Heroes of Might & Magic: The Classical Era

Since the second half of the ‘80s, Might & Magic series have been accumulating the love and appreciation of the masses. World of Xeen, the role-playing behemoth born from the fusion of Might & Magic IV and V, crowned the series with a luxurious quality cap. New World Computing needed new ideas and technologies to continue the series without the risk of becoming repetitive. Thus it was decided to let the role-playing Might & Magic rest a bit. In the meantime, the studio has made its old ideas work for the sake of its leading franchise.

It was probably the best decision they could have made. For it has led to the birth of the new series in the Might & Magic universe, which arguably became even more popular and beloved than the role-playing one.

In 1990, New World Computing released King’s Bounty. I won’t talk about this game too much, because it is a story for another day. Everything that needs to be said, though, is that the core ideas of King’s Bounty served as a foundation to the game, which was released five years later. In 1995, Heroes of Might & Magic: A Strategic Quest has seen the light of day. And the world’s conquering began…

Heroes of Might & Magic: A Strategic Quest

The first entry in the new series has been wisely named Heroes of Might & Magic: A Strategic Quest. A long title, but also a pretty accurate one. It’s a ‘strategic’ game, check. ‘Heroes’ are the pillar of its gameplay, check. The game has a robust fairytale-ish atmosphere, so the word ‘quest’ pretty much suits here, check. Finally, the game’s story indeed occurs in the universe of Might & Magic, check. I’ll cover everything later in the article, but first, let’s see how Heroes of Might & Magic fit into the titular franchise.

Retrospectively, you can answer this question with one word: Enroth. That’s the world, where the plot of A Strategic Quest unravels. This world is going to become the home of the series for quite a long time—for seven years, to be exact—until 2002. Four factions battle each other for the sake of ruling Enroth’s mainland. One of those factions, in fact, is not native to this world. As the game’s manual teaches us, Lord Ironfist and his cohorts actually traveled here through the portal in Varnal Hills. Remember Varn? That’s where everything began in Might & Magic Book One. So no surprise, you’ll meet familiar names: Lord Kilburn, New Sorpigal, etc. Some of them are coincidental though: there’s no way Lord Alamar from Enroth is the same, as Lord Alamar from Varn (both of them). Anyways, there is a strong connection between A Strategic Quest’s story and the universal lore of Might & Magic—don’t believe if told otherwise.

But enough with the backstory! Onward to the strategy and warfare!

Building upon the foundation of King’s BountyA Strategic Quest presents the winning formula of the series to come: a mix of turn-based strategy, tactical combat, and some role-play elements.

You have to command armies on the strategic map, gathering recourses and accumulating military power. In the head of each army stands a hero. Heroes may level-up and improve their characteristics, cast spells, and equip artifacts that give various bonuses. When armies clash in battle, tactical combat begins. Here you command your hero’s units in a chess-like manner.

Apart from heroes, you control castles and towns. Those provide a passive income and serve as a recruitment facilities for units. The player, who captures all of the castles on the map, wins. That’s basically it. Of course, the devil lies in details. In practice, the gameplay mechanics, though seemingly simple, are complicated enough to ensure great enjoyment in re-playability.

While talking about the first game in Heroes of Might & Magic series, I prefer to provide a more detailed description of game mechanics. Their core remains mostly unchanged in the later games of the series, so that it will save me more time covering those. In the future, I will concentrate on changes and innovations only.

Strategic mode’s turn-based system revolves around the calendar: each turn is a day. Each hero has a certain amount of movement points he or she can make during one day. The amount of those points depends on the army composition (some units slow down the army, some quite the opposite). As you probably know, seven days in a row called a week. Each week recruits appear in the castles for you to gather under your banner. Astrology, though, may have a random effect on the week’s offspring: sometimes particular creatures breed more, and sometimes the plague halves the population.

There are four factions in A Strategic Quest, each represented by its hero class and castle type: knights, barbarians, sorceresses, and warlocks. You may build up to eleven buildings in each castle. Six of them are unique per castle type: those are creature dwellings, where you recruit cannon fodder for your battles. The other five are common structures, which provide different bonuses: a magic tower provides spells for heroes to learn, a well increases the weakly offspring, etc.

Besides the unit composition, castle types differ in their macro-economic approach that may influence an overall strategy of the game. Warlocks, for example, have the most flying units amidst their ranks, ergo their army is the fastest (and essentially strongest) in the game. But maintaining and developing that castle to fully achieve its potential is quite expensive. Whereas a knight’s castle, which doesn’t provide any flying units at all, is also the cheapest.

Strategic map is strewn with various objects your heroes may collect or interact with. Among those are various bonus-giving artifacts, as well as bonus-giving buildings, dwellings of neutral units, obelisks, and recourses. Obelisks provide hints to the location of an especially mighty artifact by revealing the treasure map piece-by-piece.

There are seven recourse types in the game: gold, wood, ore, sulfur, crystals, mercury, and gems. They can be found lying in piles all across the map, but there is also an option of a passive income. As in real life, passive income comes from real estate: sawmills and mines bring profit daily. As mentioned before, castles also bring gold, but there is another way to get them shiny coins: treasure chests. Those are a bit more complicated: you may take the gold, of course, but you also may choose to give it to peasants (sic) and receive some experience points for your hero (because reasons).

