PC developer Stardock has made quite a name for themselves in the realm of strategy gaming over the years. In between the Galactic Civilization series and Sins of a Solar Empire, Stardock created some of the most highly regarded strategy games available on the PC. They have put their experience and expertise to work with a new fantasy 4X title, Sorcerer King. Sorcerer King touts itself as an “asymmetric 4X” title, where your primary rival is dominant and you begin the game tiny and weak. It is also a game that heavily features humor, moreso than other games found in this genre. These two differentiating qualities don’t separate Sorcerer King from the rest of the pack quite as much as Stardock had been hoping for, but the game still has enough going for it to make it recommendable. It is an ambitious title that combines bits and pieces from a lot of different sources to provide its own unique experience. That ambition is also the game’s undoing at times, as it fails in too many critical areas to be one of the genre’s lasting greats. Even if you don’t play it through more than a couple of times though, it is worth a shot for turn-based strategy fans.
If you have extensive experience with this genre, then you should immediately recognize the bits and pieces Sorcerer King implemented in this game. As a 4X game, it follows the traditional formula of starting the player off weak and a very small population, a tiny army, and one or two skills and spells. As you explore, you will discover resources to exploit and enemies to fight. Meanwhile, you can build up your first city and eventually expand outward to build more. You improve your cities to grant either empire upgrades, city performance improvements, or a bigger army. As you grow, you can take on stronger enemies until you're ready to conquer the big boss (in this case, the Sorcerer King himself).
Fans of Civilization and Age of Wonders should feel right at home. Like Civilization, there are resources on the map where you must build improvements (like mines or stables) to harvest them. Some of those resources (such as magic crystals) provide empire upgrades while others (metal) are a prerequisite for building stronger military units. Each city is a square surrounded by square tiles and as your city gains population (levels, in this case), you can choose which tile around the city you want to work. Like the Age of Wonders series, you can unlock advanced units in each city by building special structures. Spells can be researched and cast on the world map or during tactical battles. There are even heroes that unlock a skill tree by gaining levels and can equip themselves with magic trinkets that you find or craft. In a unique twist, every military unit in the game gains levels and can wear a few items. Also like Age of Wonders, army sizes are relatively small and the game switches to a tactical grid when combat starts. Your magic supply builds up with each turn though it is limited, meaning you have to conserve and spend mana wisely.
If Sorcerer King sounds like a very complex game, that's because it is. There are multiple resources to manage and multiple ways to use them. A three way slider controls the spending of the empire’s resources (research, mana, or experience points). A doomsday counter hangs over your head that counts down to the end game. When you gain levels as a sovereign, your cities level up as well. There are multiple enemy types including independent foes, the Sorcerer King's troops, and those belonging to third parties. An inventory stores usable items and those that can be crafted from the game's wealth of loot, some of which consume the same resources as military units. If combat isn't quite your style, a diplomacy option is available with role playing dialog options. Even if you are a veteran of this genre, it may take you a while to get your feet under while learning how the game’s numerous systems work together. Beginners likely will struggle mightily to figure it all out. To its detriment, Sorcerer King has no tutorial to teach the basics of play. Pop-up tooltips and a good in-game Wiki are available though they don't do enough to guide the player by the hand. Even some basic concepts like what the Left and Right mouse buttons do are not mentioned.
One of the more blatant examples of this problem is the goal of the game itself – “Defeat the Sorcerer King.” The game doesn’t tell you how to go about accomplishing this task. The King doesn’t have his own cities nor an avatar on the map. Does he eventually show up when you get powerful or annoying enough? Is he hidden somewhere on the map? As it turns out, you have to find his castle which has two locked gates. The keys to those gates are held by the Sorcerer King’s two lieutenants. The game doesn't tell you to pursue these two characters to satisfy win conditions. When I won the game, it was because the lieutenants attacked me and I was strong enough to defend myself. I didn’t even know that killing them was required for victory.
Even if you can pick up the flow relatively fast, you will probably frequently scratch your head over what everything does. Sorcerer King has arguably more systems at work than any other turn-based title, and figuring out how everything interacts isn’t easy since almost nothing is explained to you. The game is especially guilty of this problem when it comes to its dialog and role playing system. The game tracks a lot of traits, like “Fame” and “Courage.” Points are earned in these traits through certain actions and dialog choices. To its credit, the game makes great use of these traits, as dialog options tied to them show up frequently. The first time that I played the game, I had a high enough “Courage” score to scare off some of the final boss’s army. However, it doesn’t make it clear when you will earn them, nor does it give you any explanation for how they will eventually be used. The game also never gives you any indication as to what constitutes a high score in these traits or whether you are failing skill checks behind the scenes. How many “Courage” points is enough? Five? Ten? The game fails to provide you with the information that you need to make sound decisions. It is a shortcoming that is repeated in a lot of areas.
