A few years ago, I linked to an alternate genre classification system for games, as proposed by Russ Pitts and Steve Butts in The Escapist magazine. I paraphrased their system as follows:
- Action vs Strategy deals with how you play the game. Action games emphasise the player’s physical skill at controlling his/her on-screen avatar. Strategy games, on the other hand, are about planning, analysis, and working out how to get the most out of the avatar(s), rather than about direct control.
- Exploration vs Conflict, meanwhile, focuses on what you have to overcome. Does the challenge in the game come from defeating opponents who are playing the same game you are, with the same objectives? Or does it come from discovering and overcoming the environment? The former, what Soren Johnson might call a “symmetrical” game, is Conflict. The latter is Exploration.
You can see this in the following chart from the Escapist article: games that require reflexes (such as shooters, racing games, and platformers) are at the top of the circle, while those that don’t are at the bottom. Citybuilders, which pit the player against an impersonal environment or ruleset, are on the left; Civilization is on the right.
I thought of this while playing Warlock 2: The Exiled, a game that looks like fantasy Civilization V but is really — to quote Rachel’s guest review — about “mage versus world”. The AI players in my game have been passive, content to march their armies back and forth and beg me for alliances; in Civ, this would have been a recipe for boredom, but in Warlock 2 the slack is taken up by wave after wave of wandering monsters, all the way up to dragons!
By itself, this would be pretty cool and almost unique — it helped sell me on the game. While barbarians and mind worms are a pest in Civ and Alpha Centauri, when I racked my brain for 4X strategy games whose NPCs are as tough as Warlock 2‘s, I mostly came up with obscure games and mods: fan-made scenarios for Emperor of the Fading Suns, or perhaps Fall from Heaven for Civ IV*.
What is unique about Warlock 2 is the way it formalises “mage versus world” into an entire game mode, with its own victory condition. In Exile mode, players must fight their way across the multiverse to reach the wizard-king who shattered the world. In between, there are dragons, werewolves, golems, elementals, the wizard’s own henchmen… who needs rival players as well? This is in stark contrast to other 4X games, which are rooted in the notion — I assume ultimately descended from board games — that players and their goals should be symmetrical, and never mind that almost no strategy game AI can compete symmetrically against humans**.
The result has been the best surprise amongst this year’s releases — a game that takes the familiar mechanics of strategy and imposes a new structure upon them, creating a narrative about heroes, soldiers, and colonists taming world after world on their way to the wizard. I would like to play other games like this*** — and I’d love to see other strategy designers follow suit.
* Going by reputation, I could also add the Alpha Centauri-inspired Pandora: First Contact.
** With Warlock 2‘s own AI being a case in point.
*** I really should get around to playing AI War, an asymmetric game that, by all accounts, does something similar for the RTS.