I still hold that Conquest of Elysium 3 is an ugly game, and not ugly in the way of traditional roguelikes. It is ugly in the manner of a good and dear friend that could do basic grooming but chooses not to – all the game’s charm, variety and literary wit would be better revealed with greater attention paid to being able to distinguish armies at a glance, revealing enemy/independent movements in line of sight, and making the greens less identical. This is a beautifully designed game that needs a nice haircut. This isn’t about photorealism – in strategy games it never is and Unity of Command is a beautiful game by any definition. This is about believing in your world enough to draw it better or draw it down; ASCII might be an improvement over how the mines look.
But I get past looks pretty quickly if there is something to grab me in a game, and Conquest of Elysium 3 has tons of things that grab me and many of them are tied to just how brutally and suddenly it can end, especially as you learning.
Take the Witch in the screenshot above. She draws her power from fungus that you harvest from towns and old forests. These powers are then used to summon reptiles and creatures of the fen or whatever to augment your armies.
I learned quickly that they are not a good way to replace your armies. Having lost my main force, a hastily summoned force of frogs and one crocodile proved a little bit worse than useless. The end.
This is part of why CoE3 is a strategy roguelike. There is some strategy for sure – you have to choose which tiles to conquer in which order, prioritize your commanders and resource expenses and (if you encounter your enemies) the order in which you will eliminate the ‘real threats’.
But it is mostly a roguelike because the ‘real threat’ to your survival is that fatal combo of bad luck and idiot level situation analysis, like thinking that magically summoned frogs were somehow magic frogs.
The one real common thread between roguelikes and strategy games is that pushing just a little bit too far – overextending yourself one more territory, or going into debt one more turn, or opening one more door – is more often than not the cause of human failure. It’s not that the game is not conspiring against you; random generators are hardly ever generous. It’s that the penalties for your overconfidence or your foolishness will be sudden and severe.
Conquest of Elysium 3 plays quickly because it buys heavily into the Ciceronian maxim “Make haste slowly”. You can’t wait to expand because you need resources to build anything resembling an army or to use those special powers that be amazingly game changing if you can keep your finger off the button long enough. But you also can’t wander with your Hero endlessly without finding a recruiting center because your army will wear down and few of the Heroes are equipped to just build an army from scratch. (The Necromancer can, the Baron can summon defensive forces for towns, the Enchanter can build golems – but most races need towers and citadels as centers.)
Going back to the argument-that-wasn’t from last week’s podcast, Conquest of Elysium stands on its own well outside the Dominions series. Yeah, you could argue that it has the same setting or even take Bruce Geryk’s imaginative idea that these are the adventures of one particular hero in that setting. But really this is a game about archetypes and classes more than Dominions is, which is a game about themes and balance.
In Dominions, each nation is rooted in some historico-mythic past with an original spin from Ilwinter. The armies and powers are themed on this alternate universe, but all is filtered through how you create your Pretender unit and how you plan to exploit the balance or imbalance between mystical forces.
Conquest of Elysium, even if it uses some of those nations, treats them less like themed empires since the hero units are ultimately of greater importance than the leaders in Dominions 3. Their special powers are what make or break a game of CoE especially in the early going. Though Pretender and Assistant magic is very powerful and important in Dominions, it is a mid to late game thing in most instances. You start by raising armies and taking things. In CoE3, you will be experimenting with your special powers within ten turns and this makes your Hero/Captain units central to your gameplan throughout. They become less ‘the Aztec dude’ or ‘the guy with the hammer’ and more ‘the guy that can summon powerful spirits’ and ‘golem maker’.
And because failure can come so quickly, those special powers sit there sometimes, burning a hole in your pocket as you wonder if it is worth it making the long trip to a friendly settlement to raise an army. What if you run into hostile forces? Shouldn’t I spend that blood/fungus/gold/iron/pile-of-hands now, just in case?
It’s that that great gaming feeling you get when you know that a single decision could either save you or destroy you. Most of the time it does neither, but CoE3 never lets you rest. Maybe if it were better looking and clearer in places, it would lose some of that sense of foreboding or the risks would take on a different character.
But I doubt it. This is bred in the bone game design, with randomness, class, cost and risk all neatly intertwined. It is a game I will keep playing for a long time.