So, who here has played Heroes of Might and Magic?
HoMM-style games are a fearsomely complex bunch. They’re part RPG, part Civ-alike and all fantasy. That’s not just a reflection on their theme, either; the chances are that if you can think of a single element from a fantasy game, book or film the chances are it’s made its way into a HoMM game in some form. The idea is that you start out as the lord/high wizard/immortal undead lich king of a single castle, with only a small amount of starting cash and the resources of the castle’s province to call upon. You use those resources to build buildings, train units and hire heroes, you use the heroes to form parties and armies, and you use the armies to go out on adventures and subjugate the surrounding provinces, adding them to your kingdom. The goal of the game is to kill all the other wizards who are trying to do the same thing.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that gameplay model, but the unusual thing about HoMM games is their astonishing level of detail. Heroes have inventories stuffed with items, cities will be populated by one particular race with its own specialty, and the map is littered with RPG-style special encounters that can bring you tremendous loot or an unwinnable fight. HoMM games don’t just mix a few bits of the RPG genre and a few more bits of the strategy genre together to make their own thing; instead they cram in so much of each that you genuinely feel like you’re playing two games at once. The trick to making a decent HoMM-alike is in doing this in a way that doesn’t completely overwhelm the player, which means stripping out at least some of the detail.
That is, unless your name is Eador: Genesis.
Eador is a particularly Russian take on the genre that got an English language release on GoG a month or two back. The translation surprised me greatly by not being complete garbage1, with only a few language tics making it through that mostly served to preserve the game’s earnest out-of-breath Russian style. This was not an easy thing to pull off considering how much text there is in the game – hundreds of random events, unit descriptions and ability summaries – but it was absolutely essential to get it right since Eador is by far the most complex HoMM-alike I’ve ever played.
That is not to say it is difficult to play, or particularly hard to get a handle on. Eador scored instant brownie points with me by taking a leaf out of Master of Orion’s book and including reams and reams of contextual right-click help information. The UI is possibly not the best design they could have gone for (okay, it’s actually pretty bad, although it never actively hinders you while you’re playing the game) but what could have been a bit of a hard landing – and probably a bounce right off of Eador’s diamond-hard underskin – was cushioned immensely by my being able to call up a concise explanation of any unit and any ability in the game with a simple click of a mouse button. This means there is never any point in Eador where you go “Well, what the fuck does Parry 2 mean?” Instead you simply right-click anything you’re not sure about to find out what it does. Along with the quick and dirty half hour tutorial this ensures you never get lost, and this is a very important feature to have for a game that sprawls as much as Eador does.
Despite not pulling any punches with detail Eador also manages to avoid overwhelming the player, then, partly through always making help available and partly through paring a player’s turn down to a linear checklist of actions that is never more than five or six items long. Eador’s map is divided up into a collection of discrete provinces, each with their own building set, special resources, population type and income. Your heroes are the major way through which you interact with this map, so the first thing you want to do in a given Eador turn is decide precisely what you’re going to do with a given hero:
- Move from one province to another. Self explanatory; if you move into neutral or hostile territory your hero may end up with a battle on their hands. Win the battle and you conquer the province.
- Explore a province. This is ostensibly a way of opening up more lebensraum for the province’s inhabitants, but what it’s really for is generating encounters to both level up your hero and bring in a hefty gold bonus. Encounters can be anything from finding a silver mine that gives the province a permanent income bonus to encountering a nest of giant spiders which then have to be exterminated in a tactical battle. You’re always given the option to retreat and come back later, though, meaning that accidentally disturbing a dragon’s lair doesn’t automatically result in a dead hero.
