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The Hostile Geography of Fallen Enchantress

November 2nd, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 13 Comments · Design, Stardock

Exploration is one of the central ideas in any empire building game, and Fallen Enchantress relies heavily on uncovering what resources and settlement locations are nearby. The problem with exploring is that things may follow you home.

My scout was doing no harm, and in fact maybe a little good, when he moved outside the comfy radius of my capital city. He mapped the nearby forest and hills, found ancient battlefields and new sources of mana. Then he ran into an army of golems led by a guardian statue. This was a battle that he could not win. But it made the golem angry enough that he moved into my territory, started smacking things around and then, despite a full complement of spearmen and a hero or two, it captured my capital – my most productive and heavily armed city.

Captured is the wrong term. Wilderness creatures do not capture cities. They destroy them. For all intents and purposes, this game was over. And not that many turns after the damned thing had started.

This happens more often than I would like in Fallen Enchantress, the sequel to 2010’s Elemental: War of Magic. Make no mistake, Fallen Enchantress is a good game, a strong game with a lot to recommend it. The game world is an interesting one with diverse factions and multiple routes to victory. The world map is well drawn and haunting, even if the character and unit portraits are still hideous. The research system makes more sense than it did in the original Elemental and though the AI is completely at sea when it comes to army composition or battle tactics, it can build a strong lead in the early game and thereby pose a threat.

Fallen Enchantress often has major issues with the pacing and setup because the times of greatest tension and strategic failure are more likely to be in the opening fifty turns, that time when you should be getting things sorted for the larger battle to come over global domination. See, Fallen Enchantress is absolutely not a game that encourages casual mapping of the territory. There are no Sacagaweas escorting you around danger until you find your Promised Land. Hell, there may be no promised land at all. Once you move even slightly out of your starting area, things get very dangerous, very quickly. There are great rewards in taming the frontier, but you will pile up a body count.

As I think of games where exploration has both risk and reward (Seven Cities of Gold, Conquest of the New World, the Civilization family, etc.), it’s hard to think of many that have a world as relentlessly hostile to all comers as the one in Fallen Enchantress. Yes, the original Elemental wasn’t particularly nice, but it had a lot of low level dangers and easy quests scattered around the map to level up your hero. Plus, Elemental was much more generous with giving you places you could plop down a city – though even there cities were in danger of just disappearing when a roaming horde of monsters came by.

The problem with this hostility is that many early and midgame setbacks, like losing a major city or having a small army killed by the dragon that just decides to walk around your borders, are the sort of thing that lead me to throw my hands up and quit. I really don’t mind much if I am at war and my enemy captures a city or ambushes an army and does some damage to it. This is part of how civilized nation fight and I have a chance to fight back. But there is an arbirtrariness in Wilderness Life that means some days the dragon is just content to huff and puff and go to sleep and other days wants to swallow your nation whole. Instead of making me want to push through the difficulty, the sneak attacks by monsters merely remind me that the next time that I play the game, I better clear out every single pit before I do anything silly. Like diplomacy. Or meeting other empires at all.

It is all well and good to say that the faction diversity can help with this – some factions do have an easier time in the wilderness. But then you have to give up some other cool trait that another faction has. But it does mean that you need to come up with a strategy for using whatever bonuses your chosen faction has going for it. Until you can cross the map in peace, there is little point in thinking about the end game. This makes every empire’s strategy as distinct as the traits they must use to devise that plan.

Though the thematically similar Warlock: Master of the Arcane has some similar design ideas with wandering monsters and locations you can claim for producing specialized units, its bright colours and quickness at getting you into the real wars with real enemies make it quite different from what Fallen Enchantress has achieved. In both games, the military incompetence of the AI in most cases means that the random assaults by wandering creatures are your true impediment to expansion, in Fallen Enchantress the hostile world has both context and teeth.

It’s a bit too much to say that Fallen Enchantress makes the map itself an enemy. Some of these dens of scum and villainy are great boons to those that clear and claim them. You cannot win holed up in a corner – at least not without taking quite a roundabout strategy – and the experience you can gain from even the occasional near fatal battle against an army of wargs makes everything stronger. This is a trial by fire, though, and one that makes the geography of the maps for Fallen Enchantress the perfect embodiment of the world it claims to represent – one destroyed by chaos and one that must be rebuilt.

