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Sorcerer King – Early Access First Impressions

By on December 15th, 2014 10:58 am

Sorcerer King Early Access | Don't trust this guy.

Stardock Entertainment is well on their way to becoming the most prolific developer of fantasy strategy games. It’s quite surprising, as back in 2010, Stardock was known only as a space 4X developer. Despite a rocky start with their first release in 2010, they’ve gone on to produce two games I’ve quite enjoyed, Fallen Enchantress in 2012, and Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes in 2013. With Legendary Heroes still receiving support via DLC and patches, and Galactic Civilizations III in development, one might reasonably assume that their plate was full. It appears they aren’t done experimenting with fantasy strategy or the Elemental universe just yet though. Their latest entry, Sorcerer King is now in Early Access. It’s another fantasy strategy game with many familiar aspects to their prior games, but this apple falls a little farther from the tree than you might expect.

Sorcerer King is what Stardock is calling a “new direction for 4X game design”. This is certainly an appropriate definition as the Sorcerer King feels a bit more like a strategy RPG than a traditional 4X game. The key difference is that you aren’t competing against other factions. There is also no diplomacy or a traditional tech tree. Instead the player is tasked with leading his faction against only one rival faction, that of the foul Sorcerer King. The Sorcerer King is a powerful leader who commands his own faction from his dark citadel and leads his forces in pursuit of his own goals.

In a way, it is a similar tale to Warlock II’s campaign mode. They ask that we imagine the first 4X game was already played, and the Sorcerer King was the victor. He has since forgotten about your pathetic existence and moved on with his own goals, leaving you and the remaining minor factions to rot with your last remaining cities. Now it is up to you to make him take notice. You must stop him, and his two lieutenants, before he achieves his unique goals. He needs only to destroy the last of the remaining crystal mana shards, or wipe your empire off the map, to win the game. Worse yet, there is also a doomsday meter that builds up over the game. How fast it builds can be the result of quest choices you’ve made, shards you’ve failed to save, and time you’ve wasted wandering around. As the meter builds up, harsh penalties begin to apply. Even your own citizens may start to worship the Sorcerer instead of you. Should this meter reach its maximum value, the Sorcerer King will achieve victory automatically.

Sorcerer King Early Access | Combat is very similar to FE: Legendary Heroes except units have more cooldown abilities.

You might be thinking this game sounds quite different, and may even be wondering if it is still a 4X game. Many of the classic turn-based 4X aspects are still present in the game. Exploring the map, founding cities, constructing buildings, researching (spells rather than tech), casting spells, completing quests, leveling up, and participating in tactical battles are all present. In fact, many of the systems currently present owe a lot to Stardock’s prior 4X fantasy games, especially the tactical combat, which feels almost exactly the same. Also, as in Stardock’s prior fantasy titles, new cities can only be founded in suitable areas as indicated on the map. While many of these concepts are borrowed from their prior titles, where this game differs is in its focus. Many elements have been streamlined and adjusted in a way that emphasizes skill tree decisions, tactical combat, questing, and crafting, as opposed to traditional empire building.

Before I get into my first impressions, here is what you should know. Sorcerer King is currently in Beta 2. Beta 3 is planned for release prior to their Christmas holiday, and Beta 4 is currently scheduled to be the final beta version. Final release is scheduled for Q1 2015. As such, the game is quite far along, but I still expect it will change a fair bit before release.

First Impressions

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I first dove in, but after completing a game on normal difficulty over the course of 5 hours, I now have a pretty good idea. It is clear that Sorcerer King is not meant to replace Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, but rather to offer a different flavor. The art style, the atmosphere, the increase in writing that leans heavily toward the comedic side, all of these are things that differentiate it in my mind before I even start considering its gameplay. It feels like a lighter experience, at least at medium difficulty against the unfinished “Game Master” AI.

Sorcerer King Early Access | 3 of the 6 pre-configured sovereigns are available in beta 2.

