In 1994, Microprose released the all-important third leg of their Civilization stool: Master of Magic – complementing the previous year’s release, Master of Orion, and the original Civilization.
I thought MoO was just OK when it came out (I know, blasphemy), but I loved MoM. The game took everything that was great about Civ – the city building, the eXploration, the research, the empire management – and added magic spells, heroes, monsters, and quests and then threw in a tactical battle mechanic, just because. MoM didn’t keep me from getting into a good college, but man, that wasn’t for lack of trying (Also, I’m old).
Nowadays, you can’t swing a dead Kilrathi without hitting a MoO clone, but games made in MoM’s image are few and far between. Poland-based Wastelands Interactive saw the opportunity and went after it with Worlds of Magic on Steam. The game was… Not totally awful? Let’s be kind and say it was a really good first effort at a Fantasy 4X game. Well, Wastelands is taking another shot with Planar Conquest (PQ), now available on mobile on the App Store and for Android. Does PQ finally provide a modern, mobile take on my beloved MoM, improving upon the old systems while still capturing what made the original so amazing?
Planar Conquest provides plenty of options for setup at the start. Player can fill their fantasy realm with up to seven different planes. Further, there are multiple geographic distributions available for each individual plane – from pangaea, to multiple continents, to a massive archipelago. And each plane has its own ‘theme,’ as well, allowing for a totally multi-dimensional (pun so intended) experience.
Players are also given their choice of race to lead to glory: humans, Elves (in two Elfy flavors: dark and grey!), Dwarves, Orcs, etc. There’s even an undead race with completely unique needs that turns the whole playing experience on its head. You can also choose the number of opponents you’ll face and how hard they’ll try. However, there’s no way to control what enemy races you’ll be up against. If you’re dying to kill you some Elves, you’re just gonna have to hope the game offers them up.
Finally, you’ll be able to pick your leader/sorcerer/avatar person. The game provides a generous helping of pre-made candidates, each with their own unique pic. Players can also roll their own with a veritable buffet of stat modifiers and magical focuses. Again, the options on offer are impressive, topped with a diverse range of spell schools. There’s the usual fire, air, water stuff but you can also choose categories like biomancy and destruction that let you do all kinds of fancy things.
After making their selections, players are popped onto the game world map, given a city and an army, and set to work. As is now standard fare for these things, there’s a whole world to eXplore (possibly a whole seven of them, depending on how you many planes you put in at the start) full of dangerous monsters, possibly rewarding adventures, and up-jumped AI opponents who dare to think they deserve the throne.
The world, itself, does a good job of getting you to wander around. There are all sorts of goodie boxes in various shapes and type literally littering the world map – chests of gold, arenas full of XP, piles of magic-y doodads, etc.. There are also plenty of encounters to, ummmm, encounter. Towers and caves and the like are fairly frequent, offering mostly military challenges with rewards of gold, mana, stat boosts, and rare magical items.
Just as in MoM, PQ offers no technological research – all buildings and units are unlocked from the start – though some buildings must be built before others become available. Players can learn new spells, however. What’s available will depend on what spell schools you selected for your sorcerer. Options for research are shown in a massive spell book (just like MoM!). Just click, wait a few turns and voila! Instant, killer death ray spell. Or, y’know, harvest boost or whatever… There’s no tree here, no set steps of progression from one magical miracle to another. True to its spiritual forefather, the options seem to appear more or less randomly, so players are best off picking whatever appeals and hoping that another exciting choice presents itself the next go around.
That said, the spell options are sort of limited, overall. Not just in type, but in kind. Once you have acid arrow and fire arrow adding lightning arrow to your arsenal isn’t at all exciting. Nor will then switching over to fire blade, ice blade, and acid blade. Looking at the many magical spell options up front, there are a few interesting conjurations and then a lot of blank spaces. Little iterations do not exciting decisions make, especially when that’s all there is to look through.
Expansion is what you’d expect, as well. Your home city can build settlers who can then go about and, y’know, settle stuff. It’s not rocket science. City by city, players will watch their empires grow across the landscape.