Fallen Enchantress is sort of the Dark Souls of strategy gaming, I guess. There is great power out there and great wealth. If you’re really lucky in your map generation/starting point roll then you could find what you need or learn the right skills to get through the first 100 turns easily. But there is a price to be paid for doing what the game commands you do. If it takes a city 13 turns to build a Fallen Legion squad, you feel the loss of every one of those turns when that squad goes down to an army that you cannot beat. Every scar and wound your hero recruits take is a reminder either of a battle well fought or of a foolish risk taken to explore that goodie chest.

And, like Dark Souls, I am quite sure that this difficulty is, to a degree, essential. It is central to the post-apocalyptic world building. It allows for new strategic thinking by remembering that a dragon big enough to eat you is also a buffer zone to enemy expansion. Despite losing cities to spiders and golems and having dragons cut a planned invasion short through burnination, I never take steps to reduce the risk or the frequency of these risks (though I can adjust them in the game setup easily.)

Fallen Enchantress may tease you with riches, but it never lets up on reminding you that this universe is one of unrelenting hostility and a broken world.


13 Comments so far ↓

  • Rob C

    There is a difference in the way Dark Souls deals out its death though. Assuming the player tackles the areas in the correct order (which one learns by trial and error or the aid of an online guide), the battles can be won if skillfully played. It sounds like in Fallen Enchantress your fate is more randomly determined. If you stumble across a beastie that is too tough and ‘wake him up’, your game can be over before it starts.

    Since it happens at the beginning of the game before much time is invested perhaps it is tolerable, but it is rarely fun to lose a game through no fault of your own. I haven’t gotten to play this one for myself yet so I’m still living vicariously through you.

  • Michael C

    I really disagree with this, I’ve played a few games have never been wiped out by the wilderness (setbacks like my army being wiped out have occurred but I can recover). I’m not playing the factions where the wilderness ignores you, perhaps just not exploring so aggressively as to trigger all the nasties.

    And there is the option to tone the wilderness down if its too dangerous.

  • Adam D

    Not surprising that it reminds me of Fall From Heaven’s brutal wilderness.

    Really torn whether to buy this now or wait till christmas when it’ll probably be discounted in the Steam sale.

  • BvG

    Fallen Enchantress is not a 4x game. It’s a RPG with strategy elements. I think it’s a step closer to an RPG then Heroes of Might and Magic. Leveling of the channeler boss character takes up all the game, whereas building cities connecting them and forging an empire is more or less superfluous. Until then suddenly you need a big army instead of a crack force of specialists, to battle other players.

    In my eyes, this is just another incarnation of the main issue of this game: It has no focus, no rhyme, and no goal. When it states goals, be it mechanical or trough text, they’re often lies or at least slightly off the spot compared to what is actually going on. The game is a mixture of random “this is cool” ideas, starting with the story, going trough the weird way quests work and the completely superfluous unit creation (Because the heroes are more important anyways), finally insulting the player with the win-conditions that seem completely disconnected from how the game actually plays.

    Which is too bad, because the world could be a inticing story, instead of a weird mess, the progression from borderlands, barely surviving village to dominating empire could work if done right, and some of the mechanics are brilliant. But still, nothing is connected, and it’s just a weird mess.

  • Bruce

    I am just fascinated by Troy talking about playing Dark Souls. How far did you get, Troy?

  • Ben

    The best thing Fallen Enchantress has done for me is rekindle my appreciation for Age of Wonders 2: Shadow Magic, though ten years old, a superior take on the genre at both tactical and strategic levels.

  • Eschatos

    I’ve found that large garrisons will make wandering monsters ignore cities, even if they could easily defeat the garrison. I was able to take a prime settlement next to a dragon, which woke up and started stomping around. Keeping six spearmen in the city was enough to make the dragon ignore it until I took out three of them for a fight elsewhere. Then there was much bloodshed and stomping.

  • MikeO

    I have only played about three hours, mostly kind of screwing around, but I think BvG makes some astute points in the post above. There is a lot of ‘stuff’ in this game, so much that it’s almost overwhelming for me (I didn’t play Elemental at all), but a lot of it just seems to be there ‘just because’, rather than as part of a well thought out, lean design. This is probably in large part due to the shift from whatever Elemental was before to what Kael et al decided to make it become, but it really seems to lack focus.

    I can definitely see a sort of Fall from Heaven vibe to a lot of it, and I have no doubt Kael did a lot of good work on the game design. I really think it could have used another six months or so.

