Battlegrounds: Final Thoughts

The final chapter of Magic: the Gathering — Battlegrounds consists mainly of fighting all the bosses from the previous chapters a second time, making a mockery of that “Thank you for setting me free” business from earlier. (Poor communication between the scenario designers and the cutscene animators, perhaps?) After that, the game dutifully executes the standard videogame plot twist and the player squares off against the final foe, Mishra.

Mishra uses a five-color deck and doesn’t seem to have a limited mana supply. Fortunately, he’s kind of stupid, and doesn’t take advantage of this by just casting Scorching Missile over and over until you fall down. Instead, he’s fond of summoning big powerful flying creatures, and counterspelling your own attempts to do likewise. A note about counterspell: For it to work, you have to cast it before the opponent finishes casting the spell you want to counter. Since the amount of time it takes to cast a spell seems to be proportional to its mana cost, it’s easier to counter strong spells than weaker ones. This seems kind of backward, but it does generate an interesting point of strategy: when facing an enemy with Counterspell, it makes sense to come up with a strategy that mainly uses weak spells. This generally means summoning fragile creatures in quantity, so that they do a notable amount of damage in total before they die in quantity. The problem is, Mishra also casts Liability, an enchantment that does a point of damage to either caster whenever one of their creatures dies.

After some false starts battling Mishra with Blue (hoping to counterspell the worst of his summons), I wound up using a pure White deck, containing both cheap flying Suntail Hawks (capable of nibbling Mishra’s demons to death, or at least of getting in their way) and various healing effects to help me survive Liability. It strikes me that this may be what the designers were going for here — triumphing with the power of Good. Or maybe not; there could be other effective strategies.

In some sense, I haven’t really finished the game. There’s a single-player Arcade Mode, apparently also winnable, in which you can use whatever colors you’ve unlocked by completing chapters in Quest Mode. (More support for the Quest-Mode-as-tutorial idea.) I’ve tried the beginnings of this, and may even try to win it if it proves easy enough, but as far as I’m concerned, finishing Quest Mode is enough to get this game off the Stack.

And honestly, if I decide I want more single-player M:tG-like experiences, I’ll probably go back to Etherlords. I know I said I was through with that, but a day or two later, I found myself wanting to try the final battle with a black deck. I haven’t really been thinking about Battlegrounds when not playing it or blogging about it, but Etherlords got a firmer grip on my mind, possibly because the realtime aspect of Battlegrounds gives it a chaos-and-confusion aspect that makes it hard for the mind to grasp it in return.

Or maybe it’s just the music. Usually, when I’ve been playing a game for a while, I have the music going through my head throughout the day. After playing Battlegrounds for a few days, I still had the music from Etherlords in my head. Here’s an example of the music from Battlegrounds:
Battlegrounds, blue arena 1
Compare this, from Etherlords:
Etherlords, blue arena 2
Now, I’m not saying that I’d buy a soundtrack CD for either game. But the the music in Etherlords is at least coherent, providing discernable melodic and harmonic structures, while the music in Battlegrounds is a bunch of musical sounds thrown into a blender. This may have been intentional, of course. It’s ambient music, “furniture music” as Satie called it, written with the goal of setting a mood without distracting from the action. And there’s certainly a case to be made for not trying to overlay music with strong patterns of tension and resolution on a game that isn’t gong to fit them. (I remember being strongly struck by the way that the music in Quake II kept on screaming “ACTION SCENE!” while I just stood there in an empty room.) Nonetheless, the end result is that the music in Battlegrounds is so forgettable that you’ve probably already forgotten it in the time it took you to listen to the Etherlords sample and read the rest of this paragraph.

Next post: IF Comp ’08.

Etherlords: Finished

Well, that didn’t take long. It seems that all it really takes to motivate me to keep playing a game without pause until I reach the end is continual tangible progress. As in, the kind of progress that doesn’t happen when you’ve got the difficulty set too high.

I should mention that part of the reason it took me less time than I was expecting was that I made some discoveries about the user interface that got things going faster. It turns out that you can skip most animations by pressing the space bar, which I apparently hadn’t tried before. Well, it’s a highly mouse-driven game in most other respects. In most of my sessions, I didn’t even touch the keyboard, and I probably still wouldn’t have tried it if I weren’t recently involved in some space-bar-skippable animations in a different context. I knew that Etherlords lets you turn animations off entirely through the options menu, but I had found this to produce glitches, and besides, I didn’t want to turn them off entirely. Watching the animations is part of the charm of the game. At least, it is the first few times for each type of monster. But I was stuck for ages on a level where I was playing Team Black, which has Mech Worms as its basic starting unit, and not only do Mech Worms have a frustratingly slow crawling-forward-to-attack animation, they automatically attack every round (that is, they have the “berserk” attribute). So I was very glad to not have to sit through that again.