Most resources are tile-based, and so setting down a city has more to do with where you’d like to extend your empire than grabbing for goodies. Unlike, say, Civ V, you’re not going to find some magic mountain of production somewhere nearby that you absolutely have to have. The game keeps things simple, which is good, though it also makes municipal placement a bit of a bore. However, there are resources out there that you can only collect if they are in your borders, so there’s usually at least some direction as to what makes a good place to put a city down beyond, I dunno, easy highway access and ocean views.
As with almost every game in this genre, more cities equals more good, so you’ll be building a lot of them. Players may be seduced into building tall, not wide, and simplify the micro-management in the mid/end-game. But doing so only means you’ll never actually reach those stages to reap the benefits. Build, my friend, build! Build till you find you have far too many towns. Then build again.
You can eXpand the city borders with a spell, otherwise they’ll just stay the same forwever. How respectful the enemy AI is of your boundaries, however, is another thing entirely. Whether at peace or at war, opposing units will simply walk on through at any time, reducing your borders to, really, just pretty colored lines. Sometimes the AI may just be passing by, other times they’ll assault your city right then and there. It’s impossible to know until you’re suddenly staring at an end game screen. At least the game stays away from the usual city-spamming. You won’t look over and see some random Dwarves setting up camp next door, so that’s good. Nobody wants to live next to Dwarves.
As mentioned, most resources are simply sitting in the land tiles. Things like food and production are basically tied to the land – the usual green means lots o’ food, yellow means less. Though you can buff your resource generation with spells and special city buildings.
The city, itself, allows you to assign your slaves, er, peasants, to various jobs to optimize your production. Population can be set to bolster production, research, or farm, though mostly you’ll be leaving the settings as-is. It’s fairly easy to click a button and suddenly find your entire civ is starving to death.
As mentioned above, there are also mana nodes all over the map, each attuned to a different type of magical energy. Again, this is all standard MoM stuff, green crystals for earth powers, red for fire, etc. Unlike PQ’s inspiration, though, there are no guardians at the nodes. You’re free to just start mining the things once they’re in your control and you’ve built the appropriate structures.
Cities can be set to build improvements or generate troops. The available city buildings are, again, what you’d expect to find (catching onto a theme, yet?) – basically providing better production or farming or stat boosts for your troops. As I said above, there’s no tech tree to unlock these things, so you don’t have to waste time waiting to build that windmill you always wanted.
If you’re bored of building, you can engage your enemies with some limited diplomacy options. You can do the standard trading, though what the AI will accept and reject is totally blind. That means a lot of throwing stuff on the table and crossing your fingers, which does not make for good fun. Fire arrow for acid arrow? No. How about fire arrow and lightning arrow for acid arrow? Still no. How about… Ad nauseum.
The AI will also offer treaties and truces. As seems typical of these games, the AI is like the world’s worst passive-aggressive spouse. Whatever you suggest will be shot down, but then it will make the same offer right back at you and be shocked when you say no. Further, much like the borders of your cities, these agreements are more empty talk than actual enforced accords. I had one opponent ask for a non-aggression pact and – once I accepted – began to parade its troops through my territory, as if taunting me to march over and mash him. Which, of course, I did. Then the AI haughtily refused to treat with me ‘till it’d wiped me right off the map.
So why are you doing all this eXploring, eXpanding and eXploiting? To find enemies, generate powerful troops, and commit wholly justified genocide on the happy, arcane residents of magical happy world, of course. Or, put another way, die Orcs die!
There are plenty of troop types available to each race. Humans sport the usual clerics, swordsmen, spearmen, and bowmen. Ocrs focus on masses of cheap (but effective) foot soldiers. Etc. As the player builds up their cities, more impressive and exciting units become available, as well.
You can recruit heroes to add to your armies, each with unique designs, names, and backstories. These ultra-powerful units really make an army feel like more than just a mass of nameless soldiers and, instead, warriors of legend.
Battles go about in a tactical map as (say it with me) you’d expect from a game in this genre. For all the troop variation, however, strategic options are almost nil. Age of Wonders 3, this is not. Players can move their troops into position, stand back for ranged attacks, cast magic spells… Y’know the whole thing. But battles basically end up being one big funnel, each side pouring troops into the other until one side is too dead to get back up again.
