Sorcerer King (SK) was one of the more innovative 4X games released in 2015. While I believe the game had some design flaws and thematic issues, there was no denying that it added something new to the genre. For Stardock, however, SK proved to be something of a disappointment, receiving a lukewarm reception and disappointing sales figures. In an attempt to breathe new life into the title, the development team whipped up a standalone expansion (expandalone) called “Rivals.”
For those unfamiliar with the expression, an “expandalone” constitutes a stand-alone expansion for a game that also includes the base game along with the new content. Therefore, you don’t need to own the base game in order to experience the new content, and generally those who own the original game can get the expandalone at a discount. Often, expandalones add new wrinkles that change the core gameplay significantly from the base game. This is true for Rivals, which is more than just a patch or minor DLC for SK – it is a reimagining of the key mechanic (the Doomsday counter) that let the titular Sorcerer King win the vanilla version of the game.
However, Rivals changes more than just the victory conditions. Rivals delivers two new factions: the militarily powerful but magically weak dwarves of the Frozen Realm, and the undead hordes of the archlich Valemor. The revised Doomsday Counter also gives you the ability to usurp the Sorcerer King’s position and ascend to godhood yourself. Do these changes improve the game or just continue SK’s mediocrity? Let’s find out.
Like the base game, Sorcerer King: Rivals has a number of premade maps as well as a random map generator. The wonderful sprinkling of unguarded treasure chests and goodie-filled bandit camps carries over into Rivals. You’ll still spend the first 10-20 turns proving your heroism on numerous minor quests, gathering up random crafting loot and easy XP just like in the original.
One of the things that had me excited about SK:R was the two new factions. The base game of SK, unfortunately, lacked replayability because you could only play as a variation of the same base human faction. There were no radically different factions with unique units or playstyles that would entice you into playing through the game again and again. Rivals responds to this criticism with the introduction of the dwarven and undead factions.
The Frozen Realm is led by the dwarven king Bazzal and uses art assets from the original game. Bazzal has the unique ability to transform any land region into arctic land (more on that in the eXpand section). The faction’s default starting hero is Giott the Marksman. He’s sort of a warmed-over Peregrin the Ranger. Giott rides around on a giant spider (an odd choice for dwarves IMO) and does what you’d expect a ranged warrior to do. While he’s nothing special, it’s nice to have a new option for custom leaders.
The second new faction is the undead, lead by Valemor the Archlich. The undead feel like a slightly more interesting option. Valemor has an ability that makes a unit impossible to kill outright, but it also gives the unit an additional mana upkeep. The faction’s default starting hero, Raza the Necromancer, has some nifty mechanics that have been improved since the base game. When enemy units die in battle, Raza gets “Death Counters.” You can spend Raza’s counters in combat to use some really powerful special abilities. This is some excellent design! Using this hero creates a game within a game that’s fun and rewarding. Too bad more heroes don’t have these kinds of mechanics. Perhaps future 4X games can take something from Rivals in this respect.
In most respects, expansion in SK:R is not much different from the original. You still can’t settle cities anywhere you want – you have to find “Fertile Land” in order to found a new city, even if you’re the new undead faction. Yep. You read that right. The undead need to be able to grow wheat or whatever to live – I guess the thematic problems the base game had continue. It would have been more sensible, to me anyway, if undead had to settle in less hospitable lands such as swamps or something. This is a shame, as giving the undead a unique settlement mechanic would have helped address SK’s problems with lack of variety.
The two new factions do add something interesting when it comes to expansion, however. If you play the undead, your area of influence changes tiles to creepy “Blue Fissure” tiles. For the dwarves, you convert the land around you to frozen tiles. The visual change is stunning and exciting. You feel like your actions are having a real impact on the world, and the graphical effects aren’t just window dressing either. The two new leaders get special abilities that can only be used on Arctic or Blue Fissure ground. Some of them are very powerful and can swing the tide in battle. This is the kind of faction design I like to see: each has its own unique look, effect on the world, and strategic options. I hope we see more of this type of development in future 4X games.
As you expand and establish new towns, the Sorcerer King and surrounding factions get upset with you for gaining territory, consistent with the original game. Ostensibly, this is to force conflict and make the game seem like it’s constantly pressuring you and is therefore exciting. The reality is that this particular game mechanic quickly starts to irritate as the smallest little thing you do to expand your foothold in the world just pisses everyone off. This is a balance problem, in my mind. Founding a second settlement should not be a big deal. I could see a third or fourth settlement drawing the King’s ire, but a BIG part of a 4X game is expanding. When you’re punished for doing that, it takes a lot of the joy out of play.
