About a year ago, Micah wrote a great article called “Why Retro Rules.” In it, he examined two of the forefathers of our genre: Master of Orion and Master of Magic. While 2016 will surely go down as the year of the MoO Clone, 2015 brought us two MoM clones. The first, Worlds of Magic, stumbled badly out of the gate. The second, Arcane Sorcery by Andrew Rowe, went largely unnoticed. In fact, had it not been for a post in the eXplorminate Steam Forums, we might not have ever known about this game. It just goes to show how important our community is to us. Here at eXplorminate, we do our best to cover everyone in the 4X genre and we wouldn’t have wanted to miss Mr. Rowe’s game.
AS is a low budget 4X-lite game. We had a couple others last year, namely Apollo4X and Thea: The Awakening. Just for reference, a 4X-lite has many the things you’d expect of a regular 4X game except one or more of the X’s are either toned down or missing. For instance, A4X was light on eXploration; Thea was light on eXpansion. AS, unfortunately, seems light in all the X’s.
eXplore: Most 4X games have random or procedurally generated maps. AS has three prefabricated maps from which players may choose. Each map has its own personality. Tolkia is a small map that forces combat early and can play quickly. Zamma is a huge map with tons of provinces. Games on Zamma will take a while to win. Finally, there is Elysian Fields – home of the Amazons – and full of rocky areas that force combat toward the middle of the map. There is no fog of war in AS, so trying out each map is about the only kind of exploration there is. You can examine the entirety of the map and know which faction controls each province right up front.
Provinces work much like they do in the Total War series or in Endless Legend. There can be only one city in each, and as long as there are troops stationed somewhere in the province, they can defend all of it. Provinces fit together in a patchwork which can make it incredibly hard to tell if a nearby province is adjacent or not (provinces must be adjacent for troops to move from one into another). This is, in part, due to the low resolution of the map.
For the most part, provinces lack any features that distinguish them from one another outside of their names. There are no real terrain types and no advantages to controlling one province over another. Exploration is minimal and simplistic in AS, but the game doesn’t make any pretense that it’s promising more than that.
eXpand: You do a lot of expanding in AS, but it’s entirely the result of combat. All provinces start with pre-built settlements. You will never build any kind of settler unit in this game. During game setup, you have to choose a starting province. I recommend choosing one that’s in one of the corners of the map. It makes it less likely you’ll be attacked by two opponents at once, and like I mentioned earlier, there doesn’t appear to be any statistical advantage to choosing one province over another.
To expand your empire, you have to move troops from one of your provinces into an unoccupied province or a province controlled by another faction. It’s simple, brutal, and to the point. There aren’t a lot of strategic decisions to make in AS. You’ll mostly just choose which province looks most vulnerable and attack that one. You’ll win the game once you’ve expanded your empire across all the provinces on the map.
Therefore, eXpansion is absolutely key to success in this game. Each new province provides a new city. As I’ll get to in the next section, buildings in cities grow more expensive as you upgrade them. Thus, it behooves you to have as many cities as possible to ensure new buildings are as cheap as possible. Expanding is the best way to grow your economy and afford the massive armies you’ll need to win.
eXploit: At this point, you might be wondering why I even brought up Master of Magic at the beginning of this article. It seems like AS has nothing in common with it! Exploitation is where the two finally touch.
The first place AS shows its MoM heritage is in its building tree. The UI for adding buildings to your cities is poor, but since the game was done on such a small budget, that’s understandable.
You add buildings to a queue and they can take anywhere from 1-6 turns or so to finish. Each building seems to have endless upgrades that cost more gold to build, but provide higher bonuses once complete. For instance, you don’t just build the “Market” once in a city; you can build it over and over several times. Each time, it gets more expensive to do, but you’ll get more gold income from it. Same goes for buildings that add combat bonuses to units. The more of the same building you create in a city, the higher the bonuses units built in that city will have once they’re trained. MoM had something similar in that you would start with a Market, then build a Bank, and finish with a Merchants’ Guild. AS just takes that system to an extreme level.