Combat is a big part of Sorcerer King, and it is very much a strength. When a fight starts, the game zooms in to a square-based grid where your units and enemy units take turns attacking, casting spells, using special abilities, and using items in their inventory. Every unit has a strength for attacking and defense, as well as initiative (i.e. attack frequency) and magic resistance. One of the more interesting features of this game is that every unit, even the lowest grunts, can use potions, scrolls, and enchanted items (if they are wearing them). As with the Age of Wonders series, you can cast spells as a sovereign during combat. In an interesting twist though, it is your units that cast the spells, which means that to use a fireball or heal a damaged unit, you have to sacrifice somebody’s turn. Mana is relatively scarce, and the number of spells that you can cast in one battle is limited. All of these unit traits, systems, and tactical choices create some very interesting, dynamic battles. What decisions you make during these battles can determine whether you get slaughtered or whether you come out the victor.
Empire management is also a big part of the game, and it is also an area where Sorcerer King comes up a little short. There is little, if any, city specialization. If you have two mature cities then chances are they have nearly the same upgrades. Cities produce food, which can be converted to a resource called “logistics” by building certain upgrades. Logistics are then used to build units or empire improvements. The logistics system is a peculiar one and, although it isn’t terribly hard to learn, it doesn’t make a lot of intuitive sense. The biggest effect that it has is keeping your army small while making units very expensive to build. A big city may only produce about ten logistics points over its lifetime, which translates into very few units. In a strange decision, Stardock designed a game in which the decision of where to place a city has been completely taken out of the player’s hands. You aren’t allowed to build cities except in very specific locations, of which there are very few on any given map. Some of these locations are so resource poor that it is barely worth building on them. In my first playthrough of this game, I finished the game with only three cities, one of which was my starting city.
Another major feature of Sorcerer King is its self-aware, tongue-in-cheek humor. Like so many features in this game, it works well but the flaws are enough to sap the game’s long term value. The first time that you play through this game, you will probably find yourself chuckling at the dialog that you exchange with the Sorcerer King and the other leaders on the map. You'll laugh at how role playing choices are presented to you when you enter a treasure location like a library or a cave. On repeat playthroughs, however, such lines quickly repeat themselves. It is as if the game has just enough jokes to last for one or two playthroughs. This repetition would be okay for a 60-hour once through RPG, but for a strategy 4X game that should have extended replayability, it is a problem. The humor still works and it is an asset to the game, but one that wears off too soon.
“Good enough for 12 hours, but not good enough for 80” is a consistent theme with Sorcerer King. Although it has multiple playable classes, each with their own skill tree, Sorcerer King is a game that lacks the “it” factor of an infinitely replayable masterpiece like Civilization IV. It is a hard problem to describe and there are a lot of little reasons for it. They all seem to boil down to the game having too many details and features, and not enough spit-and-polish refinement to make sure that everything is well balanced and works perfectly. In my time I encountered numerous minor examples of this issue. For example, in my first playthrough, my starting city was in a perfect area with tons of good resources around. That city built up fast and I was able to build up a large army without much trouble. I defeated the Sorcerer King without breaking much of a sweat. On my second playthrough, my starting city had very poor resources around it. It took me a while to build up a decent empire. And, after I built my second city, one of the Sorcerer King’s uber powerful lieutenants showed up and squashed me like a bug almost immediately. These two playthroughs were completely different, even though they were on the same difficulty level. It is a sign that the game's difficulty is poorly calibrated.
The game has a lot of little balancing issues, quirks, and features that don’t seem to work as intended. The other factions in the game don’t do much besides give you a quest or two and provide resources if you become friendly with them. The spells vary tremendously in their usefulness. Some of them, you will never use. Others, you may find yourself spamming like a “win” button. Some units, like archers, are badly underpowered. The neutral enemies on the map behave weirdly too. Sometimes, they attack you on sight. Other times, they just wander around and bypass your cities and your units. Sorcerer King is loaded with great ideas and sometimes they come together nicely, but it is a game that could have used some more time in the oven. For what it’s worth, it is easy on the eyes. There are certainly some areas where the game’s relatively low budget makes itself evident, like its crude animations and unimpressive spell effects. For the most part though, Sorcerer King is yet another example of how this type of game can make itself pretty with a broad color palette, great 2D artwork, and some style.
If this review is sending mixed messages, then it is because I have mixed feelings about the game. On one hand, I enjoyed it tremendously for a while as I experienced that “just one more turn” addictiveness that the best turn-based games always provide. A game’s number one function is to entertain, and Sorcerer King does that. On the other hand, the game doesn’t have the long term staying power or the high replayability that a 4X title should have. Sorcerer King is still a game worth experiencing, and it might even be a great one with a big patch (and, if not a patch, an expansion pack). In the end though, I put more time into each of the Age of Wonders III expansion packs than I put into Sorcerer King, because they were just better games.