Frugal Indulgance – Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic

It’s about the point where I find myself gnashing my teeth about City of Heroes characters that I need to realize that I’m once again getting bored of the game. I keep coming back to it later, but I need to take some time off from it once in awhile. As they say, “Too much of a good thing…”

Garage Hero’s second form. The plan is to change his appearance every 10 levels to seem more and more hi-tech.

Fortunately, I’ve two powerful channels of frugal-minded indulgance to dilute my over-saturation of City of Heroes: My GameFly subscription gives me access to all the new console games I could want, while my GameTap subscription gives me access to quite a few old gems.

Lately I’ve found myself dumping an absolutely amazing amount of time into Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, currently on GameTap. A really good turn-based strategy game like this can rivet me like a good book where I just have to see what’s on the next page. Just recounting the events in the game make for a good story:

“The incredible might of the Orc Warlords took the elves under command of Queen Julia by surprise. Individually or in pairs, the armored behemoths tore the gates from city walls and decimated the ranks of her archer and swordsman garrisons. Even the elven hero, Oakleaf, fell before them. Now, both of her border cities were gone.

With the remaining capital city, the Queen rebuilt her legions, mounted Iron Maidens and High Templars, reinforced with the repeating ballista wonders from the mechanist’s guild. She invoked the Call of the Wood, which summoned a magical woodland creature each day to bolster her depleted ranks. She knew that her magic, too, would be needed, and so she left her city behind and marched with the troops down the coastal road leading to her lost cities.

Within a week, the orc invaders were ousted in an epic clash with skilled troops, magic creatures, and mechanical ingenuity… but it carried a terrible price. As Queen Julia’s forces had advanced, the main bulk of the Orc horde had crept about the opposite side of the mountain. In launching the counterattack, the capital city had been depleted of its ranks, the skeleton garrison was no match for the invaders.

Cut off from her coffers, Queen Julia’s troops soon grew restless. She dispatched her fastest Iron Maidens to reclaim her lost home city but, on the third day, many rebelled and stuck out on their own as independents. Julia was fortunate to have found her home city poorly defended, it was easily reclaimed by the few who remained loyal to her. However, the Iron Maidens who had deserted her would wander for months, engaging the random orc patrol, before she could lure them back to her ranks with gold.”

A typical screenshot for Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic.

Age of Wonder: Shadow Magic is a bit of a Master of Magic knock-off. You play a wizard who manages cities and raises troops to overcome other Wizards. The whole thing plays turn-based with an isometric, tile-based environment. There’s both a coin-based economy (Queen Julia’s problems in the example above were due to being unable to pay troop maintenance) and a magical-based economy (Queen Julia’s Call of the Woods was an overland spell she cast that summoned a creature each round, which have their own magical cost to maintain).

Age of Wonders is a slightly different from Master of Magic in how it is more scenario-based and incorporates some elements from Heroes of Might and Magic such as detailed heroes and map features. They’ve also an interesting feature where building temples dedicated to specific spirits cause them to contact you and give missions (for rewards or to avoid punishment). Overall, Age of Wonders is a pretty good take.

Unfortunately, as I’m getting deeper into the game, I am seeing balance problems. A troop that requires 15 gold points a turn to maintain can single-handedly decimate a half dozen troops that cost only 6 gold a turn each, making building lost-cost units simply a path to defeat. Hero units, once they’ve sufficiently leveled up and have been outfitted with gear, can be extraordinarily powerful (though I was surprised with Oakleaf fell to a large slime monster, known as a “Glutton”, and never returned). Perhaps the greatest exploit was found by dragging out earlier games in the scenario: as your Wizard’s stats are preserved between scenarios, I was able to bring Queen Julia in with an utterly ridiculous amount of researched skills.

On Tap

There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. For example, while I was having a ball in City of Heroes, playing that for days on end proved a tad monotonous. I needed something else to do, and dodging the various vices the Internet had to offer, I somehow ended up over at Gametap. It was free, at least some of the games were, so what was the harm in trying it out?

I found Twinklestar Sprites to be a delightful, not only because of slick gameplay, but also in a tooth-rotting sweet, kitschy anime sort of way.

After dabbling with a few of the free games, both old and relatively new, I found myself enthralled with just how many cool games I’ve missed. Second Sight, Twinklestar Sprites, and Metal Slug was some of the exceptional games that stood out. It wasn’t long until I began to dabble with their game database and notice that there were many interesting masterpieces just out of reach…

Is there such a thing as too much of everything at once? For $59.95 ($10 more than a new game) paid yearly (which works out to $5 a month) I’m about to find out. I’ve already created a playlist full of a whole bunch of awesome games that I missed when they were, you know, new. I also look forward to playing the latest Sam & Max second series gratis.

I highly recommend that even non-Gametap subscribers try Psychonauts, which is free until the end of December. However, be forewarned, once you sample some of the games on tap, you may well find yourself digging out that credit card.

As for me, I’ve three weeks off, and I’m thinking I’ll be spending it alternating between City of Heroes and GameTap.

Thoughts on Game Development for the Niche Market

City of Heroes, a relatively small title, is remarkable in that it has had me play for over 900 hours now. Yet, I loathe World of Warcraft as being little more than a streamlined EverQuest clone.

This lead me to realize that one thing that has become increasingly clear about MMORPGs, yet another reminder that they don’t break the rules of general game development, and that is that you can either make a game that pleases as many people as possible or you can make a game for a certain niche of players.

Now, maybe this won’t impress anyone that already works in game design, or maybe it will floor them, as I don’t know what those oddly proactive folks do when crafting the magic that I live for. However, I had some potentially interesting considerations along these lines.

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