When Warlock was announced I was so pleased at the prospect of turn-based spellbiffing that I didn't notice that multiplayer was missing from the list of features. By the time someone pointed out to me that I'd be unable to challenge other budding masters of magic to spelling bees I'd already imagined raining fire on the armies of friends and enemies alike, so I just chose to accept multiplayer would be added closer to release. It wasn't. But a multiplayer mode will be going into beta in the not too distant future and, being one of the foremost magicians in the land, I was invited to try it out. Four players, four and a half hours, stalemate. So why do I feel like I lost?
We're playing on a tiny map so as to heighten conflict. If you've played Warlock, you'll probably be aware that it's not a game in which there's much need to heighten conflict. If you haven't killed somebody on the second turn, let's say because you were building a pumpkin farm instead, you're probably already behind in the great arms-waving race. Next thing you know someone's waving his arms in just such a pattern and it's causing werewolves in tophats to materialise and follow his every command.
One of my opponents is a producer at Paradox so, naturally, I expect him to be able to conjure all sorts of elemental horrors at a moment's notice, probably using cheats handed to him by the development team. The other two mages are actually journalists: one is Paul Dean, who you may know as not-Quinns in Shut Up and Sit Down; the other is a lovely Scottish chap whose name I have lamentably forgotten.
It's late evening and I've already cracked open a bottle of cheap lager. I'll need something much stronger before the night is out but, unfortunately, I'll just have to do with a lot more of the fizzy idiotjuice. The area immediately around my first city is acceptable - pumpkins to the west, a map boundary to the south, the ocean north and lava fields to the east. The lava is a good thing because most units moving through it will be slowed to a crawl, so not only is a sneak attack from that direction much more difficult, I can also explore in that direction without worrying too much about being overrun by neutrals or wandering monsters.
The thing that I find most interesting about the idea of Warlock multiplayer is how dangerous the world can be even before you fill it with mildly inebriated journalists. In single player, being hemmed in by wild things can pin back progress severely and I've had the odd embarassing campaign in which I haven't even managed to find another great mage because wolves have eaten all my armies before that point arrives. Would that be my fate today?
It's hard to make devious alliances when talking in a group conversation on Skype. I naturally assumed that we'd band together after Paradox' man on the inside and so it was that as I founded my second city, having failed to take a neutral city across the lava to the east, the war began, somewhere in the fog.
"What have we hear?" The man from Paradox and the Scot had met.
"Did you just declare war on me?"
"Diplomacy isn't fully integrated yet. I had to." The bastard! How could we know that he wasn't deceiving us? For all we knew alliances, treaties, open borders - it was all there, primed and ready. "I have to declare war on you all."
There it was. Surely now we'd take him down together. I started constructing boats, preparing for an invasion of the continent to the north. Given the miniature world we were on, it had to be where the action was.
As we waited for each other to take turns, we talked. Mostly about the problems we were having.
"Oh shit, bears!" Someone would yell.
"This town refuses to die. I keep burning them but they just don't die." That was me. It was better than bears but that town really was giving me some grief. I decided to build settlers instead of conquering it and hope that its inhabitants would ignore me.
"A tree just punched my capital city." Paul Dean complained. "It just punched it again."
Scotland and Paradox had found each other though, this much was obvious despite the fog of war because occasionally one of them would swear as the other destroyed his hastily assembled armies.
"I am building minotaurs. I will have minotaurs soon" This was the word of Paradox. "The minotaurs will allow me to win this war."
Around three hours later, there were indeed minotaurs, although I had to take the Scot's word for it. He'd been waiting to see them for a long time and sounded mildly disappointed when a few spells and legions of horn fodder where able to stop them from crushing him.
"I have a serious tree problem." Paul continued to comment in the background.
Meanwhile, I had a ship just off the enemy coast and found the site of the war between Paradox and Scotland. It raged. Each of them could have crushed my armies simply by looking in my direction so I decided I would try to attack their cities with all the magical military might I had while they were preoccupied with one another.
"I have declared war on you." Came the voice of Paradox in my ear. "It is not personal, but diplomacy..."
"OK. I know. I get it." So much for a stealthy strike. It was then that the unthinkable happened. Laughing, nay, chortling, Paradox had this to say for itself.
"What happened to the plan to gang up on Adam anyhow? That didn't last long."
Eh? The bloody cheek of it! I'd arrived about two minutes late into the Skype conversation before the game began and they'd clearly used every single one of those one hundred and twenty seconds to conspire against me. The only reason I hadn't been smashed by their combined forces is because they'd run into each other first and decided I wasn't worth the extra effort of crossing an ocean. Oh, they'd rue the day.
Then a kraken ate my boats.
Before the fog of war could re-envelop that distant continent, I summoned some imps on it and decided they would scout inland and find the capital city of one or the other of my enemies. I'd build a force, strike hard and fast, and they'd be so wrapped up in killing one another that they wouldn't be able to react quickly enough to defend their most precious parts.
"Are those imps neutral...wait, are they yours?" It was Scotland.
"It's an invasion." I muttered. Did I refer to the Normandy landings? I think I bloody well did. Then I made the imps lob a puny firecracker at the capital of Scotland. It barely noticed. "You're fighting a war on two fronts now, how are you..." He killed my imps with a volley of arrows.
"That's not a war. You just kind of showed up and turned over a table."
"We're at war though."
"We're all at war. Diplomacy hasn't been fully implemented."
"This tree is still punching my cities."
It had to end before we ended one another because there were more people in line to test out the beta, which will be undergoing public testing later this year. I managed to settle another island, which seemed like an impressive achievement after my losses in the Great Imp War, while the Paradox minotaurs, after their enormous build up, were handily dealt with by the brave Scottish defences. Despite his arboreal assailants, I recall Paul conquering a lesser Scottish city, maybe Inverness, in the very last turn we played. Perhaps that makes him the winner.
What's clear to me, amidst all the confusion, is that multiplayer Warlock is surprisingly sociable. Despite the waiting for turns and the fact that I barely interacted with the other players, I was entertained by their stories, and the strength of the neutrals and monsters could make for some interesting tactics. Because they require so much attention and manpower to deal with, it's much harder to concentrate entirely on human opponents.
Ours was a short game and unfinished, but I'm more convinced than before that the single-minded combat focus of Warlock is something of a natural fit for multiplayer. We'll bring you the beta dates when we know them.