I’ve not had that much experience with 4X games.
I’ve played my fair share of Civilization (several of them, in fact) and my friends and I were absolutely nuts about Imperium Galactica II for about six months in the early noughties but, apart from that, I’ve mostly left the genre unexplored. So I was pretty excited to give Planar Conquest from Wastelands Interactive a bash to see what I’d been missing out on.
For those of you who need a reminder, 4X stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate, and 4X games tend to be top-down, turn-based time-sinks that will see you sitting, bleary-eyed, in front of your monitor at three in the morning, wondering where the last seven hours and all of that lovely, summer sunlight has gone, only to decide that another turn or three won’t hurt. Planar Conquest has popped right out of that 4X mould but has been painted in bright, fantasy colours and puts you in the shoes of a mighty sorcerer lord whose aim is simple: conquer the universe.
As with most 4X games, there are many, many options for you to play around with when setting up your game. Planar Conquest takes place across a variety of planes – occluded from one another by dimensional walls and accessible via rifts that appear from time to time – each of which has a slightly different impact on an element of your game, boosting some stats like food, production or population growth, while imposing penalties on others. There are different landmasses, too, and then you have to set the AI you want to go up against, your starting race and other game features. Probably the most in-depth and time-consuming portion of the setup, though, is creating your sorcerer lord. Of course, you could just pick an existing lord (or you could hit ‘Quick Start’ from the single player menu before you even get into this mess) but where’s the fun in that?!
Planar Conquest doesn’t really delve into the greater civilisation that you’re trying to create; instead concentrating on your character and what they can bring to the table. When you create your sorcerer lord, you’re going to be assigning points to schools of thought or branches of magic that your sorcerer ascribes to. Your points distribution affects what spells you’ll be able to pick from to take with you onto the planes. Probably the most important tool available to a sorcerer lord, spells are used both on and off the battlefield and cover an incredibly wide array of uses, including instant damage to enemies, buffs to your own forces in battle, boosting food or production for your cities or causing great suffering in the towns of your opponent, so choosing the right ones is crucial to determining the way your game is going to play out.
Unfortunately, while rather interesting and hugely customisable, this focus on the sorcerer and their spells means that Planar Conquest has a remarkably narrow field of view when compared to other games in the genre. Whereas other 4X games tend to look more big-picture and give you the feeling that you’re creating something much larger than yourself – a civilisation that will endure for thousands of years – Planar Conquest reduces the impact of your decisions down to how they effect you, personally, as opposed to the people you rule. Towns are incredibly bland, for the most part, and tech-trees are used, purely, as a method of forcing the player down a rather linear progression path as they create buildings within them. Research, too, which other games implement so well, seems like a throwaway feature, added because it was expected rather than because it was required: simply, you research more spells. Once one spell has been learned, another moves in to fill the gap – though that spell has no bearing on the one you just learned, you aren’t locked into any sort of tree progression and no other spells are blocked off or otherwise impacted by your choice. It’s almost as though someone at Wastelands Interactive put too much time into devising all of these lovely spells for them to allow for any sort of limitation on which ones players can access.
The main bulk of the Planar Conquest will be familiar to anyone who’s even looked the wrong way at a 4X game – you’ve got a bunch of different screens that tell you about your towns, your armies and your spells, there’s another for diplomacy and a ‘mirror’ so you check yourself out and see how you’re doing in the infamy department. The world is split into a large number of square tiles and your units will be able to move a finite number of them each turn. Your towns have a radius, within which any resources are said to belong to that town. Each turn you’ll be dictating what gets built, who gets trained and what ratio of farmers:builders:scribes you’ll set, then you’ll move on to issue orders to your troops and decide which new spell you’ll learn this time before clicking the ‘end turn’ button and watching the enemy AI trample all over your best laid plans then lay waste to your city. And, with that, it’s time for a bit of combat.
Planar Conquest does something a little different when the gloves come off and the fists start flying. Instead of letting the battle play out in the instant between turns, you’re taken to a new screen where you’ll get to control your units in a turn-based engagement with the enemy. After the initial deployment phase, you’ll give fairly standard move and attack orders by clicking on certain units, then clicking the space you want them to stand in or the enemy you want them to flail ineffectually at. Ranged, melee and magical combat are all at work, here, as are aerial units that can’t be attacked by melee troops on the ground. You can dictate what spells your casters use by locating their little spell book and, once they’ve all had a turn, you yourself can crack open the old grimoire and finally have a go with some of the spells your sorcerer has been learning since turn one.