Options like flanking or interesting battle maps, things that make this kind of combat fun, are absent. It’s like offering me steak, chicken, pork – every kind of meat imaginable – and then plopping down the same, brown, overcooked, underseasoned mush on my plate no matter what I ordered. Yes, it’s nice to have choices. No, I don’t see the point if my choices don’t provide meaningful differences in the end. Spearman, swordsman, stick man, just doesn’t seem to make a whole heck of a difference. Man have weapon. Man go hit other man with weapon. Repeat.
For its part, the AI seems to struggle with overland army movement. I haven’t seen it do anything uniquely stupid (nothing on the scale of some of the things the original MoM used to pull, like evacuating the entire defenses of a city right before I invaded it), but the game doesn’t seem to understand why, exactly, it’s moving things around. So it just kinda messes about, running units hither and thither to give the impression that it’s busy. I know people who built whole careers out of that kind of behavior at the office, but it’s not really accomplishing anything in a strategy game.
On the other hand, the AI does a serviceable job of fighting in the tactical window. It understands what it has and how to utilize it and puts up a pretty good fight. You’re still playing more checkers than chess, but that’s a heck of a lot better than the tiddlywinks a lot of other games’ AIs seem suited for
That combat is just OK is not a deal breaker, but it is the only victory condition other than casting a doomsday spell and so the seams seem to show more than they might otherwise. You’re gonna spend much of the game marching across the many lands and kill-kill-killing till there’s no one left to kill. It’s a shame then, that doing so is… Underwhelming.
Oh boy. Here we go.
PC games and iPad games are different. I know, I’m not exactly breaking your brain here. But I do wonder if that’s something Wastelands Interactive really considered with PQ. It’s not like playing Mass Effect on your computer, where the controls were clearly designed for a controller and you find yourself muddling through with your mouse and keyboard, but PQ doesn’t feel right on the iPad. Some of that is design and some of it is execution, but it makes for a bit of a mess.
If you’ve read through the above (and if you haven’t, what the heck are you doing down here?), you’ve seen that there are a lot of systems in place. You might be thinking, as I did: “wow – this really is a full-featured 4x and not some ganked, half-featured, mobile thing.” And that is 100% true. In fact, there are some aspects of the game I haven’t even mentioned, like crafting and multiplayer. PQ is a whole 4x smooshed into your iPad. No doubt. Unfortunately, like the old saying about ten pounds of potatoes in an eight pound bag, putting all that game into a mobile format means a lot of spuds end up… Well, not where you’d want them.
I’m not saying it can’t be done – that iPad (and iPhone, my God, are people playing this on their phone?) is incapable of hosting a full 4X experience – but that sort of thing requires a lot of thought about systems and how they work. PQ doesn’t do that, for the most part, and it leads to a lot of clunky interactions. Bad enough that I have to fight Orcs and Elves and Undead, I have to fight the game itself, too?
The screens are also really hard to parse. A lot of the options just seem there for the sake of presenting a robust appearance rather than real strategic options. It doesn’t help that the controls are wonky, clicking and unclicking and hold-clicking is often a mess. Different actions take different types of taps and there’s no rhyme or reason (or tooltip) explaining which is which. Worse, the game does a poor job of recognizing those touches, even when you choose the right one. Just selecting a unit and sending it across the map can be an a catastrophic cascade of cursing at the inconsiderate controls.
Once, I sent my engineer back and forth three times from city to countryside just trying to get him away from a spearman he had somehow become bound to. When I was finally able to make it work, I realized I had no idea how to make the unit build a road and there I was, back in the land of frustration.
The icon for building a road was hidden in another spot on the screen, far from where unit actions had ever been. It didn’t look anything like ‘road’ or ‘build’ or… It was a red circle. Not sure what that was supposed to represent. My growing frustration? Perhaps.
It’s important to note that these are not bugs (don’t worry, we’ll get to those) but features, working as intended, and working really poorly. It feels like a tighter vision for the game, one with fewer options but better thought-out processes, would have made for a much better experience. As George Carlin once noted, wouldn’t you rather have Oreos (one cookie, well made) then some box of 100 flavors, none of which are all that good?
