All strategy games are puzzle games at their core. Even if the former are more mechanically complex, you’re still always faced with a specific problem and have to figure out the best solution to overcome it. So it makes sense that both genres would eventually be combined in an explicit way. Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes is hardly the first game to combine blatant puzzles with an overarching strategy, but it takes a very clever approach to the issue. This is a strategy game through and through, but on a very small scale, that’s only possible because the puzzle mechanics replace the large scale elements of most strategy games.
Clash of Heroes is played on a small board split in half horizontally. Your troops fill in the bottom half and the enemy troops take up the top half. The troops form columns, and you can only move the unit at the bottom of a column, so any unit in the middle in inaccessible. Each unit is given a unique color, and if you match three similarly colored units in a row, you activate their special attack or defense. Match three vertically and they attack, match three horizontally and they form a defensive wall.
The strategy aspect of the game comes from the complex ways that these actions link together. Attacking units must charge for a set number of turns before attacking, which gives the enemy time to prepare, and vice versa. Big units do more damage but take longer to charge, similarly colored units that attack at the same time get a damage boost, and two attacking groups in the same column are fused together for a much stronger attack. When the proper preparations are made, you can end a battle in a single attacking turn thanks to all the bonus damage. Planning is necessary for victory.
But before you can execute any part of that plan, you have to successfully manage the match-three puzzle mechanic. This puzzle acts as a step in between the planning and execution of any attack. This implementation is frustrating at first as it adds an extra layer of difficulty to the game. As you create walls and attacking groups, your units leave the field. You can call them back in as reinforcements, but the types of units that appear and where they appear on the battlefield are random. A great plan can be ruined by this randomness. Maybe a needed unit doesn’t appear, or maybe it does but it’s buried in the middle of a column, forcing you to move troops out of the way to get at it and setting the entire plan back a turn, which can only help the enemy. It might seem like the puzzle and the strategy genres are at odds with each other, but as you get better at the match-three game-within-the-game, you begin to incorporate the unpredictable reinforcements into your strategic thinking.
In essence, you’re considering troop movement, on a very small, highly structured scale. Since the battlefields in Clash of Heroes are so small, the match-three puzzle is necessary to replace the larger “puzzle,” i.e. the strategic considerations, of traditional troop movement. Instead of plotting how to flank an enemy, you’re plotting how to chain attacks to hit with more force. Instead of dealing with unexpected terrain and the fog of war, you’re dealing with the random placement of reinforcements. The puzzle parts of Clash of Heroes allow the strategy parts to be shrunk down so they fit on a single game board.
The genres complement each other. The earlier frustration stems from the fact that the game doesn’t follow the traditional language of strategy games; instead it forces players to learn its own rules, its new ways of approaching old problems. As such it takes time to learn, and a veteran gamer and a rookie will start at the same skill level.
This is the real success of the Clash of Heroes: it’s ability to create a level playing field and keep it level. In normal real-time or turn-based strategy games, the maps don’t change; this aspect of the battle is unknowable at first, but playing on the same map over and over again allows dedicated players to learn the chokepoints and layout, giving those frequent players a significant advantage. If such a player were to play someone unfamiliar with the map, the battle would become less a test of strategic thinking and more a test of who plays the game more. In Clash of Heroes, the random elements are always random, so playing the game a lot doesn’t give you an inherent advantage. A competitive match tests who can best adapt to any given situation. It’s strategy at its purest.
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// Notes from the Road
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