Arcane comes from the Latin word “arcanus” meaning hidden or secret. Paradox Interactive’s new game revels in both of these things, asking players to learn its quirks before unlocking its potential. Cajoling into place an erratic mixture of city planning, hexagonal war waging, and omniscient spell casting, Warlock: Master of the Arcane requires you to become well versed in the game’s many esoteric systems before anything resembling success can be achieved.
“Playing Warlock is like encountering a cumbersome but lovingly constructed mechanical watch.”
That’s not to say that Warlock is a game whose elegance and virtuosity is directly related to the skill and experience of the person playing it, far from it. Rather, where Warlock shines is in the satisfying feedback loop at work in coming to understand the how the game’s world functions and its inhabitants behave. Without multiplayer or as much complexity as a title like Civilization, Warlock isn’t a game that requires mastery in order to enjoy it, just patience and practice.
Playing Warlock is like encountering a cumbersome but lovingly constructed mechanical watch. Its purpose and goal are clear, but the precise function of each moving part isn’t exactly obvious. In Warlock the objective is to dominate, whether by well timed diplomacy, overwhelming brute force, or mastery of an ancient and hard to obtain automatic win “unity” spell. But figuring out the right combination for achieving total domination isn’t clear at first.
Before the game starts, players can choose which wizard to play as well as a starting race. Humans are well rounded, monsters are fast moving but more vulnerable, and undead are strong in defense but require several mana each round to fuel them. In addition to choosing a base race for your units, the game allows players to allocate 10 points to a handful of bonuses. Deciding between earning extra resources each turn, faster research times, or better initial spells are a few of the options, and choosing between them is the first trade off players will be required to make.
“Getting acquainted with these visual cues and learning how to interpret their subtle meanings in order to exploit them is what Warlock is really about.”
Once the game starts, things proceed by discrete rounds with construction, spell research and casting, and marching orders all taking a certain number of turns to complete based on what is being attempted. Each of these activities has a corresponding resource: buildings cost money to operate, spells require mana to cast, and troops need food. Balancing these things forms the core of Warlock’s gameplay.
Determining the correct balance for a given situation isn’t easy though, especially at first. And this where Warlock makes up for many of its shortcomings. Focusing on having players make tradeoffs between a few basic elements, Warlock forgoes intricate systems of resource and infrastructure management, investing instead in strategy heavy but ultimately unpredictable warfare mechanics.
Troop movements, from advancing to retreating, invading or reorganizing, ripple throughout a geographic pool of cities, terrains, treasures, and randomly appearing monsters. Getting acquainted with these visual cues and learning how to interpret their subtle meanings in order to exploit them is what Warlock is really about. Because nothing stays the same in Warlock. Alliances and enemy locations can change at a moment’s unwanted notice. One turn you’ll be demolishing a rival Lich and establishing a new city, the next your former ally will declare war for reasons that aren’t always clear. This unreliable diplomacy, while at times frustrating, helps add to the overall fog of war and keep players from ever being to complacent.
“Plod along methodically, and your rivals will outclass you.”
Do I push my forces farther abroad or wait for my recently conquered city to build up its defenses? Summon Earth Elementals to help me take a crucial city or use a teleportation spell to move unused troops to help break the siege on the other side of the map?
Gameplay is more idiosyncratic than complex. Rather than analytically plot your empire Warlock rewards spontaneous but wise maneuvers. So instead of relying crunching the numbers and relying on prefigured strategies, Warlock encourages reactionary tactics and demands that players intuit subtle cues. Plod along methodically, and your rivals will outclass you. Taking a few risks at the right times can making the game winning difference.
Nothing demonstrates this more forcefully than the game’s alternate dimensions; planes of existence that can be accessed via portals located on the main map. The enemies here are brutal and unrelenting, an obstacle worthy of the a loot scattered throughout this plane: dragon eggs, magical wellsprings, and other necessary assets. I can’t count the number of troops I sent into the void in search of these prizes that didn’t return. These fruitless attempts left me understaffed back on the homefront, but after a few more matches choosing which kinds of forces to send and when to send them became instinctual.
Building up spell inventories, forcing dangerous gambits, and building out in the direction of whatever resource is currently exhausted are the pillars upon which victory in Warlock is situated. Time and again though I found myself expanding steadily only to be abruptly demolished as unforeseen events ripped paths of destruction throughout my empire. But as the hours piled up I found myself becoming increasingly attuned to Warlock’s digital vibrations; opportunities and warning signs jittered in and out of the game’s whimsically textured surface until I was making decisions and choosing battles for reasons divorced from logic but in the service winning.
Thinking through the game’s challenges will get you only so far. Getting to where you can “feel” out whether to prepare your southern border for war with a halfwit goblin or continue to appease his loathsome appetite for your gold is the real magic taking place. Warlock carves out a humble but unique niche in the broader genre.
Warlock has something mystically compelling at its core. The fault lines between victory and defeat aren’t always clear in this game, but that works to its advantage. Rather than be bested in the field by its superior rivals genre rivals, Warlock establishes a spontaneous niche wherein no strategy is foolproof, as fireballs rain down, monsters appear when least wanted, and opponent mages forge new alliances.
Warlock: Master of the Arcane isn’t the most accessible or well designed. However, its flaws and eccentricities never break the game. And after moving past them players will be left with the series of intelligent gambles which make up Warlock’s engaging brand of magic fueled warfare.