One of the reasons I love real time strategy games is because they’re like toy boxes. When you’re a kid, lifting the lid on a toy box is a wonderful moment of possibility. What will you choose to pluck out today? Where will you put it? How will you use it? Will you array a handful of stormtroopers against Han and Chewie? Will Luke fight Greedo? Will a diecast 57 Chevy figure into the action? And what if you throw a swarm of small plastic dinosaurs into the mix? That’s the unfettered kid mind at work. Real time strategy games, at their best, tap into that mindset, but governed by adultly rules about resource allocation and thematic unity and mutually exclusive choices and unit balance and effective interfaces.

When a game of Conquest of Elysium 3 starts, I feel much the same way as I feel when I start a great real time strategy game: here is a wonderful moment rich with possibility. Never mind that Conquest of Elysium 3 is turn-based and visually roughhewn. It’s a generous toy box governed by adultly rules.

After the jump, toy story

Conquest of Elysium 3 is the creation of a tiny Swedish developer called Illwinter Game Design. It’s basically two people, most recently known for a series of games called Dominions. These games were vehicles for their richly imaginative fantasy worlds, cannily expressed in bald math and small clusters of pixels. However modest their production values may have been, however difficult it was to wrap your head around their interfaces, however likely it is that you’ve never heard of their games, their imagination was top-of-the-line AAA stuff. These are the kinds of guys you want running a D&D campaign.

But Dominions 3 was mainly a multiplayer game, and a demanding one at that. You had to really invest time and attention, particularly if you wanted to get to the bottom of the labyrinthine rabbit hole of magic and crafting. I have literally hundreds of pages printed out and arranged in one of those three-ring binders that would normally hold insurance reports or something you have to read in law school. And I punched the holes in those pages myself. But short of test games against the disappointing AI and the occasional multiplayer trouncing from people whose level of investment went far beyond using a three-hold punch on a stack of pages, Dominions often held me at arm’s length. I felt like the younger brother told to go play with his Star Wars figures while the older kids play D&D.

And here’s where Conquest of Elysium 3 really comes into its own. It’s a pared down version of Dominions’ mechanics, but without sacrificing one iota of that games imaginative power. It’s the nearly perfect solution for someone who wants to play with Illwinter’s wonderful toys, to experience the world behind their bald math and small clusters of pixels, but without keeping a three-ring binder of spell lists and magic items. It’s a place to grow a fantastical army and march it around a fantastical randomly generated map, discovering fantastical places and battling fantastical enemies. It’s the older kids letting you play D&D with them.

Do you see a recurring theme here? For all the sophistication of Illwinter’s games, there’s something childlike about the sense of wonder and discovery they offer, partly because they rely on letting your imagination mingle freely with theirs. Mad necromancers, weird dwarven queens, Lovecraftian flopping things, powerful haughty wizards, harsh legionnaires, trolls, blind cave orcs, inviolable giants decked out in magic armor, god-like dragons, all incapable of being captured by Todd McFarlane or R.A. Salvatore, because this world arrives directly into your imagination by way of math and rules. Remember reading, or playing tabletop RPGs, or the best games on the Commodore 64 or Apple II, or text adventures? Illwinter’s games sure do.

Conquest of Elysium 3 is not the sort of deep long-term strategy game as one of the Civilizations. You never really build anything except armies. You’re not founding cities or managing empires. But neither is it the sort of canned puzzle strategy game as a Heroes of Might & Magic. There’s no ideal solution to any given game and there are certainly no corridors passing for maps. Conquest of Elysium 3 exists in its own wide space. Think of yourself as a fantasy conquistador, leading a small army out into a randomly generated hostile world. It’s all about discovering the map, beating back armies, protecting your territory, and growing your own army. Could this be a latter day Seven Cities of Gold? And would you even know what I mean when I suggest that?

Not to say the game isn’t demanding. It’s definitely one of those games where you have to read the manual. When was the last time you did that? You also have to accept a lot of randomness, and not just during the hands-off battles (although there is some gratifying magic management that reminds me ever-so-slightly of a card collecting game). Many games you’ll lose before you really get started. Oops. Other games you’ll hardly break a sweat because you got a great starting location, or maybe the AI factions suicide themselves before you even meet them. These are short matches, almost throwaway to a fault because there’s no persistence, or scoring system, or even a post-game debriefing. The end of a game of Conquest of Elysium 3 will be a crushing disappointment even when you win.

I don’t mind in the least the game’s modest production values, but I do wish that Illwinter was more hip to certain modern game design principles, like how to play us out of a game. There are also various problems with the interface that have been solved wonderfully in other games. Although Conquest of Elysium 3 is primarily a single-player exploration game, more options for multiplayer could have made it so much more. These things are all the more disappointing because the game has so much to offer. This should have been the Illwinter game for everyone. Instead, it’s mostly the Illwinter game for people who aren’t quite ready for Dominions.

4 stars
PC

(Click here for the Conquest of Elysium 3 game diary.)