Before Total War, 1997 Blessed Us With Lords of Magic
Eight faiths duke it out in a land grab while Death looks on
Turn-based strategy mixed with real-time battles set in a fantasy universe?
The question might remind you of Total War's success at bolstering the Warhammer franchise with its formula of clashing nations and dragons flanking gun sleighs. But before Creative Assembly's first Total War entry in 2000, developer Impressions Games tried their hand at weaving these threads together.
Lords of Magic (1997) didn't get there first. They were built on the shoulders of Heroes of Might and Magic II (1996) and Lords of the Realm II (1996).
Lords of Magic whisks you away to the world of Urak and tasks you with beating Balkoth, the Lord of Death. Urak is split into 8 Tolkien-inspired regions, featuring terrain favoring one of 8 faiths. And yes, Death is one of those faiths and you get to be Balkoth once you beat the game.
Picking a faith places you in a location attuned to your strengths, granting movement and attack speed bonuses. But don't get homesick, your mages (and those of your rivals) can alter the terrain to your advantage.
The other seven faiths also join the colorful chessboard to defeat Death and protect their kingdoms.
Strong in faith, strong in resolve
Faiths are an integral component of the game, blending Pokémon-esque strengths and weaknesses with the proposition of nuanced army composition. While all faiths promise the same classes of archers, infantry, riders, and creatures, each faith has its own set of priorities.
While Earth's tenants aren't as quick as those of Fire, the former's defense stats make a dragon blush.
Sea-scouring ships and fleet-footed scouts round out the units at your disposal. But not all units are born equal. Chaos' wild cat scouts can't fly like the seagulls that volunteer for Water scout duty.
Fleeing on wings is better than getting caught in your rival's front yard.
Water even has female Lizardmen. But I digress.
Upon my end, shall I begin?
The game gives you a small band of warriors and drops you near a desecrated great temple. Every other faction starts off the same way, but with twice as many troops. Your first task is to chase your home's invaders away and wipe off the cobwebs from your deity's statues. With a city and its people behind you, the real mission of rebuilding your faith takes center stage.
Armies don't come cheap. But worry not, discounts exist.
While regular troops cost ale, crystals, coins, and followers, mercenaries drop the follower cost and demand expensive upkeep. Spending a fortune on the latter isn't the wisest course of action. But dead men can't claim salaries.
Mercs make for great meat shields, be it trading blows with faithless marauders or faithful rival factions.
The sacrifices didn't faze little Antony in primary school.
Lords of Magic keeps the numbers simple when it comes to sustaining your crusade. Followers earned from battles can be assigned to generate a trickle of any resource. To fill up your coffers and earn followers/fame, liberating breweries and crystal mines is a more optimal course of action.
Your real threat is Death, the faction
While you can conquer faiths to gain access to their units, there's another path.
Diplomacy lets you trade supplies and troops with factions besides Death. But your rivals aren't simpletons. You're always one shoddy trade deal away from a full-blown assault.
They'll soften your garrisons with cheap units, send spies to kidnap lone heroes, and won't spare your Lord in a fistfight.
These enemies aren't the smartest defenders though, leaving only token guards in their cities. Just remember that the faith opposite to yours (like Order and Chaos) would rather extend a blade than a welcoming hand. And when that happens, you don't get the luxury of waiting a turn.
Battles switch the gameplay to guarding your real-time rear against spears and spells.
Lords of Magic featured nuanced real-time combat back in 1997
There's a fair bit more to Lords of Magic combat than right-clicking on enemies. Hitting "berserk" will drop a unit's defense to zero and buff up its attack while archers can trade attack speed for accuracy. With a pause button at your disposal, you can even parry attacks by hitting "defend" at the right time.
It's a shame the game doesn't explain any of this in-depth. All primary school me did was right-click.
Or hit autocalc to calculate the outcomes of battles.
Units flinch as they take damage so archers are great at keeping enemies busy. But their low health makes them tempting targets for your foes. Defend them with warriors and toss in the occasional razzle-dazzle with mage support.
Keep them alive long enough and your troops will level up to become formidable threats. High-level troops can also lecture recruits on the art of war.
Parties belonging to a faith must be accompanied by a Champion or Lord, powerful chess pieces that can tilt fights in their favor. These warriors, mages, and thieves come with unique skills and traits. I'm talking close-quarters stabbing, turning your foe (or yourself) into a cow, or straight-up kidnapping other heroes for coin.
Mind you, you can't turn your new cow back into a mage, courtesy of Chaos' chance-based sorcery.
Lose your Lord and your faith will be wiped from the game. The same goes for the other factions, except that their remaining troops will make a beeline for your capital (cue bloodthirsty seagulls). But befriend a rival faith and liberate their great temple for an extra Lord, ready to serve as an heir.
You'll be seeing that defeat screen often, with Lords of Magic meeting and sometimes one-upping Nintendo's difficulty standards.
Lords of Magic revels in the bizarre
What sets Lords of Magic apart from its competitors is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Chaos uses a gladiator arena to train units, injuring them in the process. Death literally says "Countless have died to join our order, and countless more will continue to try!"
Did I mention the bloodthirsty seagulls?
It serves up peak fiction that makes for some memorable encounters.
The sheer depth on offer is staggering. You can approach the game as a peace-loving mystic or a crusader mowing their rivals' doormats with swords. Eight races with their own nuances make for countless possibilities. Lords of Magic even had multiplayer.
Storybook start and end aside, there's a lot going on between the pages. But not all of it is a midsummer's night dream. Like calculating man-hours for your mages researching spells (required man-hours/number of mages x 24 x number of days).
Or making a coffee as you wait for seven factions to finish their turns.
Lords of Magic isn't a game where you double-click the icon, pray and spray your assault rifle into cardboard cutouts and call it a day. You're gonna struggle without the game's 100-page manual and a couple of trial runs.
Someone even made a unit comparison page on GitHub.
The tool highlights how the game's eight races aren't entirely unique, with units occupying the same classes with different stats. The battles themselves tend to grow long in the tooth, prompting an extensive use of the autocalc ability to sidestep fights altogether. Lords of Magic is worth a cursory look, despite its aged visuals. Quirks aside, it's a mashup of genres that succeeds at what it tries to do.
Critics of the time saw the game in a darker light but they didn't have rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia skewing their scores.
Lords of Magic is an escape I'd pick with only a teaspoon of hesitation, even today.
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