The second place you can see MoM in this game is in its magic system. It’s almost as if the devs took MoM’s spellbook, stripped it down to the essentials, and loaded it into their game. AS only has four spell schools while MoM had five, but the reduction is understandable. The Sorcery school in MoM was just a mashup up of all kinds of unrelated things. Dropping it was sensible, in my opinion.
Next, we come to factions. MoM had 14 factions and AS only has three, but it’s clear that they were inspired by the 1994 classic. There are subtle differences among the three different groups you can play, but mostly those differences involve what buildings and units you can create. Unit types for each faction are vanilla, just like MoM’s. You have archers, wizards, pikemen, swordsmen, etc. They all do exactly what you would expect, following the precedent set by MicroProse 22 years ago. Each faction does get its own unit and building icons, which is a nice touch, but despite their different names and appearance, they do essentially the same thing.
Finally, we get to spell research. You can build research buildings such as a Library to increase your research speed. A spellbook will pop up with options appropriate for the school of magic you chose during game setup. As mentioned previously, there is little here that is new or novel. The devs focussed on making a streamlined game that provides nothing but the essentials for a fantasy 4X game.
All the other typical aspects of exploitation are absent. There are no special resources to gather. There is no diplomacy. You don’t have to manage your population. You only have two resources (mana and gold), so there is no Endless Legend FIDSI level of currency-tracking to mess with. The game lacks a crafting system, and makes no attempt to deepen gameplay with any of the tropes we’re used to seeing in fantasy 4X such as logistics or espionage. AS is plain-Jane all the way.
There is one area of exploitation that kinda blows the game wide open. Like MoM, you can use “alchemy” to transmute mana into gold or gold into mana. The conversion ratio in AS is ridiculous. It only takes a little mana to make mountains of gold! When I first started playing, I was so frustrated by how hard it was to increase my gold income by building Markets and Mirror Makers. When I discovered a few hundred mana could translate into a few thousand gold pieces, the game was easy. Now, normally, I would encourage the devs to fix this, but the economy in AS is so unbalanced, that you need this exploit to field an army large enough to win quickly. Without it, I feel the game would be an excruciating grind.
eXterminate: If you get this game, I hope you like combat, because that’s how you’ll be spending the vast majority of your time. With eXploration and empire management being very light and expansion the only means to victory, what else did you expect?
Combat takes place on ye olde tactical battleboard. If you’ve played MoM or the more updated clone of it, Worlds of Magic, you pretty much know what to expect. The board is laid out in an isometric view with the enemy units on the left and your units on the right. There are no obstacles or special power-ups on the board, it’s simply a flat plane on which you mash one army into another. There are rules for flanking bonuses and line of sight for archers, but there is little depth to fights. It seems casting skill is hard to come by in this game, so magic is also fairly limited on the battleboard.
This makes conflict grindy, in my opinion. Outside of ranged attacks, increased movement for mounted units and extremely limited spell-casting units, there is nothing special about any of the combatants. They have their melee weapons which they use to beat down the other side until only one is standing. Yet, for such a simple setup, combat can take a long time to resolve if both sides bring sizeable forces into the fray.
The game does provide two ways to auto resolve combat. The most consistent way is to use the “auto resolve’ button after placing units after you enter combat. This animates combat for you in the same way MoM’s auto resolve did. The other way is to click an “auto resolve” button that appears in the combat preview. However, this button only appears when you greatly outnumber your enemy. I found this highly irritating on numerous occasions. There are plenty of times I didn’t care if I lost units, I just wanted to skip past the combat quickly, and I couldn’t. I had to go through the drudgery of placing units one at a time.
After beating your enemies in a province, you can’t just move on. The game has at least some anti-steamrolling mechanics in place. If you abandon a province too soon after conquering it, rebels will rise up and turn it neutral after a couple turns. You have to maintain some type of force presence in a region for 1-5 turns or so to pacify it.