At the start of a new game, you’re given the option of choosing a pre-generated sovereign. Beta 2 offers 3 sovereigns, each with their own starter hero, a selection of spell books, and their own skill tree. After selecting the sovereign, you select a map, a difficulty, and a magic level. At this point, that’s it. It’s a far cry from the numerous world and faction generation options I’m used to. This is beta though, and random map generation is coming as are 3 additional sovereign options and sovereign customization. Whether or not world customization options are on the horizon with that generator though remains to be seen.

It didn’t take long to start noticing some of the streamlining. Right from the start, I noticed that 5 resources are shown at the top of the screen. None of these are gold or gildar. That’s because in this game there is no money, and there are no upkeep costs to pay that aren’t mana based. The 5 resources are crystal, metal, horses, magic, and a new resource concept I’ll talk about later called logistics. Entering my starting city, I saw that every building is listed and ready for construction as long as their pre-requisite buildings are built first. There’s no research system to unlock them. Training units is simplified too. The option to customize or design new units from prior games is gone. In this game you just click train and then wait some number of turns for them to finish. Pioneers can also be built from the start and don’t cost the city any population. Even rushing works differently, as both units and buildings are summoned using mana, rather than rushed using a more traditional currency.

Sovereigns, Research, City Development

While Sorcerer King lacks many of the complexities we’ve been accustomed to, it contains a lot of new ideas and in some ways feels more immersive. Starting with your sovereign, you should know that he or she is an omnipresent entity. You won’t be fighting, or dying, directly on the battlefield. You will however still have the opportunity to level up and have access to a uniquely customized skill tree that is tailored to your sovereign’s personality and preferences. There are still quite a few incremental type skills that lack excitement that I hope are replaced with more interesting choices by release.

Sorcerer King Early Access | Call of the Titans is an awesome spell.

Leveling up the sovereign skill tree is one way to get new spells and abilities. Throughout the game, you’ll also be researching new spells. Spell research essentially replaces tech tree research. You have the ability to cast spells anywhere on the map, not just in areas within your zones of control. This allows you to rain down destruction on enemies before you attack them or even before they approach your nearby cities. You can cast spells in tactical combat should your forces need a helping hand winning a tough fight, but here your power is somewhat limited. On the world map, your power is limited only by your mana reserves and your imagination. You can cast as many spells, instantly, as you desire. You’re more than just a brute after all, and enchanting cities and units, summoning creatures, and casting powerful earth altering spells is well within your means. Let me tell you, there is no better feeling than warping all of your scattered armies across the map into one place for a great confrontation with the cast of a single spell. In this game, your power as ruler feels almost limitless in the very best way.

While resources are simplified, their implementation is restricting in a way that creates interesting situations. To secure resources, you must first place them into a zone of control either by growing your city towards them or by building an outpost nearby with a pioneer. Securing resources is quite important, as your options to trade are nullified due to the lack of other major factions. Once in your zone of control, construction of the building is instant. Unlike in most other games, securing a crystal mine doesn’t provide +x crystal per turn. It instead provides you the ability to build X crystal worth of stuff. Building a mage for instance uses one of these crystals, permanently. As you can see, hording resources isn’t really possible because they don’t accumulate. This is true of all of the resources except for mana. This seems easy to solve, simply start plopping down outposts near all the mines and build your free instant resource building. Yes, it seems overpowered, until you realize the true cost. Logistics, the golden helm icon, is here to ruin your day. Every unit and every resource building costs you 1 or more logistics. Logistics, just like other resources, doesn’t accumulate, so increasing it is essential. This requires constructing buildings in town, buildings which hurt town growth by stealing food. So now you are balancing when to increase logistics, what to spend your logistics on be it pioneers, military units, or new resource buildings. It suddenly becomes harder to manage, at least until you have several cities capable of increasing your logistics.

Crafting is a key part of the game

Sorcerer King Early Access | An excellent sword, but there are even better.

I mentioned unit design and customization were gone, but more importantly crafting is in. All of your units can now take advantage of a benefit usually reserved only for hero units. They can be equipped with armor and accessories which can be found on the map or created using the extensive yet easy to use crafting system. Heroes still hold the exclusive rights to the cool weapons and shields, but beyond that your units can be equipped with whatever you have on hand. This includes helmets, chest plates, gloves, boots, and a few accessories like amulets and rings.

