The marriage of a sports management style game with tactical combat seems like a natural. To be sure, it is more difficult to accomplish than a pure management simulation, but for those of us who are control freaks, it's extremely satisfying to actually command our ranged units (wizards, mystery archmages, and archers) on when to let their missiles of destruction fly and to order our heavy-duty (knights, black knights, giants, and minotaurs) into melee after the magical and medieval artillery have softened their targets.
Battles of Norghan (BON) offers the features I like most about Colisseum from Stormcloud Creations. Players have the chance to assemble rosters from a pool of freelance fighters and must balance the salary and equipment demands with some measure of profitability. In many ways, BON is like Arcadia that Stormcloud Creations is currently developing. In this case, players recruit fighters into a clan, manage training and equipment, and recruit temporary fighters to meet needs during upcoming engagements. Although BON does not have the quest mechanism built into Arcadia, its training and equipping systems are significantly more robust. Plus, a new clan is instantly placed into the lowest of eight divisions so that it does not have to compete with the toughest clan in the game from the beginning.
This latter feature is significant for the price/performance ratio given in the ratings. After a couple of false starts, it took me one season to become the runner-up for the Small Clans' Cup (usually fought out between the 6th-8th divisions) and one more season to become the winner of the Small Clans' Cup. Then, my clan (known as Cannonfodder in my own self-deprecating, anachronistic attempt at humor) was placed in the Seventh Division to begin its quest against tougher competition and try to win enough gold to recruit a bigger clan and, eventually, become competitive for the Cup of Glory, the game's ultimate stake. It actually took close to 30 hours to win the first cup and between 10 and 12 hours to win the second. Yet, I still hadn't closed in on the ultimate goal. Plus, with the challenges becoming greater as one's clan moves up, the game doesn't seem to get old--at least, to this hoary, old grognard.
The Armory (Positive Aspects)
Combat is handled similar to miniatures combat. Each unit is allotted speed points (action points as per some rules) with which to accomplish its desired actions. Speed points depend on basic character attributes as well as armor worn. They determine the distance each fighter can cover, the type of attack that can be made, and, if a magic wielder, whether a spell can be cast or not (most spells being full round actions). The tactical nature of the combat reminds me a lot of playing Dungeons & Dragons on the table-top except that initiative (a separate die roll in the tabletop game) is strictly handled in an "I go-You go" format where players move one character at a time until all players are moved.
The combat algorithms consider such factors as reach (how long the weapon is) and range in determining possible targets, attack styles, and damage. In fact, it appears that the variety of weapons and damage ranges associated with those weapons are considerably more diverse than even those found in the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
In combat, you are always shown the percentage chance of hitting as you attempt your attacks. This not only keeps you aware of how sound or unsound your tactics are, but also lets you see that the different types of armor and terrain (grass, lush grass, desert, and dirt) have an impact on your ranged attacks.
Best of all, all combat choices can be made quickly by right-clicking the character, choosing an action from the pop-up menu, and clicking on the target. It could only be more efficient if hot keys were assigned to the actions as well as the spells.
Magic is point-based. Each unit capable of casting spells is given a pool of mana from which to cast. Successful casting of a spell reduces the caster's mana pool by the full cost associated with the spell (e.g. two points for casting a Magical Punching spell, five points for casting Magic Missile, and six points for casting Firebolt or Icebolt). Failure to cast a spell will also drain mana from the individual character's reserve, but the cost is random and never as high as the cost of a successful casting of the spell. Spells are purchased between battles and once they are learned, the only cost is the expenditure of mana.
What's best to like about the magic is that it has a nice variety and no one type of magic user is capable of utilizing all types. It takes druids to lure animals into the battle and priests to perform the more significant acts of healing (though several character classes can perform minor healing). An Icebolt spell both does damage and slows an opponent. A Firebolt spell usually does more damage, but doesn't slow the oncoming target. Some spells, naturally, enhance the strength, toughness, and accuracy of your own units. Others negate the positives or breach the armor of your enemies. Frankly, the spell mix is extremely well considered and adds to both the tactical playing experience and the overarching recruiting aspect to the game.
Another aspect that keeps one coming back to the game is the fact that, while the goal is to capture the Cup of Glory (the overall championship) on a regular basis, there are individual rewards for killing the most rivals, having the best kills per combat average, developing the best equipment, having the best toughness rating among the clans. It seems like every time you turn around in this game, there is a reward to be sought and something interesting to do.
