Wot I Think: Sorcerer King

Stardock’s latest finds the sweet spot between boardgame-inspired strategy design and the Elemental series’ traditional 4X roots, and it mostly manages to stay within that sweet spot during its post-conquest play sessions. “Post-conquest?” you might be thinking. It’s unusual for a strategy game to start anywhere but the beginning – be that the beginning of a war, of history or of a new age of exploration – and Sorcerer King’s [official site] unusual setting is integral to an understanding of how and why it works.

Like Firaxis’ upcoming XCOM 2, Sorcerer King is the sequel to a game that you lost. Here’s wot I think.

Let’s imagine that first game. In typical 4X fashion, several factions fought for control of a fantasy world, a world populated by monsters and magicians, and eventually ruled by swords and sorcery. Unfortunately, the faction with the most swords and the bestest sorcery turned out to be the one led by a malevolent mage with bad intentions. He is the titular Sorcerer King and the surviving peoples of the world are now his thralls, their spirits crushed and their leaders in his servitude.

As one of those leaders, your goal is to overthrow the Sorcerer King and to do so you’ll have to build up your forces gradually, displaying no signs of open rebellion until you reckon you’re powerful enough to take him on. If that concept translated into a regular fantasy 4X game with a final boss, it’d be a subtle twist on the usual formula, but Sorcerer King succeeds by applying the theme of uprising and subterfuge to almost every aspect of its design.

Take your rivals, for example. Rather than being direct competitors, seeking the same land and glory that you are, they’re potential allies for the final war. Problem is, prior history has a tendency to get in the way of any negotiations. Negotiations with the other factions, as well as visits from the Sorcerer King himself, showcase the smart writing, which is witty and light despite the potential grimdark nature of the setting. The history of each race and empire is told, in brief and biased fashion, through the words of their ambassadors, who refer back to the conflicts that led to the current state of affairs.

The quests scattered around the randomised (and customisable) worlds do a similar job. Rather than encountering minor nations on the rise and stalwart enclaves, you’ll be picking through the ruins of villages and choosing how to deal with the survivors. Sometimes those survivors will be grateful for assistance, offering to serve your cause; sometimes they will be agents of the Sorcerer King, wearing the disguise of the disadvantaged to lull you into a false sense of security. One time they inadvertently caused giant spiders to attack me, devouring my only army.

Later in the game, you might have a few sizable armies moving around the map but in the early stages, you’ll be heavily reliant on champions and a handful of military units with good equipment and training. Think of the Sorcerer King like the Eye of Sauron, always watching and reacting to your activities. In that analogy, you’re not the Fellowship or even the elves or free men of the world – you’re one faction of Sauron’s underlings, enslaved and exhausted, worn down by the demands put upon your people and lands, and convinced that whatever the bastard is planning will bring about the end of everything.

Given that the Sorcerer King pops up to interfere, threaten and cajole whenever you step out of line, you might be tempted to bunker down and build up your powers without causing a commotion. Cleverly, one of the game’s central systems gives you a reason to explore – crafting. I’ve grown weary of crafting systems, given their clumsy presence in so many survival games, but Sorcerer King mostly does things the right way. The search for materials baits you across the map and into ever-greater danger and finding new recipes can tip the balance of power significantly. Like the other mechanical parts of the game, the crafting fits the theme and setting while also encouraging players to indulge in the verbs of 4X strategy. You explore to find new materials, expand to bring them within your reach, exploit them to create new artifacts and then use those artifacts to exterminate the opposition.

At its best – and it’s a game that is frequently at its best – Sorcerer King is a series of systems working together to create an unusual and exciting narrative. The doom counter that rises creates tension but the time limit it imposes isn’t too punishing or restrictive. Every unit and items feels valuable because churning out hundreds of units simply isn’t an option. You’re fighting a guerilla war, if you’re even fighting a war at all, and wasting lives in pointless endeavours could be your undoing.

If all of that sounds appealing, you’ll almost certainly enjoy Sorcerer King. The systems that haven’t been revamped to fit the post-4X setting aren’t drastically changed from their appearance in previous Elemental games. Combat takes place on a tactical grid, your sovereign can cast spells during battles (these seem drastically underpowered by the endgame) and settlements are simple to manage. Research has been altered to acknowledge the setting – you’re expanding the skillset of your leader rather than the knowledge of your nation.