But even with that assistance, I couldn’t have breezed through the remainder of the game in the span of a day if I hadn’t been unexpectedly close to the end. In my last post, I was on level 5. It turns out that there are only 7 or 8 levels, depending on how you count the end boss.

Map 6 shakes things up a little by giving you no castle, and thus no way to cast overland spells, such as the spell that summons new heroes. So, you’re stuck with what you start with — a traditional variation found in strategy games of this sort. Usually such levels derive tension from the slow attrition of your irreplacable troops, but since Etherlords heals your heroes completely between battles, that’s not really a factor here. The map does limit the resources you need to cast spells, but you can pick up more stuff from monsters, and at any rate, it just doesn’t feel the same.

Map 7 is where the alliances finally break apart. You’re on the threshhold of the grand prize, so it’s every etherlord for himself. I’ve been playing the red/black campaign, so at this point I had to choose red or black. I chose red — that’s the team that has my O(n2) kobolds, which proved quite useful. Ultimately, though, I didn’t need my heroes to defeat my three computer-controlled rivals. This is a really big map, with a lot of mines and ether nodes scattered around, and once you have above a certain threshhold of spell fuel coming in every turn, you can destroy the opponent castles with overland spells alone. You don’t even have to know where the castles are, which is fortunate, because even after I had destroyed them, it took me a while to find them. At any rate, the real bosses of the level are the level 12 dragons, the most powerful beings in the game up to that point, who guard the entrance to the Temple of Time, where the final challenge awaits.

The final level doesn’t even have a map. It’s just a duel against the White Lord, holder of ultimate power over the cosmos. It is this power that the etherlords crave; your goal is to kill him and take his place. He’s level 15. But for the final fight, you get a level 15 character as well, and you get to choose whatever assortment of spells you feel like, provided of course that they’re your color. (The White Lord is not limited to one color.)

Now, this was clearly going to be a high-powered fight. High-level characters have more hit points and get mana faster than low-level characters, and these were the two highest-level characters I had ever seen. So I figured I should try the Mana Burn trick. Mana Burn is an enchantment that makes unused mana hurt. It cuts both ways, though, so if you use it, you have to be sure you have some kind of mana sink — something that has a power-up effect that can use arbitrary quantities of mana — so that your own excess mana doesn’t damage you. There are a couple of “wall”-type summonables (things that can’t attack but can block attacks) that fit the bill. Anyway, it seemed like this approach would be a good fit for a long fight with lots of hit points, because the number of open mana channels just keeps on increasing, and there’s only so much an unprepared opponent can do with them.

Apparently the designers of the game came to the same conclusion: the White Lord also used the Mana Burn strategem, but did it better than me. I couldn’t even imitate what he did, because of the way he mixed colors. It took me five or six tries to catch onto a winning modified strategy, mixing in some Cyclopes and some Disintegrate spells. (The advantage of Disintegrate is that it removes creatures from play entirely, so they can’t regenerate or rise from the dead. The White Lord had some things that kept coming back.)

etherlords-whitelordAt which point it turned out to be one of those two-stage boss fights, with the real White Lord showing up encased in some kind of robotic life support tube or something. This time he’s level 20, and uses a completely different strategy, involving creatures with the special property that they can’t be targetted by spells, which rendered my lovely Disintegrates useless. Nonetheless, I managed to get past this part on my first try, although it was a close thing.

And so I hand over ultimate power to the Chaots, the fire-and-bloodhshed faction. This isn’t going to be a pleasant eon. Of course, eventually the stars will align again and someone else will come to challenge the new White Lord — it’s that sort of ending. I suppose that if I don’t actually sympathize with the player character, there’s at least some consolation in knowing that he’s going to be locked up in that temple for a few thousand years.