PQ is a box of mediocre cookies. You can do all these things! But not one of them is really fully baked and so it’s just one disappointment after another. There are tons of units, but they all fight the same and combat, itself, is dull. You have lots of city options, but what any of them actually do is often unclear and most of what you can figure out, no one ever needs to do those things anyway. Did you know that you get to the city screen by clicking your leader’s face? Is that at all intuitive? There are a lot of problems like these and, again, I can’t help but think that fewer symbols and icons and options would have made for a cleaner, clearer game.
The magic system is another example of selection spam. When you offer players only 5 or 6 spells, you really need to make each one awesome. Instead, it’s mostly iterations on a theme. Does fire arrow really differ all that much from acid arrow? Besides one is red and one is green? I mean, it’s magic, this is supposed to be the most fun part of the game. I’m supposed to be a wizard, but I often feel a lot more like a corporate drone: hundreds of options, all the same choice.
Even the spells that are unique – the ones that go beyond the whole ‘different words, same damn thing’ magic system – feel mundane. At one point I cast a spell on my town to make them grow food faster. Nothing happened. I thought I’d hit the wrong button or done something incorrectly (it happens a lot in this game), but no, I looked at my town and the enchantment was active. The devs just hadn’t bothered to put in any kind of spell effect. That’s bad. When magic isn’t at all magical, you’re doing something wrong.
And yet, as I said, these are all example of when the game’s working right. Lots of times, you’ll find yourself looking back longingly on that burnt nilla wafer. PQ is about as bug-ridden a game as I’ve encountered. There were multiple game-stopping situations throughout my play time. Most famously, there was even a bug right in the middle of the opening tutorial (since fixed) that stopped players about halfway through. You couldn’t play for five minutes without hitting a show stopper, meaning that the tutorial, itself, could never be completed. That is both unfortunate and telling. The developers have done a good job of squashing the bugs, and, to be fair, my play experience has improved with each update. But we’re not talking about an amazing turnaround here. Just a loooooong slooooooow process – one that’s taken over a year’s time if you consider PQ to be a re-skinned WoM.
The graphics are fine. You’re not gonna show off the game to relatives for what can be done on a mobile device. As I said, the icons are often too small or unclear. The screen gets very crowded, holding back both interaction and comprehension.
The best compliment I can give is that the game is not ugly. It’s one of those things where I feel like if the developers had gone for more of a distinct art style – even one far less detailed and high definition – the game might actually look good. As it is now, everything just looks generic and unappealing. On the other hand, the units have some nice animations. Again, that’s great, but I’d have traded less sword tossing for something more functional.
The sound is also a mixed bag. I didn’t make it more than five minutes before shutting off the music, but I’ll admit that’s more of my own tolerance level for background tunes than any critique of the compositions. It would be nice to have more than two pieces playing, one for overmap the other for battle, but at least turning it off is easy enough. The sound effects on the other hand… Some of it sounds nice. The clang of metal is satisfying. The death screams, though, are hilarious and not in an intentional way. Aaarrrrgh!
This is the point where, ordinarily, I’d say that for those looking for 4X on the go, PQ might be worth at least a look-see. It’s not a bad game, just a frustrating one, and there may be some fun, buried in there somewhere.
Unfortunately, I can’t really say that, and there are two reasons why.
One is the bugs. Yes, the developer has released several updates so far, and I have no doubt there are more improvements to come. In fact, with the most recent updates, I’d go so far as to say that PQ is basically in the state that the developers intended you to play it in. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s fun to play. This is a game that is more caterpillar than butterfly, and I just don’t trust the devs to give it the time and attention it needs to change and grow.
As I said above, Wastelands Interactive’s previous game was Worlds of Magic, a PC-only 4X that has it’s share of fans (Troy) and detractors (Rob. Most other human beings). What most can agree on though is that WoM launched a wreck and, while much improved, is still kind of messy. Instead of working to make the game better, however, Wastelands has simply dropped WoM, as is, and gone off to work on a completely new game. That game is Planar Conquest. Now PQ is out and in need of love, but Wastelands is already talking about the next project – porting PQ back to the PC where it will, somehow, make up for all the mistakes of WoM.