The unusual scenario wouldn’t be worth its salt if it hadn’t been implemented intelligently. Thankfully, it has and most of Sorcerer King’s flaws are either inherited from the previous Elemental games or directly linked to the somewhat limited nature of the setting. I’m happy to accept those latter flaws because the game’s interesting take on turn-based strategy traditions might not be possible without them. The endgame, repetitive though it becomes after several playthroughs, has an urgency that is entirely at odds with the usual end-turn-clicking and the crafting brings misty-eyed memories of Master of Magic enchantments to mind.

Despite a slightly wonky spell system and the occasional evidence of the sins of its fathers, Sorcerer King is the most distinctive and entertaining entry in the Elemental series. It’s a game to play from time to time – like the boardgames it reminds me of – rather than to sink months of your life into. The main aspect of Stardock’s previous fantasy forays that I missed is the ability to customise leader and empire. Sorcerer King has stock characters, which allows for stronger writing specific to their relationships, and that narrower focus is carried through into most other aspects of the game.

Rather than sprawling campaigns in which anything is possible, Sorcerer King recreates a very specific moment that strategy games rarely touch on at all, with a central nemesis (worse even than Ghandi) who monitors your progress and keeps you in check. It’s a game about the consequences of failure and attempting to put a broken world to rights while hiding in plain sight. Where some might lament the move away from the grand, traditional formula, I admire the focus. Age of Wonders III does the big fantasy conquest thing if that’s what you’re looking for, and Stardock’s own Fallen Enchantress is worth a look as well. Sorcerer King deserves plaudits for being something altogether different rather than yet another iteration of a game we’ve been playing for decades.

Sorcerer King is out now.

42 Comments

  1. elanaibaKHG says:

    I’ve been eyeballing this for a long while, I guess this means its time to jump in!

  2. JayG says:

    I just want to see what my Gravatar looks like.

  3. Ejia says:

    Gandhi’s always been nice to me. It’s Miriam Godwinson that’s a regular thorn in my side.

    • zaldar says:

      Ah you don’t like extremist christian warriors who want to kill everyone who doesn’t think exactly like they do and who don’t trust evil evil scientists……yeah me either. I always played Zarakhov…and you don’t know how happy an alpha centauri reference made me!

  4. briangw says:

    I’ve played this game since it was in EA after immensely enjoying Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes. But I was VERY skeptical in the doom counter, counting down before the SK eradicates everyone. I don’t like being put on a timer since I’m the type that turtles in RTS games. But depending on your decisions in quests plus a spell you can research to lower the counter, I have to say that it works well for people that have a game style like myself.

    All in all, it is a smart and fun game. And a different take on traditional 4X games.

  5. Elusiv3Pastry says:

    Let me state up front that I love the concept of this game, the art, the writing, and the crafting system. Those are great.

    **** WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS ABOUT THE AI THAT MIGHT TAKE THE MAGIC OUT OF YOUR FIRST PLAYTHROUGH ****

    What I don’t understand is why this article and every other review neglect to notice that SK has no AI whatsoever. There’s a thread on this subject in the Steam forums, but I’ll recap the highlights here. You see all those neutral mobs in the screenshots? Most of those don’t actually move. If they do, their range is limited, and they never threaten your cities. Most will stay in their spawn camps throughout the entire game.

    The events that crop up from time to time imply that the SK is going to keep your progress in check, but he doesn’t, actually. Quite the opposite, in fact. A few points:

    — At certain times the SK will spawn powerful masses of units next to your cities to “keep you in check”. These could crush your cities or armies easily. They don’t actually do anything, however. They will sit on their single spawn tile for the ENTIRE GAME AND NEVER MOVE. There is no threat at all here; they will not attack your cities or units. The exception is one unit spawned next to your city; in two of my games, he walked AWAY from my city and eventually disappeared. In my third game he sat still like everyone else.

    — The Doom Meter is a nifty concept, meant to give an overshadowing doom to the game. The SK will offer you help like treasure or armies in exchange for advancing the doom meter; other events will move it up as well. Problem is, even at “Insane” difficulty levels, and accepting all SK offers of help in exchange for Doom points, I barely got the doom meter to it’s halfway point. No threat here either.

