In Warhammer Quest, the emperor has no dice
I was several missions into Warhammer Quest before something dawned on me that must be obvious to a lot of you. Warhammer Quest is based on a boardgame. Which explains a lot. But what it doesn’t explain is why this is such a terrible boardgame port.
After the jump: Smokey, this is not Nam
Warhammer Quest is certainly a good looking game, and I’d expect no less from the folks who made Hunters, an X-Com style game cannily adapted to the iPad in terms of visuals, interface, and even gameplay. Developer Rodeo Games certainly knows how to get the most out of looking down at dudes from the top. It was trivially easy to poke and swipe your way to exciting firefights with colorful aliens. And I sure did enjoy figuring out the best gun for the job for any given soldier.
Furthermore, Rodeo has a good sense for how to draw out character advancement in a partly gear-based RPG. As with Hunters, the characters in Warhammer Quest level up slowly enough that each new ability feels meaningful, and the loot matters. Each adventure inches you that much closer to something potentially cool. Along the way, there’s some hearty sword slicing, arrow thwipping, and shadow bolting. Sometimes you fail, and that’s part of the deal. There’s even a hardcore mode in which failure is actually failure.
But Hunters wasn’t based on a boardgame. The developers at Rodeo Games thought it up specifically for the iPad. That’s probably why it was so good. But for whatever reason, a lot of what happens in Warhammer Quest seems to happen because that’s how it worked in the boardgame, but without any of the boardgame’s clarity, without any of its inherent aboveboardness. Who ports a boardgame and then hides the rules? Especially an old boardgame like this, apparently from a time before boardgames got to be as good as they are now? Warhammer Quest, a simple little ditty from 1995, is certainly no Descent, Mage Knight, or Runewars.
For instance, when my warrior takes a swing, he misses sometimes. I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is not knowing why. How often is he supposed to hit? Was I rolling against that spider’s defense? Or his toughness? I’m not fighting a spider. Instead, I’m fighting a package of inscrutable gameplay mechanics shaped like a spider. In other words, nothing whatsoever like a boardgame. Imagine moving all your armies into a territory in Axis & Allies. You just move them. I’ll let you know whether they won or lost. Don’t worry about the whys and wherefores. I’ll handle all that for you. You just admire the little tanks.
So it is with my spells and abilities. Sometimes my warrior goes berserk and attacks everyone nearby. I have no idea how often this is supposed to happen. Is a die being rolled? A card being drawn? A tile being turned over? What makes my warrior go berserk? When I play boardgames, I know this. When I play this iPad version of the Warhammer Quest boardgame, I have no idea. It’s just something he does from time to time, like a weird uncle blurting out something inappropriate during a holiday gathering. Don’t mind him. He does that sometimes.
Every interface element seems almost apologetic. There’s no indication whether or how far a character has moved, or who has attacked and who hasn’t attacked, so you get to tap around to check who can still do something. Tap, tap, tap. Oh, you can still attack! The hit point bars don’t give you any indication how many hit points a dude has, which is part of the job of any good hit point bar. Do I really have to swipe up on a tiny tab to see the few usable items my character is carrying? Is screen real estate at such a premium these days? Because, frankly, once you’ve seen one modular dungeon room, you’re pretty much seen them all.
Probably the most baffling example of Warhammer Quest’s reluctance to reveal its boardgaming roots is the basic turn structure. I’m going to guess that in the Warhammer Quest boardgame — I promise I didn’t look this up! — you draw a card every turn to see how much mana your wizard gets. It can range from zero to six points. So naturally you want to wait around after a battle to draw enough mana to heal everyone, right? But it seems that sometimes a monster card comes up, which means your wizard gets zero mana and now you have to fight more monsters. This has the effect of rushing you along down the corridors towards the final encounter. And sometimes a bunch of monsters teleport suddenly into your midst.
But this isn’t explained anywhere in the iPad version. Instead, a box labeled Winds of Magic simply displays a number. That’s it. I have no idea if this is a die roll or if it’s a deck of cards. If it’s either of those, I have no idea what faces the die has or how many of any given card are in the deck. Warhammer Quest presumes that I don’t need to know this.
The presumption is entirely wrong. The reason I should know these things is because without them, without mechanics informing my decisions, without telling me the rules of the game and therefore why things happen, this is just a black box adventure generator. And a superficial one at that, despite clots of text popping up from time to time. This is a simple game about walking down halls in which not much happens. It’s not even beer and pretzels. It’s Diet Pepsi and old pita bread.
It’s amusing how sometimes seemingly random things happen. My elf catches Nurgle’s Rot and gets -1 toughness for the next dungeon. Ha ha. Wait, what does toughness do? My dwarf gambled away a bunch of our money at the tavern. Typical. But these only go so far when I don’t care about the characters — all pre-named, by the way — because I’m effectively shut out of the gameplay mechanics and therefore I don’t have the information I need to make decisions about them. Should the elf get closer before he shoots for a better chance to hit? How likely is the wizard to get enough mana for his healing mist next turn? Why are my hit points called wounds? What does strength do? Because I have this +1 strength ring and I have no idea who to give it to. Ooh, this axe has the feature “chance to slam”. Unfortunately, “chance to slam” is entirely unexplained. What chance? And what does slam mean? Warhammer Quest thinks I don’t care. Fair enough, Warhammer Quest. Because now I don’t care.
Furthermore, this is a worst-case scenario in terms of its business model. Worse even than the confused money grabs peppered throughout Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol, because you’ve already paid for Warhammer Quest by the time it starts trying to sell you stuff. More adventures, for instance. What’s worse, whenever you start a dungeon, you get to pick four characters. Since only four characters come with the game, there’s nothing to pick. But three additional characters are sold separately, as is made amply clear on the select character screen. So basically, every dungeon begins with a commercial for the paid DLC. If only the game mechanics were as clearly laid out as the business model.