- Visit an already-explored location inside a province. Once you’ve levelled up a bit, this is how you return to the dragon’s lair to skin him alive and take his stuff. You can also visit special shops and wizard’s towers to get items and quests you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
Then there’s build options available. There are dozens and dozens of buildings in Eador but the vast majority of them can only be built in the castle in your home province, which serves as the nexus of your empire. Buildings do most of the usual strategy things – make new troops and spells available, boost gold income and population morale – but there’s a couple of interesting twists here. First is that you can only fit so many buildings into each given category inside the castle; for example, there are around ten tier one unit buildings but you can only build four of them, and they’re permanent once built since there’s no way to demolish an unwanted building, which means you have to do some hard thinking about which units you want in your army. Second is that constructing a certain level of building can sometimes open up the previous tiers of building for construction in your other provinces in order to boost their morale and income, or else allow you to construct a building out on your empire borders that’ll give access to castle facilities like the treasury and troop training. This makes what you can do with your provinces very, very dependent on what you’ve got in your castle.
Finally there’s the restriction on the amount of stuff you can build in a turn: you can construct one building in your castle each turn, and one building in any one of your provinces, and that’s it. It’s an artificial limitation but it works well in terms of keeping the player focused, since it means the average turn will go something like:
1) Give heroes orders, hire troops and faff about with hero quests and items.
2) Build something in the castle if you have the cash.
3) Build something in one of your provinces.
4) Hire a set of province guards (NPCs that will defend your provinces in auto-resolved battles; also restricted to one set per turn).
5) End turn, resolve hero orders and encounters, fight battles (if necessary).
And that’s it. Thanks to the building restrictions province micromanagement – while hardly shallow – is kept to a rather welcome minimum, and I think the game is much better for its hands-off management style. Your provinces mostly grow without your direct input; you might occasionally send in a hero to open up more land for settlement or construct a building to manage population mood, but otherwise they take care of themselves, freeing you up to spend most of your time with your heroes.
The heroes and tactical combat are the best bits of Eador. It looks deceptively simple; battles are played out over a small 8×8 grid of hexes, which doesn’t seem to allow much room for strategy or tactics. Indeed, with an appropriately upgraded and equipped hero it’s possible to start shooting the enemy army full of arrows from the very first turn of combat, and there are times when the battlefield feels positively claustrophobic. However, chess also uses an 8×8 grid whilst managing to avoid accusations of being simple or shallow, and so does Eador. Eador accomplishes tactical depth through two mechanics. One is a whole plethora of unit special abilities – in fact, every single unit that isn’t a basic peasant has some sort of extra twist to it that makes it more effective on the battlefield – that mean battles rarely devolve into smashing soldiers into one another until one army is dead. The other is the stamina mechanic, which limits the abilities of otherwise overpowered units.
Take the warrior hero, for example. It’s possible to build the warrior into an unstoppable juggernaut that one-shots enemy units while having enough armour to only take a couple of points of damage in return. Units that have been attacked get to counterattack if they’re still alive, so this warrior doesn’t even need to do anything in particular; he just stands there, waits for the enemy to run up to him and chip two percent off of his health bar, and then annihilates them with a counterattack. However, units can only act as long as they have enough stamina to do so, and with every single combat action having an associated stamina cost the warrior’s stamina reserves will begin to drop precipitously if he gets swarmed. Eventually he’ll have counterattacked so much that he runs out of stamina, and from this point onwards – so long as the enemy actually has some units left – the boot is on the other foot, as enemy units can attack him with impunity until he regenerates enough stamina to actually do something again.
Stamina is a fairly neat way of limiting what any one unit is capable of on the battlefield. Archers can’t just sit on a hill and double-shot their way to victory, as they’ll eventually run out of stamina. Fast units can’t spend the entire battle dodging back out of range, as they’ll eventually run out of stamina. This ensures that you always bring along some other basic troops to avoid the sort of situation I outlined above; solid frontline troops that can take a hit are always handy since they’ll buy your heavy hitters enough time to get their breath back in between murdering sprees, and even cheap cannon fodder can be worth the money if it holds the enemy up for a turn or two.
