Because Panzer General is freaking hard and turned out to not be relaxing at all, I moved on to something that was a bit more my speed. On Sunday, I started a Fantasy General campaign as the Knight Marshal Calis.
I really need to dig out my cd copy because without the epic soundtrack, it’s hard to get the full experience, but for now tossing on Striborg or Burzum in the background while I play sufficiently fits the tone of pressing across the Ice Continent of Pothia.
Fantasy General was the third game in SSI’s 5-Star General series. After the obnoxious Windows release of Allied General, SSI got their head on straight and put together a game whose interface was usable right out of the box. The most obvious differences between Fantasy General and Panzer General are of course the fact that you’re playing in a gonzo fictional setting with everything from werebears to steam powered automatons instead of Europe and you’re fighting against the dark lord instead of for him. But there are a number of significant mechanical changes. Some were thematic, others are not, but are improvements nonetheless.
Unlike Panzer General, which takes place at operational level, Fantasy General uses a squadron-based scale. Most units represent 15 individuals, though “hero” and “single entity” units represent a single powerful individual worth 10 strength points. The higher strength value of units meant that a single unit might survive two fairly harsh attacks and be able to recover (or at least survive a battle), unlike in Panzer general where losing 3 or 4 SP following a disastrous attack almost certainly means losing that unit to a counter attack on the opponent’s turn. It also introduced a system of tracking losses as either “killed” or “wounded”. This system replaced Panzer General’s distinction between regular and elite replacements. Killed troops could only be replaced by recruits in cities or between missions and would count against a unit’s experience. Wounded strength points could be recovered by resting for a turn or by use of some sort of healing magic. One major advantage of “single entity” units is that they can always heal up to full-strength so long as they’re not in a ZOC. Units in Fantasy General are far more prone to retreating, which in this system has a two-fold effect: survivability of units is improved, since resting outside a ZOC replenishes all “wounded” points, and use of mixed units becomes more important to keep enemies on their toes; it’s often more prudent to not attack a fleeing unit if you can’t finish it off before it’s out of range.
The second major mechanical change, which was a huge improvement that would be carried forward to most successive General games, was the ability to manage your troops in between missions. After each battle, you’re given a chance to upgrade units, fill out your core, distribute magical swag (somewhat similar to assigning ‘named’ commanders to units in later PG games) and allocate your troop research levels. Though early game the cost-leap between some of the lvl 0 and lvl 1 troops can break the bank, at least you’re presented with the opportunity and don’t have to sacrifice an entire turn to upgrade troops and buy new recruits.
The third major change was a shift from the rather opaque initiative rules to a fairly cut and dry system of attack priority. Units in Fantasy General have 3 types of attack: Melee, Skirmish and Missile. The highest attack value is used as a units primary attack. If a Melee unit attacks, the defending unit uses its Melee to calculate damage it does as a defender. If a Skirmisher attacks, unless the defender has Missile or Skirmish, the defender cannot deal damage to the Skirmisher. If a Missile unit attacks, unless the defender has a Missile attack, it cannot deal return damage. What this ends up meaning in practice is that you need to throw your melee troops (heavy infantry and heavy cavalry) in hard against enemy skirmishers or archers to break them up, use your skirmishers (skirmishers, light cavalry and to a lesser extent casters) to soften heavy infantry, pursue stragglers with light infantry, and use archers to provide missile support to exposed troops. PG’s artillery role is split between archers and siege engines; archers will add pre-emptive missile fire to defending units adjacent to them while siege engines will add pre-emptive missile fire to units adjacent to them that are attacking cities.
Now, I said that Fantasy General has something of a gonzo setting. Though the whole ‘united armies of good vs. the evil hordes of the dark lord’ is pretty typical of 90s fantasy, FG at least mixes it up with some pretty weird units. In addition to “mortal” units, there are magic, beast, and mechanical troops. So your Pikemen could very-well be marching in formation with companies of animated armor, lionmen, elephants mounted with steam guns while flying metal barges float overhead ready to drop naptha on the armies of darkness. Upgrades can be pretty silly sometimes, because it’s an everything-and-the-kitchen sink setting. Your Pikemen will eventually upgrade to legionnaires, who will upgrade to Samurai who will upgrade to Heavy Spearmen (take that orientalist primacy!) And while the shadow lord’s forces has its staples of orcs, goblins, trolls, ogres and undead, there are also ratmen, cobramen, mastodon riders, rhino-knights, hydra, serpent riders, and more. There are also some pretty cool (if poorly implemented) evil heroes, like the Leech King or Claw the Assassin (a catman, naturally).
One of the reasons FG was a better choice to relax to than Panzer General is that it has a much slower “ratcheting up” period. While the first mission on the second continent can be something of a wake-up call, the game gives you plenty of time to get the hang of things. The only down-side to this is that sometimes it feels too easy. I can finish most missions with anywhere from 5 to 10 turns to go, rolling across the continents one after another. It’s a game that I wish were revisited and tweaked a bit with more varied units at each grade and with improved enemy AI. I can’t possibly complain about the maps, because there are so many of them and they’re so varied, but it would be nice to see the AI make better use of the terrain to mount their defense. In some ways I almost think that after the brutality of the early games, the computer is a bit nerfed. Still, it feels more like a game in which one is meant to play a campaign rather than a series of set-pieces that would work as individual ‘games’ but do not work as well when played in subsequent order while forced to use surviving units from the previous fights.
There’s so much more I could go into about Fantasy General, but I’ve already gone way long on this post. If you want more, here’s a pretty nifty faq from almost 20 years ago! Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about Gundam, so will probably talk way too long about that too. More Fortress Europa later this week.