Finally, even though the graphics for the tactical combat aren't much better than those found in such games as Medieval or the original Age of Wonders, each attack does have a payoff animation (animated arrows, bolts, fireballs, etc.).
The Trenches (Negative Aspects)
Ironically, those animated payoffs that I just complimented are part of one of my frustrations about the game. As it currently exists, the player orders a character to fire a ranged attack (crossbow, longbow, firebolt, icebolt, etc.). Then, the program immediately calculates the adjustments from the base percentage chance to hit (range, armor, obstructions) and prints the result of this calculation in a text box on the screen. Don't get me wrong. I appreciate having this kind of information on-screen. I would just prefer that it not pop up before the animation depicting the missile begins. This is an incredibly minor issue to me, though, but I mention it in hopes it will altered in future designs or expansions.
Another thing that detracts from the tactical game is that the artificial opponents invariably close on your party as rapidly as they can. To be sure, a few druids, priests, wizards, and mysteryarchs do hang back wisely while they send giants, minotaurs, and well-armored fighters as their vanguard, but that vanguard is always coming at your fighters. As a result, BON plays much better for those of us who play â€œdefenseâ€ than for those who like to be on the offensive. I found that, unless severely outnumbered by units with massive amounts of hit points, the strategy of hanging back and letting â€œthemâ€ come to you is most effective.
As for drawbacks from the strategic game, there are only two that grab my attention. First, there doesn't seem to be a mechanism to allow you to view your contracts at a glance. For example, did you hire that wizard for five battles or two? Did you actually recruit that black knight as a member of the clan (lifetime) or only for a year's worth of competition? Since an optimal mix requires a judicious balance and you only get a portion of the equipment prices back (and none of the magical spell prices back) when the mercenary leaves your service, that can be pretty important information.
The second drawback to the strategic game has to do with the auction at the mercenary camp. Since one of the most vital parts of the game is recruiting mercenaries to fight for your clan, you can well imagine that a problem here can really destroy a potentially good game. Frankly, you won't have many problems if you take the advice of the tutorial and left-click and/or right-click several times to "Skip Bidding" (left-clicks skip one round; right-clicks skip ten rounds) before you click to "End Bidding." In this way, you can be relatively sure that no one has outbid you on a given mercenary.
But, there have been occasions when I thought I had the high bid and discovered upon return to the main screen that my mercenary (or mercenaries) had not accompanied me. This can be particularly devastating if you are on a tight budget and found yourself trying to beef up a weak team for one of the single-elimination Cup tournaments. I had to restart more than one game because of this problem.
The Tavern (How to Cheat (Warning: Spoiler))
Technically, you would be up a tree when this happens (or the occasional glitches I experienced where the program set up a battle without my whole team present), but there is a workaround. It isn't pretty, but the truth is that the program doesn't save the status of your team until after a battle is complete. So, if you click to return to the Main Menu and quit Battles of Norghan completely, you can come back to the game, load your game, and renegotiate your mercenary contracts. Naturally, this also means that when an important Cup battle isn't going your way, you can always cheat and do this to avoid a disqualifying defeat.
The Command Tent (Tactics)
In more than one Cup battle where I was facing opponents from higher divisions, I discovered that I was undermanned and outgunned. In such cases, I would recruit strong units like minotaurs and orcs on a one-battle contract and, once the battle was loaded, immediately send them off on a flanking movement. I would leave my spellcasters, longest-ranged archers, and a couple of strong guards behind to cover the casters. This usually meant that the strongest fighters from the opposing team would chase the flanking attack.
This allowed me to accomplish two things. First, I could use long-range attacks against the best-armored of my opponents without having them close on my spellcasters because they were being drawn away by cannonfodder worthy of my team name. Second, the tactic tended to split the opposition into two forces. Third, if my spell casters needed to pass enough turns to rebuild their mana supply, they had time to retreat as the opposition regrouped.
The Treasure Vault (Conclusions)
Battles of Norghan is the kind of game for which I've been looking for a long time. It has just the right mix of strategic planning and tactical challenge framed by a reason to keep playing season after season. I'm still trying to figure out if Grey Dog Sports' Total College Basketball or Battles of Norghan is the most addictive game I've played this year. It'll probably take a couple more seasons of both to make the decision.
If you're looking for state of the art graphics, sound, and animation, stay away. If you're looking for a perfect use of terrain to reduce speed and create obstructions/hazards, you should probably look elsewhere. But, if you're looking for hours and hours of satisfying play that leaves you clicking for just one more battle, Battles of Norghan is the one for you--a near-perfect hybrid.