Heroes Chronicles: Lamplighting

hc2-structuresOutside of the cities, there are free-standing buildings scattered throughout the map. Some of them, such as the training camps that improve the stats of visiting heroes, are intrinsically neutral, and will serve heroes on either side. Others can be claimed. A banner on the side indicates by its color the owner of such a structure, and typically any enemy hero passing by can change the color of that banner by tagging it. It’s possible to leave troops behind as guards to prevent this, but this is seldom if ever worthwhile, as it leaves fewer units in the hands of your heroes.

Some of the claimable structures, such as mines and sawmills, provide resources to their owner every turn, and it’s very important to claim as many of these as possible — even if you don’t need the resources, it keeps them out of enemy hands. Others produce troops on a weekly basis, provided that a hero comes along to pick them up. It seems a lot less important who owns these; it just matters who can reach it, tag it, and recruit the troops first every week.

But on level 3 of Conquest of the Underworld provides a motivation to claim everything you can, even things you have no intention of using. It has to do with the “fog of war”. Every level I’ve seen so far starts out with most of the map dark, revealing it through exploration, as is typical in these games. But in levels 1 and 2, once an area was explored, it stayed explored. In level 3, the only things you can see on the map are the areas that can be seen by your heroes or from your buildings. Dark areas aren’t even considered as navigable by the game’s pathfinding algorithm if you’ve seen them before and know there’s a way through. So keeping those roadside towers under your control is an important convenience, even if you have no intention of ever recruiting what they produce. (Heroes can only have so many creature stacks under their control at a time, so recruiting everything you see isn’t always an option.) And when an enemy hero slips through, he brings darkness.

I don’t remember episode 1 well enough to know if this returning darkness is the state of most levels or if it’s a special feature of the underworld. It shows the game’s age somewhat, though. More recent games with fog-of-war effects tend to have three states: not just “visible” and “not visible”, but “visible”, “not currently visible but explored”, and “unexplored”.

Heroes Chronicles: Futility

hc2-eventI’m back to level 3 of Conquest of the Underworld which is where I was when I decided to start over. So far, it’s proved pointless. My main heroes (Tarnum is allowed to take two other heroes with him between levels) all have Earth Magic and the ability to learn the Town Portal spell, but the spell hasn’t been offered yet.

Heroes mainly learn spells from the mage guilds that you build in your cities. Each mage guild, when built, gets a random assortment of spells. I wonder how random it is? It might be possible to repeatedly load a saved game and rebuild the mage guild until it gives you the spells you want. Which would be cheap. But putting a die roll in the way of crucial permanent effects encourages cheap behavior. That’s why most CRPGs these days don’t randomize hit point gains from levelling: to eliminate the temptation to quit without saving when you don’t get enough.

Somehow, even though I knew the second level better this time, it took me longer to finish. Consequently, I got to see some plot events that I had missed the first time around — events in the form of narration in a dialog box. Some events are just color text (as when Tarnum gets a letter from Queen Allison, his boss for this adventure, asking about his progress), some have effects on gameplay (as when Allison’s letter is accompanied by funds for recruiting more troops). But past a certain point, you know they can’t be essential to the story: any sufficiently skilled player will miss them.

Heroes Chronicles: Starting Over

hc2-increaseSo, I decided to start over from the beginning in Conquest of the Underworld. To explain why, I’ll have to desribe the game mechanics a little.

In the Heroes of Might and Magic system, everything that you do outside of the cities you control is done through entities called “heroes”. Heroes have various stats and skills, can wear magic items to affect those stats and skills, and improve with experience like a character in an RPG, but they don’t participate in combat directly. Instead, they gather troops and creatures under their command.

Creatures are produced every seven turns — every week of gametime — in cities and certain free-standing structures. But they can’t do anything on their own. Any creatures that you recruit in a city will simply wait there and defend it until a hero scoops them up and carries them away. It’s useful to think of them as wargaming minis that the heroes carry around in a box.

Now, the kind and number of creatures that a city can produce is determined by the structures that have been built there. For example, in order to produce Griffins, a city must have a Griffin Tower. Turn it into an Upgraded Griffin Tower and you can produce Royal Griffins, which are stronger and faster. Build a Griffin Bastion as well and you can get an additional three griffins per week. But it takes time and money to build these things. By the time a city can produce the best units in any quantity, the action has moved far away. Getting your troops to the front as quickly as possible is a big part of the strategy of the game.

One of the basic techniques is to use a “bucket brigade” — a string of heroes stretching from the city to the front, positioned a day’s ride away from each other, ready to pass that box of minis all the way from the castle to the hero who needs them. In this way, troops can travel arbitrary distances in a single turn. But hiring heroes costs money, even if you’re going to just use them as delivery boys, and setting up a bucket brigade takes some time and effort, especially when you suddenly have to shift it to point in a different direction.

Another thing that helps a lot is that some cities — the “inferno” types, the ones that produce demons and hellhounds and the like — can build Castle Gates. Heroes can travel instantly between any two cities with Castle Gates. But these are expensive and not likely to get built until late, and, as I said, only help for transporting troops between Inferno cities. While this scenario has more Inferno cities than may be regarded as typical, there are also an awful lot of Castle (knight-type troops) and Necropolis (undead-types).

What I have just learned is that there’s a spell called Town Portal that could help a lot. In its basic form, it teleports a hero to the nearest friendly city, but a hero with Advanced Earth Magic can use it to teleport to any friendly city. Thus, it is really useful to have the Earth Magic skill. And there’s a seer back on level 1 who teaches this skill, but I ignored it, because you have a limited number of skill slots and I thought I had more important things to learn.

Well, now I know better.

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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