Medieval-style fantasy has long had a strong hold on the imagination. It didn’t take long for fantasy to become a popular genre in computer games either. As various board wargame-derivative designs evolved during the ’80s, a fairly distinct genre that I call ‘fantasy conquest’ emerged.

These are related to the more general ‘4X’ games, but don’t always hew to all parts of that style, probably because the distinctive space 4X game emerged in parallel. (There’s also some internal bias, as I generally only think of ‘space 4X’ games as ‘4X’ games, with non-space borne games not being part of the genre even though some can be very mechanically similar.) They are a fairly cohesive group; for some reason, as soon as you say ‘fantasy’ you start seeing heroes and touches of RPG tropes appear in otherwise normal strategic games. There’s a good number of board game antecedents, from LOTR-themed Diplomacy variants to The Warlord Game and Borderlands, but I’m just looking at the beginnings of the computer game side here.

Warlords (1989) seems to be the start of this genre. I’m sure there’s other strategic fantasy games from around this period—I have dim memories of seeing a few, but don’t remember titles, and have not seen anyone else mention them. It’s not properly a 4X game, as the map is non-random and fully visible the entire time; also there’s not much to be done to the map. New towers (defensive installations that I’ve never seen anyone use) can be built, and the defensive values of cities can be improved, but there’s no eXploration, and very little eXploitation.

In many ways, it’s a straightforward game. Start with a city, it produces military units. Use them to capture more cities, and they produce more units. Go forth and defeat the other seven factions on the map. And this is the enduring backbone of the genre: cities are always valuable strategic goals; they’re a bit less valuable here, as they are more numerous and less detailed than in other titles. Also, there’s no castles, or rather, the identities of castles and cities are muddled together, as all these ‘cities’ look like little four-tower castles.

The new thing here is the heroes. The idea of singular, highly capable units in fantasy games is an old one, and the existence of ‘hero’ and ‘superhero’ units in miniatures are the mainspring that powered the invention of RPGs, but they’re not so much of a constant at this level of abstraction. The interesting part here is not only do they exist, but they can go looting ruins and visiting sages scattered around the map. The main bonuses from this is that the hero might recruit monster ‘allies’ (ghosts, demons, dragons…), or find artifacts that will increase the abilities of the hero. Heroes can also gain experience and ‘level up’, gaining combat power and movement speed.

The second game (Warlords II, 1993) was pretty close to the original, but did make one important change: what a city could produce could change. You could ‘sack’ cities when you take them, which would grant gold, but reduce the options for production there. Each city had up to four slots of possible units, and you could purchase new unit capabilities in empty slots. Also, there were multiple maps (and the ability to add in new, user created, ones in the Deluxe version), with standard explore-the-world vision rules, making it a full 4X game.

However, one of the charms of the world of Erathia in the original was the fact that the dwarves were in one region, the gryphons in a different, overlapping region… and the units might be different. There was one city with better light infantry. A set with tougher, but slower, heavy infantry than normal. A city that produced wolf riders faster than normal. The cities, and world, acquired character from all these little differences. But now every unit of the same type was exactly the same, so that they can be plugged into any city.

Master of Magic (1994) was Sim-Tex’s combination of SidCiv and Master of Orion and Warlords. Just as MoO introduced tactical battles as an essential element of space 4X games, MoM introduced it to fantasy conquest games. Cities become complicated places like in Civilization, with plenty of buildings to construct, that control what units can be built there. An interesting thing is that each city has its own native race, and that determines the buildings and units that can be built. The tree for the building requirements are always the same, but not all buildings are available to all races.

Civilization and MoO are heavy into the colonization aspect of their respective games. While that also exists in MoM,there’s also a large number of neutral cities scattered across the landscape at the beginning of the game. Taking a cue from Civilization, there are also engineer units that can build roads for faster movement.

While some space 4X games have allowed different populations to mix on a single planet, I have yet to see this occur in a fantasy conquest game, even though that would be physically easier. However, fantasy conquest games that have different powers for different races, and separate them out by city, always allow a player to control whatever he can take, whereas some space 4X games force you to kill off alien populations rather than let you take them over.

