Sunday, October 9, 2005

Where have all the heroes gone?

Well, I finally got a chance to play the Heroes of Might and Magic IV card and tile game on Tuesday, and I guess it's high time I commented on it.

I expected it to kind of suck. It sucked a little more than I really expected it to, but not too much more. It served as a very good example to me of why a game is greater than the sum of its parts. The Heroes card game mimics so much from the computer game, but it fails on several key points. I won't go into all of them, but I'll mention a few.

First of all, it plays like an extremely boring map. Good Heroes maps have interesting terrain, beautiful locales, exciting monsters and treasure, and choke points, and progress in difficulty from the initial easy battles guarding the necessities your army needs to survive, like mines and gold, to long, tough battles for powerful artifacts. The Heroes card game misses all of this. Your first battle even before conquering your first town can put your puny army up against two dragon golems and a genie. Your reward for this battle is exactly the same as if you defeated a wandering squire. There's no correlation between the encounters and their rewards, and thus no feeling of overcoming appropriate challenges to develop your heroes into true leaders of vast armies. This may actually be the worst failing of the card game; this slow, gradual character development (and town development, which was almost totally removed in the card game) was one of the best aspects of the computer games. It's like an RPG on a more macro scale; an RPG where multiple parties have a single unified goal of bringing glory to your side. The card game also has a great dearth of these encounters; only a few per player. If you add more map tiles you get more encounters, but you also spend more time walking from place to place. Your encounters may very well be five turns' worth of traveling apart. A good Heroes map will give your hero several encounters in a turn.

So, that's my biggest complaint: you lose too much of the RPG feeling. My next complaint is that while they generally did a pretty good job of simplifying the game and turning it into a card game, leveling up is not something that I want left to chance. One of the things about the computer game that irked me was that there was a little randomness when you'd level up in that you'd just get your choice of a couple different new skills, instead of just picking the one you wanted. Well, in the card game, you get whatever you've drawn recently. If you haven't drawn any new skill cards that you're capable of learning, then you just don't level up after that battle. Actually, that's one area where I feel that a house rule might improve things: if skill cards were a separate deck that you could pick through at will when you leveled up, I think things would be improved. This kind of problem shows up in a couple different ways too. If you don't draw any level 1 or 2 units early in the game, then you can't recruit more units, and you can't grow your army. If you only draw level 3 and 4 unit cards, then you have to either spend them as cash (San Juan-style), or add them as guards to opponents' encounters, guards that they very well not be capable of defeating, which just slows down the game and annoys everyone. If you want to learn spells in town, you'd better hope you drew a spell card, because otherwise your mage is just going to sit in the back and sulk.

So, in the end, the card game version has far too much randomness and unpredictability, and not enough balance.

That's not to say that the game got nothing right. The ability of a player to build a customized deck of cards that suits their play style is extremely compelling. I still love that aspect of Magic: The Gathering, and the computer game Etherlords was very effective at copying Magic's deckbuilding strategies. It's something that World of Warcraft does well, too: you become very attached to your characters as you tweak and tune them. Guild Wars is perhaps even better, in that you can adjust your character's expertise on the fly between missions; you can customize everything but your equipment for free between quests. That's awesome, and it's exactly what I liked from Magic: I put exactly the cards I wanted to play in my deck, and the experience was very personal and engaging and cool. Heroes would have this if I knew other people who wanted to play it; I could put together a streamlined, magic-heavy Life/Nature deck. I wish the computer game offered this; as it stands, you generally just get to pick a single side, and then you go from there. If I got to pick precisely the towns, heroes, spells, creatures, and skills that I could learn, I think that it would be a phenomenal thing.

So, the Heroes card game was overall a disappointment after the first play, but I wasn't really expecting much. It automatically has more entertainment value due to the franchise; I just really love the six factions, the creatures, and the atmosphere of the Heroes universe. It won't be the last time I play it, and there very well may be hope in the forms of alternate play styles and optional rules. There's potential there, but also a lot that is broken.

So, now I really wonder about Heroes of Might and Magic V, the computer game sequel coming out in a few months. This I do have very high hopes for. The designers seem to have done a good job of infusing life into the series while sticking to the things that made the original games so incredible, but I won't know for sure until it releases or I get into the beta. It's not made by the original Heroes team; it's made by Nival, who incidentally created Etherlords. Based on what I've seen and what I've read from the designers, I am very optimistic that it will stay true to the series and be a really great game. I hope I'm right.

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