The crafting system is very easy to use and less restrictive than in many other games. As you adventure, you’ll discover new recipes and many, many, many ingredients. Once you’ve collected what you need, you access the crafting system and it shows you all the recipes you have highlighting those you have the materials to build. You click to it, which happens instantly, and assign it to whichever unit you’d like. They will automatically equip it and any unequipped items will be placed in a community pool available to any of your units. It’s not as realistic as the time intensive crafting followed by the time intensive transportation of the item to the appropriate individual, but it appears to work well given the focus of this game. Using the items and ingredients I collected, I was able to create all manner of helpful equipment, scrolls, and potions. It’s a fun aspect to the game that allows you to customize your units at any time after creation in an interesting way. Those who enjoy RPG elements will appreciate this feature the most.

Heroes and Magic

Sorcerer King Early Access | My maxed out Tandis the Warrior hero's skill tree.

Heroes, much like sovereigns, have been given an overhaul with new skills that are unique to them. Heroes can also be very powerful. My max level, fully equipped and enchanted, warrior was able to almost take down the Sorcerer King by himself. As a testament to their power, Stardock isn’t handing them out quite as readily as in their past games. Other than your starting hero, there seem to be few opportunities to acquire others. I have found both a mage and a dragon riding warrior, both of which required I complete a quest to gain their favor. They appear to be famous heroes from the Elemental factions that existed before the Sorcerer King took over. These are well worth the effort as thus far I’ve been impressed with their diversified skill set. The warrior I started with, the mage and dragon rider, all had unique abilities and spells that I haven’t otherwise seen present in the game.

Magic is a balancing act. In a similar fashion to Master of Magic’s mana allocation system, which seems to be getting some appreciation from multiple developers these days, you have to allocate magic between three different areas. One is your skill gain per turn, which is how your sovereign levels up to unlock new abilities. One is mana, which you use for all those spells I talked about and for rushing building and unit completion. The last option is lore, which is how you research new spells. Here again is where some of the depth that is missing from other areas starts to come back into the game. I can see this filling the role of some of the tougher tech tree decisions you’d typically have to make.

Getting noticed

At the start of the game, the Sorcerer King doesn’t care about you. In fact, he’s even willing to offer you some nice rewards in exchange for the chance to give you some doomsday points. He wants you to come around and join him. At least, that’s what he does with the remains of the other minor factions. After all, he’s just a guy destroying some crystals and eventually the world.

Sorcerer King Early Access | He controls most of the minor factions, but the doomsday counter is still low.  I have plenty of time.

As you grow in power, tell him off, capture shards, convert minor factions to your side, and start destroying his citadels, he starts to get pretty annoyed with you. He tells you he’s going to eradicate you. Unfortunately, I found the game falters a bit in this regard. The Sorcerer King’s role just felt a bit disconnected. Throughout the game you will receive notice that he is attacking shards, maybe even shattering some of them, but in a medium map where 17 shards exist, the loss of a couple hardly seems concerning. His forces consist of only 4 or 5 unit types, and I was fighting A LOT of armies of these same repetitive configurations.

The game desperately needs more unit variety. The Sorcerer King’s cities were very lightly guarded and easily destroyed. It wasn’t until my final confrontation with him that I started to see a little more unit variety and spell casting from him, and this was a bit disappointing. I would love to see him start messing with me a bit earlier, perhaps with strategic map spells, at least at higher difficulties. The doomsday meter was no more of a threat. It never reached even half way in a 5 hour romp through the medium map I played. I did however rush to finish him after killing his lieutenants since I knew my hero was powerful enough and the thought of fighting more waves of his identical armies was unfathomable.

I could go on, but I think I’ve covered the majority of how the game works. My thoughts may lean a bit negative, but this is still a beta. Things like unit variety and interaction can certainly be improved. I’ve enjoyed the game during the few hours I’ve played, but aside from exploring some of the sovereign and hero skill trees, I feel my desire to play is satiated for now.