At this point, you might be wondering about the other sides. There are two separate campaigns — or four, once you’re past map 6. Can I really say I’m finished with the game if I’ve only completed one? This is really something tha varies from game to game. In Starcraft, for example, playing only one side would be ludicrous — you’d be missing out on 2/3 of the gameplay, not to mention 2/3 of the plot. But Etherlords is much more symmetrical than that. From what I’ve seen of the campaigns, it’s clear that they really only differ significantly at the tactical level, in combat mode. I’ve seen what campaign mode has to offer, and don’t need to see the same thing from the other side. But I am kind of curious about the end boss. The Mana Burn gimmick is something only available to the Chaots. How do the other sides deal with it? Does the White Lord, in fact, choose different decks depending on who invades his sanctum? If I ever decide to play this game more, it’ll be to satisfy my curiosity on those questions.

Etherlords: Shifting Down to Normal

Well, if I’m going to play a game where I’m stuck, it might as well be one where I can get myself unstuck fairly easily. Turning the difficulty down a notch in Etherlords has given me the ability to smack down the enemy heroes without undue difficulty — at one point I was surprised to take down a level 5 enemy with a level 2 hero who hadn’t even yet had a chance to purchase better spells. I still haven’t completed map 5 yet, due to occasional crashes (thank goodness for autosave!), but I’ve destroyed all of the enemy castles and don’t have to worry about being attacked at all, and thus can take my time upgrading a single hero to take on the actual mission objectives (destroying some “war altars” guarded by powerful elementals).

What we have here is the effects of very strong positive feedback — that is, the winners tend to keep on winning and the losers tend to keep on losing. Each side has only one or two heroes of significant strength. If you can attack the enemy’s strongest heroes and win, there’s nothing they can do to stop you; if you can’t, there’s nothing you can do to stop them. The weird thing is, this is a strategy game with multiple sides, and that’s usually a recipe for strong negative feedback, with anyone who seems like they’re pulling ahead suddenly finding their allies turning against them. But the alliances in the single-player campaign here are set in stone. (Or so it seems so far, anyway — there’s a whole Diplomacy interface that might come into play at some point, but currently I’m thinking it’s solely for online multiplayer play.)

So, the fact that the designers aren’t playing to their design’s strengths here hammers home the point (for which I’ve already noted other supporting evidence in previous posts) that the pseudo-multiplayer aspect of the game wasn’t the focus of their attention. And at this point, I’m willing to conclude that it therefore shouldn’t be the focus of my attention either. If I keep the difficulty set where it was before, I’ll spend the majorty of my play time on a fraction of the map, replaying the first few turns over and over in the hope of surviving to the midgame. If I turn it down, my assailants turn into a mere inconvenience to be faced as I roam about seeking treasures, fighting stationary monsters, levelling up, and generally treating the game more like a traditional RPG than a strategy game. The latter approach holds more appeal to me. Let the map be my enemy.

Etherlords: Plans

Etherlords is shaping up to be this year’s game that I play between playing other games, like Serious Sam and Throne of Darkness last year. Last night brought some more lack of progress on map 5. I’ll probably wind up ratcheting the difficulty down a notch soon, but there are still a couple of approaches I want to try.

My last failure was based on speculation that the different types of terrain were strategically significant. The Kinets’ home turf, for example, is covered with snow. The enemy heroes are often strangely reluctant to attack me when they can; could it be that walking on their territory triggers aggression? Well, apparently not.

The next thing I want to try is aggressively attacking the Kinet castle ethereally. I don’t even really hope to destroy it this way. If I do, great. But I’m mainly seeing this as a risk-free way to make the Kinets waste resources on defense — risk-free because ethereal combat never kills the heroes involved. I don’t even have to give my attacker any expensive spells, as long as expensive spells are wasted against him.

In fact, I had a near-breakthrough last night with a hero who still had the underpowered default spellbook. My castle came under siege by a level 6 Kinet while I was summoning a new level 5 hero, so the first thing I did with him was attack my besieger. It worked better than I had hoped, because my deck, being low-powered, was a lot faster than his: I had five little monsters nipping his heels at a point when he still had a only a single defender. By the time he brought out his heavy hitters and ended the battle, he was actually down to 1 health. Emboldened, I restored to just before the combat and tried it again twice, but with much lesser success. So it looks like that first try was just unusually lucky.

I’m doing a lot of that these days, restoring to just before the last turn. The game makes it easy by autosaving every time you hit the “end turn” button. Usually I don’t do this to repeat battles in the hope of being luckier next time, but rather, to issue different orders and avoid the battle I lost. Still, the fact that I’m doing it so much is a pretty clear sign that dialling down the difficulty level is warranted.

