Friday, July 03, 2009

Conquest! Medieval Realms Review

Conquest! Medieval Realms, developed by Illustrious Software and published by Slitherine Software.
The Good: Simple yet deep mechanics involving territorial control and unit placement, random map generator and an editor suite, lengthy campaigns, challenging, multiplayer game browser
The Not So Good: Old hex-based graphics that lack some interface features, disabling advanced rules creates stalemates, too simplistic for genre veterans
What say you? A straightforward and approachable turn-based strategy game for novice players that has a nice amount of content: 6/8

During the Middle Ages, before both television and the Internet, there wasn't much to do. So, people decided to embark upon two noble goals: (a) spread plague and (b) kill others. Conquest! Medieval Realms is a turn-based strategy game involving the latter exploit, although I suspect a plague-based computer simulation might be enjoyable as well. Here, you are fighting for control of the land by moving units around, placing structures, and making the enemy tremble under your extreme strategic prowess. Most hex-based games are insanely complicated affairs intended for a hardcore audience, but Conquest! Medieval Realms resorts to a simple economy and static, understandable unit relationships. Does this approach work?

The best thing you can say about the graphics of Conquest! Medieval Realms is that it looks like a table-top board game. The worst thing you can say about the graphics of Conquest! Medieval Realms is that it looks like a table-top board game. Now, I have no problem with evoking the feeling of moving figurines around a hex board, but there are some enhancements that a computer game should introduce, namely in the interface. Overall, the game does a capable job showing the battlefield, with large icons for troops that turn gray when moved and easy to identify hex properties. However, here are a list of my demands. First, units need a small indicator showing their type and level: it took me several games to differentiate between level one and two cavalry units, for example. Secondly, a list of all your towns would be helpful on large maps; the minimap indicates units that can still move and towns that have money to spend, but this is somewhat limiting for expansive battles. Also, it would be nice if the game could indicate which zones can be invaded using the currently selected unit. Finally, Conquest! Medieval Realms lacks end game stats, instead displaying a simple “you are victorious” message. That is all. As for the sound design, we have minimal effects (namely the same twelve sounds over and over again) for combat and a pleasing three-minute song for background music that evokes a feeling of war...or ballroom dancing, I forget which. Overall, Conquest! Medieval Realms delivers exactly what I was expecting for an independent hex-based game: minimal at best.

Conquest! Medieval Realms takes place in the Middle and/or Dark Ages, and centers around two famous wars: Roses and Hundred Years. You get thirty scenarios unlocked in a linear fashion spread over four campaigns, one for each side in both wars. They rarely repeat and offer a nice variety in approach and strategy; the level of difficulty will also keep you playing for a while. Conquest! Medieval Realms also has skirmish matches against up to seven AI opponents for control of a randomly generated map, always an important feature in any good wargame. You can customize the size of the map (on a scale from one to five) and how much impassable water there is. If random isn't your thing, Conquest! Medieval Realms also includes thirteen pre-designed maps for various game sizes, although the random map feature is more than sufficient. There are some issues with the skirmish games: the game does not indicate which map size is appropriate for different numbers of players and the game never automatically saves your progress (having the option to save every five turns would be great). In addition, Conquest! Medieval Realms gives you the option of playing with advanced rules “off” (which is what the demo uses), which is really dumb. This is because the level 3 melee units have no counter and can only be defeated by cutting off territory. It does make the game easier to handle (which is the point), but it's too easy to the point of inanity. A new patch added the ability to browse for games online, always an important feature for any Internet-enabled game. The game's “tutorial” is simply three non-interactive screens with very basic information, but it's better than the online manual, but still leaves some questions unanswered (like combining units). Conquest! Medieval Realms comes back strong, however, with the complete suite of editors for the game: maps, scenarios, and campaigns can all be created with ease from inside the game. The scenario editor lets you adjust options like starting cash and choose from eleven objectives, such as capture tile, kill unit, and territory size. There is really a lot of flexibility here that should add to the game's longevity. Despite my complaints, Conquest! Medieval Realms really does have a lot of features for $20.