    My main initial gripes are how barren the world seems, and that Sovereigns can’t die. The latter is a design decision, of course, but I’m not a fan. It makes the tactical battles a lot less tense.

    I actually like (I think) the tactical battles themselves. I can see the core of a good game here – I just think there needs to be some pruning and tightening.

  • BvG

    > This is probably in large part due to the shift
    > from whatever Elemental was before to what
    > Kael et al decided to make it become, but it
    > really seems to lack focus.

    Quite the opposite, this game is much leaner and shows much more focus then the “original”. A scary thought, I know…

  • Mygaffer

    I am sorry to post off topic here but the podcast’s comments sections are closed.
    I noticed you said that you would have liked to be invited onto that particular episode of Three Moves Ahead. Are you able to insist on that or not? How are you and Rob managing that. I know you said you were equal partners, but if you wanted to be on the show would you not be able to be on it without his agreement?

  • Rob C

    Troy, I think the rampages by the wild creatures has been toned down some. I wrote my review with version 1.01 and I don’t think I lost any cities to the wandering monsters. I was careful not to wake them up with border expansion though. I vaguely remember seeing something in the patch notes about monsters not wandering as far from their lairs and not quite as frequently.

    The monsters immediately around my first cities have seemed to be not that tough. It seems to escalate once you get away from your starting area. There are still very tough groups of monsters to be sure, but in my experience you don’t get smacked down right off the bat.

    I like how they level up the cities, it mostly makes up from the unexciting city improvements. Wish there were more wonders a la Civ, but I prefer how Fallen Enchantress handles many 4x features over how Civ V does them. I prefer stockpiling the resources in FE instead of getting the lump sum of strategic resources in Civ. The tech trees in FE allow the player more freedom to head down a path without getting stuck at tech tree bottlenecks. The sovereign abilities are way cool and provide for a lot of differentiation. The spells are varied too between the unit and city buffs, summoning, damage, unit sacrifice, stealing sovereign HP to benefit you champion, etc. Traits on the creatures give them different flavor too – I love maul. Overall a very good game. Strategy players will definitely need to play on a difficulty level that gives the AI a bonus though once they learn the mechanics.

  • bayz

    Your first 4x I assume. I actually find the wilderness quite forgiving especially when compared to Sword of Stars, I have lost armies several times to Wilderness but I have never had them following it to my base, lucky I guess, on the other hand if anything followed me to my base I have enough stacks of units to fend the attack off, I might lose a city or two, but the Empire would remain.

    I play with a custom nation based on Krax with Civics (“Rush Production” is amazing when used together with the “Wealth” modifier of a Soreveign), Warriors (So I can have decent tanks from the very start which I can Rush) and Defensive which makes you able to use one handed spears, and therefore allows you to use shields as well…

    My soreveign sucks in magic with just one level on Death Magic but using Warlord allows me to upkeep my army from the start, Wealthy gives me +800 Gild from the start that I can use to rush production of things and…I can’t remember what else I gave her honestly…

    Try it out play early expansion and strengthen your military as much as you can and see what results it gives…early expansion means that by the mid game you will have many cities very well developed and if you created your armies from the start you will have a ton of units, might not be the best soldiers, but they are aplenty to kill dragons and all the shit you will find in the world easily.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    If you know the blog, this is far from my first 4X. Hell, this blog was built on 4X and punishingly stupid wargame designs.

    Custom races, to be designed well, require some experience with the core game so I chose to focus my discussion on the experience of people who are playing the game as is – before they have learned all its ins and outs.

    But yes, as Derek Paxton discussed on the podcast, one of the great virtues of Fallen Enchantress is how distinct you can make your faction. This does mean that there are many tradeoffs regarding balance, but Derek – like many designers more interested in play than art – probably doesn’t see this as an issue. If you can find the exploits and build around them, have at it!

    I am quite familiar with Sword of the Stars – I and II. Its hostile universe is of a different order, probably because it doesn’t take as long to get alternate bases or settlements up and running as it can in Fallen Enchantress, unless you insist on a tiny galaxy where everything is a knife fight.

    A third settlement in FE will need a nice treasury ready to rush buildings and units if it is meant to be more than a place where you acquire knowledge. If you explore well, Fallen Enchantress presents you with some excellent questions about when and where to settle and in what order.