Etherlords: Switching Sides

So, here I am again, making repeated posts about my failure to make progress in a turn-based fantasy strategy game. I’ve started the other campaign in the hope that this will help. There are four four sides in the conflict, but in campaign mode, they’ve divided into two alliances, so you have the red/black campagin and the green/blue campaign. I had started out on the green/blue (or Vitals/Kinets, as the game calls them), which gives you just green heroes on the first two maps and switches to blue on map 3. The red/black (Chaots/Synthets) campaign similarly starts you out red, and switches to black on the third map. How it goes after that, I still don’t know.

It’s not at all unusual for strategy games to provide two or more separate campaigns, so you can play as both the good guys and the bad guys — although, as I’ve pointed out, there aren’t really any good guys in Etherlords. How the different outcomes are reconciled varies from game to game: some, like Command & Conquer, treat them as alternate and exclusive events resulting in the complete victory of whichever side you played, while others, like Starcraft, treat them as happening one after the other. The original Warcraft was notable for providing two campaigns that seem like they both end the war in victory, and thus are incompatible, but if you were paying close attention, you realized that they could in fact be taking place simultaneously — and indeed, the sequel is predicated on the consequences of the final missions of both sides.

In a game with asymmetric sides, providing multiple campaigns is also a way to give the solo player the full experience, letting them use everything and have everything used against them. And the sides in Etherlords do play rather differently in combat mode: blue has cheap flying units, red has lots of direct-damage spells, and so forth. (I’ll have to do a fuller post on the differences, once I have a better handle on black.) But combat mode isn’t really where I’m having problems. It’s in the strategic map that I can’t seem to get things organized fast enough, and that’s basically the same for both sides, apart from the graphics. Still, playing as black, and seeing what tactics I fall to as black, might give me some ideas about tactics to use against black. Better tactics could mean that I could challenge the high-level heroes earlier.

Etherlords: Third Map Syndrome

The first time I tried playing Etherlords, I managed to get as far as the third scenario of the campaign before giving up. I’m at that point again now, and once again, I’m finding it tough going. I recall also getting stuck on the third map in Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld, which I really should get around to finishing at some point. There may be a general pattern at work here. Two examples isn’t really enough to establish this, but these games have a common structure in the early levels that it’s easy to imagine other similar games falling into: the first map is basically a risk-free tutorial in basic UI features, and the second is a gentle introduction to the mechanics of what you’ll actually be doing in the game, so it’s only on the third map that the game starts treating you as if you already understand the game, even if you don’t really.

Beating an enemy in this game essentially comes down to leveling one of your heroes fast enough that he can take on the enemy’s strongest hero, preferably before that enemy hero starts destroying your castles. If you can do that, everything else is just mopping up. Good choice of spells can help you take out a hero that’s a level or two higher than yours, but unless I’m missing something, that’s pretty much the limit. So, in the map I’m stuck on, I’m facing down the red and black teams simultaneously. I’ve managed to successfully subdue red’s level 6 champion using a level 4 character, but once I do that, black seems to suddenly develop two level 9 heroes that I’m just not ready for yet.

I haven’t been able to find a lot of strategic or tactical advice for this game on the web — such is the price of obscurity, I suppose, although tons of gaming sites have lists of cheat codes for it anyway. One of the few suggestions I’ve seen is to throw several expendable low-level heroes at the enemy before engaging him for real. This is the sort of thing you’d do to a hero stack in a normal game, but I hadn’t been going in for it here, because the point is usually to kill off the enemy’s troops bit by bit, and this game doesn’t quite work that way: all combat troops are summonned afresh during combat mode. However, the enemy, like the player, needs “runes” (spell ammo) to cast any spells (other than the few cantrips you start off with). So the idea here is to send your sacrificial lambs to make the enemy waste as many runes as possible before the real fight begins. I haven’t tried this technique yet, but will probably give it a whirl tomorrow.

