Sorcerer King: fresh 4X strategy from Stardock

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However far Sorcerer King takes this, it’s not particularly visible in the Early Access build, a very stripped down slice of the game with most factions and features disabled. Right now, the focus is on the big picture rather than the nuts and bolts. The issue of campaign pacing is currently high on the agenda.

“The number of turns it takes to make a Settler can make or break a game," says Wardell of Civilization. "Then, when you’re designing a game, especially a 4X game, how many turns should one game last? People say the more the better, but then you look at the data and some 200-odd turns is where they’ve won or not.” The immediate thought is how many people keep playing Civ after an Alpha Centauri victory, but even that turns out to be an over-estimate. “Statistically, most people get to around gunpowder, maybe tanks, and then they’ve won or they give up! We want our game to come to a swift conclusion whether they win or lose.”

There’s a lot to handle before that point though. Sorcerer King draws from some unusual inspirations, like Blizzard's online card-battling game, Hearthstone. A big problem with tactical battles in strategy games is that they tend to lose their charm over the course of a long campaign, slowing things down to the point where the Auto-Resolve button is a mercy killing. Sorcerer King still offers that button, and at first glance looks much like any of them, but has been designed very much with an eye to how Blizzard used special card statuses to add tactical depth to a 1 vs. 1 combat scenario.

“I changed the names of the spells though!” Wardell says, just before the PR can jump in with a big cork. “Release The Wolves? Totally different!”

In practical terms, this means that Sorcerer King openly embraces mechanics like Divine Shield—ahem—Divine Grace to give a unit a free hit. Each leader gets a special power like this to make them powerful when deployed in the right situation.

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Battle has also been streamlined. Units start close enough to run up and start fighting and using their abilities rather than having to waste turns on traversal. It may not literally be the case that everyone gets a hit on their first turn, but that’s the kind of speed and efficiency that Stardock is shooting for. They want to keep the turns ticking quickly to let everyone deploy their most spectacular abilities. Why make the player wait?

“Tactical battles are meant to be fun and quick and interesting. If I’m going to be in a hundred of these things, they have to be bloody entertaining. That’s going to be part of the Early Access. Right now, not to badmouth our game, we still have a lot of work to do, to make sure there’s enough variation and interactions and content. Of course, our units move, but Hearthstone was our primary inspiration for how I wanted to see the battles play out—the counters, the combinations.”

"We don’t want to take any chances of having another Elemental. Never, ever."

Again, much of this has yet to make the Early Access build, along with another major concept: “A big part of the battles is going to be the two sides summoning things, and even the Sorcerer King throwing things in, a bit like Tetris, you’ll see what’s coming in a few turns and you can maybe counter it, or try to end the battle first, or just take the hit and so on. We actually removed the summon stuff because the particle effects are currently broken. The monsters just popped onto the map, and we figured that looked too unpolished even for beta.”

This might seem an extra-trivial concern, but Stardock has good reason to tread carefully here. Its last attempt at a fantasy 4X game, Elemental, was an total, unmitigated disaster. The standalone sequel/expansion Fallen Enchantress was given free to unlucky buyers to help soothe some of the community anger, and it was definitely an improvement. Nevertheless the whole thing remains a major sore spot for fans.

Wardell doesn’t deny it. “We don’t want to take any chances of having another Elemental. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever.”

“Elemental really woke us up. Up until 2010, we treated games as a hobby… most of our customers don’t even know we make games [Stardock’s main business has always been applications, especially Windows skinning and customisation tools]. It was then that we realised we had to turn it into a real process or just stop making games entirely. We chose to reorganise. We brought on Derek Paxton, a bunch of producers, designers, artists. We’ve got so much amazing talent now. Then when we sold Impulse to Gamestop, we got basically infinity money, so I decided what would be really good would be to start a fund that helps veteran developers start their own companies.”

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The result of that has included easy access to, just for starters, the likes of Civ IV creator Soren Johnson and plenty of the Civ V team, as well as a big chunk of the former Ensemble Studios—no small advantage.

While I’ve not played the Early Access build enough for an official early review at this point, it does seem promising. It's a stripped down mix of something like Age of Wonders with a little FTL for spice. There are only a couple of maps to play on, and only one hero to play: the Sorcerer Not-King Galor, whose special skill is hypnotising enemies into joining his team. The final game is going to be geared mostly around sandbox play on randomly generated maps, rather than a campaign.

It’s very possible to build up an empire though, to craft things, to get in fights and more. The asymmetrical opposition between the player and the Sorcerer King is especially interesting, provided that Wardell’s DM systems can avoid the obvious snowball effect. Certainly at the moment, there’s not always that much sense of him in the world, which seems far too nice for a place that's just been on the wrong end of a bitter mage war. When he does drop by, maybe to ask for servitude in exchange for being spared, it’d be a mistake to laugh right in his face. After all, he won the last war for a reason.

Sorcerer King goes into Early Access today.