Etherlords: Undue Complexity

Frankly, I think Etherlords makes things excessively complicated. And I’m not talking about combat mode here. The M:tG model easily lends itself to becoming a mass of special cases and exceptions, but the core rules are actually fairly simple, and Etherlords streamlines them further. But outside of combat mode, on the overland map? Just the opposite: there are few exceptions because the very basics are byzantine. In order to assign new spells to a hero, you have to go to a magician’s hut and buy them. But there’s no money: you buy things with combinations of seven different non-interchangable resources, all with unhelpful wizardy names that tell you nothing about what they’re good for — a given spell might cost 4 Mandrake Root and 1 Black Lotus, for example. Once you have the spells in your spellbook, you have to go to a portal and buy “runes” to actually use them — each rune is good for only one use, and a hero can carry at most five runes per spell, unless endowed with a special skill that expands this limit. (There must be a better word than “runes” for this mechanic. Reagents, maybe.) The purpose of all this? Mainly just to put limits on what you can cast in combat — something that’s already covered by the differing mana costs of spells. 1Actually, the game calls mana “ether”, but I’ve been calling it mana so far, so why stop now? There’s also an eighth resource used solely for casting overland spells (such as summoning new heroes).

The manual is pretty lengthy, which I suppose is one way that the game shows its age. Today’s games tend to cover the details in-game, through context menus and other discoverable means. Indeed, that’s how combat mode works here: aside from a few points like how mana channels work, you can pretty much learn how to fight by right-clicking on things to discover their significance and special properties. On the overland map, everything is at least one step removed from its significance. You can right-click on a mandrake farm to learn that it yields mandrake root to its owner, but not why you want mandrake root. You can right-click on a portal to learn that it sells runes, but only the manual or a lot of experiment will tell you that runes = spell ammo. On the level I’m on, I can see a spellbook guarded by a monster. I can tell that it teaches Bless, but it doesn’t tell me what the effects of Bless are. The only way to know how urgent it is to spend turns on acquiring it is to try and see, and possibly restore afterward. Or, I suppose, read that manual. But even documentation isn’t necessarily adequate to give understanding of implications.

There might be a bit of a grognard capture in effect here — goodness knows I’m not much of a strategy gamer, and the genre was popular enough when Etherlords was written (the golden age of Warcraft and Command & Conquer) that a game written just for the hard-core fans could get a wide release. But even so, the designers of Etherlords were taking a risk by jamming two such grognardy genres together. It’s like a game aimed just at those people who are enthusiasts of both strategy games and CCGs. Okay, so those two fandoms have a pretty large intersection. I just have to contrast it to Puzzle Quest, which seems to me extremely accessible, choosing as it did a simplified RPG model and an already-simple combat mechanic.

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1. Actually, the game calls mana “ether”, but I’ve been calling it mana so far, so why stop now?

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