Yesterday we took our first look at the digital version of Warhammer Quest. Today we're going to look even deeper under the hood.
The Changing Game
Me recommend not playing on hardcore mode sounds crazy, right?
I'm going to talk about the money, because it's relevant to the design. When it was released, I paid $4.99 and bought Warhammer Quest.
The $4.99 includes the first campaign and the 4 basic heroes. At first, this was all I purchased. I began a hard-core game. There were other heroes available at launch, and soon I paid $2.99 each to purchase the ogre and shadow strider. This was helpful because I could level 6 characters and if i lost one, I didn't have to start with a new level 1 character. This 11 dollars purchase was very enjoyable. I spent about 30 hours on the basic campaign and questing, ending with my heroes around level 5. This included more than one party wipe.
At the time the only in application purchases was the option to purchase in-game gold at ridiculous rates. $3 for 4,000 gold, up to $30 for 60,000. 60,000 gold doesn't go as far as you think, I collected over 3 times that in just a standard play-through. 60,000 gold only levels 4 characters to level 8. It is also cash spent that removes gameplay. I generally try to avoid those kinds of purchases.
In case this isn't clear, the game is a fantastic value. I recently took my wife to see a movie, 32$ and two hours later it was over. $11 for 30 hours of entertainment is an excellent value.
I then put the game down for over a year. When I picked it back up again, they had released several new heroes, two new campaigns (skaven and brutal hoard), and new undead units and tilesets. I purchased them all. The campaigns are $4.99 each, the tilesets/monster packs and characters were $2.99 each. I spent around $30 to pick them all up. This provided another 40 hours or so of gameplay to complete each of the new campaigns.
A short word on each of the purchases. The new campaigns are connected to the old one on the overworld map. You can start the new campaign by simply fast traveling or just by organically exploring the map. The Skaven campaign (Riekland) challenges players from 2nd to 6th level, and the Brutal Hoard Campaign (Averland) raises the level cap to 8 and challenges players from 4th to 8th level.
In the year since I played, they also introduced another IAP—Lore Magic. Each point of Lore Magic allows you to kill all the enemies, or raise all your dead, or double the gold rewarded for finishing a dungeon. You get 3 points for free.
You can of course purchase them for .99 cents each, get 5 for $3.99 or 20 for $9.99.
When I played the base game, I somewhat infrequently lost players and had to re-level them. More than once I had a complete party wipe, but there were always new characters to pick up the gauntlet, and it was fairly easy to get new characters up to speed.
However, when moving into the expanded content several things changed. First, the investment of the characters went up. Way up. Characters now might have upwards of 6 or 7 rare items, the result of multiple quests and thousands of gold. In addition a level 6 or 7 character is nearly a 20,000 gold investment in itself.
You know what? That's fine. The real shock came from the vampire/zombie and necromancer/skeleton expansion packs.
These expansion packs are what is left of the abandoned Wissenland expansion (Warhammer Quest: Never Lucky), one of the undead and gothic castles. That expansion was abandoned when Rodeo games (a small four person studio) got the contract to produce Warhammer 40K Deathwatch, another tactical squad based game of space marines versus tyranids. It is also quite good. But this caused them to abandon Warhammer Quest and release the content in progress as monster expansion packs.
So here's the thing about Vampires, Vampire Thralls, and Necromancers. Death Shriek and Crystal Maze. Death Shriek requires no LOS and attempts to stun your entire party with a high chance of success. Crystal Maze removes one of your players from the game for a turn, and if the caster is killed, the unit dies also. One of these units given a turn can wipe the part on an unlucky roll. They can appear in groups of 1-4, but usually only appear 1 or 2 at a time.
To be clear, Dungeons take about 10-20 turns to clear. Sometimes more, sometimes less. A die is rolled every turn. There is a 1 in 36 chance of two enemy spawns in a row. Unsurprisingly for a 4th-6th level party, these encounters were frequently fatal.
What's more is that the new tilesets primarily consist of long hallways with obstacles. This means the vampires and necromancers would frequently spawn up to two or three tiles away (20-40 squares, when units have a movement of 5-6) and the obstacles in the hallway would impede progress. This meant you would frequently be in situation where you couldn't melee the magic-resisting vampire because your warriors couldn't reach him because of all the trash mobs between you and the target. And since they can resist magic and ranged doesn't do enough damage, it's difficult if not impossible to kill them on the turn they appear.
Now, if I had a 6th level character die, I couldn't just restart with a new 1st levelcharacter, because the only way the characters gained levels was by being the person to kill an opponent. At that level, they would only do minor damage and would either need a lot of equipment or luck to manage to hit an opponent of that level, much less slay one. You could of course spend some time trying to get one down to low hit points and give the new character a chance to hit them, but every extra round you are in the dungeon is quite deadly. Another option would be to reset the low level quests and spend a long time just blowing them completely out of the water with level 6's and one level 1 character every time someone died. The random quests are based on average party level, and unsuitable for leveling.
Now, having a party of 8th level characters has shown me that these encounters are quite manageable. What this indicates is that the new expansion must have been geared for a higher level cap and level range, because for a 7th or 8th level party they represent real danger, but not a panicked near wipe every time they appear. I do not fear them as I once did.
Blood for the Blood God!
A lot of this has to do with the changing nature of play, and is similar to what occurs around mid-level in most games of Dungeons and Dragons. Put quite simply, by the time you are likely to be killed in an encounter (rocket tag, 3.5 expected losses, etc.) you have access to magic that allows you to raise your companions from the dead. Why is this? The amount of investment in the character sort of demands it. Not simply because you don't want to have your character die, but because the character often becomes central to the events. Not only is a new character unsuited for the challenges, they will have little connection to the events of the campaign.
