat) with different variations of match-3 puzzles. But outside of those minigames you have all the hallmarks of a solid dungeon crawl - exploration, leveling, equipment, spells, economy etc. You can even grind for XP if needed. The original Puzzle Quest is a little harder to place - not because of the puzzles, but because its overall structure is somewhat midway between a classic RPG and a Warlords-style game. So some of the activities like base management may feel a bit out of place.

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    1. I found the first game a lot more compelling, how bout you?

      Delete
  30. For anyone with an iOS device that is nostalgic for Warlords, there is an apparently officially sanctioned port of it available in the App Store. It has some additional maps beyond Illuria and some UI improvements that make it easier to deal with in some ways, although it has more or less the same gameplay shortcomings as the originals, and it's missing some things I seem to remember from the Amiga version (like diplomacy and options when capturing cities... although I don't really remember those being super integral to the game anyway...)

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  31. The phrase you're looking for around ensuring the possibility of a win no matter how badly you're losing is maybe "rubber-banding", although that more specifically refers to a dynamic where the harder a player is losing, the greater the advantages the game gives them. One of the most famous examples is the way Mario Kart only gives the best weapons (including the blue shell) to the players in the last positions on the track.

    Also I had no idea that Heroes of Might and Magic was basically a rebranding of Warlords, but clearly it is.

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    1. stepped pyramidsJuly 12, 2021 at 7:42 PM

      > Also I had no idea that Heroes of Might and Magic was basically a rebranding of Warlords, but clearly it is.

      King's Bounty and Warlords both came out in 1990. I can't tell which came out first; both of them mostly received reviews in early 1991, but KB did get a review in CGW for their November gift-buying guide. I'm not sure there was enough time for either of them to be influenced by the other.

      HoMM has some features that it shares with Warlords and not King's Bounty, but there's still a lot of KB in there.

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    2. I don’t see a connection between HoMM and Warlords beyond both being fantasy strategy games.

      Delete
    3. HoMM and Warlords feel like two completely different games to me. I don't see any connection there either. Same genre, yes, but that's it.

      Delete
    4. They're both rebrands of Empire with the fantasy theme bolted on. If the game involves taking cities which produce units to take more cities, it comes from Empire.

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    5. While Warlords is a PvP strategy wargame in the tradition of Empire, HoMM really isn't.

      HoMM is descended from King's Bounty, which is a PvE game of questing and exploration, and not of "taking cities which produce units to take more cities". HoMM reimagines King's Bounty as a PvP game, which is why it has one foot in the strategy genre and the other in the RPG genre.

      Delete
  32. I played this game a huge amount as a kid. It was a lot of fun, but I think that as a strategy game it's kind of fundamentally broken. There is no reason to attack a heavily fortified castle; you can always just bypass it. As soon as you take a city anywhere, even deep in the enemy area, you can immediately vector all new troops to it. This is especially easy to do with hero / flying armies.

    This means that there isn't really any reason to control areas. The whole strategic situation kind of degenerates into isolated, opportunistic city-grabs all over the map.

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    1. Hmmm. That's an interesting point. My particular tendency is to conquer by "territory" rather than one city at a time, but I agree that there's no reason you have to do it that way.

      Warlords limits the amount of vectors to a single city to 4, which blunts the problem you mention a bit. I believe that restriction is lifted for later games.

      Delete
    2. Doesn't that leave an opening that the opponent could then use to build a force behind your front line?

      Delete
    3. Yeah, that's the point: there is no front line.
      Four cities being vectored to a single city is more than enough. Besides, you can usually grab a few nearby cities and vector into both.

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    4. By the way, I don't know what would happen if all the factions tried this strategy. It would be chaos. The CPU partially understands it, and it's a huge hassle tracking down their sporadic armies attempting to go deep into your interior.

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    5. I replayed Warlords a bunch since the GOG re-release, and that hasn't really been my experience. (Also, I was positively surprised by the additional features of the 2.0 version. Never had that as a kid.)
      To me it always feels that by the time you have produced enough flying units to do such deep strikes, you could simply have taken half the map with regular troops and won. Though denying powerful cities (Balad-Naran) to your enemy is important, and those are worth such assaults. One of the dirty secrets of the Warlords AI is, it will ignore enemy armies not in cities for its calculations to save time.