    — The SK also has a threat meter for you. The higher it is, the more of a threat you are to him. When it reaches the maximum of five, the writing implies that the SK is going to throw all of his armies and resources at you to crush you like a bug. What actually happened was a few Darklings wandered by my outposts, and died instantly (Darklings are the weakest and most useless unit in the SK’s army. Outposts damage any unit walking in their zone of control. When a Darkling walks into an outpost ZOC, they die in 1-2 turns). Again, no threat here. The SK does have a couple of giant lieutenants around the map that could easily crush your cities if they were so inclined. I figured these would amble towards me when I reached a high enough threat level. Nope. Early in one game I mapped the location of one and kept a scout nearby to keep an eye on him. He never moved a single step.

    — On the topic of other civs/rivals. Yes, you can ally or go to war with them, but much like everything else, they don’t have an AI. Even at the end of three games on Hard and Insane, all other rivals only had a single city with entry level units, and did nothing the entire game. No threat or benefit here.

    Sorcerer King is a beautiful game with a great concept and great writing, and is fun if you enjoy exploration and crafting mechanics, but the lack of any AI whatsoever really takes the wind out of its sails. The SK is supposed to instill fear and anxiety in you with the thought that he could crush you at any moment, but he’s little more than a hot air balloon. In the Steam forum, one of the devs excused the lack of rival AI by means that it’s supposed to be the player vs the threatening world, not other civs, but this falls flat as the world isn’t any more of a threat than the Sorcerer King. Early on you might get a fight that’s too tough for your starting hero army to handle, but those are no great loss as your hero respawns and your starting troops are easily replaced, and challenging encounters quickly become a thing of the past because, unless you keep blundering into tavern fights, you can pick when to fight your battles thanks to the passive AI.

    I’m sadly disappointed. For a while there I thought SK would be Stardock’s redeeming comeback, but the lack of any AI whatsoever just kills it for me.

    • slerbal says:

      Surely those AI issues must be a bug rather than intentional? I’m not much of a fan of Stardock games these days, but that sounds like a technical problem rather than a game design feature. At least I hope so, because if it is the other way around that is very odd.

      • slerbal says:

        Wow the developer’s response to people’s questions about the AI on the Steam community site are surprisingly hostile, doubly so given that the questions seem to be genuine rather than insults or jabs.

        It also seems like it *was* an intentional decision given his post by one of the developers:
        “There isn’t AI in the same sense that FE had it. Think AI like say Star Control or FTL. It’s more you versus the world. The Rivals aren’t there to be 4X civs (we make look at adding that in a future expansion) they’re really designed to be there to help or hinder the player, not to be other civilizations.”

        • axiomsofdominion says:

          I read them and they aren’t hostile. Also the posters are somewhat mistaken. If you build the tower of mastery you will get attacked. Depending on how connected by land you are to the SK’s fortress of course. He sends more than Darklings. Some of them are playing on normal mode. Certain maps are obviously a little easier. If you spam outposts, use a huge map, have a lot of shards, aren’t on insane, have low or normal doomsday counter, of course you can turtle to victory.

          But small map, low magic, insane difficulty, fast doomsday was given to me by Brad as the hardest settings. It was harder than a huge map and high magic, but I got Domination so I had armies of drakes stomping everything plus I abused Varda. I’ve yet to get around to massing Paladins and spamming crusade, but someday I shall. Or not. I played enough games for now.

          Its not hard with exploits but I expect most players aren’t using them. Note that there is also a thread where players complain that the Doomsday clock is unfair and one saying the game is too hard.

          • Baines says:

            You’ve got people on the Steam forums saying that they are playing on Isane and the AI isn’t doing anything. Forces that the Sorcerer King claims to send out just stand around doing nothing. Rivals do nothing.

            There seems to be very contradictory experiences, since the Steam forums also have people in other threads complaining about how difficult the game is. For example, there is a thread titled “Winning with everything on Max Difficulty is impossible.” (Though that thread also has someone taking that challenge and beating that setup.)