Etherlords: Big O

In my last post, I described a very effective combo using Kobold Elders and Kobold Shamans. By the end of map 4, I had two high-level heroes, one of whom was using this combo. The other, which had progressed around the map by a different route and had encountered different spells, was using a different technique, one that’s more elementary (so much so that I hesitate to call it a combo) but also quite effective: a deck made mostly out of rats and anger.

The common stink rat is the beginner’s monster for team red: it’s 1/1 and costs 1 mana to cast. Anger is an enchantment that gives all your creatures +1 to their attack power. This bonus stacks, so your damage potential increases with both the number of rats and the number of Angers. Of course, the same bonus applies to non-rats, and that’s important sometimes — I put a couple of bats into this deck as well, because a couple of the enemies had a spell called Flood that disables anything that can’t fly — but the rats were cheap and disposable, and the strategem works better with lots of creatures than with a few powerful ones.

Both of these decks have the advantage that they start damaging the opponent immediately: kobold shamans and stink rats both cost 1 mana, so you can summon them on your very first turn. But more importantly, they’re both O(n2). That is, your potential to do damage on a turn, barring interference, is roughly proportional to the square of the number of turns that have passed. Even though the amount of mana available to you increases with every turn, you still only get to draw cards at a constant rate per turn. So in the long run, the number of instances of a spell active at any moment is going to be linear on the more limiting factor, time. But the damage potential of these strategems is determined by the product of the number of instances of two different spells.

There are other combos with this property; it may in fact be a feature of every deck that wins at high levels. In fact, there’s one instance I’ve observed of a spell that’s O(n2) without a combo: Grass Snakes. Every time a grass snake hits the opponent hero for damage, its attack power (and health, but that’s not what I’m considering here) increases by 1. I suppose this means that a snakes-and-anger deck would be O(n3). [Edit: Not really, see comments.] (Actually, that combo is impossible: Anger is red, and snakes are green, and never the twain shall meet. But apparently there are a few rare green spells that have a similar buff-all-friendlies effect.)

But I doubt that such a deck would actually function as O(n3) in practice, because the bonus on the snakes is per-snake, which makes it vulnerable. Every time a snake dies, any bonus it built up dies with it. The other decks I described are more robust: if you kill my rat, the next rat I summon will be just as angry. Catching up to where you were is linear (that is, O(n)) on the number of rats killed. For snakes, in the worst case it’s linear on the number of turns the oldest snake was alive… which, now that I think about it, makes it also linear on the number of snakes killed, because both the maximum age and the number of snakes are linear on the number of turns played so far. I guess big-O notation doesn’t tell us everything.

Here’s a better analysis: If you can kill my (oldest) snakes at the same rate as I can summon replacements, my damage potential from snakes will never increase. Whereas in the rat/anger deck, a rat equilibrium will just slow me down from O(n2) to O(n), because I’ll still be casting Anger at a constant rate. Unless you have spells that remove enchantments and we have equilibrium there too. I suppose what I mean by “robust” is that disrupting it completely requires more things.

Etherlords: Combos

Probably the biggest joy in CCG-style play is coming up with combos. By “combo”, I don’t mean the kind you get in, say, tile-matching games, where the rules explicitly grant bonuses for things that are not valuable in themselves. I mean emergent synergy, the special properties of different cards combining in a way that makes them more effective. This is the essence of deck construction.

For example, in Magic: the Gathering, there is a card called “Lure”. (Or at least, there was when I was playing it. A lot of cards were removed in subsequent revisions.) Lure is an enchantment that you cast on a creature. When a creature with Lure makes an attack, anything that can block it must do so. By itself, this would typically mean that the creature with Lure is met with overwhelming force and dies, but in the process, it lets your stronger attackers go unblocked for that turn, because blockers can only block one thing at a time. But if you put that Lure on a creature with Regeneration, it can survive the onslaught and play its part over and over, or at least until the opponent kills it with direct damage spells. Alternately, you can put it on a Thicket Basilisk, which has the special power that anything blocking it dies at the end of the combat round, and wipe out all the opponent’s creatures in one turn. Put all three cards (Lure, Regeneration, Thicket Basilisk) in your deck and you have a three-card combo with the potential to wipe out your opponent’s army every turn — but only if you happen to get them all in your hand and manage to cast both of the enchantments on the basilisk before the opponent kills it. With a minimum deck size of 40 cards, three-card combos can be hard to pull off.

