[11 February 2010]
I love strategy games on my Nintendo DS. They’re pretty much all I play on the thing, except maybe a little Tetris or Meteos from time to time. But for me, turn-based strategy games like Age of Empires, Advanced Wars: Dual Strike, and yes, oh yes, oh yes, Civilization: Revolutions are why I bought a new DS the day my old one broke. The purer the strategy, the better as far as I’m concerned, and random elements in these games just drive me nuts. Any time the digital dice contravene the odds, I’m a little peeved. I love to plan many moves ahead, make the right moves, and see my strategies give birth to victories. I guess I’m mostly just looking for really complicated versions of chess. With tanks.
So I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, a game that mixes equal parts match-three puzzle gaming and strategy with some light RPG elements. Battles are very abstract, sort of like playing versus Bejeweled, but with dragons and vampires and demons. The two armies line up and each round you have three moves to maneuver troops so that three units of the same color line up to form either a wall or an attack formation. Bigger units like knights or those dragons requite multiple units of the same color stacked up behind them to activate. It’s a simple game with layers of interesting strategy and complications that make it a lot of fun. I recommend it, despite the trite, overwrought (but thankfully irrelevant) story.
Most of the battles play out as one vs. one duels, but the game’s campaign also offers numerous unique challenges against bosses, and puzzle-like levels that require unique strategies. With the major end boss fights in particular, executing the right strategy requires more than just planning right, it requires a lot of luck as well. As someone with low tolerance for frustration in games, I found it astonishing that I didn’t get angry playing some of these fights over and over and over again until I got just the right mix of units at the right time to win. If this had been one of my other games, ones where resource management and careful planning are everything, re-doing a fight again and again like that would have driven me to distraction. Here it just seemed to be how things worked, and I was fine with it. The game wisely enforces no penalty for losing these fights, and it’s easy to jump right back in for another go.
The random element in Clash of Heroes becomes weirdly liberating. In a way it’s like gambling at poker. It’s perfectly possible to play the best moves and still not win because the pieces just aren’t there. Losing is no longer entirely my fault, and I have an easier time accepting fickle fate than I do my own incompetence. But I don’t think I could accept such a heavy role for chance in a game less abstract than this one. Because the battles are so abstract—color-coded units arranged at random in neat rows and columns—I have no expectation of how things are supposed to work. The more a game moves towards simulation, the less more deterministic I want everything to be.
Of course the ultimate in realism would entail a lot of randomness. There are plenty of examples out there of tiny, seemingly random events swaying the outcome of much greater imbroglios. But I think I’d have a hard time liking a game where I could lose the kingdom for want of a nail. Each game must find it’s own balance-point for fun based on the expectations it sets. I’m reminded of Demon’s Souls, a game I didn’t like at all, but which never quite got me angry because the insane difficulty level was baked in from the start. As a counter example, when the relatively easy Assassin’s Creed 2 (a game I love) stymied me with a single jump puzzle I couldn’t figure out, I ended up hurling my controller and breaking my TV.
Revolutions happen not when peoples are oppressed, but when their expectations change. Clash of Heroes fends off frustration by relying on the same luck principles that make games like Tetris or Bejeweled so addictive: the constant anticipation of what will come next—just the right piece or absolutely the wrong one. Sure there’s a lot more mid and long term strategy here, which is what makes this game excellent, but the core of it, moment to moment, is the exciting dread about what random thing comes next. It’s the same kind of dread one gets from a good drama or even a sporting event, and it’s something random-free games like Chess can’t ever achieve. I don’t want it all the time, but I definitely like it here.