After I finally killed the nettlesome troll who tried to extort cash from my kingdom in order to use the cross-dimensional portal, my army arrived in a forest straight out of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Cautiously, my axemen moved forward through the ice-encrusted trees while my archers, veterans of a dozen battles, advanced in support.
Everything seemed safe. There were a few giant bears and wolf packs, but I dispatched them easily. “Warlock has changed,” I thought. “This used to be murderously difficult.”
Then my scouts ran into a pair of ice queens who killed my entire army in a single turn, and dragons appeared back in my undefended home dimension and started laying waste to my cities. Warlock 2: The Exiled might be a refined and improved version of its predecessor, it still knows how to throw a sucker punch.
Warlock bears a lot of superficial resemblances to Civilization V, but it’s actually much closer to Master of Magic than the latest incarnation of Firaxis’ strategy franchise. This is all to the good: fantasy strategy games tend to be ill-served by aping standard 4X games, with their intricate economies and tech trees. Warlock keeps things relatively simple. Cities level with their population growth, which lets them add new buildings. You can almost think of the cities themselves as immobile player-characters.
Technology is a function of development. A fantasy world can’t reasonably go from longbowmen to stealth jetfighters, but it’s silly to pretend that some huge technological leap forward is required to build axemen. So research is solely directed toward news spells, while unit tech depends on what a city is capable of building via its upgrades.
The result may not be as deep as fans of Civ or Europa Universalis prefer, but for me it finds that sweet spot that Heroes of Might and Magic had at its best. The focus is more on tactical warfare and exploration than empire management; your cities and resources exist to support that end. That also means that Warlock is the rare fantasy 4X that actually feels like the RPG experiences that inspire it. Pushing back the boundaries of the unknown is full of menace and dread, and even the most powerful army can still be blindsided by the appearance of a terrifying monster.
It took Warlock 2 to bring all this to life, however. Warlock 2: The Exiled is built on a fascinating conceit: each world is connected to several others, and in each one there is a full 4X map defined by a different, menacing characteristic. A portal might dump you on a distant moon filled with death robots, or in an endless desert, or a magic-blasted wasteland. Each world is filled with its own kind of terrain and native creatures, and you never know exactly what you’ll run into. Eventually, as you colonize different realms, your empire will span not just continents but also dimensions.
The original Warlock had all these ideas, but not the game design to support them. The difficulty spike was too great as you left the “normal” fantasy world of Aradania and entered the other dimensions. Every other strategy writer I talked to had the same experience: the other realms were cool and exciting, but they were so punishing that it rarely made strategic sense to go make use of them. It was more effective to focus on winning the very basic 4X game on the main world. Otherwise you’d lose the game while you armies were trying to storm the astral plane, and some damned rat king just rolled up with a few ships and soldiers and started taking down other players.