Sorcerer King does introduce some interesting restrictions and a bit of resource management, and with further polish could become a solid experience for me. What it needs to overcome is the fact that we are now in an era of fantasy strategy excellence unlike anything I’ve seen in recent years. As a product priced the same as, or more than, other quality completed titles, Sorcerer King has got its work cut out if it wants to stand out and grab my attention.

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  1. AstralWanderer says:

    Heh, there was a boardgame called Sorceror King published in the 1980’s and still listed by Wotan at the bottom of their products page – hope Stardock got their trademarks registered on this one…

    Having one single hostile AI player isn’t new but it could offer a bigger challenge (once the AI works) at the cost of game variability. I suspect Stardock has several expansion packs lined up with alternate baddies, should this game pan out.

  2. zigzag says:

    Strangely, Stardock haven’t registered a trademark on “Sorcerer King” or “Fallen Enchantress.” But they have filed applications for “Endless Empires,” “Ashes of the Singularity,” and “Singularity Universe.” I wonder what those are about?

  3. JD says:

    So Stardock just copied the design principles of AI War, put it in a fantasy world. Your outgunned, outmanned and up against a overpowered entity and the it plays a different game then you, until it conciders you a threat and then your fuc#ed.

    It’s about damn time other designers are picking up on the cunning asynchronous gameplay which is AI War. Whether or not they can pull of what Arcen Games did is a whole other story.

  4. Smoking Robot says:

    Stardock seems to have trouble making games that look good, have working basic gameplay mechanics, or are fun.

  5. zigzag says:

    To be fair, you’ve just described about 90% of game developers. At least, as far as my sense of fun is concerned.

  6. Smoking Robot says:

    Sturgeons law: ‘90% of everything is crap’.

    These people have pretensions to be something better, but I don’t think they quite make it.

    Maybe Galciv3 will be a big surprise and not suck. Nah, who am I kidding.

  7. UncaJoe says:

    Yes, I agree. Of course that’s MY warped sense of fun speaking.

  8. SQW says:

    After Warlock II, anyone interested in a Stardock 4X need to wait till the reviews come in.

    At least they are smart enough to remove the diplomacy all together this time while keeping with the narrative.

  9. Martok says:

    Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes was my favorite 4x title last year, and I still play the hell out of it. The game’s visuals/art style isn’t my favorite (wish it was more on par with Age of Wonders 3), but I have a blast whenever I fire it up.

    Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

  10. zigzag says:

    Stardock didn’t develop or produce Warlock II. (That was Paradox, and I thought that Warlock II wasn’t that bad.) But I’d concede the point with respect to the Elemental games.

  11. Triarius says:

    The concept of a 4X game where you must win against a vastly superior foe who gradually grows more aggressive as you become more of a threat is reminds me of a gem I’m not sure many here have heard of.

    There is indeed a game called “AI War: Fleet Command” + numerous expansions, a game touted as a “Grand Strategic 4X Tower Defense RTS” where you play as the last remnants of the human race who must win against militarily, economically and logistically vastly superior AI opponents (there are two twin AI based you need to take out in order to win). The tagline of the game itself is “You are outnumbered. You are outgunned. You must win”.

    Similar to the Sorcerer King, the AI doesn’t care much about you as first, as you only start off with a base and a few ships. The more you grow in strength by conquering planets linked within the galaxy via wormholes, the more the AI sees you as a threat and begins taking more aggressive and proactive action against you.

    The true beauty of this game lies in how in forces you to be a strategist rather than sheer number cruncher or elite button masher. On the one hand, turtling is a bad strategy as 1) you can’t unlock the more advanced techs you’ll need to up your game because you need to capture advanced research labs scattered around the map, so by not going out there you just stunt your own development, and 2) the AI eventually WILL start sending waves that will wipe you off the map.

    On the other hand, rushing – capturing every planet you encounter and expanding quickly – is equally bad as it will lead the AI to grow worried about your presence as a threat so it will send a big enough force to crush you before you become too great a menace. The key to winning the game, therefore, is to find a way to balance caution and audacity, to know when to strike and when to retreat, to know what planets are worth protecting and what planets to abandon when things get rough. You must master asymmetric warfare to survive and outdo the enemy.