The dynamic is a little different in Etherlords. For one thing, the 15-card deck size makes it almost certain that any combos you put in will come up. Also, some combos are more explicit than what I’ve just described. Each type of creature comes in multiple subtypes, with different levels of strength and different special abilities, and sometimes those special abilities are pretty clearly linked. Take the Kobold Elder: its power is to untap all Kobolds in play other than Kobold Elders. This is an ability that can only be used in combination with a rather small set of other cards. If you ask me, the only other kind of Kobold worth having in your hand is the Kobold Shaman, which is the Etherlords version of M:tG‘s Prodigal Sorcerer: you tap it to do 1 point of damage to any player or creature. Thus, if you have both in your deck, you get to do (number of Kobold Elders times number of Kobold Shamans) points of damage every turn, without even making an attack or casting any spells. This is potent. In one encounter late in map 4, I was routinely killing things with 8 or 9 health (that is, the hardiest creatures I had yet encountered) the moment they appeared.

Both of these effects — the smaller deck size and the signalling of likely combos through creature type — serve to make combos easier. The former makes them easier to execute, the latter makes them easier to discover. I can’t know if this was the result of a deliberate policy of combo-friendliness on the part of the designers or just a happy accident reinforced by playtesting, but that’s how it turned out. The downside, I suppose, is that it makes the combos seem very planned, and leaves little scope for the player to make genuinely new discoveries. But this is OK for a computer game with fixed content. Real CCGs take advantage of the combinatorial explosion to create an impression of infinitely variable gameplay. But campaign modes in strategy games are more about introducing you to gameplay elements one by one, and typically end when they run out of new things to show you. I expect that’s how it is here.

Etherlords: Ethereal Combat

etherlords-etherealMap 4 seems to be the point at which Etherlords really starts to be about non-combat spells, or, as it calls them, “Global” and “World” spells. The distinction between Global and World is unclear to me; it may have been clearer in the game’s original language (Russian, apparently). But the player starts the the scenario with a whole bunch of them, and the player pretty much has to figure out what they do by experiment, because the docs are so dismal. You can get pretty far in the level without needing any overland spells beyond the ones to summon new heroes, which are familiar by this point. I’ve explored nearly half the map by now, and only just started running into a need for more. This is because the opponent just started attacking my castle ethereally.

Normal, physical attacks on castles are pretty simple: you march a hero up to a castle, and every turn that the hero is there, the castle receives an amount of damage equal to the hero’s level, possibly with a bonus from skills or magic items. Eventually either the castle’s owner manages to kill or drive away the attacker(s), or the castle is destroyed. Ethereal attacks work more or less the same way, except for the “march a hero up” part. Any hero can attack any castle ethereally, provided you have enough mana to keep the spell going. Heroes can also be assigned to ethereal defense of a castle by means of another spell. The effect is that the attacker has to defeat the defender in combat before doing any damage.

The thing is, no one actually dies in ethereal combat. Whoever wins, both heroes just go back to their bodies at the end, without even gaining any experience points from the exercise. I can imagine attacking an opponent’s castle ethereally just to keep their most powerful hero tied up defending it instead of killing your guys. In fact, that’s almost what’s happening to me: the enemy is attacking my castle with a level 6 hero, and I have one level 6 hero that I want to keep leveling up, but can I afford to? It seems like it might be a good strategy to go on a counteroffensive here, send one of my weaker heroes against his castle to see if he switches the strong guy to defending it.

Come to think of it, ethereal combat is a lot like a strategic version of what normally goes on at the tactical level. In combat mode, you basically choose every turn whether each creature under your control should attack or hang back to block attacks from the enemy. There’s no movement, no map to wander around, just a basic attack/defend option and a hero (in combat mode) or castle (in map mode) with a bunch of hit points, which it’ll lose if you don’t defend it. I wonder if this analogy was deliberate, or if the designers just felt it was the natural way to design things after they had spent so much time on M:tG-style play.

Etherlords: Graphics

etherlords-map4The use of 3D graphics and animation in Etherlords is worth commenting on, because it illustrates some points about the use of these things in general.