Your heroes need those experience points because besides leading the army (up to five units) and carrying artifacts (up to fourteen), they can level-up and improve their stats. There are four of the latter: attack, defense, knowledge, and spell power. Essentially, they are modifiers for tactical combat. In essence, attack and defense add up to the unit stats in battle, knowledge limits the number of times each spell can be cast without returning to the castle, and spell power is quite self-explanatory.

Each hero type has different starting stats and leveling-up chances (improving skill chosen at random). Knights and barbarians are heroes of might, so they specialize in attack and defense, for example. Evidently, sorceresses and warlocks are heroes of magic, and master knowledge and spell power. Additionally, each hero type has a unique special ability. Knights, for example, give extra morale to their troops, and warlocks have more movement points on rough terrain.

Let’s talk about tactical battles now. They are fun!

Every time you engage in the battle, some menacing music plays, a screen fades to black, and a tactical view appears. Rival armies stand in-front of each other by the sides of the 5×7 hexagonal grid—attackers on the left, defenders on the right. The battle is fought in turn-based mode, while the turn order depends on the unit’s side (attackers have the priority), its placement on the grid (from top-down), and its speed modifier. The latter also determines the distance a unit can move in one turn, except for flying units—they can move everywhere on the field.

Some units have special abilities. These include archery, double attack, regeneration, certain immunities, etc.

Hero’s morale and luck modifiers play an essential role in the battle. High morale increases the chance to get an extra turn, while units suffering from low morale tend to forfeit their turns. High luck doubles a unit’s damage, while bad luck, theoretically, had to halve it. Although bad luck mechanic was implemented in A Strategic Quest, there are zero realistic chances of it actually to reveal itself during a game. There is simply nothing in this game that gives you bad luck—just a fun fact.

Castle sieges are slightly more complicated. Defenders stand protected by a castle wall with watchtower providing fire assistance. Attackers, on the other hand, get a catapult. No unit, except for the flying ones, may pass through the castle wall. That way, a wholly pedestrian army highly depends on its catapult (which fires randomly).

Heroes never actively take part in battles. They prefer to sit in their comfortable tents outside the battlefield, cast spells, and make crucial decisions—specifically, retreat or surrender. Retreating will cause your hero to lose his army, but save himself for re-recruitment. Surrendering will keep your hero’s army intact, but you’ll have to buy it out from your enemy.

There are twenty-nine spells in A Strategic Quest. Most of them are used only in battle. To study those spells, your hero has to obtain a spellbook and visit one of your castles with a mage guild built in it. There are four levels of the mage guild to be built, each giving access to the more powerful spells.

As you see, there are lots of things going on beneath the cover of simplicity. No wonder that Heroes of Might & Magic conquered so many playing hearts: presenting a simple concept that is easy to play, but complicated enough to be hard to master is like hitting the jackpot for the strategic game genre.

However addictive they are, the game mechanics shouldn’t receive all of the credit for A Strategic Quest’s success. The audio-visual aspect of the game has played a vital role here.

Aesthetically A Strategic Quest joins the colorful feast of Might & Magic IIIIV, and V. Bright juicy palette and detailed visual design create an atmosphere of a fairytale, strongly fueling the desire to immerse oneself into game’s magical world. But the greatest strength lies in audio design: each second of the game is filled with different sonances—sea rumbles, birds chatter, sawmills sing their busy songs—the world sounds vigorous and alive.

In addition to that, A Strategic Quest is the first Might & Magic game, which Rob King and Paul Romero wrote music for. There is no need to comment on that because it is widely known how their melodies occupy listeners’ hearts.

Those are the reasons you may start playing Heroes of Might & Magic: A Strategic Quest in the evening and never notice the light of dawn protruding through the window. That’s what I call a promising start for a new series. And that was just the beginning.

Heroes of Might & Magic II: The Succession Wars

Successes bring opportunities. New World Computing was quite successful, ambitious, but not omnipotent company. Some bold ideas were brewing in Jon van Caneghem’s head (in the field of on-line gaming specifically), but more resources were needed to implement them. Capitalistic clock was ticking—it was a time to look for a rich parent. The first attempt was made in 1994 with NTN Communications, but it didn’t bear much fruit. Eventually, in July 1996, New World Computing had been purchased by 3DO.

Shortly after that, in October 1996, Heroes of Might & Magic II has been released under the caring wings of the new partnership.

The sequel returns to Enroth, where the civil war has been brewing. Two brothers, sons of the deceased ruler, Lord Ironfist, battle each other for the succession, tearing the land apart. The game’s campaign offers the player a choice between Archibald (an evil brother) and Roland (a good brother). Whomever player chooses, though, won’t necessarily become a king in the end. Heroes of Might & Magic II campaign rejects the conventional linearity of missions: a story arc branches in a couple of places, not merely allowing choosing between assignments, but also presenting a possibility of treason and defection to another side of the conflict.