At this point, I’m reminded of the stereotypical 70’s sitcom dad, beginning major projects throughout the house and leaving all of them unfinished. He starts on the leaky sink, the hole in the wall, the busted antenna and finishes none of them, actually leaving things in worse shape than when he found them. At this point, I just don’t trust Wastelands to do what is necessary – just focus on the one game and make it great.
Problem number two is price. I don’t usually ding games for cost because, well, my money is not your money and what’s expensive to you might be cheap to me and vice versa. Also, I’m a big believer in indie developers and I want them to make money. Preferably lots of money! That way they can, y’know, keep making games.
PQ, however, I feel has a pricing problem that goes beyond subjective affordability. The game is available right now for $12.99 on the App Store. On Steam, that’s a nice price, affordable even. On iPad, where even full featured experiences can go for $4.99, that is really super expensive. Still, for a good-sized game with a lot of depth and replay value, 13 bucks isn’t completely crazy.
But you’re not getting the full PQ for $12.99. Oh no. Of the seven available planes for play in the game, your thirteen bucks gets you three of them. One. Two. Three. Of the eight available races, only four are included in the base game – Humans, Undead, and two kinds of Elves. And each additional option must be purchased individually. Want to play as Dwarves on the fire world? That’s two more purchases right there. Each individual item is around $3 a pop. There is an option buy everything for $19.99. But then, I thought I’d already bought the whole thing for $13… This is insane. To put it in context, the standard iPhone game price is a Honda Civic. The base purchase for PQ is… Let’s say a BMW. The full game? That’s Lamborghini territory and this bad boy don’t drive like no Lambo
Most modern publishers have figured out that there are really two price models on the App Store. You can charge people one big sum and give them everything or you can charge them next to nothing and then nickel and dime them for content. Planar Conquest does both and it’s actually physically sickening to behold. To spend more than three times what most mobile games cost, only to see those little closed padlocks over multiple options is just maddening.
For their part, the developers say that you can play a full game of PQ without the upgrades, which is sort of true. I’d argue that a lot of what’s locked behind the paywall does affect gameplay. For example, you can only ever have three opponents, at most, in the game, because of the limits on available planes. So yeah, you can play the game – a somewhat crippled, clearly limited version.
All of that adds up to a purchase I just cannot recommend at this point. As always, YMMV, but personally, I’m going to have to keep waiting to realize my dream of a new Master of Magic, rising from the ashes of the old to something great and glorious.
Troy’s Additional Perspective
While I agree with everything Joshua wrote above, I do see a lot of potential here for Planar Conquest. Like a lot of people, I really wanted the developers to put the time into fixing Worlds of Magic, but I also understand (and respect) their rationale for moving on to PQ. Making a mobile game was part of their original Kickstarter goals and I think the devs deserve a lot of credit for sticking to it.
PQ isn’t perfect, but I’ve enjoyed my time with the game and the devs have done a lot to squash the bugs. When it moves back to PC, I’ll be waiting to give PQ another shot, cautiously optimistic about where the franchise is headed. Of course, if the series continues to be a bug-filled mess or the developers can’t stay focused on making the game great, I’ll rethink my leanings toward the game. But, for now, I think there’s a deep, modern, mobile 4X here that will stand out amongst the older or less developed strategy games on tablet. Worth enough to give it a look in any case. It’s only 12.99 on AppStore, which is cheap compared to most 4X games on PC, with in-app purchases that range from $2.99 each or as a complete package for $19.99.
TL;DR: Planar Conquest is a Master of Magic clone for the iPad that tries hard to be a complete 4X experience but falls short for me. With poor controls, overstuffed design, buggy gameplay and In-App Purchases, the game truly is a clone in the most sci-fi manner – an imperfect copy of the original with all of the baggage and none of the benefits.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You like the idea of a 4X game on mobile
- You like a game with a ton of different features
- You can easily overlook things like graphics and functionality
- You want to support the international indie gaming community
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- You need a polished experience
- You struggle with touchscreen interfaces
- You want a lot of strategic depth
- IAP makes you PO’d
Joshua has played for 15+ hours on an iPad Air 2 with a 64 GB hard drive.
Disclosure: Joshua was given a product key at no cost by the developer for the purposes of review.