I've just won my first map of Sorcerer King, a new-ish 4X from Stardock. It's part of the same continuity as Fallen Enchantress, which has been a go-to fantasy 4X for me for a few years now (especially with the Legendary Heroes update). There's a lot to love about FE, especially the way it communicates story and setting through its units, structures, and equipment, so I come to Sorcerer King already highly invested in the franchise and setting. This is both a game review and a discussion of the game-running lessons we can take from it.
I've been a fan of 4X games for a long time, starting with Civilization (the first one) and Master of Magic. I am not an ultra-pro player, and don't tend to play on the highest difficulty settings; I'm more interested in exploring and enjoy the narrative arc of the game. As a result, I often get bored with 4Xs as I get into the mid- or late-game, as I'm usually dominating the opposition by a huge margin by that point, and I'm really just cleaning up until I reach a victory condition. There's no sense of urgency left in the game. How does Sorcerer King measure up?
The core idea of SK is that a sorcerer named Mirdoth is juuuust about to win the game by casting the Spell of Making, but has (through mercy or because you control the Forge of the Overlord) left you and a few other kingdoms with one last city. There's a Doomsday Track counting down the turns until he completes the Spell of Making, and he has phenomenal, cosmic power to wreck your day with his monsters.
All of which is to say that from the start, you are absolutely screwed. You have three units (one champion, one normal one-figure unit, and one kinda-miscellaneous unit), and one city. Just about all ground-based 4Xs start approximately like this, but it feels particularly dire here. Just a few of the things the game does:
The Doomsday Track advances all the time. There are things you can do to push it back, like making heroic sacrifices, casting very expensive spells, or building very expensive city improvements, but it can also speed up when you make selfish choices (which you need just to survive on some difficulty settings).
Mirdoth, the Sorcerer King, contacts you pretty frequently to offer you bargains, demand tribute, or yell at you for interfering with the movements of his soldiers. Bad decisions here may advance the Threat track and/or the Doomsday track. The Threat track is only a five-point scale, and it measures just how much the Sorcerer King sees you as a threat that needs to be eradicated by his boss monsters. They are insanely powerful and will absolutely stomp your cities to powder if you lose those fights.
If you played Fallen Enchantress, these are the same boss monsters that inhabit wildlands, but it's much harder to level your champions and units up to indestructible levels of power in SK.
This comes across as being under constant surveillance by a hostile overlord - it's emotionally affecting and has a sense of being part of a Resistance movement.
It especially worried me when he yelled at me for building my second city.
There are a lot of quests to be found in various locations around the map, as in FE. In SK, they may alter the Doomsday track, or they may give you various personality attributes (in addition to other kinds of loot or units). Personality attributes unlock better conversation responses in quests and in conversations with Mirdoth.
If you've played the Mass Effect series, these feel a lot like Paragon/Renegade options.
There are other subjugated peoples also. In theory, they're competing kingdoms with the same agenda that you have. You can win their loyalty... or drive them into the willing service of Mirdoth. Their favor, like Threat, is on a five-point scale, so you don't have many chances to get it wrong.
Mirdoth's lesser units patrol the land as well, and he has cities that seem ripe for conquest. This increases the sense of his omnipresence, but if you attack them, you'll just build up more Threat.
Much like the barbarian huts of the Civilization series, there are bandits all over the frickin' place, and they have nothing to do with their lives but build up armies to kick your teeth in.
Oh, and if your Champions get defeated in battle, there's a chance of a big advance in the Doomsday track.
There are even some Eeevil spells you can cast that advance the Doomsday track as currency.
What I love about this game, then, is all the different things it does to communicate your kingdom's desperation. It's exactly the game experience I've been looking for - rebellion against a hegemonic power. The feeling of being watched is amazing here.
It's also an unusual entry in the 4X genre, especially as a follow-on to Fallen Enchantress. One of the first surprises was that there's no gold or taxation; mana is the sole currency of record, both for rushing production on troops or city improvements and for casting spells.
From FE, I'm also accustomed to my troops using a lot of the same gear that my champions do, as an upgrade path. The benefit to verisimilitude is enormous, because I don't have units at the end of their upgrade tracks alongside "modern" (late-game-researched) units. SK takes that even further: each unit, whether champion or common soldier, has the same equipment slots to fill. My pikemen can equip rings, cloaks, and so on.
There's a bit of weirdness around weapons, though. Some champions and units cannot equip any kind of weapon, because their model shows them with a particular type of weapon and there's no "special" weapon matching that image. I'm hoping this might be changed in a future update.
There's a new unit resource, called Logistics, that stands in for all forms of unit and improvement maintenance that don't relate to mana. This is a really interesting approach that forces you to build more cities in order to maintain larger armies. Units recruited through quests don't cost Logistics, though, making them all the more valuable (in addition to not taking up time in your early-game production queue or costing Metal, Horses, or Crystal). You've absolutely got to spend Logistics to claim Shards, because Shards are map resources that are your sole source of magic (which is then split into mana, spell research, and sovereign XP).
