Does Warlock: Master of the Arcane understand the art of war?

, | Games

Warlock isn’t really a game about diplomacy any more than it’s a game about city building. There’s diplomacy in here, but like the city building, it sits in the back seat while you fling spells and command armies. City building is there as a support system for your armies. And diplomacy is there to determine against whom to direct your armies. Or to ignore and just direct your armies against everyone. Which is what I’m doing now. I’m at war with everyone.

However, none of them are being aggressive. Is that because the AI is too meek? Let’s see how it responds to an invasion. I’ve decided to pick on my closest neighbor. He’s a wizard named Rjakh, who I mainly think of as the pink wizard because he’s pink. How hard can it be to beat a pink wizard?

In a Civilization game, I would march units into his territory and lay siege to his city. If I brought enough units of the right mix, I’d prevail. That’s not how Warlock works. Because when you correctly do a one unit per hex game, the strategic level map is also the tactical playing field. That’s a whole other kind of war than marching stacks up to city walls and letting your unit mix take over.

After the jump, Warlock’s AI at war

There are three playable races in Warlock. The units available to each race have important differences. For instance, the undead start with skeleton warriors and skeleton archers. These guys are different from human units in various ways, but let me explain two crucial differences.

1) Skeletons require mana for upkeep instead of food. In a game as a human, you have to develop your cities to provide food for your units and population. Food is a constant limiter on the size of your empire and army. But with skeletons, you can ignore farms to focus on magic, letting your skeleton army drink your extra mana. A smart wizard will have plenty of extra mana. What’s more, any food left over can go to supplementary armies. For instance, my wizard can summon bears. Bears are hungry for food, and I’m happy to feed them the extra food I don’t need.

2) Skeletons come with an inherent resistance to missile weapons. As anyone who knows a Harryhausen from a handsaw can tell you, arrows fly right between a skeleton’s ribs! In Warlock, this means ranged fire only does a third of its regular damage to a skeleton. In the early game, the difficult part about capturing cities is the city’s inherent defenses. But since these defenses are all missile damage, skeletons can waltz up to a city with little difficulty.

This makes the early game for an undead player absolutely unlike the early game for a human player, who has to march his armies on their stomachs and provide lots of meat shielding when approaching a city.

As the game progresses, the advanced undead still have plenty of unique units. Zombies have a metric ton of hit points, but they eat food — sorry bears! — and they’re fleshy — mind the arrows! Zombies are expensive, so I’ve only got one zombie army. It sallies forth with a mess of skeletons. They advance on the pink capital, a huge fortress named Mortimorum. But suddenly the pink wizards own skeletons and swarms of bats come tumbling out of the fog of war. So I spread out and try to push through them. Easier said than done. Now we’ve got a solid battle line. A front. It’s like World War I or the Eastern Front or UniWar on the iPhone.

My right flank is anchored by my zombies, and the AI knows enough not to waste its archer fire on my skeletons. So every turn, the zombies play pincushion to a bunch of Rjakh’s arrows. Normally, I’d have to focus my spellcasting on healing the zombies, but these guys have regeneration due to the Shrine of the Rotten Pumpkin I built on the pumpkin patch over in Madruid, a goblin city I captured. This lets me buy a perk called Hill’o’Win for healing every turn. Furthermore, these zombies have the first aid perk from leveling up. Zombies smart enough to do field dressings? Go figure. But however it happens, these already hearty zombies heal damage every turn. This right flank isn’t going anywhere, at least not because of enemy archers.

My left flank is anchored by ghosts, another advanced undead melee fighter. Ghosts are immune to melee and missile damage. That’s right, immune. As in, they take 0% of the damage. Furthermore, all the damage they inflict is magical death damage. Sweet! Oh, wait, no it isn’t. Undead units are immune to death damage. As in, they take 0% of the damage. So my right flank is an immoveable object meeting an irresistible force. Armies staring at each other without the ability to do any damage. Occasionally someone plinks a point or two of damage from frost weapons, a common spell that gives a unit a smidge of elemental damage. But the left flank is mostly nothing neither way.

And that’s where the mages come in! The city of Westeroak is my college town. It’s got a mana trap, a mana bazaar, a library, a university, an enchanter’s workshop, and a wizard’s guild. It’s a serious drain on my economy. Higher education ain’t cheap. But when I can afford it, Westeroak spits out some hard-hitting mages. The battle for Mortimorum isn’t going anywhere with all these skeletons, zombies, and ghosts rattling and moaning to little effect. But with mage’s behind the lines flinging powerful elemental attacks and occasional long range ice arrows on a three-turn cooldown timer, things are definitely turning in my favor. His losses are much greater than my losses. I’m pushing forward. Mortimorum will be mine.

The problem is that Rjakh has made a lot of bat armies. Bats are pesky, but easily dispatched when they arrive singly. However, when a half dozen of the flapping nuisances show up, working their way around my flanks and hellbent on attacking my mage, they’re not so easily dispatched. Furthermore, some of his advanced bats have a vampire ability that heals them as they do damage.

It’s a classic instance of artillery vs. cavalry. Usually, cavalry wins. So I have to fall back and entrench along a line of hills and forests. Meanwhile, Rjakh keeps cycling out his wounded units to move forward rested reinforcements. Since when can an AI do that? Since when can an AI move cavalry around flanks? Since when can an AI direct fire where it’s most effective? Since when can an AI focus its debuffs on my powerful mages? Since when can an AI mount a defense this competent?

It’s a lovely thing to watch. Here is a game built around tactical combat. And here is an AI opponent that knows how to play the tactical combat. I never saw anything like this in Civilization V, a game whose design was based on the idea of one hex per tile.

But what really seals the deal for me is when some uninvited guests show up along my left flank. Somehow a couple of crazily powerful named units decided to bust up the party, arriving through a magic portal to another world that I’m not yet powerful enough to settle. They started attacking both of us like some interdimensional pissed off UN force that can’t be arsed with the whole negotiation thing. Here come the insanely powerful Paladins of Death, accompanied by some sort of wicked named werewolves called the Hounds of Pellas. They chop through my skeletons and Rjakh’s skeletons indiscriminately. My ghosts who had stood their ground for literally dozens or turns easily fall to the Hounds’ elemental weapons. The Paladins of Death peel off and attack a small pink city near the capital. I decide it’s time to withdraw. I pay a healthy sum of my extra mana to sue for peace and I fall back, letting Rjakh deal with his new guests.

If there’s one thing more lovely than watching an AI mount a competent defense, it’s watching the AI treat another AI player the same way it treats you. As to whether Warlock can mount a competent offense, that remains to be seen. But so far, this is exactly what an AI needs to do in a strategy game: understand the game’s design, and play accordingly.