The special resources such as metal, clay, horses, etc. that were in Sorcerer King are largely unchanged in SK:R. You still accumulate one resource per node per turn, and those resources are then spent to build specific units. Of course, this is kind of a problem, because the resource system wasn’t all that inspiring in the first place. Since the game does not put enough of the right types of resources where you can access them, you are always at a disadvantage. City settlement is limited, so you have to build outposts to establish new zones of control, which means using up a lot of time and resources just to do basic stuff like build units.
I understand that resource scarcity is meant to add (again) tension to the game – but if you can’t get access to metal or horses, you’re going to be screwed by the endgame. This problem seems to be worse on premade maps, where city sites and resource nodes are often appallingly rare. With procedurally generated maps, there is at least a small chance the game will randomly put those resources within a reasonable distance of your starting city. One would think that the pre-made, designed levels, would be better balanced – but strangely that is not the case
One new aspect of exploitation is related to the undead faction. After combat, you can collect bone fragments from your enemy’s dead corpses. You can use those shards to train Risen Warriors – decent basic units that are serviceable for sword fodder or garrisoning an outpost. They can also help you survive long enough to find access to metal, crystal, or horses so you can build some decent units. Risen Warriors still cost 1 Logistics to keep in your army, which is disappointing – aside from requiring bone shards, an army of skeletons is functionally the same as any other army. It would be nice if you could just make as many skeletons as you wanted so long as you had enough bone shards in your vault. It would also be nice if the older factions got unique gameplay mechanics like this.
Diplomacy in SK:R is a bit different from the base game. A new UI allows you to communicate more directly with the other factions in the game. I have to say that the UI looks a little strange since there is so much wasted space on it. It’s rare to see a UI nowadays with so much emptiness. Anyway, the UI lets you track how you’re doing vs. the Sorcerer King in wooing these factions to your side. Getting them to join you puts you closer to victory and keeps the enemy off your back as you try to battle the big bad guy. I appreciate this addition to the game because I feel like I’m competing with the King for domination, and no longer trying the “stealthily pull the proverbial rug from underneath his feet” stratagem.
The crafting mechanics haven’t changed much from the original SK, either. You kill monsters and loot chests. You still use those ingredients to make new items once you build the requisite buildings or take the proper leader upgrade. I don’t find it a particularly engaging system, but it is necessary for gearing up your units. Thankfully, the number of units that can use items such as swords and shields has increased since SK originally launched. This makes those recipes much more critical to success than they were in the original game.
Combat is largely unchanged from SK, but that’s a good thing in this reviewer’s opinion. SK combat is fast, lethal, and full of powerful abilities, which is nice for aging gamers such as myself who may not have that much time for world domination. I have to admit that the combat is not as deep as Age of Wonders III and the auto-resolve isn’t as generous to the player as Thea: The Awakening, but all in all, the tactical, turn-based combat is a bright spot in SK:R. While it can get redundant after a time, I enjoy how fast and lethal it is compared to other fantasy 4X games such as Planar Conquest and Endless Legend. And, as mentioned previously, Raza’s combat abilities really improve the amount of fun you can have.
Unfortunately, the AI in SK:R seems like a mixed bag and I can’t tell if it’s improved or not (which isn’t a good sign!). Sometimes, it seems like there is a pathing problem in the game that causes enemy armies to get stuck on the map with no idea how to get themselves back out. Meanwhile, in the endgame, the board is flooded with the Sorcerer King’s armies, so I can’t tell if the AI is really challenging me, or if there’s just so much crap out there that armies just blunder into my cities.
The big mechanical change in SK:R has to do with achieving victory. Killing the Sorcerer King is still an option, of course. But now, you can also ascend to godhood just like your arch-rival can. Instead of destroying shards, you can cast your own Ascension spell. It took me a while to figure out how to do this, as it is not obvious in the game what you have to do. It turns out you start with the spell already in your spellbook – if you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t know where to find it.
This change to the victory conditions causes the game to devolve into a tense tug of war at the end. Instead of a Doomsday Counter, you have a crystal ball of ascension in the upper right corner. The crystal ball is filled by taking certain actions and completing quests. Once filled you compete directly with the Sorcerer King to turn the little bar under the orb green for you or red for him by casting the Spell of Ascendency over and over again. If you get two thirds of the bar green you win. If the King gets it two-thirds red, he wins.
It’s a simple system, but it makes the game more about generating lots of mana than doing typical 4X stuff. The Spell of Ascendancy spell gets more expensive to cast each time you use it, so you’re going to need a ton of mana. Because you’re throwing all your resources into mana production at the end,your leader won’t advance very much, slowing spell research to a crawl. That means you won’t be seeing much new stuff in the mid to late game – you know, the stuff that makes 4X really fun. As a result, the end often has lots of tension but not a lot of engagement. You just hole up in your cities hoping that the next casting will win it for you.
So was it worth getting Rivals?