    Also, the main key selling point of this game and one of its strengths is the AI with several levels of difficulty and personalities. The AI does a good job at using flanking, guerrilla tactics, diversions against you and is a great foe in combat. The game has an active community and the devs have constantly updated and enriched the game through patches and updates. The greatest downside is that it’s a very complex game, more so for an indie achievement, and the multiplayer is limited to co-op. I for one have tried to play the game and while I enjoyed it, I just couldn’t get round to completing it.

    Come to think of it, I wonder how come Space Sector never featured this game in one of its reviews.

  12. JohnR says:

    I tend to agree with you here. Although Stardock has its moments, I have yet to play a game from them I would consider truly great. I think about the closest was maybe SINS, but even there I can’t give that game more than a B/B+.

    BTW, speaking of Sorcerer Kings, it looks to be a mod or expansion for Fallen Enchantress rather than a new game in its own right.

  13. DrBalthar says:

    I have the impression there have been just a few too many Fantasy 4X games out this year and some of them have been rather disappointing. Warlock 2 and AoW3 (pre latest DLC) where nowhere near as good as they initial sounded on paper.

    I haven’t yet played Endless Legend which nearly everyone is praising over the moon though so I might give this a try when there is a good deal.

    I briefly looked into the WoM early access as I backed their first kickstarter campaign but even that so far really didn’t manage to grab my attention for more than an hour.

  14. Keith Turner says:

    I picked AI War and 3 of its expansions up in a bundle for under $5 in mid 2011. I can only speak for myself, but the reason I’ve never covered AI War is that I just don’t find it enjoyable. According to Steam, I have 4 hours played. Steam says I last played it in June of 2014, but I think that was just to collect the trading cards.

    All that said, Sorcerer King has a bit of a different feel. I do understand the comparisons though. As you grow stronger, the threat against you grows larger. Sorcerer King needs to make this threat a bit more pressing as in Beta 2 I felt the game was quite easy.

  15. Keith Turner says:

    For those interested, Beta 3 released today. It adds quite a few new features, some UI enhancements, and 2 additional sovereign choices. I’ve not played it yet, but the patch notes don’t appear to address my issue with the repetitive composition of the Sorcerer King’s armies. It also mentions normal difficulty being made easier. This is interesting as I played on normal in Beta 2 and never felt like I was in any danger.

    I’ll be following this to completion, so stay tuned for the final review when it releases.

  16. Keith Turner says:

    There certainly have been a flood of 4X fantasy games recently. I think the biggest thing to consider is what type of 4X game you enjoy. I’ve played all the major 4X fantasy releases and each has a different feel. Some people prefer a more classic experience, some are looking for innovation, some prefer complex tactical combat, some simple, and so on.

    Of all the 4X fantasy games I’ve played recently, including games still in early access, Age of Wonders 3 (WITH Golden Realms) and Endless Legend are my favorites. I’m very pleased that both of these are going to be bringing additional content for some time to come.

    I agree that Warlock 2 was a huge letdown. It wasn’t without some good aspects, but the horrid AI and lack of any challenge really hindered it.

  17. Keith Turner says:

    I’d certainly not recommend it for the full asking price, at least not while it is still in Early Access. I have two main reasons for this view.

    For one, it’s not finished. There currently isn’t enough game here to satisfy someone who regularly plays 4X games for any significant length of time. As I stated, I enjoyed it for a short time and will see how it is when they’ve added more content and tweaked it.

    The other reason I’d not recommend paying full price right now is that Stardock had a sale before Thanksgiving where you could get any of their games, GalCiv 3 and Sorcerer King included, for 50% off. Potentially a great deal, but since these games aren’t finished yet, it is a deal that comes with a risk. I just can’t advocate gambling after games like SOTS II and Legends of Pegasus. I’d wait and see how these turn out and let them earn full price if they are awesome games.

  18. Keith Turner says:

    It’s still my highest rated fantasy 4X, but I think its days holding that status may come to a close soon.