For one thing, the gameplay requires a mere fraction of what the game does with graphics. Map mode requires a map, but all we really need is a fairly abstract 2D chart. Instead, we have a rotatable, zoomable perspective model of the gameworld, with buildings and the like, most of which are animated. Combat mode requires some way to identify specific creatures for targeted effects, and having all the creatures visible graphically is a reasonable way to do this. But this does not mean that the creatures need to be 3D models, and have movement and attack animations (and, in some cases, special-action animations as well), or that the camera has to dynamically switch around to the most dramatically appropriate position from time to time. Furthermore, I’d bet that if the game were written today, it wouldn’t use 3D graphics at all. 3D might have been a necessity for any game that wanted to be taken seriously in the marketplace of 2001, but I think we’ve more or less gotten over that, thanks to the casual games explosion. I wouldn’t say that Etherlords actually looks retro yet, the way that mid-90’s FMV titles do, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

So, from a certain point of view, the graphical frippery is unnecessary. The animations in combat mode in particular remind me of Battle Chess, or the Summon animations in the Final Fantasy games, in that they don’t affect the gameplay except by slowing it down. Etherlords is at least sensitive to the fact that some players will not want this, and allows you to disable combat animation. But you have to figure that not many people will do this. The person who plays Etherlords does so at least in part because they like watching the graphics. And I have no quibble with that — heck, sometimes I go to a cinema and pay to watch computer graphics that aren’t even interactive at all.

However, given that this is a game and not just a graphics demo, one can hope that the graphics wouldn’t actively interfere with gameplay — and one can be disappointed. Some inaccessable regions in map mode are represented as plateaux, and are tall enough to obscure the things behind them. Smaller bonus items can be rendered completely invisible this way until you rotate the view. And in combat mode, I’ve had the unpleasant experience of having the bounding box of a creature I wanted to click on be completely engulfed by that of my hero. When this happens, the player’s only recourse is to switch to manual camera control and shift to a better POV. It’s nice that you’re able to do that, but it’s a workaround for an unnecessary problem.

Still, I have to say that the graphics are an overall positive part of the experience here, because when I came back from my week away and started playing this again, something in my brain said “Yay! 3D graphics!” It isn’t the most sophisticated application of 3D graphics, of course, but I think that adds to the effect — the obviously handcrafted polygons, in that cusp between the slick and the amateurish, draw my attention to their artfulness, rather than simply looking like the things they represent.

Etherlords: Skill Gain

Well, I’ve finally gotten past map 3 in the red/black campaign. I found it easier than the corresponding scenario in the blue/green campaign, but I’m not sure if this is because it actually is easier or because I’m getting better. The use of overland spells seemed important to my victory, but I don’t remember seeing the obelisks that you learn them from in blue/green map 3. Were they absent, or did I just not notice them because they look too much like normal terrain features? I’ll have to go back and find out at some point. If it turns out that I’m just getting the hang of things, all I can say is that the learning curve for the strategic part of the game is pretty steep. Probably the designers didn’t spend as much time on it as they did on combat mode, which is clearly the heart of the game.

Regardless, to a certain extent getting this far was luck of the draw. You might expect that to be the case for something with card-game-like gameplay, but that isn’t even the part of the game I’m talking about. Whenever a hero gains a level, he also gains a skill. Skills are things like Strength (extra hit points) and Resources (lets you carry more runes) and Concentration (draws extra spells during combat). Each can be taken up to 3 times with cumulative effects. There are 15 different skills, but you don’t get to choose from the full set when you level — instead, you have to choose from three that the game picks for you at random. Heroes of Might and Magic does something similar. It’s a nice compromise, if you ask me. If you let the player choose whatever skills they want, they’ll probably assign the same skills to every hero and not get much variation in gameplay, and if you just assign a skill at random without letting the player choose, the player will be frustrated every time they get stuck with something they don’t want and probably wind up loading a save and trying again (kind of like when hit point gains are randomized). Limited choice within a randomized field mitigates both problems.

Or at least it does if the skills are reasonably balanced. In Etherlords, there are a few skills that really help a lot. Gaining experience levels faster than the enemy heroes is important, so Learning (bonus experience) is a more valuable skill than most. Perhaps unintuitively, Mobility (move farther per turn) helps even more. The main source of XP is wild monsters, and a lot of the time they’re spaced out just far enough that a normal hero can almost but not qute travel between them in one turn. In such circumstances, Mobility effectively doubles the rate at which you gain XP. And if one of your heroes gets both Learning and Mobility at once, well, you’ll find it a lot easier to get through red/black map 3. I speak from experience.