Look at the solutions various versions of Dungeons & Dragons have demanded. For adventure paths, 3.x/Pathfinder suggest creating a new character one level below the average party level. The path contains the story, so the character is replaced by one of approximately equal power to able to handle the challenges of the adventure. In a more old school sandboxy type campaign, you'll find henchmen, hirelings, and "secondary" player characters all over the place. This way, if someone dies, a new character who's already involved in events can step forward. And of course, there's always the raise dead option for when a corpse is available or resurrection or reincarnation for when you managed to get yourself disintegrated or fallen in lava.
Of course, the same is true of Warhammer Quest, for the low, low, price of 1$.
And to be clear, there are resurrection options available to the wizards in the game, while on the mission. Of course the problem is that Death Shriek stuns most of the party, and they all end up dead. Your wizard can't raise anybody if he's a corpse.
Rodeo Games makes some of the best turn based tactical strategy games. Full period. They are a small company, writing games for a niche I happen to love, and they got there by doing hard work with the promise of nothing. They do right by their Games Workshop licenses and have excellent customer service. So I have no problem with giving them money. And indeed, to avoid several unexpected, uncontrollable wipes, some magic points were used.
Of course, now I won't be playing the game in Hardcore mode anymore.
This particular element of design didn't detract from my experience of the game. I think the variety provided by the monster expansion packs helps a great deal. And you've got more than one option. If you don't purchase them, you can play hardcore mode. You'll face the above challenges, but you'll be less likely to view them as "Unfair" and more likely to trace your failure to a poor decision you made. Or you can play regular mode and pick up the expansion. Or you could do what I did, and experience your failure not as a loss of your time, but one of a dollar in your pocket. I earn way more in one hour then I spent on magic points and losing those characters was an investment of dozens of hours.
It's game design that hits you where you feel. It certainly qualified as an interesting choice—one that was painful to make. That is the mark of good design, I think.
And who knows? It's early yet. We might see an expansion for Wissenland yet, along with a few more characters. I got a hope.
That's not all of course.
Warhammer Quest is a beautiful game. When you visit a city, a book opens and the city builds itself from the page. Weapons and armor equipped are visible on your characters. Blood splatters as you wound enemies. Lights spin on the ground. The dungeon is incredibly detailed.
And because it's on an iPad, the physicality of it adds to the experience. You tap on an enemy to attack them—you literally hit them to hit them.
You can't underestimate these factors. One of the reason Hearthstone is such a wildly popular game, is the visual design of it. When you start the app, you open a magical wooden box where you store your cards. When you open a pack, it shakes and bursts apart. A legendary card results in a brilliant golden halo burst across your screen. It is intensely satisfying.
Warhammer quest has that attention to detail. Smoke drifts by on the opening screen. Light sources sparkle and gleam, spells glow as they streak across the battlefield. Skeletons blow apart when struck by a club. The importance of the visual appeal and the user interface can't be understated.
That isn't to say, eventually like all games, the visuals fade into the background once you get into the flow, and for all it matters it could be colored blobs moving through the plain grey dungeon (goodness knows I played enough Wizardry). The gameplay is solid and engaging, and that's the draw. The fact that is a pleasure to watch and use only increases it's appeal.
There's also a fair bit of replayability available. Not only is there a selection of characters to choose from, their development is somewhat random, as it is in the board game. When they level up, they usually gain a skill. There are more skills available then they can acquire. This means to unlock all the journal entries, you'll have to level up characters more than once to see all their available skills. My max level Marauder has 7 out of 10 available skills. So each group of characters, even if they are exactly the same classes will play differently. How many wounds (hit points) and power and power store each character have also varies with level.
In addition, there are several hundred items in the game. Even now, I'm finding new items at quest locations. Most of the gameplay is very similar (and very fun and rewarding), but the quests actually shake things up quite a bit. Several ask you questions about what happened earlier, others add and change things in the battlefield, many give you choices to make during the quest, and there's even one or two puzzles.
It is, quite simply, a wonderful experience for a dungeon bash aficionado.
So, why can't we having nice things?
This isn't the only fish in the sea, and it's well established why Warhammer Quest went out of print and isn't sold any longer. There are other, more modern tabletop games that emulate the Dungeon Bash style. I've given more than one a try and they are all lacking.
Descent and Descent 2 is the most popular, including a campaign, characters, artifacts and more. But it requires one person to be the overlord and to play against the players. In addition, the experience of levelling and improving your character is very flat. Once it occurs, all the other opponents increase in power by an identical amount.
A recent kickstarted entrant is Super Dungeon Explore, a chibi style arcade type dungeon crawl bash with features such as monster generators. But in talking with people who have played it, the winner is decided pretty quickly, leaving you to play out the last two or three hours before the game actually ends. In addition, it also requires one player to be the "console" and control the other monsters.
The suite of Dungeons & Dragons board games Ravenloft and Ashadon get the basic aesthetic correct and don't require a Dungeon Master, but are balanced inconsistently, have only the option for one chance based improvement, and limited campaign play.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, there just aren't that many options available. These games are difficult and expensive to make with hundreds or sometimes even thousands of pieces, including miniatures. And usually by that point, people just throw in the towel and start playing Dungeons and Dragons if they thirst for more.
That said, we are lucky Warhammer Quest got made and is available. It's a classic of the genera, beloved by fans, and done lovingly by Rodeo Games.
If you get the chance, you should go kill some orcs.