Instead of a tech tree like you have in FE and most 4Xs, you have Sovereign levels and spell research. The random draw of spell research options is interesting early on, but it doesn't hold up well over the course of a campaign - once you get most of the spells you want, research becomes a bit pointless. Sovereign levels unlock awesome new abilities, about on par with the civilization and military tech trees of FE. On the plus side, very late in the game I got a Sovereign advance that opens up new top-end spells for research, so that's pretty cool - it just needed to be staggered out into more tiers, or something. (I was playing the Wizard sovereign; I haven't tried any others yet.)
In FE, champions choose a specialization - Assassin, Commander, Defender, Mage, or Warrior. This gives you a great level of personal control, and FE's champion roster is awesome because the champions available to you get weirder as the campaign goes on. SK, on the other hand, attaches more story to the champions - Mirdoth imprisoned many of them, so you undertake quests to free them. Each champion has a fully unique advancement chart, so each has a unique playstyle, and I can't help but like that.
The down side here is that not all champions' styles work equally well - the Avenger is powerful, but his Vengeance mechanic doesn't work very well if you give him the best available gear; the NPC units' attack brain does everything it can to avoid attacking him, so you never build up Vengeance tokens to use your (insanely expensive) special abilities. The Boglord has a long list of summons, but it's not a particularly intuitive way to use him, and his Initiative is so poor that the battle is often decided before he acts. (I'm pretty sure there are a lot more champions I haven't seen yet.)
The game also has a shockingly extensive crafting and enchanting system, much of which stands in for pieces of the missing tech tree. If you've been reading this blog for any particular length of time, you probably know that crafting is totally my jam, and this game is no exception. I especially like how I get a decent stable of crafting recipes from core advancement, but the good stuff comes from recipe scrolls that are loot drops. The enchanting system is a bit under-sold within the game, but its actual effects are cool - each individual piece of gear can have one boost, so you're talking about 14-16 enchantments per unit if you want.
The late-game of SK, much like FE, draws you into conflict with horrifyingly powerful foes - the boss monsters I mentioned before. You've got to take down at least one to attack Mirdoth in his palace, but if Threat has reached 4, you might be fighting them just to survive. Finally, you march on the Black Gate and fight Sauron Mirdoth himself, a fight I found surprisingly easier than his monsters.
My one complaint with the game as a whole is that it undercuts its tone with jokes - it's hard to feel the dread when the words it puts in your sovereign's mouth are dismissive and often out-of-character humor. I loved how much work went into writing dozens upon dozens of unique quests; I just want the quests to preserve the mood, rather than trying to lighten it. The mood does not need lightening; if I need that, I'll take a break from the game and come back later.
I loved that the first few campaigns I started, I got my ass handed to me. I started, played fairly well but not great... and got stomped. I mouthed off to Mirdoth a bit and discovered that his creatures think my cities are delicious. I started over, stayed mouthy... oh shit I'm a grease stain. It was a reminder that if you want players to believe in the stakes, you have to match consequences to actions. I did what the fiction said I shouldn't do, and I got smacked for it, hard. It made me change my early-game playstyle and treat the game with a little more respect. (But now I'm going to start a new game, on a harder difficulty.) It provides just a little insight into the mindset of the collaborator in a dictatorial regime - if you're going to beat Mirdoth, you've got to live long enough, and survive enough other threats, that maybe you need his "help" in the short term.
In future updates or DLC, I hope I will see more of the high-level content that added interest to FE's late game - what I've seen so far had almost no Deadly quests, and no Epic quests at all. In FE, those always had the most interesting stories, loot, and consequences, resulting in a fascinating emergent narrative. They've done a great job, but there's still more to say here, and if their past products are any measure, I am going to love what comes next. The latest patch made huge changes to the game, and it was just a month ago, so I see every reason to believe I'm going to love this game for years to come (but also keep playing FE: Legendary Heroes, for the different experience and story it provides).
If you like 4X games, but want to see one that does something different with its story and promotes asymmetrical play (even if that asymmetry is with an NPC), give Sorcerer King a shot. If you're a game-runner, study how it presents stakes and consequences, and how constant encounters with bad guys that you will be punished for killing creates a mood and shapes player behavior. Always remember: don't present stakes that you won't carry through on if the PCs screw it up. Once the audience knows you won't follow through, you've lost them. (You may not like that GRRM kills all of your favorite characters, but the books and TV series have tangible suspense because you know that the stakes are real for the characters.) If this means that you have to kill some characters, PC or NPC, in the early game to prove that you will do it... that's the only way for the victories to feel earned. If you're not willing to kill the PCs, make sure that what's at stake is something other than their lives.
My rating for this game in its current form is Three Smiley Faces.