Etherlords: The four armies

Magic: The Gathering has five colors of magic:

Red is fire, chaos, and destruction. Red has a lot of direct-damage spells (things like fireballs and lightning bolts), as well as spells to destroy land cards and artifacts. Red creatures tend to be straigthforward melee machines like orcs and minotaurs, and stronger on attack than defense.

Green is the the color of growth and vegetation. Green creatures tend to be either wild animals or elfy stuff. Green has some of the strongest creatures in the game, but it also has good buffs, and can succeed by bringing out lots of small, cheap creatures and making the ones that survive stronger. Green is also a good color for getting extra mana.

Blue’s main theme is magic itself, and to a certain extent intelligence, air, and water. Blue spells specialize in metamagical trickery: spells that affect other spells tend to be blue, as are spells that let you draw extra cards and the like. Blue creatures tend to have special powers, and can often fly (which means they can’t normally be blocked by non-fliers).

Black has undead and demonic creatures, many of which have nasty combat side-effects — for example, growing stronger by killing creatures, or making the enemy discard cards when not blocked. Black is also notable for spells that have negative side-effects for the caster, and in particular has effects that require “sacrificing” one of the caster’s creatures.

White is the chivalry and holiness color, and features most of the healing and protection effects in the game. White creatures tend to be knights and other soldiery types, and there are some white effects that buff everything of a particular type, encouraging the player to create homogenous armies.

Now, you’ll notice that each color has both a theme in the game’s fiction and some tendencies in how it plays. These are separate things, and Etherlords demonstrates this by separating them.

The Chaots have Etherlords‘ version of red magic, with its orcs and kobolds and cheap direct-damage spells. Because of those direct-damage spells, it’s the one side that’s most faithful to M:tG. But it also has good defensive creatures, and it has the Kobold Shaman, which can “rest” 1Etherlords calls “rest” what M:tG calls “tap”. All it means is that this is an ability that a creature can use once per turn, and only if it hasn’t participated in an attack. to do 1 point of damage to any player or creature — which makes it equivalent to M:tG‘s Prodigal Sorcerer, a blue creature. Also, it has the best creature buffs in the game, which makes it more like green.

Green magic is represented by the Vitals. The elfy stuff has been dropped, leaving creatures like snakes and hornets and giant ticks. Where M:tG has green creatures that can grant you extra mana when tapped, Etherlords has spells that give you an instant mana boost, including the “Sacrifice” spell, which would definitely be black in M:tG. I have trouble discerning overall trends in the Vitals, though. It’s a versatile side.

Blue is replaced by the Kinets, which are described as creatures of icy logic and experts in rapid movement, although I don’t really see how this is reflected by the blue spells. Mainly what we have here is cheap flying creatures and defensive buffs, although, as with the Vitals, this can vary a lot depending on what sorts of creatures you put into your deck. Warrior Spirits, for example, seem like they could be a very effective basis for a Kinets deck, despite not flying, because of their Lifetap ability (which heals you as it damages the enemy), but I haven’t really been able to try it. Maybe on a more advanced map.

The Synthets take the place of black, and are definitely the one side that’s most changed: synthets are bizarre semi-mechanical beings. Apart from the heroes, they don’t even look like modified organisms; they just look like things that naturally have wheels and springs as components. Although it doesn’t have many sacrificial abilities, the overall theme of the Synthet side seems to be not caring whether your creatures live or die. Synthet creatures are disposable, and often have some form of innate ability to regenerate or return from the dead. There’s even a cheap Synthet resurrection spell that, as a bonus, does 1 point of damage to the enemy. Synthets also have a wide assortment of debuffs, as well as the spell “Twisted Enhancement”, an interesting enchantment that grants +2/+2 to a creature, but then lowers its stats by 1/1 every turn until it dies. This is obviously a way to get the most out of one of your disposable creatures, but in some situations it can also be cast on an opponent’s creatures to kill them off.

There is of course no white side. The healing and protection side of white seems to be mostly taken over by the Vitals, while the business of powering up everything of a given type is spread out through all the sides, mainly by means of “Elder” types of specific species (for example, an Aviak Elder powers up all Aviaks). Really, most abilities are spread out through all sides like this. That’s sort of true in M:tG as well, but it’s not as necessary there, because M:tG allows the possibility of making a multi-color deck. In Etherlords, each hero belongs to one and only one side, and can only obtain spells belonging to that side.

1 Etherlords calls “rest” what M:tG calls “tap”. All it means is that this is an ability that a creature can use once per turn, and only if it hasn’t participated in an attack.

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