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.