Of course you’re not the only one who gets access to overpowered units. Built right your heroes can take out entire armies if you play it smart, but some of the NPC monsters are frankly ridiculous. Any time you see an army composed of 13 giant slugs, take my advice and just run away because it’ll be less painful than losing your entire army to poison. Hordes of spiders are similarly annoying with their webs, and if you ever run into a hydra or a dragon you’re screwed unless you can deploy equally bullshit magic/abilities to even the odds. As I mentioned above you always have the option to withdraw from a potential battle, and the hero leading your army will give a fairly accurate indication of the opposing army’s power level meaning that if you do get into a fight with a vastly superior foe you only have yourself to blame, but sometimes Eador isn’t even remotely interested in being fair to you, a point hammered home by its unforgiving AI and difficulty level.
Yes, just because Eador is an unusually player-friendly brand of HoMM-alike doesn’t mean that it won’t take every opportunity it can to kick you in the nads. Pleasingly much of its difficulty lies in its tactical AI, which is exceedingly competent and probably just as good as a decent human player would be in the same situation; it makes full use of abilities and magic to mash your heroes into a bloody pulp. It doesn’t seem to have been crippled on lower difficulty settings either, which can make Beginner seem like a remarkably harsh experience given what we’re used to from other strategy games. You spend most of your time in Eador fighting pregenerated NPC armies which have been tuned so that you have a reasonable chance of beating them once your empire and your heroes have reached a certain level of competence. Early encounters close to your capital city tend to consist of ragtag bands of brigands or peasants; travelling further away leads you into fights with semi-equipped groups of soldiers and tougher monsters, and in the hinterlands in between empires is where you tend to find the really nasty stuff. It’s graded so that your heroes have a chance to level up before taking on the harder encounters, and if Eador were a weird brand of RPG rather than a strategy game I actually think this setup would work really well as a harsh yet enjoyable loot-‘em-up.
Unfortunately Eador is a strategy game, which means you eventually end up tussling with other players who are also trying to take over the world, and this is the point where I think Eador goes careening off the rails. All strategic AI in 4X games cheats to a greater or lesser degree, I accept that, but what gets me about Eador’s AI isn’t how brazen it is about it – and it can be crashingly unsubtle, garrisoning every single one of its provinces with high-tier minotaur guards while you’re piddling around with tier 2 Guardsmen – but how inconsistent it can be on a selected difficulty level. I’ve played nearly all my games on Beginner difficulty, but you wouldn’t believe it from the way the AI performs. Sometimes it’ll be a pathetic pushover, yes, but sometimes it will turn into a raging juggernaut of destruction that pushes your face in with no effort at all, and I can’t tell what’s going on in the background to make it behave in such a schizophrenic way. Certainly even the crippled AI gets an awful lot of help in terms of free money and units – and remember, I was playing on the easiest difficulty level available. God knows what the higher ones are like. Perhaps it sends a heavily-armed cyborg to your house to make you regret ever having the temerity to venture out of the shallow end of the pool, but all I know for sure is that playing against an AI that is such an unpredictable cheater is no fun at all.
So while much of Eador’s design is very elegant indeed, and just expanding into NPC territory with your heroes can be a very enjoyable RPG experience, I’m not entirely sure I can really rate Eador as a strategy game because there’s precious little of it involved in fighting other players. The tactical AI is a triumph, but it stands in stark comparison to the strategic AI’s blatant levels of embezzlement and fraud. Eador: Genesis would probably make an excellent multiplayer game if you had some friends with the requisite six months to spare (and they’re remaking the game in a less archaic engine which might end up being an excellent way to scratch that itch) but as far as single-player is concerned I found that the journey of levelling up your heroes and expanding your empire was much more fun than the game’s ultimate goal of tussling with other empires. While that’s not quite enough to stop me from recommending Eador as probably the best HoMM-alike there’s been since Shadow Magic, it’s a rather disappointing way to finish would could have been a really outstanding game. A real shame.
- Admittedly my touchstone for bad Russian translations is Space Rangers 2 and its text adventures, which were peculiarly Dada-ist before they were run through the Google Translate mangler. ↩