I think in order to answer that question, we need to look at the original Sorcerer King, which had a lot of issues. The visuals were almost always at dissonance from the post-apocalyptic theme of the game. Several mechanics didn’t make sense to me. Most of all, there just wasn’t enough content in the game. Rivals addresses this somewhat by adding in two pretty cool factions, but that’s just a start. The undead design could have gone further. The new endgame gets bogged down in tedium. As much I appreciate how the new expandalone gave me new toys to play with and how it corrected issues with the original game, I’m not sure it was enough to overcome my issues with the base SK.
The biggest problem with SK:R is the same problem that the game launched with: there is just not enough content! The two new factions have a great design, IMHO, but we only get two? That’s it? This game needs 10 factions like the new ones. The heroes are okay, but only a couple are anything special. SK needs 10 heroes like Raza. Rivals is also lacking in terms of new art resources. The main menu screen is identical to vanilla Sorcerer King’s. The art for the new leaders seems like it’s just reused from something before. Perhaps worst of all, the art team couldn’t even bother to give us faction-specific artwork in the city UI. My dwarven and undead cities still look like the human faction’s Cinderella castle from Disney World!
When considering whether or not to recommend this game, you have to look at what other options are out there. At SK:R’s regular price of $29.99, you could get games like Endless Legend, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars, or Age of Wonders III. That’s some tough competition. If you already own Sorcerer King, then Rivals will only cost you $14.99. That’s cheaper than Thea, and if you already like Sorcerer King, buying Rivals probably makes sense. If you once had Sorcerer King in your cart and almost bought it but at the last second changed your mind because you wanted more content, then Rivals might (emphasis might) be enough for you to pull the trigger this time. But overall, it’s hard for me personally to recommend this game with all the mechanical annoyances it still has along with the lack of content it still needs in order to provide a lasting and enjoyable 4X experience.
Our score for the original game was kinder than the one I’m going to give Rivals. A good deal of time has passed since Rob wrote the original SK review. I think that time has shown us that Sorcerer King had an interesting idea at its core, but it doesn’t offer the variety and replay value, or the coherent execution and follow-through, to drive engagement and lasting interest. SK:R is certainly a step in the right direction – but this step is simply not big enough.
Micah’s Additional Perspective
Overall, I like the content that Rivals added to Sorcerer King, but the standalone expansion does little to correct the problems that dragged down the original release. The early game still feels slow and the AI is still basically absent. In at least two different games, I found one of the Sorcerer King’s lieutenants stuck in a corner of the map; from what I could tell he never moved the entire game. Not that it matters much – when they are not perpetually meditating on the nature of reality, the lieutenants wander about aimlessly – just as they did in the original version.
Meanwhile, the combat is still extremely repetitive. Just like the original, you quickly start to feel like you are stuck in the turn-based tactical version of Groundhog’s Day as you fight the same mix of enemy units, on the same maps, in the same formations over and over again. If the RNG doesn’t screw you over, the battles can (and sometimes do) even play out as mirror images of each other turn for turn. During one game, I actually had the pleasure of fighting the exact same battle against the Sorcerer King’s armies three times in a row. And no, ranged units still don’t have any range penalties to damage or accuracy to worry about…
The new Ascension victory condition doesn’t seem to add much to the game to me because it essentially encourages turtling – and makes the endgame less interesting. Once you understand how the mechanic works, it’s not much of a challenge to capture a few shards, turn all of your essence production to mana generation, and cast the appropriate spell as often as you can. Keep your starting army relatively close to your capital and beef it up – between the city’s defenses and your army it should be more than enough to stop the units the Sorcerer King sends against your city as you get closer to victory. While Ascension does allow the player to turn the tables on the Sorcerer King, it lacks any real tension or counterplay.
Ultimately, it’s very unlikely that SK: R is going to change anyone’s feelings about the original: if you liked Sorcerer King, get Rivals; you’ll be happy with it. But if you didn’t like the original, Rivals isn’t going to change your mind.
TL;DR: Sorcerer King: Rivals adds a few new things to the original game like new factions and some cool heroes, but not enough to truly bring SK up to the same quality as its peers. The new victory mechanics are okay, but don’t solve the real problems of the game. For those who already have SK or have wanted it in the past but haven’t bought it yet, the new standalone might be worth a buy. Otherwise, you really have to consider all your other options out there.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You already own Sorcerer King and enjoy it
- You have been close to buying Sorcerer King in the past but wanted some more factions
- You love fantasy 4X in general
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- You want a traditional 4X experience
- You want a game that supports a wide array of playstyles
- Having a ton of content is an important aspect of games you tend to buy
Troy has played 42+ hours of Sorcerer King and 10+ hours of Sorcerer King: Rivals on his Windows 10 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 was given a free copy of Sorcerer King: Rivals for the purposes of review.