RTS Galore! Episode 2: PowerMonger

In the previous episode of RTS Galore! I’ve talked about Populous and its gamification of the conflict between two selfish and cruel deities. In the second episode, I’m going to talk about another game developed by Bullfrog—PowerMonger (1990). This time, we’ll witness the conflict devoid of any divine presence.

Before diving in, let’s first check our RTS criteria for the series as were described here. PowerMonger follows a design philosophy very similar to Populous’, so the game fits perfectly with its relative positioning, omnipresent perspective, finite teleology, setting absolute goals for the player, etc. The only difference is that environment dynamics are fixed in PowerMonger—you can’t build anywhere you want and actively shape the landscape. That’s understandable—you don’t play as a deity here: now you’re just a petty human warlord.

That’s how the game’s official manual describes the pre-game situation:

«Your kingdom of Miremer was destroyed by a devastating seismic upheaval. Collapsing mountains and fiery, poisonous ash spared few of your subjects and none of your lands. You have plied ambivalent seas for countless weeks seeking a new home for your remaining handful of followers (and a new realm for yourself). Finally, the fickle waves grew weary of toying with you and cast your frail craft onto the unfamiliar shores of a foreign land. This land is rich and fertile, as you have dreamed it would be; but like all bountiful places, it is populated. Petty warlords and captains reign over the larger settlements and send their armies sweeping across the countryside. You could debase yourself into vassalage to these backward nobles and submit your followers to their misrule. But you were a king not so long ago, and you have borne enough indignity. It is they who will pay homage to you. You will gain a crown once again…or die in the attempt.»

Thus, PowerMonger justifies its imperialism celebration by ecological calamity (you have no choice but to invade other countries) and by colonialist logic (native population is «backward,» worse than you, so you have to rule them). But I don’t want to focus on imperialism and colonialism here—we’ll have plenty of opportunities for this in other RTS games. Instead, I want to take advantage of PowerMonger and Populous being developed by the same people almost simultaneously and with roughly the same design philosophy in mind to juxtapose those games’ mechanics. Not for the mere sake of it, but to inspect the ontological difference between divine and human beings, which derives from such juxtaposition.

Søren Kierkegaard coined the concept of infinite qualitative difference. It’s basically a distinction between human and god which underlines the temporality of creatures and the eternity of the divine. By this concept, mortal beings cannot remove the «yawning abyss of quality in the difference between God and man,» and there is no way for a human even to fathom the supreme being. PowerMonger and Populous reject that concept by setting the same goals for the player—domination and conquest.

As presented in those games, the main difference between god and human lies in nuances and scope. Victory in Populous is achieved by the absolute destruction of the opposing force, while in PowerMonger, it is sufficient to literally tip the balance to your side. There is an icon of scales as part of the UI—it changes relative to the number of settlements players have in their control. When the scales are on your side, you free to leave the map—the game will register it as won by the player.

The way you achieve victory in PowerMonger differs even more drastically from Populous. In the shoes of a fierce deity, you could change the landscape to control your followers’ behavior and wage war by bringing calamities onto your enemies. As a human warlord, you have much less control and more busywork.

Your army is the only thing you can directly control in PowerMonger. Everything else is just a given fact that you have to accept and to deal with. By conquering neutral settlements, you accumulate power by increasing your troops’ sheer numbers and providing food and tools (inventions is the game’s term) to support your army.

Which inventions your army would attain from the conquered settlement depend on several things: settlement’s surroundings (whether there are woods, water, and\or mine nearby, for example), your general’s posture (I’ll explain that bit a little later), and whether there is a workshop there (you can’t build it if it’s absent). Conditions are complicated and intertwined, so that’s difficult to predict which inventions you will get—boats or swords, cannons or bows, spears or mud pots. 

Weapon inventions make your army stronger, boats allow you to traverse the seas and rivers, and mud pots are used for trade between the settlements. Yes, there are non-violent options in PowerMonger, but they are nearly not quite as efficient as good-old face-smashing.

PowerMonger demands you to be exceptionally mindful of your surroundings—not only by choosing which settlement to conquer first but also when to do it. Seasons change in real-time, bringing the different weather conditions for you to consider. When it rains, your troops move slower; when it snows, they consume food more rapidly.

The primary tool for playing PowerMonger is by adjusting your captain’s posture. Attitude is such a human aspect, after all! There are three types of posture—passive, neutral, and aggressive. By shifting between them, you control your army’s every action. Posture determines how many of the conquered settlement’s natives will join your army (less than a half, or the whole population); posture determines how much food and resources your army will consume; posture defines how fiercely your soldiers will fight. Mismanaging your attitude may lead to undesired consequences—aggressive posture while inventing something in the settlement near woods can lead to deforestation, making that settlement strategically useless (woods will regrow eventually, but you’ll lose a lot of time.)

Additional captains will join you during the missions—their posture is less aggressive according to their place in the chain of command. Your first captain is the most aggressive one. Your second in command is a bit less aggressive; the third one is even less aggressive, etc. Controlling subordinate captains is also not so simple as your first one because the orders reach them with a delay (delivered by post pigeons.) As farther the subordinate captain is from your first one, the more delay there will be.

Along with the need to keep senses sharp with in-game mechanics, PowerMonger demands the player to struggle with the interface. While following roughly the same design as Populous, PowerMonger’s UI is far less friendly. There are too many little elements to keep the eyes on as sliders of your armies’ power and food supply, captain’s medals and mood (even their remarks while receiving orders matter), icons on the mini-map, etc. Lots of important information is achievable with the query tool, which demands some precision in mouse-clicking. It is problematic in itself because the 3D map (although technically impressive) is requiring some time to get used to.

Thus, the juxtaposition of Populous and PowerMonger paints a peculiar picture. While building the bridge upon the Kierkegor’s «yawning abyss» in the difference between man and god by setting the same essential goals, inherent contrasts between those games emphasize the qualitative difference in the experience. The relatively controlled chaos of divine destruction against an uncontrollable existential struggle that demands precision and caution.

The conclusion is not surprising—being a god is by far more fun. That’s probably why we never saw PowerMonger’s sequel.

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