[14 May 2013]
Eador: Masters of the Broken World is Snowbird Games’s HD remake of their 2009 fantasy strategy title, Eador: Genesis. The Masters remake benefits from a new coat of paint, but they’re otherwise the same game. Eador is a fantasy universe composed of several “shards” of land floating through space. The player takes on the role of a Master, which is more or less God, who takes it upon himself to unite the broken worlds into a single planet.
The player does this by selecting a shard and taking control of a mortal Hero, an avatar of the player’s will, and taking control of the different provinces, which conveniently fall into hexagon shaped boundaries. When the entire province is under the player’s rule, the shard is theirs and they may move to the next shard, take control of a new hero, and repeat until the whole universe is set right.
The player begins from the capital city of each shard. From there, they guide their hero (or heroes) to each hexagon shaped province on the shard, mapping them out as they plant their flag into each new territory they come across. Most turns will result in combat, in which the hero and up to 14 other hired troops engage with an enemy. Combat operates similar to world map movement with each side moving and attacking in turns. Hexagon shaped spaces have different terrain properties, such as forests that reduce ranged damage or swamps that reduce melee damage at the cost of taking more turns to travel through. It’s fairly straightforward. Opponents exchange blows until one soldier runs out of HP, and the battle ends when one team is annihilated. Most maps have an enemy lord to compete with (this is the basis of turn-based multiplayer). When the enemy’s capital is taken, the map is won.
It’s a piñata of Civilization, Crusader Kings, Risk, Age of Wonders, and King’s Bounty with a smattering of general resource management. The tutorial is fairly successful at communicating how the game is played but much of the mechanics are best learned by doing. Often the tutorial gets so bogged down in the game’s terminology that it makes deceptively simple concepts seem unapproachable. Furthermore, while the tutorial does permit some experimentation, development is fairly rigid. Straying from standard procedure makes the game slow, grueling, and difficult to get back on track. A little more freedom to play with different strategies would have made it a lot more welcoming to newcomers.
That said, it isn’t really much of a game for newcomers. It’s pretty obvious from the opening screen who the game is designed for. It’s a deliberate game that moves at a slow pace. Improvements are incremental and can be easily neutralized by bad luck and decisions come with a large cost, both in the long or the short term. It’s keenly focused on a specific audience looking for a specific experience, making it feel a lot like a passion project more than a marketing maneuver, which, of course, is one of the things people love most about indies. However, it is not without its problems.
The HD remake, Masters of the Broken World actually gets in the way of the systems originally created in Genesis. For one, it’s not always clear in battle what terrain is a hill and what is a swamp when smooth textures blend in together more than flat 2D images would. Moreover, in a battle system that can have up to 15 soldiers on each side on such small maps, it can be difficult to properly coordinate attacks. It’s also difficult to produce the best possible army composition. The home town will only allow the player to produce four different types of troops, yet the more diverse the team, the better, so one must wait to get lucky and stumble upon a mercenary to round out their soldiery or get stuck with an ineffective and homogeneous army.
Outside of combat, there is a plethora of resources to be mindful of—magic crystals, population, population mood, natural resources, map vision, explored territory, troop morale and others—but the only resource that really matters is gold. An abundance of every other resource does not make up for a lack of gold, and wealth in gold grants easy access to anything else that the player could want. It’s disappointing to see that the only real way to maintain a campaign is through one resource. The game features a system in which success can only be achieved by the control of one form of material wealth, a kind of wealth that grants easy and infinite access to all other kinds.
Colonialism is the elephant in the room while playing Eador. The game establishes a universe of independent, populated territories and tells the player that the only way to save the world is to explore and place a flag into every known acre of land. Eventually the question of “why” inevitably crops up. Why should I take over these independent territories? Why do I have to depose the local lord? Why must I bring the shards together? The reason why the player character does what they do is never self-evident, and continuing with that in mind is difficult. The player is basically God, so there’s no personal stake in any of the conflicts, just an arbitrary power and an arbitrary goal to take everything in the world.
The game makes a few clever meta-commentaries on the role of the player. For example, the player’s sidekick is a celestial imp that is an interesting figure. The imp is the developer’s Fool to the player’s Lear. It sets up a dynamic wherein the player has all the power in the universe, but the imp—the developer—is the one that has power over the player. But even that reinforces the colonialism at the heart of the game. The player character must do what the imp asks. The player must make war with the natives because that’s how the game is played. People in power must make war with those with none because that is how the world operates.
Eador works as a game. It explains its systems and it keeps to them. It’s a game for people that like moving pieces on hexagonal boards. Its design is functional but flawed, and the troubling subtext can feel alienating. However, there aren’t many games that fill Eador’s niche, so it’s worth a look at the very least.