Combat was resolved as a small miniatures game. Most units have a number of ‘figures’, each with their own attack and defense, so their ability erodes as casualties are taken. More powerful units generally have fewer figures, with the most powerful being singular monsters. Units also have experience levels, with veterans being somewhat more effective in combat than their inexperienced counterparts. And then there are heroes.

In Warlords, heroes were just a bit more capable units, with the ability to go dungeon delving, although a large collection of artifacts could make them nearly unstoppable. Here, heroes are personalities, each with his or her own set of abilities which grow and develop as they level up. There’s all sorts of lairs and ruins scattered around the landscape. Heroes aren’t needed to fight the inhabitants and get the treasure, but they do often generate artifacts that require a hero to use.

Finally, MoM used a complex magic system in place of Civ‘s technology. You play as a wizard holed up in his tower, sending minions out to conquer the world while you research your next world-bending spell. These spells add to combat, as units can be enchanted with any of a variety of bonuses, or magical creatures summoned. Also spells that effect the entire world can be cast. All of this adds a lot of interesting choices and interactions to the game, especially as no player has access to more than a small subset of all the available spells.

The next year, long-time RPG series Might and Magic took a detour into the strategy game space with Heroes of Might & Magic (1995). It featured cities with buildings to build, armies that fought in separate tactical battles, heroes and lots of places on the main map to visit for bonuses, that came with a bit of text to add an RPG ‘encounter’ feel.

In many ways, HoMM is notably unusual in the genre, while following its main features. First, heroes are not separate units, but merely a leader who allows armies to move across the map, with normal military units being immobile (kind of like computer RPG parties?). Cities are extra large structures on the map, which is also choked with a large number of impassible objects: mountains, forests (which are usually just slow terrain), lakes, and more, with creatures holding ‘choke points’, that must be defeated to access the next area (they also are used to guard small areas that have treasure behind them, like many dungeon monsters; the more area-based ones can be considered akin to the more plot-driven ‘roping off’ of areas in many computer RPGs).

HoMM also had a campaign game, where you progress from scenario to scenario, facing challenges to get further in, as had become popular in RTS games of the early to mid-’90s (though the entire game is present from the start, just the challenges got harder). It was weak in the first one, but later versions of the game attempt actually tell a story in the vein of Epic Fantasy novels. It also points up a change in scale. The first two Warlords games feature large swathes of land, continents even; MoM is explicitly depicting an entire world like Civ (or, actually, two). HoMM is much more constrained in scale.

Like MoM, it has a complex magic system, but like everything else, it is more constrained in scale. Only (some) heroes cast spells, and while they can have a powerful effect on combat, they only have an effect on combat. There are few permanent enchantments, no spells of vast scale affecting the entire world.

The initial game had four different types of heroes (two each ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and ‘might’ (combat bonuses) and ‘magic’ (spell casting)), which were each associated with a type of city, with it’s own structures and unit types to recruit, with no real differences between heroes of the same type. Later games introduced skills, which you could choose between as they leveled up, allowing heroes that started out similar to act very differently.

Combat was fairly simple, considering that it did have it’s own mini-game. An army could have up to six unit types in them, which all move and fight as a single ‘stack’ (even when there’s hundreds of them present), akin to how MoM‘s progenitor MoO worked, but in opposition to the detailed combat system of MoM.

Despite (or more likely, because) of all of these simplifications, while maintaining a game style much closer to MoM than Warlords, HoMM has been the most successful brand in the genre, with seven games so far, plus various expansions and the like (Master of Magic has never had a sequel, Warlords has only had four games plus expansions and a parallel release, and slightly later game Age of Wonders is just getting to its third major release). It has also come a long way from its roots, though I still need to get to the post-3DO games (V through VII). Heroes got to intervene personally in IV, at the same time that armies got to move without a leader, and the ability to transfer units directly from one point to another without the tediousness of manually moving them was added in (which makes the game feel more like Warlords…).

The genre continues to be a popular one, with not only new HoMM games (now titled Might & Magic Heroes), but other series, such as the Elemental games coming out. I haven’t played any of the recent games in the genre (yet), but the unique genre structure of strategic conquest and heroes acting out RPG tropes seems to be perfectly intact.