With only four playing pieces, how good can a game be? But developer Thoughtshelter, which is basically a fellow in Minneapolis named Kris Szafranski with a keen sense for how to balance intricacy and simplicity, has crafted a shrewd interplay of mobility, defense, and dirty tricks. These four pieces are dramatically different from each other, and since they’re druids who shapeshift into animals, they’re each technically two pieces.
After the jump, two times four is still only eight. So how good can it be?
The idea is that each unit has its basic human form: a spearman, an archer, a heavy warrior wielding a hammer, and a spellcaster. But what gives the game its flexibility — and its title — is that each unit can transform into an animal for the turn, giving it some special power or movement ability. You have to spend your mana to do this, so you’re drawing from the same resources you’d use to recruit new units. But it can be worth it to have a wolf dash around grabbing nearby land, or an eagle infiltrating the enemy’s territory, or a turtle immune to attacks, or a bear able to attack even turtles. It’s a simple but intricate system of tactical options, resource management, and territory control.
For instance, the wayfarer is the most powerful unit. Actually, scratch that. It’s the most expensive unit and the most flexible unit, but it’s just as easily trumped by the lowly guardian. But the wayfarer can do all sorts of fancy land management tricks, including simply dropping the terrain out from under a unit. And since mana income is directly related to how much territory you control, this not only means the wayfarer’s enemy lost a unit, but that he also lost a source of income. And that the map just got smaller. A Druid’s Duel reminds me a bit of a wonderful strategy game called Greed Corp where the map is both the battleground and the resource. As a match of Greed Corp progresses, players have gradually eaten away at it until they’re fighting on a smaller and smaller patch of ground. The wayfarer can move A Druid’s Duel in the same direction.
A Druid’s Duel also reminds me of Julian Gollop’s in-progress Chaos Reborn for how quickly the matches play. But unlike Chaos Reborn, where you win or lose on the whim of a die roll, A Druid’s Duel is strictly deterministic. There are no random numbers. There is never a percent chance that something will happen. You always know what the exact outcome of any given move will be. And the outcomes will almost always be decisive. This isn’t a game where units have hit points. Instead, it’s more akin to chess pieces capturing each other. Don’t get too attached to that snarlclaw holding the approach to a key bridge!
This makes for a fluid battlefield, with plenty of upsets. However, it won’t have the sudden upset you might get in Chaos Reborn when you win with a lucky 21% bow shot against the enemy wizard. Instead, you have to capture all of the other guy’s territory, which is also how much mana he has to spend. The likely outcome of a match will go back and forth, maybe several times over, but it will always eventually pick up weight and snowball over the loser. Those last few turns can be a real drag, but there’s really no way around them. These duels are actually battles to the death that are often over before they’re over. No one will think less of you for throwing in the towel with a gg.
I don’t mind the game’s whimsical graphics, but they’re certainly not a reflection of the game’s depth. While this looks like something you might play on an iPad — which reminds me, where’s the iPad version? — it’s got all the weight you need for a Serious Strategy Game. You could replace the units with grimdark grizzled wizards or steel spaceships and the strategic weight would feel just about right. But what I do mind is that the 2D can get cluttered. Without being able to manipulate the viewing angle, say to turn the map or peer down at the terrain from a different angle, it can get a bit busy when units are clustered together. And since there isn’t much ranged combat, units will often cluster together. The front lines in A Druid’s Duel can be confusing!
There’s no skirmish mode, which is a bit disappointing, since the campaign scenarios demonstrate that the AI is perfectly capable of playing the game. But with support for hotseat multiplayer — or online if you can make arrangements to meet someone — this is a fine game to play with friends. For a wonderfully plucky exercise in territory control, chess-like simplicity, mana management, landscaping, and rampaging bears, A Druid Duel has dropped its gauntlet at your feet.