My failures make me kind of wonder if I’m doing this all wrong. Not in a conventional strategic or tactical sense, but on the meta level: how often I save the game, how soon I go back to an earlier save and how far back I take things. Maps 1 and 2 were pretty laid-back about all this — on map 2 in particular, I kept losing heroes to ill-considered elective skirmishes, but kept going anyway, and eventually won. But map 3 demands efficiency, and making things efficient requires a lot of failed experimentation.

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.

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


etherlords-aviaksI recently mentioned that the magic system in Puzzle Quest was reminiscent of Magic: the Gathering, but here’s a game that takes that to an extreme. Etherlords is basically a turn-based strategy game with mechanics on the large scale derived from Warlords and Heroes of Might and Magic, but combat mode is very specifically patterned after the mechanics of M:tG. Both sides have a hand of spells chosen at random from your “library” (or deck); spells in hand are used up when cast, but you automatically draw one new one every turn. Some of those spells summon creatures, which are characterized chiefly by two numbers, attack rating and health. The summoned creatures can be sent to attack the opponent, but can be blocked by your opponent’s creatures, and so forth. Concepts like “summoning sickness” are imported without alteration.

In fact, the combat mechanics are so close to M:tG that it’s more instructive to list the ways in which they differ. Things are tuned so matches generally end faster than in M:tG, as is reasonable for the context. Attackers hit before blockers, rather than both damaging eath other simultaneously. And, in general, Etherlords takes advantage of the fact that it’s not a direct adaptation of a card game by discarding some of the more literal points of simulation. Spells are not drawn without replacement, like cards from a deck: you have exactly fifteen spell slots, and when you draw, each has a 1 in 15 chance of coming up, even if you already have another copy of it in your hand. (If you want a spell to come up more frequently, you can assign it to multiple slots.) Also, there are no “land cards”: the mana you need to cast spells comes from “mana channels”, which automatically increase in number over the course of combat, at a rate determined by the hero’s experience level. Thus, more powerful characters are able to cast more powerful spells earlier.

There are no “colors” of mana, but the four armies in the story, and the sorts of spells they get, clearly correspond to the red, green, blue, and black magic in M:tG — but with the interesting alteration that black creatures, instead of undead, are primarily cyborgs. (White magic is left out: as the intro cutscene makes clear, there are no good guys in this story. Everyone involved is motivated solely by lust for power.) As a result, it feels a little strange that the spells are all so different. For example, if you have a primarily green deck in M:tG, you’re likely to spend your first turn summoning Llanowar Elves (1/1, tap for 1 green mana). 1At least, that’s how it went when I last spent time playing M:tG, many years ago. It might all be different now. Llanowar Elves are almost essential to what it means to have a green deck, and Etherlords doesn’t even provide a close analog to them. Instead, your basic low-level green summon is Spitting Fingus (0/2, can’t attack, sacrifice to do 1 damage to target hero or creature) — something that M:tG would probably make blue or black. It’s like a version of M:tG from an alternate universe where some early design decisions went differently.

As in Warlords and HOMM, there are basically two sorts of things you fight: enemy heroes, and “wild” creatures not allied with any side (and typically set on crucial choke points on the map or guarding valuable resources). But even the wild encounters have heroes, because that’s essential to how M:tG-style combat works. If you encounter a giant rat on the road, the combat will be against a rat spellcaster that summons other sorts of rats, smaller versions of itself. There generally seem to be three or four versions of every summonable creature type to support this kind of specialization.

The first time I tried playing Etherlords, back in 2001 or 2002, I found myself unable to make headway on the third map of the campaign, and eventually gave up. (Frustration with long loading times was also a factor. I think my system at the time didn’t really have enough memory for all the graphics, and had to swap even as it loaded. Anyway, moot now.) I think my main problem, as is usually the case for me in games of this sort, was timidity: I didn’t want to commit to invading enemy territory until I knew my heroes were tough enough, when I should have been out there stealing resources before the enemy could get to them. I’m thinking now that the key is to be clever enough in your choice of spells that your hero can take on enemy heroes that are nominally more powerful. We’ll see how that pans out.

1 At least, that’s how it went when I last spent time playing M:tG, many years ago. It might all be different now.

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