Heroes Chronicles: Losing Balance

It strikes me that Heroes of Might and Magic (as revealed through the Heroes Chronicles) has a balance problem. Not that it’s unbalanced exactly, but that it loses its balance easily. It’s a very high positive-feedback game, which is to say, power is rewarded with more power, so the winners tend to keep on winning and the losers tend to keep on losing. The outcome of a scenario rests on the first few turns. If you can pull ahead then, there’s no stopping you. But there’s no stopping the scenario, either: even if victory is assured, you have to keep playing it out to get credit for it.

This is especially visible in the second level of Conquest of the Underworld. The goal in this scenario isn’t to wipe out all enemies and conquer the map, but to obtain a certain artifact that’s at the end of a sequence of map-spanning fetch-quests. Wiping out all enemies and conquering the map does, however, make the questing much easier. In fact, I find that the easiest way to approach the level is to concentrate on securing the terrain first, hitting the enemy castles while they’re still weak, and not go out of your way to cart plot tokens around until the conquest is complete. This probably isn’t the approach that the level designer had in mind. At least, I hope not, because it’s kind of boring: it leaves you with a bunch of time-consuming tasks to pursue after you’ve removed all challenge.

I suppose this is an example of one of the classic injustices of game design: if there are two ways of accomplishing something, one that’s difficult and interesting and one that’s easy and boring, players will choose the boring way and then blame the designer. But in this instance, I’m not really sure what the other option is. Some of the quests in the chain involved finding particular artifacts, with no clues to their locations. This isn’t something you can really pursue. All you can do is peek in on any ruins you pass by in the hope of lucking out, which is something you’d be doing anyway.

Heroes Chronicles: Making Mistakes

hc2-mistakeSomewhat embarassingly, I haven’t made it past level one of Conquest of the Underworld yet. I could blame this on my stubborn insistence on playing it on the Hard difficulty setting — there are five difficulty levels, which to me means that difficulty level 3 is Medium, darn it, regardless of what the game calls it. But really it’s more about making mistakes.

Heroes of Might and Magic is one of those two-tiered games: specific battles take place in a tactical combat mode, which is mainly about deciding who should attack what, and the battles are embedded in a larger strategy mode, which is mainly about deciding what to build when. The limited resources you need to supply your army are often guarded by monsters, and the enemy warlords are competing with you to reach them first. So there are two fundamental mistakes you can make: going for the treasures before you’re ready and getting killed, and waiting too long and falling behind the competition. I’m generally more prone to the latter mistake — part of being a completist is wanting to have all the buildings built and all the creature types available — but today, I’ve been making both.

And it isn’t just fundamental mistakes, either. It’s stupid litle things. Like going after heavily-guarded things that I don’t really need, and not saving often enough. I’ve never really decided what level of saving is appropriate for a strategy game. Doing it every turn seems kind of cheap, like you’re trying to bring it all down to tactical decisions instead of strategic ones in order to avoid the consequences of not really knowing what you’re doing.

But hey, maybe I really don’t know what I’m doing. In which case I should really dial it down to Normal difficulty. That’s how I passed the first few levels of Warriors of the Wasteland, when I really really didn’t know what I was doing, due to complete inexperience with the game.

Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld

One of the big buzzwords in the game industry lately is “episodic”. It seems to be an idea born partly from the fact that nearly all gamers, even console gamers, have internet access now, and partly from the success of MMORPGs at getting people to pay monthly fees. Why spend months or even years developing a new engine for an uncertain response, when you can make it easy for people to download new content for the same system? It’s essentially the same logic that drives sequels, although there the concern is more with building a brand than building an engine.

But episodic content doesn’t really require the internet, as New World Computing showed in 2000 when they released the Heroes Chronicles series, four narratively-linked sets of scenarios using the Heroes of Might and Magic 3 turn-based strategy engine, published on CD-ROMs and sold in stores like any other budget title of the time. This was clearly something of an experiment, and apparently not an especially successful one, as they obviously didn’t repeat it.

I personally only heard of the series after all the episodes were remaindered, at which point I picked them all up. I didn’t have Heroes of Might and Magic 3, but the Chronicles discs don’t require it. I may be missing out on some details by not having the manual, but there’s a good tutorial, and the user interface provides loads of help: nearly everything, be it a button in the control panel or a monster on the map, has both a brief description that appears in the game’s status bar when you point the mouse at it, and more detailed information available by right-clicking.

Each episode of the series seems to focus on one of the alignments/teams/whatever in the game. The first episode, Warriors of the Wasteland, tells how the series protagonist, an immortal hero named Tarnum, came to power during his mortal life, and it’s basically the story of Conan the Barbarian: your team is the high-strength/low-magic types (which is a good choice for episode 1, because that’s usually the easiest sort of thing to play), and your chief foes are the evil wizards who have conquered and enslaved your people. The most memorable part of that episode is the part where Tarnum finally reaches his homeland, intending to liberate his folk and raise them into an army to storm the final castle, only to find that they’re not in chains but happily going about their lives as if nothing were wrong. Tarnum immediately decides that anyone who has accepted the wizards’ rule is a traitor, and there follow several “battles” in which you send your assembled monster hordes to slaughter increasing numbers of hapless peasants armed with hoes. It’s one of those narrative-revealed-through-gameplay moments, and it’s in a game where the story was largely just tacked on.

That was clearly the first episode of the series, but since I bought them all at once, It was unclear to me at the time which came next. Mobygames tells me that episode 2 is Conquest of the Underworld, so I’ve started on that. The theme this time is demons. It’s a little bizarre how it works out: you start off with what I can best describe as a Lawful Good settlement, capable of producing knights and whatnot, and the first significant enemy is a rival warlord on Team Evil who’s using minor demons in combat. But once you take over his castle, you can take advantage of the structures there to raise imps and hellhounds of your own. This seems like a major part of how HOMM mechanics work: you use the resources you conquer. But when it’s presented in such a clear good-vs.-evil trappings, it smacks of Nietzche’s warnings about becoming the thing that you fight.

But then, as we know from episode 1, Tarnum is no model citizen to begin with. I’m not yet clear on how he got from where he was at the end of that scenario, Supreme Barbarian Tyrant of the World, to where he is now, undying errand-boy to the gods, but apparently there are going to be some flashbacks. Flashbacks presented in text boxes that spontaneously appear as I hit key points on the map.

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