          • Elusiv3Pastry says:

            My games have all been on large maps, on Hard and Insane difficulties, and the challenge has been nonexistant on all of them. I’m not abusing Varda or anything else. I only build outposts next to resources and my shard count is nothing special. I’ve won my games by building the tower of mastery and each time I only see a few Darklings come ambling by, nothing else. Using a tiny map as the case for AI difficulty is absurd if you’re trapped in a tiny box crammed up against the SK and can’t expand anywhere.

          • axiomsofdominion says:

            How much are you expanding? Do you have more than 20 shards? How many cities? I built the tower for funsies in a non serious game and died on a huge map. Granted I only had 5 cities and I don’t use garrisons, but I was absolutely getting more than shitty Darklings attacking me. Also if anyone builds the golden dragon upgrade they will of course probably never be attacked by the AI. Also if you keep the doom counter low the SK is super weak. When I went for the tower it was up in the 400s? This was like my first game I played. I got the shitty ranger as my hero. The thing about SK is that it doesn’t matter if its lategame, the SK’s power is controlled by the Doom Counter.

          • Elusiv3Pastry says:

            How much are you expanding? Do you have more than 20 shards? How many cities?

            Not even close. I won my last game (large map, insane difficulty) buy building the Tower with 5 shards and 6 cities. Hardly what you’d call a steamroll. Doom counter was at 200, and that was only with building one doom counter reducing city upgrade; I never even used the 100 mana spell. The game before that was about the same. I did not have the golden dragon upgrade, and I never had to garrison any of my cities with anything other than administrators.

          • slerbal says:

            Yeah, you are right axiomsofdominion , on looking at the threads again the dev’s posts aren’t hostile more tetchy, but it does seems like people are having very passive AI in their games and that it was a design feature rather than a bug. Doesn’t sound a game for me.

        • AngoraFish says:

          Brad Wardell being surprisingly hostile? Who’d a thunk it?

          • axiomsofdominion says:

            Brad was being quite nice to me when I was tearing apart their game design. A non Stardock employee got grumpy with me though. I wouldn’t have called his posts hostile. All Devs said in the steam thread was its not a standard 4x AI.

          • Elusiv3Pastry says:

            I don’t think any of the Stardock devs were being rude, but the whole “nonstandard” AI excuse is pure nonsense. Please explain to me how AI units that never, ever move or take any other action whatsoever throughout the entire course of the game is “nonstandard AI” instead of “no AI whatsoever”.

          • PancakeWizard says:

            Being falsely accused of sexual harassment and the media defaming you anyway would make anyone a little edgy.

          • Baines says:

            Was it false? Brad responded with a massive countersuit that pretty much painted that person as the person that single-handed sabotaged Elemental’s release, something that Brad had never mentioned or even remotely implied might have happened right up until she filed suit for sexual harassment.

    • thvaz says:

      Although the concept is great, the lack of any AI is indeed a absurd problem. There isn’t any challenge at all. It is like a sandbox 4x, where you are the only one doing anything. I don’t believe these reviewers have played a complete match.

    • Baines says:

      A dev posted on the Steam forums that the Campaign doesn’t really have AI. Everything there is scripted.

      That thread is kind of funny.

      Person complains about the lack of AI. Dev says campaign doesn’t have AI, but sandbox does. Person says sandbox AI is as bad as Campaign AI. Dev says you’d be destroyed by turn 170 if you don’t at least try. People respond that they’ve seen no threat in sandbox, that the Sorcerer King’s forces aren’t doing anything and Rivals just sit around not doing anything either. Dev says rivals aren’t meant to act like the civs of other 4x games, and are there just to hinder or help the player. The dev then stopped posting, while other players continue to complain that the enemies don’t even function as obstacles, considering that they just sit around doing nothing.

      • Elusiv3Pastry says:

        Yes, an excellent summary of the problem here.

      • axiomsofdominion says:

        The real problem is that if the Doom Counter is too low the SK has nothing to use his AI on. Which is funny given the Steam thread whining about how the Doom Counter is destroying the game. You need to play on fast DK and I’m still probably gonna tell Brad to boost it. Assuming the guy in the SK thread doesn’t keep whining about how I’m calling the game shit too much.

    • Shadow says:

      From the design perspective, I’ve read the game has replayability issues, with the world being so passive and the victory conditions so few (two?). From my point of view, another significant flaw is that it looks extremely generic, art style-wise. Like its Elemental predecessors, really.