      Delete
  33. I received a copy of this game from a friend in the mid-1990s, and I spent so very many hours playing it. Thank-you for reviving some long-dormant positive memories.

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  34. I did play this game so, so, so many times. Winning as every faction on various combinations of difficulty (although eventually just Warlord for all the AIs). The "trick" was knowing the map. Since the build options were based on the castles rather than the owners you just had to know which castles were particularly good.

    I remember one that produced 6 strength Light Infantry in 2 turns, as well as Giants in 2 turns and some other. Also Wizards was the best ally to find in temples due to their 50 move stat making them the best strikeforce in the game.

    Warlords Battlecry is probably more of an RPG/(Real Time) Strategy blend though. Loved those games too.

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  35. I love all the "but if we accept hybrids, we have to accept [insanity]!" examples... the one that always came up in Mobygames approver discussions, which conspicuously failed to come up here, was the tradition of "Football manager" simulations, where you governed statistics developments and training (sometimes with experience and levelling) across a stable of players across a season of matches. Rarely any inventory however.

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    1. Well... Clubs have finances, and I suppose a case could be made that a club's facilities (which affect training and youth players etc) are sort of equipment that you can improve and that degrades over time... :)

      I was so, so addicted to those games back in the day. They've stolen thousands of hours of my life. Nowadays I'm too scared of losing myself again to even start the game...

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  36. This is a fun conversation to read. I notice that many players have a "know it when I see it" reaction to which genre to assign. Then it gets much trickier when trying to delineate with specific criteria.

    Part of my "know it when I see it" is the sense of narrative POV, I.E. the Role in RPG.

    Though not exclusive to RPGs, but an RPG has to make me feel like I am acting in the world. Even party-based and tactical RPGs feel this way.

    Though not exclusive to Strategy games, a strategy game makes me feel like I am outside, acting on the world and watching events unfold. Even strategy games with all the RPG elements feel this way.

    Totally subjective and hard to develop a criteria for, of course, but its an essential difference between the two genres for me.

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  37. There are 5 RPG/4X hybrids I´d really like you to play though I honestly can´t tell if they fit your criteria. But perhaps you could take a look at them?

    In chronological order:

    -Fantasy Empires (1993)
    -Master of Magic (1994)
    -Fantasy General (1996)
    -Heroes of Might and Magic 3 (1999)
    -Age of Wonders 3 (2014)

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    1. I think youre quite likely to see Master of Magic and HoMM games.

      I would suggest that Fantasy Empires and Fantasy General feature little in the way of RPG characteristics and that 2014 is far distant. But you never know.

      Delete
    2. I would argue the army management in Fantasy General is very similar to the party management in an RPG, AND FG is perhaps the best army management game of all time, so that might warrant an exception.

      My case for Fantasy Empires is more eclectic:

      1) It´s D&D!
      2) Your main character (alter ego) has D&D stats, D&D alignment, uses spells and does level up (actually the goal of the metagame).
      3) Your in-game heroes do also level up, can go on quests and find items.
      4) Uniquely good AI, especially for a 1993 game.
      5) Did I mention it´s D&D?

      Delete
  38. Dang comment proliferation is real compared to the era I am still on in attempting to read all your entries (around Game #100 in 2013). ANYWAY, there was one reason in my opinion to stick with Warlords II after III came out: the soundtrack! The soundtrack to II was so good that I literally recorded it to a cassette tape and listened to it while walking to school. Then again, I seem to recall your interest in game music is about on par with your love for pixel hunts relying on the viewer not being red/green colorblind.

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  39. Interestingly, there is a scenario for Warlords III that recreates the original game. Don't remember if there was one for II.

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  40. IMO since you feel Warlords fits your RPG criteria you should somehow reject strategy games like Master of Magic (although it is one of my favorite games!) I don't really want to read about you playing it personally, or Age of Wonder, all the HoMM games, XCOM, Magesty, Stronghold, etc. Mainly because of all the non-hybrid RPGs that you could have completed in the time it would take to slog through all that strategy and empire management.
    Not sure how to exclude them, but Adventure Music has the best answer so far although vague. Am I role-playing a ruler managing a group of heroes having adventures? Shouldn't I be role-playing one of the participants in the adventure instead? Your character in Master of Magic sits in a tower doing research all game and has the option sometimes to hire heroes.

    ReplyDelete

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