Graphics remained cartoonishly whimsical and colorful, significantly improving the amount of visual details and the animation quality. Landscapes, castle interiors, battles, and spells—everything looks much better and nuanced. Heroes no more hide in their tents during battles, graciously sitting on their stallions and visually react to events unfolding on the battlefield (cheering and lamenting according to the occasion). Dying units leave gruesome corpses on the ground, not merely disappearing in a bloody cloud, like in the previous game of the series.

The good and evil dichotomy of the main plot finds its visual representation in the interface design: bright colors and flowers of good factions against dark shade and skulls of the evil ones. That same visual dichotomy has been eventually used in the Might & Magic VII.

Steve Baca joined Rob King and Paul Romero in the audio department, and thus the legendary trio has been formed. Heroes of Might & Magic II sounds as beautiful and timeless as it looks: neoclassical passages highlight the vital landscapes, and operatic arias greatly empower the atmosphere within the mighty castles.

Not only the plot and the aesthetics celebrate their evolution through improvement, enrichment, and versatility. New World Computing adopted the same approach to the gameplay. Heroes of Might & Magic II brings both quantitative and qualitative changes to the game formula of the original.

The game’s arsenal became more abundant with two new factions—necromancers and wizards,—new units, new spells, new artifacts, new objects on the map, new castle buildings. Some creature dwellings became upgradeable: build additional floor to the adobe, and your ogres would be more agile and tougher; build fancier archery range, and your archers will shoot twice per turn, etc. Dragons may be upgraded twice, changing their color from green to red and eventually to the legendary black. There are lots of additional buildings available in the castle, apart from the creature dwellings. Some are common, some unique to the faction. Some give economic bonuses; some enhance creature growth; some improve the castle’s defenses. Building a local market opens an option to trade resources, deepening the inner game economy system, and widening the player’s choices. Building captain quarters makes leaving a hero in charge of the castle garrison unnecessary—captain would take command of the troops if needed, increase their morale and is proficient enough to cast spells.

Battlefields became larger: hexagonal grid grew almost twice in dimensions (9×11 now), making more tactical maneuvering possible. Castle gate technology has finally become available in Enroth: defenders of besieged castles can wander outside of the castle walls, without waiting for an enemy catapult to do its job.

The only thing that remained exactly the same, as in the game’s predecessor, are the resource types.

The most dramatic changes, though, happened to be the ones regarding heroes themselves. Firstly, heroes no more forget the spells they learn: each spell costs a certain amount of spell points to cast, and a knowledge stat now affects the amount of spell points a hero has.

Secondly, the brand new secondary skill system enhances heroes’ livelihoods. There are 14 skills overall, and every hero may learn 8 of them. Skills give various bonuses—leadership improves morale, logistics adds movement points, mysticism affects daily replenishing of spell points, etc. Each hero type begins with a specific skill pre-learned, depending on their faction: sorceresses, as in A Strategic Quest, love seafaring, so their skill of choice is navigation, and necromancers, obviously, begin the game with a certain knowledge in necromancy, refilling their ranks with fresh skeletons after each battle. Additionally, every magically proficient hero (necromancer, warlock, wizard, and sorceress) begins with a wisdom skill, without which it’s impossible to learn high-level spells.

Every time hero levels-up, you must improve his skills, choosing out of two given options. There are three tiers in the skill proficiency: beginner, advanced, and expert.

Heroes of Might & Magic II: The Succession Wars has solved all the problems of its predecessor. The game balance achieved almost ideal equilibrium thanks to the significant enrichment of an economic system. Simultaneously, though, the game has managed to keep each faction unique—factions still defer in their strategical and tactical gaming styles. AI became more challenging and competent.

As a result of the above, Heroes of Might & Magic II substantially outperform A Strategic Quest in its addictivity. Since the day I first played this game in childhood, I find it impossible to resist revisiting its colorful world periodically.

By this day, I consider Heroes of Might & Magic II the best game in the series, nevertheless the popularity of Heroes of Might & Magic III. I love the legendary threequel, don’t get me wrong, but it’s particular characteristics make it inferior in my eyes. I’ll elaborate more next time, for this article already seems too long, and I still haven’t talked about The Price of Loyalty.

Heroes of Might & Magic II: The Price of Loyalty

The Price of Loyalty is a wholesome add-on to The Succession Wars, developed by Cyberlore Studios, without any significant involvement from New World Computing. The add-on presents lots of new maps and four single-player campaigns, which stories have nothing to do with a canonic lore of Might & Magic series.

Some new strategic map objects also were introduced, some of theme even have been adopted in Heroes of Might & Magic III. For example, Keymaster’s Tents, Seer’s Huts, etc.

One and a half dozen new artifacts were thrown into the mix. Among them, there is even a full item set—a sword, an armor plate, and a helm. Each of those items give bonuses, but when together, additional effects are achieved.

More of the Heroes of Might & Magic II is always a welcome, especially with several nice additions, which don’t change much, though, slightly spice up the overall experience.

Cyberlore Studios were the right people for the task of developing an add-on to such a beloved game. They’ve already made that once: Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal is their doing. Cyberlore will show the full range of their talent several years later, releasing their opus magnum—Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim. But that’s a story for another day.

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