Reviewed: December 15, 2007
Released: November 7, 2007
If you grew up as a gamer in the 1980s, chances are you played your share of turn-based fantasy games. I especially loved a Dungeons & Dragons module called War of the Lance, where instead of controlling just one D&D character you got to command whole armies. Knights, elven archers, and men-at-arms would rage across the hexagonal map against hordes of orcs and goblins bent on destruction.
This is probably why I immediately fell under the charm of Fantasy Wars. I know the title alone makes Fantasy Wars sound like a bargain bin knock-off of Warcraft, but there’s plenty under the hood to keep strategy fans satisfied. This turn-based game from 1C Company combines the feel and roleplaying aspects of Warcraft III with the deeper strategy of Civilization IV. Although the setting and factions feel generic, Fantasy Wars keeps the action moving almost as fast and frenzied as a real-time strategy game. At the same time the difficulty for completing missions can be brutal, forcing you to think several turns ahead in order to survive.
The single player game features three campaigns: you can play the human or orc campaign at launch and unlock the Elven campaign. I'm going to state up front that the storyline is forgettable. You can either play as the knight captain Derrick, who's hoping to save his homeland and regain his honor, or the orc warlord Ugraum, who's just looking to smash some human skulls.
The game starts to get interesting when the cutscenes end and you deploy your troops on the hexagonal map. There is no base building or economy to speak of. You can buy new units before a battle with plundered gold or recruit new troops for meeting objectives, but otherwise there will be no horde of cavalry riding over the hill to save you.
Fantasy Wars boasts nearly 70 units and 9 unit classes, from light infantry to heavy cavalry to flyers. If you've played the Civilization or Heroes of Might and Magic series you know what to expect: regiments race across the board and fire volleys of arrows or hack at enemies in nearby hexes. Only one unit can occupy a hex at a time, so you can't create giant unit stacks of rolling doom like you can in Civilization.
However, you can easily set up a battle line with your melee troops up front and a line of archers behind. Heroes also play a big role, just like they do in the Warcraft series. Fighter heroes can wipe out whole regiments at a time while mages and healers fling powerful spells that can certainly turn the tide of a battle.
The game has a strong roleplaying aspect, with both heroes and units gaining new abilities as they level. Some abilities provide passive stat boosts, but others allow the unit to do amazing things given the right conditions. For example, archers can learn the counter-fire ability that allows them to shoot before an enemy attacks. It often pays to give your shock troops the best offensive abilities while buffing up the defense on your archers and spearmen.
Every unit and hero can also use magic items, although heroes can carry three items while troops can only carry one. My only problem with the leveling system is you lose all past experience if you upgrade a unit. For example, it pays to keep an experienced group of scouts in their current class instead of upgrading them to rangers.
What I liked most about the combat was how it wasn't strictly rock-paper-scissor based. Some units do have advantages over others, but terrain and a unit's experience matter a lot. Lowly spearmen with the right defense skills can defend a castle against an entire army of elite troops. I learned the hard way when my royal knights were wiped out in an ambush by goblin archers that knights don’t do well fighting in swamps.
Some units seemed a bit too powerful, but I didn't encounter any gamebreaking imbalances. There is also a morale system where units that suffer enough damage often run away. This is actually as much a curse as a blessing since your own troops can run away at the wrong time or an enemy unit can escape just as you were trying to finish it off. Heroes can take skills that keep units from running off, making them even more critical to your strategy.
If I had one major complaint about the game, it would be the insane difficulty. The AI is not the brightest but it is relentless. You’ll always get the first attack, but expect wave after wave of enemy units to then come after you. Objectives are often held by experienced units that will force you to wear them down with catapults and lots of troops.
And don’t forget the nasty boss who always seems to show up just when your hero’s badly wounded and his units are at half-strength. You need to keep your best troops alive to even have a chance at winning the next campaign mission, so sometimes you can win a battle but lose the war. The good news is smart tactics while almost always keep you from getting stuck for too long on one level, even if you do have to replay the same fight several times to get it right.
While the graphics aren’t as stunning as the latest top strategy titles, I really liked the look of the units and game board. The humans have a chivalrous medieval look while the orcs look like dark and twisted barbarians rather than the "noble savages" of World of Warcraft. The overall graphical style is very retro, with brightly colored units and landscapes. The battlefield is dotted with golden yellow fields, dark green forests, and storybook castles. There's just enough detail in the troops and the battlefield to add to the game's enjoyment.
I also loved the game's zoom function where I could zoom in and watch dozens of soldiers fight it out, or zoom out and see each regiment represented by a single giant soldier. This feature makes it a snap to keep track of your troops during movement but still enjoy watching them fire a volley of arrows or charge into the enemy. Combat animations are not as advanced as games like Medieval II, but they are better than Civilization IV. The only problem I had with the graphics were the cutscenes, which are a bit choppy.
Fantasy Wars has a good musical score and decent sound effects. The human and elf voices-overs are nicely done. You’ll hear your human warriors cheer “Ah ha!” whenever you kill an enemy, which is always a nice ego boost. Unfortunately, the orc voices could use some work. Ugraum and his warriors have that guttural sound that’s too similar to the Warcraft orc faction. When Ugraum screams “Horde!” in one cutscene, I just had to roll my eyes.
The gameplay is quite addicting, and you can replay missions to see if you can earn the gold award. But once all three campaigns are finished, Fantasy Wars only offers a handful of extra missions in single player mode. A map editor is now available from the Fantasy Wars website, so you can always create your own. Fantasy Wars theoretically supports online multiplayer, but the times I went online I couldn’t find many players. Fortunately, you can always challenge your friends to a hot seat match.
I’d highly recommend Fantasy Wars for turn-based strategy fans, and also recommend it with reservations to RTS fans. The pace is a little slower than some RTS fans may enjoy, and there is no base building or resource gathering.
Fantasy Wars is a great little gem that would make a fine addition to every strategy gamer’s shelf. What it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in addictively fun mayhem. While I'm not sure how much longer turn-based games will even be made, Fantasy Wars proves the genre isn't dead. This game will give even hardcore BattleNet veterans a flashback to the first time they played Warcraft III. Or for other 30-somethings like me, Fantasy Wars just might take you back to marathon sessions of pushing cardboard D&D pieces around a felt map.