Given how spoilt for choice we are for fantasy strategy/roleplaying games, opting for Worlds of Magic [official site] over an Age of Wonders III or Endless Legend feels a bit like choosing to take home the one-eyed, geriatric dog with bladder problems instead of one of the cute puppies at the pound.
The word which kept springing to mind as I played this homage to 1994 4X Master of Magic was ‘rickety.’ In the first hour of play, I was convinced I’d never make it to the end of a campaign. My mind cast around for excuses, desperate to find an escape from a few days in the company of its appalling user interface and antique presentation. Not much later, I’d come to terms with the clunky UI and had dug into the appealing Civ/Might and Magic meat below, but kept running headlong into bugs ranging from minor display errors to the out-and-out game-breaking. Making it to the finish line was going to be matter of endurance.
I made it! I’m a big boy now. It meant force-quitting a few times to escape bugs, it meant squandering spells and repeatedly sending units in completely the wrong direction, it meant giving up on any intention to read unit bios, and it meant swallowing some prideful instinct which kept telling me my time was too precious for this, but I made it and I don’t regret it. Worlds of Magic is clearly held together by string and prayers, but it is held together, just about.
Whether it’s bringing anything new to what’s an increasingly full-up table is less certain. By having its sights so clearly set on tribute rather than experimentation it limits itself severely. However, it exists because Master of Magic fans Kickstarted it, so it’s not entirely fair to expect anything more of it. It’s defined by familiar, comforting dynamics – build cities, expand your domain, raise armies, research spells, fight turn-based, grid-based battles, and either gradually batter the competition into extinction or research your way up to a climactic mega-spell.
It’s hard not to get involved, even despite the initial hurdles of an interface which is both cumbersome and ugly (not to mention whose text is rife with grammatical and display errors). That essential loop – build, grow, battle – is timelessly compelling, and WoM keeps a tight enough leash on what’s going on that there’s always something to be doing, something to be worrying about. There’s very little of the downtime which characterises, say, Civilization.
The landscape is peppered with goodie-laden structures containing often highly-dangerous monsters, there are portals to nip through and nodes to grab, plus cities which can construct entirely new unit types to seize. There’s also a spot of terraforming if you research the appropriate spells. It kept me busy. Calling a 4X brisk is like calling a cat kind-hearted, but as these things go, Worlds of Magic is certainly one of the less ponderous.
There’s plenty of replay value too, thanks to the Sorcerer Lords concept which sees you either constructing your unseen player character/civ leader from scratch or picking from ready-made archetypes. You get to pick their starting race (i.e. unit types), you get to pick which schools of magic they specialise in, and you get to pick which spells they begin the game with. Couple this with the planes system, which essentially splits the world into different terrain types (and attendant bonuses/handicaps) and you’re looking at something which conjures a decent amount of variety out of relatively straightforward components.
The well-populated spell research system is a particular treat, and leads to long, unpredictable chains of prospective battlefield magic rather than being bound to any particular path. You also get some agreeably massive beasties to play with once you’ve built enough military structures in a few cities. It was hard not to smirk when I took a half-dozen poison cannonball-lobbing, bus-sized beetles and a few hulking dragonmen to knock on the door of a poorly-guarded elf settlement.
Unfortunately, if you’re not a big Master of Magic fan or have simply played everything else to death, it’s tough to make a case for this over the likes of Endless Legend, Age of Wonders III or Fallen Enchantress. Worlds of Magic comes up particularly short against last year’s Endless Legend, a game which brought freshness and modernity to turn-based strategy’s usually staid interfaces; this is stranded back in the mid-90s dark ages on that front.
The UI looks woeful, feels clunky, presents information unclearly, has errors (see above) and then throws in weirdo choices such as dragging orbs up and down to assign where you’re spending your magical power. Worst of the lot is the need to right-click to deselect a unit before you can left-click on the next one you want to control. I kept forgetting to do this and ending up with a unit wandering back to where it came from or towards a pack of angry orcs instead of ending up with something else selected.
Part of me feels cruel for picking on Worlds of Magic for this stuff. It apparently exists because of a Kickstarter, but at £45k only a very small one. Clearly it had a fraction of the resources of the other games I’ve namechecked, but at the same time you can pick those massively glossier games up for the same as or less than this costs.
It’s not at all the case that Worlds of Magic is lousy, other than UI and bugs (particularly a recurrent one which prevented me from closing menus, requiring an Alt-F4 to escape), but it’s not at all the equal of its peers in presentation, and sadly isn’t bold enough in design to make that irrelevant. I don’t regret my time with Worlds of Magic as such – again, it gets the essentials of explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate right, and I appreciated its lack of flab - but I can’t say that it’s lodged any memories in my skull.