Though combat does provide a nice distraction between clicking the “end turn” button and flicking back and forth through the various screens to make sure you haven’t missed anything important, when you get more than a few troops on the field it begins to get a little dull and can turn boring quite quickly. That’s largely due to the AI who, for some reason, has to flick through every unit and rule out every course of action before deciding that it’s not worth doing anything this turn – this is especially relevant if the two armies are on the opposite side of a wall; a common occurrence when you attack even a moderately upgraded town. There seems to be little correlation between the numbers each side throws down, too. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had exactly the same units as my opponent but they’ve been able to consistently do twice the damage my guys can, leading to a crushing defeat when I was expecting to be able to win the encounter handily. Of course, you can always try letting the AI handle the battle with the auto-fight button but, unless you want to see some really crazy things happening, I’d settle for the long slog of managing the fights yourself.
Trapped, as we were, on opposite sides of the wall (even if it’s your wall your units can’t pass through it), my enemy and I were unable to use any sort of melee tactics so, in a flash of inspiration, I began bringing siege weapons and archers with me to get the job done. However, bored of the incredibly slow combat, I hastened to click the ‘Auto-fight’ button, safe in the knowledge that my guys would be able to nuke down at least four or five enemy units before the rest of them decided to bug out and retreat. How wrong I was. From what I can figure out, either the AI decided that the wall was an insurmountable problem – even for magical trebuchets – and trudged all of my armies back home or it doesn’t know how to fire ranged weapons. To be fair, it took me a while to work that out, too.
While it’s not the most difficult 4X to master, Planar Conquest isn’t a simple game, by any standards and when, like me, you’re not that well versed in the genre to begin with, it’s nice to have a helping hand in your first few hours with the game, just to ease you into it – even if that does include a flimsy, story-fuelled campaign mode or something before we wade into the gritty depths of the sandbox – but Planar Conquest doesn’t have anything of the sort. What it does have is a number of text-heavy information cards that pop up the first time you do something (that you’ll need to read through in order to work out what’s going on) and an 80-page PDF manual that’s going to keep you reading into the wee small hours, even if you start at teatime. This does mean that Planar Conquest is an unlikely place to get a good first impression of a 4X game and, to be fair, probably isn’t going to sit well with you unless you’ve already amassed a serious number of hours into these types of games before.
That being said, there are still some kinks that might make veteran world-conquerors a little wary of taking on Planar Conquest. The controls, while somewhat straightforward, can be slightly frustrating. There’s a single-click mentality at work which means that you select, move and attack your units all with the left mouse button and, while this doesn’t sound like much of a problem, if you facepalm every time you accidentally mess up your army’s orders by clicking to select a different city, you’ll end up with a face like raw steak in no time. Gold is, really, the only resource worth worrying about as without it, your units will desert and you won’t be able to buy any more. Food is also an issue but is much more manageable by the simple expedient of laying off a few builders. AI “cheating” is nothing new to 4X games but Planar Conquest doesn’t really do the best job of hiding it and, as a result, you’ll feel pretty salty when you turn around to find a magically reinforced army at your gates when you’d beaten it down to a mere handful of spearmen in your last turn.
One of the most annoying problems with Planar Conquest is the seeming lack of one of the 4 X’s – those pillars of the genre that make it what it is. I like to pursue friendly relations with other nations in my strategy games (that doesn’t mean I won’t turn on them eventually, mind) but, in Planar Conquest, I’ve found that it’s actually impossible to encounter an opponent who doesn’t immediately declare war upon first meeting. Perhaps the RNG gods weren’t smiling on me but, in each of my playthroughs, I never had the barest chance to remain neutral for more than a few turns after catching a glimpse of another nation. Peaceful resolution and success through other means is a cornerstone of the genre so this is a glaring omission – it’s not just me, either, check out the Steam Store page for more conscientious objector-ish whining. For all its faults, though, it still had enough pull to keep me entertained (and furiously clicking the “end turn” button) for a few solid gaming sessions and I’m almost considering going back to try some new strategies I’ve thought of since last time.
If this isn’t your first imperial march to glory, you should find a lot to like about Planar Conquest. Despite the frustrating controls and boring combat, there is some incredible depth to it, both in terms of kitting out your sorcerer lord to your own liking and in the gratifying variation of game features that’ll ensure many, many hours of rewarding play and ever-increasing challenges; it even looks and sounds quite nice. However, if this is your first foray into 4X, I’d like to suggest that you look elsewhere – probably start with something a little more transparent or with a little more in the way of support for new players. Let’s face it, you should probably just start with Civ.