In the end, combat turns out to be mostly routine and therefore easy to learn. There were a few times I really did care whether I won or lost, but I was never excited by any combat result. Each battle only begot more battles until the very last one.
eXperience: From the screenshots and general description of AS, some might be wondering if I’m going a little easy on Mr. Rowe’s creation. The truth is, I probably am, and the reason for that is Arcane Sorcery is a $7 game. What kind of experience should I expect for that kind of price? To me, seven bucks is how much a good sized, non-free-to-play mobile game costs, and that’s about the kind of experience I feel AS delivers.
The AI is capable and will attack the player when it is advantageous to do so. According to the developer, the AI never cheats, even on the highest difficulties. That’s impressive. Combat is basic enough that I felt the AI played it well, though like so many other 4X games I’ve played, it seemed to undervalue ranged units. So, AS provided at least an adequate challenge for $7.
There is no covering up the fact that the visuals of this game are eye-gougingly awful. The colors are difficult to look at, and the character art is at total dissonance with the early/mid 90’s style of graphics most of the rest of the game uses. As mentioned, the borders on the provinces can be very hard to make out at times, and there are even places separated by water that are apparently shallow enough to allow troops to cross. It’s impossible to tell where those places are, but they do exist! As a result of the game’s visuals, I had to step away frequently or log off altogether multiple times. Normally, I don’t get too hung up on graphics, but even the most ascetic of us gamers do need something at least a little pleasant for our eyes.
The game lacks important conveniences like tooltips and info screens in some places. Every time I went into combat, I wanted to get some more information on my enemy’s troops. However, no tooltips were available when I moused over them, and right clicking never pulled up any kind of info sheet. Right clicking on enemy provinces didn’t tell me how many and which buildings the city had. As a result you don’t learn to play Arcane Sorcery as much as you grope around until you find something that produces a satisfactory effect.
Winning the game is a relief, but there isn’t much to be said for it. The one time I finished a game, the victory screen presented me with green-on-green text that was difficult to make out. But again, the game cost me $7, so I’m not too terribly bothered by the lackluster finish.
I can tell the developer put a lot of effort into making this game, and he should be proud of his accomplishment. In the end, I’m glad I purchased and played Arcane Sorcery. If I hadn’t, I’d always be wondering if it was something that would interest me. I love fantasy 4X games, and anything that is tied to Master of Magic will get my attention. So now, with my curiosity satisfied, I can move on.
Now there are those who think that there are only two ratings on eXplorminate’s grading scale that advise readers to buy a game: Recommended and eXemplary. This is incorrect. There are actually four ratings that give the okay to buy, and only one that explicitly tells readers to stay away from a game. It’s just that two of our ratings, Consider and Beware advise a buy with caveats. You should pay close attention to them, because we don’t put these ratings at the end of our reviews lightly. AS will earn a Beware rating from me. It isn’t filled with bugs. The AI is capable. And at $7, it has a low cost of entry. However, it is not a great game and will produce few, if any, memorable moments.
TL;DR: Arcane Sorcery by Andrew Rowe is an homage to the venerable Master of Magic. AS lacks all of the character and depth of play that MoM had while having graphics that some may consider worse than MicroProse’s 1994 classic. Yet, despite its very minimalistic design, confounding user interface, and wince-inducing graphics, AS provides the kind of gameplay one would expect for a $7 investment. AS will never give you a great gameplay experience, but it won’t make you miserable either.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You are on a tight budget and are looking for a new game to buy
- You have very slow download speeds and can’t get larger, better games to download easily
- You are a Master of Magic fan who automatically likes any game that even somewhat resembles it
- $7 is nothing to you and you’d like to support a hard working indie developer
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- You have any kind of minimum standards for graphics
- You demand a deep gameplay experience out of your 4X games
- You enjoy things like diplomacy, espionage, crafting, research, heroes, terrain, exploration, or empire management
- Tactical combat is either something very important to you or something you want to avoid
Troy played 30+ hours on his Windows 8.1 Dell Inspiron 7000 Series 7537 BTX 17” laptop with Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-4500U CPU @ 1.80 GHz, 16GB Ram, 64 bit Operating system, x64 processor, and 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics card.
Disclosure: Troy purchased his own copy of Arcane Sorcery for $7 on Steam.