    I’m predicting that in 2015 another 4X will surpass it for me. Likely Endless Legend. I’m not counting out Triumph Studios after how much better Age of Wonders 3 got with Golden Realms either. It’s a bit more tactical though, so in a way I feel it doesn’t really fit in the exact same category in my mind.

  19. Triarius says:

    I totally get where you’re coming from, Keith. I myself had contrasting views towards the game. On the one hand, I really appreciated the concept, the gameplay, the intelligent AI unlike any I’ve seen in other games, the way it forces you to expand, but to do so wisely.

    On the other hand, its complexity is simply overwhelming, even for a 4X game! I’ve heard of games lasting 7 hours at those were considered quick! A 4X game is typically turn-based so there’s that – you can take it at your pace, slowly, methodically, as you like it; this however is in real time and requires a different kind of focus and dedication that I just can’t squeeze out of myself.

    I found it enjoyable and I could see why it still has a very active fan base to this day as well as why it got great reviews, but I can also see why most gamers can’t get into it. This really is a niche game.

  20. SQW says:

    My bad. Wrong developer.

    Even the best 4X in 2014 (Endless space) had some pretty glaring problems. I don’t know, the genre is a getting a revival of sorts but things seem to be moving backwards. A lot of old classic benefited from their dev’s knowledge in boardgame design.

    Current crop of studios seem to be just coders and graphic designers trying to put a fresh coat of paint of existing ideas.

  21. Sawelios says:

    Does someone still care about Stardock “games”? It’s strange indeed.

    • Happy Corner says:

      At first, I thought you were trolling. But then I discovered that Brad Wardell is sympathetic to gamergate.

      So yeah. It would be strange indeed for me to give the first molecule of shit about anything Stardock will ever produce.

      • JD says:

        He is not. Actually he is being harrased by idiots on both “sides”. And as an all time low, “people” have even involved his daughter online. All this can be read on the man’s twitter account. Please get better informed.

        Any form of harasement or threats are WRONG. It is not normal and it should never be concidered normal.

        • Happy Corner says:

          Can you link me an example of him actually saying something against gamergate? Cause I’ve also seen tweets where he rails against “social justice warriors”, which only gamergaters do.

          Oh yeah, and gamergate also lists Stardock as a GG-friendly company on their lists.

          So please, I wish for a citation, so that I might see this situation as you do and be able to enjoy GalCiv 3 again, rather than my current state of feeling intense nausea that I paid real money for that game.

          For the record, I have not harassed Wardell/Stardock in any way, nor do I condone such behavior and am disgusted that such a thing has become so common in gamer culture. So we have that much in common, at least.

        • JD says:

          You asked for a link:

          That you bought GalCiv3 in a unfinished state has nothing to do with Wardell’s opinion about anything. That is YOUR decision. Use common sense and reason.

          Again any form of harassment or threats are WRONG. It is not normal and it should never be concidered normal.

        • Happy Corner says:

          Huh. In that thread, he only talks about someone saying terrible things about his daughter, and maybe doing something at GDC. He doesn’t name a guilty party.

          The only stuff there concerning gamergate is (self-identifying) gamergaters… who are being friendly to him.

          Which, no offense, is kind of the opposite of what I asked for.

          Do you have something else?

          Also, please stop condescending to me. I KNOW GalCiv 3 was unfinished. I’m trying to meet you halfway here, by honestly giving you a chance to persuade me to your point of view. No, you don’t have to give a shit or even take me up on that, but it’s a courtesy that doesn’t happen often online (or anywhere else).

        • JD says:

          So if Wardell is pro gg (according to you), then who do you think talked about his daugther online then? You do not need to be Sherlock to figure that out then do you. That was the so called sjw “side”.

          Which is the point I am attempting to make you see. There are no “good/right” “sides”. This whole “thing” is idiotic. That both of these “sides”/”people” resort to threats and harassment as a response to an opinion is wrong. Wardell is certainly not doing any of that.

          I hope I managed to convince you to not value so much what is outed online by both of these “sides”. Relax, and I hope you find back the enjoyment you lost with GalCiv3. In time I am pretty sure GalCiv3 will be a good game.

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