Your goal? Control 80% of the map (unless, of course, you are playing a scenario game with different objectives). You start out with randomly assigned territories (unless, of course, you are playing a scenario game) that are treated as separate entities, each earning an income equal to the number of hexes it contains. Your first goal will probably be to join up smaller provinces so that they can consolidate their cash and combine upgrades. You will need to build stables on flat land to produce cavalry, and archery ranges in forest for ranged units. You can also mine on hills and establish markets for additional income, although each additional mine or market is more expensive than the last. You will also need towers and castles for defense, which prevent level 1 and level 2 (respectively) units from getting near them. Since buildings have no upkeep, it's sometimes better to place towers and castles instead of defending troops, especially against low-level foes. Of course, since they lack upkeep, they are spammed late in the game, introducing some annoying tedium as you grind away at every...single...darn...castle the AI has built. Since each unit and building controls their surrounding hexes, there is quite a bit of strategy involved in where to place units and buildings.

Speaking of units, there are three types: spear beats cavalry, cavalry beats ranged, and ranged beats spear. There is no chance involved with combat: units will automatically defeat their counter and any unit of a lower level. Each unit requires upkeep beyond the initial cost. If you can't meet upkeep, all units disappear; this makes spitting a territory in two a viable strategy to eliminate high-level units from the map using low-level equipment if the other player is not paying attention. You can also combine units to make more powerful ones (something both the in-game tutorial and online manual fail to mention); while it's cheaper than spending cash on new ones, it leaves you with less units to distribute among your empire.

I like how Conquest! Medieval Realms uses simple rules to produce a compelling strategic effect. This is a game involving territorial control: placing you units to block incoming raids and take advantage of enemy weaknesses. Units can move into any any adjacent hex to their territory during their turn, even if they are nowhere near it. I like this convention, as it makes defending a large, spread-out empire actually possible. An interesting and common strategy is to split territories in order to make units disappear, as you will separate high-upkeep units from mines, markets, and income-producing tiles. It's a nice simplification of supply lines that is frankly too sophisticated (meaning confusing) in many other hex-based games. Conquest! Medieval Realms has several layers of overlying strategy that makes for a simple but deep gameplay experience. There is no chance or luck, since the rules of who wins are very concrete: construct units to counter others and use upper-level units for cities and castles. It may be because there are more AI players than humans, but I found the AI to be quite competent in playing the game, especially on the higher difficulty levels. The computer opponents do build a lot of castles (in place of mobile level 3 units), but they provide a nice challenge. With a lot of players, it can get tedious trying to defend yourself against attacks from multiple fronts, as the AI tends to gang up on the best player. Handing a large empire is tough, especially if you have a lot of one-hex-wide connections that can be easily taken. Thank goodness for the undo button during a turn. You must alternate between attacking and defending, and you need large area of territory to support the level 3 units that are required to take down the relatively cheap castles that multiply in number at the end of the game. Because of the low unit and structure count (six of each), the game can get repetitive after a while, but the random maps, campaigns, and challenging difficulty help to extend the life of Conquest! Medieval Realms.

Scared by hardcore wargames? Well, Conquest! Medieval Realms might be just the game for you! Although the tutorial and online manual leave a lot to be desired, the game is easy to learn thanks to straightforward, non-random combat and simple unit relationships. The random map generator is excellent, the campaigns are long, and the editors that allow you to create custom scenarios and campaigns in addition to sculpted battlefields. You can also take your skills online through the multiplayer game browser. The game features a really interesting use of control: you can split territories and cut off powerful units from their required resources, removing them (and all other units) from the territory. Even a lowly level 1 unit can do this, so it puts an emphasis on planning good defenses and knowing which units are present on the board. Deciding where to attack and which units to build is a thought-provoking and enjoyable process. The AI offers up some good competition, although it tends to focus more on spending on defensive structures instead of taking a more offensive approach. Still, the game is a good challenge, especially in the campaigns, requiring a lot of thinking to be successful. It would be nice to have some interface improvements, but this is a relatively small quibble in an otherwise well-designed game. The game's protracted number of units does come in to play eventually, where combat and strategy becomes repetitive. Thus, Conquest! Medieval Realms is really intended for beginners. I was more enthusiastic about the game until I learned about Slay, which Conquest! Medieval Realms “borrows” a lot of basic mechanics from. This game does flesh out the features by adding the three unit classes and multiple building types, but Conquest! is a bit less impressive overall than I initially thought because of the lack of total originality. Nevertheless, Conquest! Medieval Realms is still quite fun for novice strategy fans and different enough to warrant a purchase.