      Overall, I’m highly skeptical about this one.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    This is pretty interesting. I’ll probably be rubbish at it like I am at most 4X games, though

  7. Moraven says:

    Getting MageKnight vibe from this, more so with the Volkare scenarios.

  8. crowleyhammer says:

    This sounds like fantasy AI War but turn based.

    Although judging by comments above without the AI either!!

  9. Superpat says:

    Oh finally some more change in the 4x world! I always love the political side of strategy games, but the 4x scene never seems to explore it enough.

    • axiomsofdominion says:

      It would be a MASSIVE stretch to claim that SK explores politics in any way. Its basically even less political than The Last Federation, Arcen’s attempt to say they added political stuff, which failed pretty epically.

  10. Laurentius says:

    I really like Elemental:Legandary Heroes. I especially dig combat, something I can not say about Age of Wonders 3. So it really looks like the only thing that can throw me off Witcher3/GTA4 summer loop that keeps hold on me for over two months.

  11. raiders says:

    I enjoyed reading the review. And although I *believe* I have an open mind, Age of Wonders III & Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes fill up any itch this game’s made to scratch. I just think this game has to do…more to make me curious.

    And @Stardock:
    NO, Those 25% off coupons DO NOT help!

  12. 1Derby says:

    Comment/Question

    I bought into SK during early access and love the game thus far. The writing is smart and funny and I am enjoying the game in its current iteration. I am embarrassed to say I hadn’t noticed that all of the enemy units just squat and do nothing. Being an XP whore I often end up attacking mobs before I am ready and this game punishes my self destructive behaviour!

    I played a lot of FELH but was surprised by the tip of the hat to Age of Wonders III. As both games were released about the same time, is there any kind of community consensus as to which is better? Not just at release, but now? I am starting to become a bit cynical in my old age and find that I enjoy stepping into games after the game is fully mature (patched, etc) or there is a definitive version.

    Thoughts? -and Thanks!

    • Elusiv3Pastry says:

      Age of Wonders III for sure. It’s far more polished and the difficulty can be truly punishing if you want it to be. Plus I much prefer the larger combat system.

      • raiders says:

        I concur 151%.
        I bought the complete edition of AOW3 for $9.99 during Steam’s summer sale.
        That was the only game I bought, in fact.
        It is absolutely amazing, man.
        Somehow, they have managed to splice all my favorite strategy games together: seamlessly.
        The base game…eh. But after all the DLCs, patches, and expansions????
        Yippee Ki-yay!!!!

        • 1Derby says:

          Thanks for weighing in on my question Elusive and Raiders!
          Much love.
          I am downloading AOW3 as I write this.
          Cheers!

  13. Moraven says:

    If the AI has units sitting in place as people are commenting, another aspect that reminds me of it being like MageKnight. You conquer the world, the world does not conquer you. Is it more adventure than 4X game?

    Will give it a try.

  14. Distortion says:

    What’s strange in my first play through was I definitely experienced the monsters who just sit there, the SK minion armies that just sit there near my capital and do nothing. However…

    I also had my first expansion city destroyed by something (not sure what it was the city was just gone suddenly), and later after I rebuilt it, one of the SK’s Harbinger’s showed up. The creepy skull headed caster who throws balls of purple death. I barely defeated him with my garrison. I think the only survivor was actually a summoned unit in the battle.

    I’m not sure what exactly triggered it. and it was the only time I was actually attacked. Which makes me sad because that attack from the Harbinger was the most exciting fight I had up to the SK lieutenants and the SK himself.

  15. Phantus says:

    I’ve played a significant amount of this game and it’s a disappointment. It’s far too streamlined to be taken seriously. It looks like they’re headed to a mobile platform graphically and it’s really only a singular mode, not a full game. Imagine simply playing the final mission in a proper campaign and that’s SK.

    Stardock has really cut corners and mailed it in their last two campaigns. GalCiv3 was 3 empty missions, really more of a tutorial than an actual campaign. The SK campaign is identical to their big skirmish map except this map is partitioned by gates and tiny scraps of text when you reach those gates. That’s it. The phrase “less for more” comes to mind.